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A Humid Bell in the Shape of a Bird Resonates the Conspiratorial Landscape

radio travelogue

A Humid Bell in the Shape of A Bird Resonates thew Conspiratorial Landscape, was commissioned by Czech RadioVltava for a program called PremEdition Radioateliér, produced under the project R(A)DIO(CUSTICA).

​It is possible to listen to an mp3 of the broadcast here:

​Two essays I wrote to accompany the piece (part which appears in Czech language on the above webpage) sandwich my original text used IN the piece (spoken by robots in Czech and English). These are given in full below.

​This piece began as an acoustical analysis of the bells from the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul in Vysehrad, Prague. I was fascinated by these bells, and when I lived across the river in Smichov, I used to find different locations close to Vysehrad from which to listen to them. In the beginning of my work on this piece, I thought that the acoustical qualities of the bells would provide me with materials and ideas for understanding my experience of them. However, I quickly realized that it was not primarily the acoustical data of the bells that constituted my experience of them, but rather how their sound interacts with their environment, and with myself as a listener. I realized that it was the echo from the walls and buildings around Vysehrad, the dampening of sound in the grass and its dispersion in air and absorption in water, the mixing of the sound of the bells with the sound of cars, boats, and people that contributed to my experience. Finally, I realized that it was also the sounds within me, within my mind, and my own process of listening, of keeping time, and of understanding my environment that made my experience of the bells so captivating. These bells, with their harmonic qualities, the duration of their peal, their situation within the specific environment of Vysehrad, and the circumstances of the active city around them, create a situation of a sound installation for a listener. Listeners to the bells find that they interact with them psychologically. They listen through the bells rather than just to them, and the sound can take on an almost tangible, physical quality, especially in terms of its changing resonance with the surrounding historical architecture. Furthermore, the bell’s resonance transforms the sense of the immediate present for listeners, as the peal stretches out for several minutes, echoing, attention to the present and immediate memory merges into a single experience. Encountering these bells in their full peal is a truly interactive experience.

My intention for this piece was to use the medium of the radio to extend this experience, offering it to others and prolonging it, by altering its context. Therefore, I developed this piece as Radio Art, a Sound Installation for Radio, in that this work emphasizes a sense of a particular place, and specific qualities of spaces that are broadcast to listeners who occupy different spaces and places. Artistically, this provided both challenges and freedom. On the one hand, this piece is a kind of documentary in which acoustical characteristics of the bells are presented. However, on the other hand, it is also is a personal reframing of my experience of listening to the bells within a personal grammar of sounds. In this sense, the work is not only a Sound Installation for Radio, but also a kind of Sound Poetry, in which a personal experience is re-framed within a new language of sounds, some of which are in fact derived from language, from vocality.

While many artists draw attention to sounds and environments through their re-presentation of field recordings, my project is something different. However, I share with other artists the hope to use the medium of radio to offer an opportunity for an extended listen within our hectic world. We move through these sound environments in our daily lives, too busy to give them much notice. I would like to suggest on the contrary, that these experiences have value: they are revealing. By reframing the sounds and environment of the bells, listeners are offered a new way to enter into this important historical and cultural example of Public Sound Sculpture, and by working with RadioCustica and Cesky Rozhlas, we can create alternative and meaningful listening experiences through the medium of the airwaves. On a long train commute, a lonely drive, or late at night, we tune in: at first the question might be “what is this?” After some time, however, as the recognition of an environment in dialogue with itself is made available through broadcast, fascination takes over. When this happens, listeners carry the dialogue with them, in their attention and memory.

a sequence of four notes

fall heavily in the summer air and rise again

bouncing off the cobblestones, fracturing

reflections flying off in all directions

at the first sign of an intruder

they escape, scattering,

flying off in all directions at the first sign of an intruder

and yet they are partially captured by the intruder

who carries them with themselves

who carries them inside


or leaves them behind

leaves them turning yellow

from moisture stress

the oxidation of memories

as in the fall when changes in the length of daylight and temperature

stop the food making process and the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down

the green colour disappears

and the yellow to orange become visible

at the same time other chemical changes may occur

additional colors through the development of red anthocyanin

dogwoods and sumacs, the sugar maple in its brilliant orange pajamas

others, like many oaks, display mostly browns

every autumn we revel in the beauty of the fall colors

and her nose was coloured and rose

and fell alternating with

the direction of the wind

all winter they sat on the sofa

listening to the notes through closed windows

and receiving messages

outlined in shadows left by leaves

on their windowpane

these were carefully transcribed

and coded such that none but those meant to understand them

would understand the secrets conveyed therein

the secrets, for example, of the chill that raises hairs behind your neck

in a cold and dark house

on a windy night

without a moon

but with the voice of crows or something

or, for example, the language spoken by the pressure

that reveals itself to the attentive participant

through the sensation that they are not alone in the house

or that someone is in the room with them

perhaps paying attention to them but perhaps not

different in kind from the sensation of being watched and knowing it

this, instead is innocent

the old woman upstairs watches you hang up your laundry in the courtyard

the retired policeman looks on hungrily

pushing his fat lips together again and again

his breathing heavy

he snorts

and the great nose in the Vltava to be discussed later

sinks a little bit deeper into its own dreams

scents, sensual memories

presented again but in code

received from the future in the form of hoarfrost on the windowpane

or leaves across the window pane, the trajectory of their shadows

or even spider webs, (it doesn’t matter, the point is that they were carefully looked after)

they would hold onto them

when the time was right slowly unfold them

read out the plans for the building to be undertaken

the assembly of the great signs

while humming the four notes to themselves

in and out of sequence

without yet within a scope of acceptable synchronicity

the demands of the rhythmic pressure

the humidity of each individual syllable

weighed down with tears yet still with enough blood in its veins to suggest progress, movement

until finally



and static


as though



the monument:

a giant nose

emerges slowly out of the Vltava

moving and smelling

progressive but slow

as progress is slow

democratically, of course

and toward the castle

through the swamp

sniffing the air

right and left

left and right

up, down,

and back and forth


in ever widening arches

but never wildly,

always exercising



in its spread

of scent

across the surface of first water

and then onto land

and then: the occasional sneeze

a gesture indicative

to those who know

who they blow

and the class of

those whose nose they blow

while elsewhere a new church rises

but in this church old ovals

swollen flower hips

vines and berries burst asunder

within their own season

seasoned with their own weight

as within stone circles

beneath a shared sun

sign, they unfold their own plans

& they are the plans that they unfold

they become themselves becoming

and through the harsh green summer

when the leaves become too big

and bend down


useful but in their last moments

eating and drinking all they can

while suffering under the weight of their own opulence

memories of former beauty, perhaps grandeur

they break their necks

no less than they should

and all autumn

and winter

in its still outdoor air

cold open rooms

nights in which reading by the snowlight is possible

she sits in the shadow of her hourglass

projected on the wall from the moonlight behind

cut by shadows of trees on the windowpanes

she is listening

for the first four notes

to drop

from the grains sand

that now stand suspended

in mid-air

A Humid Bell In The Shape of A Bird Resonantes The Conspiratorial Landscape

Beginning with an analysis of the harmonic content of the noonday peal of the bells from the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul in Vysehrad, Prague, this piece unfolds to become a landscape in dialogue with itself. Processes of interaction leave traces: animal, human, atmospheric: but what constitutes the medium in which such traces are inscribed?

The bells begin their sound when mechanical energy lifts them out of their their equilibrium state, and releases them. The fall first like a landslide, but fixed as they are by one side, they oscillate, gravity acting on them to modulate their kinetic momentum. Their individual back-and-forth motions are simple, but not exactly periodic. Four tones in downward motion combine. However, what begins as an ordered system gives way to an experience of extraordinary variety and complexity for a listener. Contingencies abound.

At times other than the noon peal the music played on the bells may be followed linearly, with the environmental resonances and the collaborative interjections of songbirds, traffic, passing boats, and the weather being relegated to ornament. During the noon peal, however, the bells broadcast an immersive environment in which noon lasts forever. The sound is everywhere at once. It is in one sense the same, and yet simultaneously full of a rich and ever-shifting variety that suspends the listener in an ever present now.

These moments leave traces on memory of the listener long after the peal, lasting about six minutes, has ended. As is the case with the ripe and fertile botanical paintings that clothe the inner walls of the sanctuary of the Basilia, the indentations of the bells peal harken back to earlier, more primitive ways of knowing. Such traces stretch into the future too, into all the now-presents as they arise, touching the everyday lives of all who have listened to it.

Consider the medium of all such traces be they sounds, memories, notes or script on parchment, page, or sand, the writing of an old fire in an ancient hearth or less ancient cottage fireplace, a prehistoric carving in stone or the ephemeral snow angels made by children, a bullet hole left in a rock or wooden wall in the storms and stresses of history, the pressure and warmth of a loved one's hand on your skin, or the action of wind and water on rock, for example.

Such traces are the records of interaction written momentarily or for posterity upon the body of the environment. This body is itself constituted by interactive phenomena that it contains, we are the authors of the traces that are our lives. Gesture and language spread out from bodies, yet likewise define them. While the medium of such traces, as with sound, is defined as presence and experienced in the present, the traces themselves are records of movement, written in the displacement, removal, pressing down or aside, or scraping away of neighboring material.

Descend further, below the four notes that form the opening motive of the Basilica’s noonday peal, and one finds that the hill one stands on contains many rings, layers of memory. History immerses a casual visitor who encounters it simultaneously in the contemporary buildings, Roman buildings, aspects of the Baroque, buildings from the 1800s, adjacent modernism and pieces of the old Prague City Walls. The constructions on Vysehrad resonate not only with the coloured plaster echoes of the ringing bell tones, but also with the voices and intentions of their builders. A highly speculative claim put forth by some acousticians is that it could be possible in the built environment to sonify traces of ancient sound left behind in flexible materials like clays and plastics. It is captivating to imagine playing these surfaces like records, and hearing the sounds of history unfold into the simultaneity of the present. Fascinating, but terrifying.

If we cannot listen to them directly, we can certainly read them, at least partially. Or, if we do not necessary grasp the language, at least we can spot the fossilized outlines of words and letters. Through such we descend, in the manner of the tones that begin the bell peal, into the soil and rock below one’s feet, through and past the earliest settlements around Prague, and to the the terraced bed of the Vltava. Here is etched into stone the history of not only life but of the planet since the Precambrian.

In the present we have this project: a humble study, some music, or sound art, inspired by some pealing bells. For me, this is an immersive experience that subsequently colours memory as a snow-covered landscape or intense heat can colour memory. Separating the bell peal into twenty-nine harmonic partials, I freely manipulated these. I brought them into conversation with the sounds of insects and birds from immediately downriver in Vsenory and quite a bit further afield, from Sumava (recorded in Klatovy an Klenova in a summer of spectacular trips I took there to work with Czech, French, and Norwegian artists who gathered there that summer for an exhibition. The conversations I had in that past summer with Iveta Plna, Anders Gronlien, and Michael Gimenez become interjections into the work of the current summer. Meanwhile, from the shadows of a basement in Vsenory, in a time slightly closer to Now, insects invaded tapes and convolved texts modulated with home-made feedback driven circuits and digitally coded synthesis recorded along with rain in Vsenory, where my colleague Jakub Grosz’ family has a cottage that we would use as a studio as often as possible around the time I was lucky enough to be living in Smichov.

The language of birds is both local birds local and international, they speak a hybrid language, ignoring all borders as do weather systems and vibrations within the landscape itself. By bringing such aspects of my recorded experience together with recorded and re-synthesized aspects of the bells, I hope that the new experience continues an international discussion, and one conducted primarily with our ears, as listeners. Led by our ears we set forth active, but permeable propositions. Some of these take the traces of sound as a form of recording, others modify it in an attempt to embody memory in matter, and still others work by mimicry, performing the environment. My own approach attempts a phenomenological re-framing of the circumstances of my own experience, attempting to re-situate them as experiences for us, framing thereby the interesting structures and emergence of complexity that I hope we can discuss and explore. As a listener, one stands available for sound, for experience, and for cooperation. I am not done deciding what these bells and this place mean or meant for me.

Thus, this question has the function of a reflecting pool and the form a pressure wave, that of cloud of sound or summer rainstorm, felt by all but by all experienced in situation to themselves.

Jorge Boehringer, July 2019

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