Composed in 1979, Nine Bells explores multiple combinations of 9 bells suspended in a 3 by 3 grid, with a 2 meter space from one bell to the next.
Music is produced by the chiming of the bells that are struck following precise paths around the installation. Walking is essential to the execution of the piece, the sound of slow or fast steps are an integral part of the sound of the composition. Systematically exploring all the possible paths, the performer hits the bells, exhausting all the possible melodies resulting from the path combinations. The performance is a strenuous physical exercise for the performer that creates a visual event of great impact for the public.
In Nine Bells, walking around my bells, I adopted a geometric-like logic, much easier to observe than to hear: picturing the rotations and calculating the sequence of the notes I managed to find a rigorous logic that you can hear all through the nine movements.
Later, during the execution of the piece, I sometimes had a weird feeling; after playing the first note, moving my left foot just before the first cycle I felt a very different sensation from playing any other type of music: it was the feeling of starting something completely inevitable, something that I could not stop and it was clear that my feet were guiding me through the sequence even if my memory faltered, if exhaustion took over or if the public left. I was like a puppet guided by an inescapable musical-geometrical logic that had little to do with my will power. One could say that I became a machine and it was a very pleasant experience”. (Tom Johnson)