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
"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
"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
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
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."