Eight Bells


Eight Bells (2011)

Work for solo violin and soundtrack.


Commissioned by:
Dove Marine Laboratory and Rednile Projects

St. George’s Church, Cullercoats, 02 June 2011.
Shimmer Festival, Whitley Bay, 05 & 06 November 2011.

Violin: Helen Critten

Eight Bells

Eight Bells was commissioned by North Tyneside Council in association with Rednile Projects and premiered by Helen Critten on 2nd June 2011 at St. George’s Church, Cullercoats, UK.

Comprising a set of eight variations for solo violin and soundtrack, and loosely based on the traditional folk song The Cullercoats Fish-Lass, the piece is partly commemorative: marking the centenary of the famous American artist Winslow Homer, who, during the late nineteenth century, was for almost two years a resident of the coastal village of Cullercoats.

The piece triangulates three north east coasts of auto/biographical significance. The first connects me to Homer—I was born not far from Cullercoats. The second, Portland, Maine, is where Homer had his studio. The third, Pelion, Greece, is my mother’s birthplace and where I live and work for part of the year. I’m collecting sounds from these three locations, in particular those persistent “soundmarks” that connect the present to the past.

I’ve departed from convention in avoiding figurative representations. Rather, my score incorporates data from marine research as a way of portraying the sea (see below).

This “Sound Painting” is inspired by John’s time as artist-in-residence at the Dove Marine Laboratory and by his interactions with the scientists working there, the local marine environment, and the communities of Cullercoats . . . John wanted to include data from the Dove Marine Laboratory into the musical concept and has succeeded brilliantly in adding a new dimension to Peter Olive’s work on biorhythmicity – a kind of counterpoint. (Jane Delaney, Director of the Dove Marine Laboratory)


Rehearsing Eight Bells with Helen Critten at St. George’s.

LISTEN TO Eight Bells


A variation on The Cullercoats Fish-Lass—the “Volos fish-lad”, selling door-to-door. I use his megaphone cries at the end of Eight Bells:

Volos fish-seller audio extract

The bell at Agios Efstathios, Kissos, Greece: one of several I recorded.

agios efstathios bell audio extract


Recording the sound of the sea at Agios Ioannis on the Pelion coast of Greece.


An initial response here to Peter Olive’s co-authored paper “Tidal, Daily and Lunar-Day Activity Cycles in the Marine Polychaete Nereis Virens“: a simple audio representation of the interacting diurnal (24 hr) and tidal (12.4 hr) cycles. This will form a backdrop to the solo violin.

Diurnal (24 hr) and tidal (12.4 hr) cycles_audio extract

I’m indebted to Joanne Allen (Lead Teacher in Fine Arts and Technology at Scarborough High School, Maine) who braved snow and ice in order to capture this recording of the sea near Winslow Homer’s studio at Prout’s Neck.

sea@prout’s neck audio extract

Joanne is associated with the Winslow Homer Studio restoration project, which is managed by Portland Museum of Art. The audio will form part of the final mix of Eight Bells.


I can’t do justice here to the inspiring conversation I had today with the generous Peter Olive at the Dove Marine Lab. Professor Olive studies the biological clocks of marine organisms, most notably Nereis Virens (ragworm). Not only a marine scientist but a musician too, Peter talked about the “rhythmicity” of marine creatures: their biological adaptation to both circadian and tidal cycles. The inherent musicality of this “counterpoint” wasn’t lost on him, nor the poetic (Keats’ Endymion) and mythological significance of the Nereids he studies. The strange, morbidity of the ragworm’s once-in-a-lifetime mating frenzy gave me food for thought too, not least in relation to the commemorative and ecclesial focus of my piece.


Taken from the Biotechnology Journal article on Bacterial Olfaction by Professor Grant Burgess and Dr Reindert Nijland, the images below are part of an experiment that shows that marine bacteria are capable of detecting smells. The colour gradations show how this occurs in a “distance-dependent” manner. In other words the closer to the source (left 6 wells) the sniffing bacteria are the stronger the effect.

(Photos: Dr Reindert Nijland)

I’m currently representing some of this graphical data in the violin part of Eight Bells: creating scalic passages with an ever-decreasing tessitura.

A poetic response to the Burgess and Nijland paper:


The venue for the first performance of Eight Bells: St. George’s Church, Cullercoats.


I met researchers at the Dove Marine Laboratory—a research facility of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and a partner in the Eight Bells project—with a view to finding possible connections, analogies and links between the lab’s ground-breaking studies of the marine environment and my musical homage to Homer.


For Christmas I was given Elizabeth Johns’ book Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation. One painting in particular stood out. Entitled Eight Bells, the work’s theme of navigation—of finding one’s bearings—resonated strongly with me.


I attended Rednile’s Factory Night at the Dove Marine Laboratory. During the event I got the idea of creating a seascape that would employ data relating to research carried out at the Lab.