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Release Date:  Jul 21st, 2007
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The latest in ring tones
By Marc Shulgold, Rocky Mountain News

The name Sonos may not ring any bells - but the 12 members of this Bay Area group sure do.

Established in 1990 by James Meredith, Sonos claims to be America's premiere professional handbell ensemble.

That's not too outlandish, since there are only a couple of other such groups, according to Meredith - who brings Sonos to Augustana Church on Saturday.

"Usually, you don't hear handbells unless it's Christmas time in your local church, and then, it's usually a group of church members," he said.

There is, he admitted, a built-in prejudice against this genre.

"Most handbell music is garbage," he stated flatly. "There's a sameness in their arrangements.

"When I was offered the opportunity to start a group at my church in Walnut Creek (Calif.), frankly, I wondered if they could sustain interest beyond five minutes. It's essentially a monochromatic sound."

A handbell choir consists of players who ring one to four tuned bells at the proper moment. Apart from a multiplayer percussion band, Meredith suggested that there's no equivalent in any music ensemble.

"Each player has to ring the right bell in the right place in the right moment. This business is not for shrinking violets," he said.

Indeed, Sonos takes the art form way beyond Silent Night or Joy to the World. For evidence, Meredith pointed to the group's debut vehicle.

"The first arrangement I did was of Albeniz's Layenda," he said. That piano work, heard most often as a guitar piece, is a lightning fast, flamenco-flavored opus that tests the chops of anyone who attempts it. "The audience that night went nuts when we finished," Meredith recalled.

Surprisingly, the handbell had not been a part of his life in music - until fate stepped in back in 1981.

"I was organist at a Walnut Creek Presbyterian church, when I learned that the music director just up and quit," he said. "They asked if I was interested, and then casually mentioned that there was a set of handbells locked away in a closet.

"I'd heard them only once at the time - at a Christmas show, naturally. I looked at them, but wasn't interested at first."

By luck, there was a festival of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers at the University of California Berkeley campus that month.

"I found the sound entrancing," Meredith said. He set out to put a group together, forming an adult ensemble and assuring them that there would be no pressure to perform anytime soon. It proved a ragged but enthusiastic bunch.

The breakthrough came when he gathered some young people as a side project. "I got six kids in the group and really challenged them. One day, I told them, 'Let's try and make a musical phrase.' I had them attempt a crescendo - to make the line sound like music. The result was so beautiful, I nearly cried."

In 1989, shortly after retiring from the church after 35 years, Meredith was approached to form a community handbell choir. Sonos was born.

The name, he said, came from his appreciation of another Bay Area group, the Kronos Quartet. "They were right in our backyard. I had visions of one day doing a concert with them - it seemed so obvious to pair Kronos with Sonos."

That collaboration did take place early in 2005, when the two groups premiered IAWEH, a work by Daniel David Feinsmith that featured no fewer than 300 bells.

New, cutting-edge works that are often carefully choreographed are a major element in Sonos' repertory, Meredith stressed. "Back in 1996, we approached Libby Larsen to write something for us. Right from the start, she was taken with what we were doing. And she wrote a piece for us and (mezzo-soprano) Frederica von Stade called Hell's Belles." Larsen now serves on the Sonos board, he added.

Whether the music is brand new or centuries old (such as the group's arrangement of Handel's Water Music), the performing principles remain unchanged: Stay focused and ring that bell on time.

"Each player has the same complete music in front of them," Meredith explained. "It's the usual treble and bass clef, like in a piano score. Each player will take care of two diatonic notes (i.e., C, D, E, F, etc.) and two accidentals (such as C-sharp or E-flat). Those can also be shared with their neighbors if need be."

For players and audiences, part of the attraction of a handbell concert is the sheer physicality of it. "That's what attracted me, too," he admitted. "It's all a muscle-memory process, playing a bell correctly. Depending on the bell, there can be a time delay between swinging the bell and engaging the clapper. You have to take that into consideration."

One might think that the dozen members of Sonos would reach a comfort level with certain handbells - either the smaller, high-pitched ones, or the heavy bass instruments that are often rung while still resting on a table. For these seasoned professionals, however, variety is a welcome part of performing.

"Oh, they love to switch around positions from one bell group to another," Meredith said. Indeed, watching Sonos perform, it seems that nothing is beyond their reach.

Debussy's transparent Arabesque, for example, becomes a visually stunning treat, as waves of rung bells flow from one end of the group to the other.

In addition, ringers double on horn, cello, flute, trumpet, clarinet and percussion during a show.

As for adapting existing music to handbells, "keyboard pieces work well, along with some orchestral compositions," he said. The group can even accomplish some two-note slurs, as will be heard in some of the bluesy moments from (Gershwin's) Porgy and Bess, featured in Saturday's program juggling American music with Japanese folk songs.

Japanese music? "Absolutely," Meredith said. "It works wonderfully with handbells. Besides, we have lots of fans over there. We tour Japan each year."

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