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Book of the Bells was written in Roger Woodward’s home in Brixton, London in late 1980 and early 1981, just before the first riots there. Woodward, as is well known, is a pianist of prodigious technical virtuosity and able to tackle contemporary music of extraordinary difficulty. Book of the Bells was conceived partly as a challenge to his virtuosity. At times five strands of bell-like cantillation spread across ten staves to be read simultaneously. The performer, at times, is very busy indeed.
The piece remained unheard for five years.
Sally Mays, the indefatigable and brilliant pianist, also champion of new music especially by antipodean composers, gave the first performance in London in December 1985.
Book of the Bells is, in a sense, the big brother of Angklung, a composition for solo piano written for Woodward in 1974 and premiered by him at that year’s Edinburgh Festival.
The four notes used in Angklung grow in this piece into bells of various sonorities whose individual resonances are blended together in a secret narrative: one can imagine London’s great cathedrals and churches as the sole survivors of a catastrophe. Tolling bells have a ritual funeral function and, in the absence of any form of life, become themselves storytellers. The work, in effect, attempts to dispel time and all sense of its passing.