Feb 182012

You never know what you’ll find in a small New England town. While editing images last week at my office I began hearing a repetition of low pulsating tones. Once I opened my door I realized what it was. My office, located in the center of Groton, is in a early 1800’s center entrance colonial house that is home to a few small business and sits directly beside the historic First Baptist Church. This magnificent old church, complete with working clock tower, is the Kalliroscope Gallery, home, studio, and workshop of artist Paul Matisse (grandson to Henri).

Paul Matisse is a “Sound Sculptor” among many other things. He makes long, tuned, cylindrical bells with beautifully mechanized hammers. When struck these bells emit a low pulsating sound that you both feel and hear for many minutes. You’ve probably seen (and heard) his work. If you’ve ever gotten off the Red Line in Cambridge at the Kendal/MIT subway stop, his Bells hang between the tracks (Kendall Band Pythagoras musical sculpture) and are actuated by large handles on each side of the platform. There is also the Bell for the National Japanese-American Memorial to Patriotism in Washington DC, The “Musical Fence” at the DeCordova Sculpture Park, and “The Olympic Bell” for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. This Bell that I was hearing is his latest. It is temporarily set up for testing alongside his studio.

A commission for the Chateau La Coste Vineyard in France it will grace the grounds that are being transformed into a Study Center, an Art Center, a Restaurant, Amman Hotel & Spa, and finally, a very large Sculpture Park. The architects on the project are Tadao Ando, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, and Jean Prouvé. The park will have sculptures or installations by, among others:Guggi, Turrell, Shannon, Calder, Miyajima, Bourgeois, Gillick, Sugimoto, Scully, Serra, Tunga, and Goldsworthy.

Matisse describes this latest bell: “My Bell is one of the commissions for the park. It is a heavy aluminum tube about twenty feet long that rests horizontally across the tops of two supporting columns, some twelve feet above the ground. A centered rope hangs beneath it. Pulling on this rope puts four heavy hammers into motion; pulling several times in succession is enough to send them upwards where they all strike the Bell simultaneously. After the impact, the high cylindrical bell makes a marvelous sound, a deep vibration that is quite wonderful both to hear and to feel. (For the musical among you the Bell’s note is a 2F, the second F below middle C, ringing at 87.3 Hertz) After it sounds, it goes on and on for a long and satisfying time. ”

Matisse has named it the “Meditation Bell.” On the exterior, the Meditiation Bell is beautifully sleek and simple in form. Hidden in this design are the mechanisms and tunings, so complex they took three years and many revisions to perfect. The hammers are so wonderfully balanced it takes very little force to set them in motion.

Yesterday (February 12) was a send off party for the Meditation Bell; it is being crated and shipped to it’s new home in France this week. What a wonderful experience to ring this beautiful sculpture – machine – bell at Matisse’s studio!

Greg Pemru is a Groton photographer who specializes in architecture. He blogs at http://www.gregpremru.com/blog and recently illustrated New England Icons: Shaker Villages, Saltboxes, Stone Walls and Steeples.