The Trinity in sound

To Alexander Zhicharev’s anniversary

From the times long past, skilled hands of craftsmen could create a state of the art even from the most ordinary of materials: trees, unable to boast any substantial diversity of a form, were formed, “without a single nail” to a unique wonder of architecture; crude, raw gem, after being cut, became an elegant jewelry; soft, pliable clay transformed into a whimsy, brittle porcelain… It’s remarkable that in our age of an unprecedented rise of natural sciences – when it seems to us that we know everything about the matter around – there are still gifted people who can amaze us and broaden our perspective about an ordinary material’s capabilities.

So, cold and silent bronze in the hands of a bell master Alexander Zhicharev have gained an ability to sing, warming the hearts of men with sounds of divine beauty. Before him, bronze could “ring”, but not “sing”: you have to agree that striking a kettle with a spoon could also make a sound, but it’s not the sound you would want to listen to forever…
It is known that physical qualities of a bronze allows for casting an array of different shapes from it: bronze has always served as a material for household and religious items, weapons, elegant art objects. But, aside from its plasticity, Alexander Ivanovich was able to uncover this metal’s incredible potential to give birth to a clear, perfect sound. By means unfathomable, he managed to create a unique acoustical phenomenon – a singing bronze.

The birth of a “singing bronze” have become possible thanks to a unique instrument, created by Zhicharev more than 20 years ago. It is a belfry – large wooden frame, from which hang flat rectangular metal plates, called “bilo” or flat bell. Flat bells, sized from several santimeters to a meter, hang by soft rope suspenders and are made from standart bell bronze. To make a sound with them, one should strike them with a special gavel. Usually, three or four belfries of different sizes are used, played by several bell-ringers, which creates an amazing multivoice music piece.
Thanks to its unique acoustic properties, music, created by Zhicharev’s instrument, is felt by the whole body and fills it with extraordinary emotions, feelings of light and joy. Amusingly enough, the master himself is still unable to pick a name for his creation!
It is so extraordinary, without anything even relatively similar, that words and terms we’re accustomed to are unable to describe its unique essence. So, meanwhile Zhicharev and his associates make do with a quite cumbersome name “flat bell belfry”.

And then commanded Sergiy to ring a flat bell

The word “bilo’ (flat bell) is not made up: it has an ancient Russian origin and reminds of a bell’s forefather. The word’s base indicates the in ancient times it was a percussion instrument, not unlike a drum. But, to equate the Zhicharev’s invention with an ancient Russian instrument would be a crude mistake, there’s an essential difference between them, and understanding of it lies within a history of this instrument.

Flat bell existed time ago not only in ancient Russia: in medieval era it could’ve been encountered in every orthodox country, in Georgia, Armenia, Ethiopia, it was known to Coptians, Persians, Arabs, was used in a religious practices of Vadjraian Buddhism, even if every country had its own name for it. The purpose of all flat bells was signal: to call people to public events – prayer, supper, – to sound an alarm, to announce joy and woe. Such a vast popularity of flat bells is explained by the simplest technique with which a sound is made from them – strike with one object against another.

Flat bells had a sheer diversity of forms – horseshoe, trapeze, oval, angel wings – and were made from a number of different materials – wood, stone, cast iron, copper. In medieval Judaist synagogue service a wooden flat bell – “nakosha” – was used, carved in a shape of a horn! As one of earlier hadiths tells, Christian flat bell was nearly adopted by Muslims – Muhammad stood before a choice – either to use a “nakhus” flat bell or a Jewish “shofar” horn, but he choose to gather people to prayer with voice.

In a Christian tradition, flat bells first appeared in first ages of a.d. in Roman Empire, where it was customary to call people to a prayer by a strike of a hammer against wooden or stone planks. Metal planks weren’t used back then, because the sound they made was too loud and was inconvenient during the time of Christian persecution, and also because metal bells had a reputation of being attributes of pagan worship. In time this tradition – to call people to prayer by ringing flat bells – took root in an Orthodox East, where people didn’t use usual bells at all for a long time, following Byzantium’s example. In a western Orthodox tradition flat bells, on the contrary, didn’t became common, because they were soon replaced by usual bells. Only at the Holy week, in so-called “bell fast” (Thursday to Saturday), when it was forbidden by canon to ring bells, western Christians used wooden flat bells for a call to prayer.

Flat bell made its way to Russia in age X from Byzantium, along with Christianity and the whole worship canon. First written references to it dated age XI. Slavs called a wooden instrument “bilo” (from the word “bit’” – to strike), and his metal counterpart – “klepalo” (riveted thing). According to some sources, Kievan Rus’ didn’t have wood species necessary to create well-sounding musical instruments, which had predetermined a major popularity of iron and copper riveted bells than that of wooden flat bells.

The first reference to a flat bell is dated by year 1074 and connected to a death of Holy Pheodosiy Pecherskiy, hegumen of Kiev-Pechera monastery. As chronicle tells, Pheodosiy fell deadly ill after an Easter service and, after five days of illness, ordered monks to carry him out to a courtyard. Approximately after 6 p.m. monks put him on a sledge, drove them out and placed before a temple. There Pheodosiy asked to gather all the monks and, to fulfill his request, a flat bell was struck.

The same year, flat bell is being mentioned once again, but in connection with less sad circumstances – in a tale of a monk Matvey the Shrewd it is said that he, coming out of a church, “was sitting, sleeping under flat bells”. After that, sources are filled with mentions of flat bells. Epiphaniy the Wise in his “Hagiography of Sergiy Radonezhskiy” writes: “and then commanded Sergiy to ring a flat bell”. A picture of a large flat bell in a shape of a horseshoe with two gavels is placed on a heraldry of Kirillov town, which was built as a Kirillo-Belozersk monastery village.

For a long time usual bells were treated with mistrust in Rus’, because they were associated with Catholicism, “Latininsm”. But, as time passed, flat bells remained only in monasteries and old-believers’ villages, fully replaced by usual bells everywhere else. In other countries flat bells still exist, continuing to call people to a prayer.

The Rebirth: Icon flat bell
Genius is a talent to invent something you can neither learn nor teach.
Immanuel Kant

In the end of XX’th century a flat bell has undergone a rebirth in our country too. Brought back from oblivion by the talent of Alexander Zhicharev, half-forgotten old signal tool became something new – a musical instrument. The only similarity the keep to each other is in principle – striking a hanged instrument with a gavel – and also a name, which has mystically taken root as a definition for bronze plates (which would be more correctly named “riveted bells”, being made of metal). Ancient Russian flat bell had very limited performing abilities – they couldn’t support a melody and there were neither a form nor material that could create a beautiful melodic sound. Modern Zhicharev’s flat bells are capable of performing any music piece.

As a majority of genius Russian craftsmen, Alexander Ivanovich is self-taught – he has received neither a musical nor technical education. His biography is absolutely ordinary – he was born in 1951 in a town of Choroshevo, where now Moscow Choroshevo-Mnevniki district is located, after serving in the army he worked as a car driver and then departed by a Komsomol voucher to Naberezhnye Chelny, to the KAMAZ factory construction, then he worked in the Union’s Institute of Light Alloys, where he was casting bells. Along with his work on a factory, he was a bell-ringer for a Cathedral of Christ the Savior, periodically he was called to patriarch’s services in Kremlin, on the Ivan the Great belfry.

His passion to find a clear and powerful sound has found Alexander Ivanovich in his youth. He dreamed of creation of an instrument that would have even more harmonic sound than a bell ringing.

What made him thinking that hands of a mortal man could create a perfect, divine sound and, more than that, that he himself could do it? What forced him to go so determinately to his goal, to his dream?

On his own he studied a lot of books on musical acoustics and bell-casting and concluded that flat bells, despite their outer simplicity, can make sound comparable in power and beauty to that of traditional bells. In his search of perfection he tried a countless number of flat bell forms – trapeze, oval, round, triangle. But all of them sounded unattractively, gracelessly. An optimal form, capable of giving a harmonic sound pleasant for human ears, turned out to be a rectangle, found, at last, in 1988.
It turned out that not every flat bell of rectangular form would give a desired graceful sound, but only the one that have a proportions of an icon, so Alexander Ivanovich called his invention “icon flat bell”. That proportion gives birth to a concordial tri-sound – a Trinity in sound – which results in every plate sounding simultaneously in three tones of one note, but from different octaves. This phenomenon is unrecognizable by ear, it is only detected by special acoustical equipment, while a human only feels its result – a sensation of an amazing harmony.

This unique acoustical phenomenon – a Trinity in sound – makes a tremendously graceful sound which all the bell casters strived to achieve trough centuries.
In 1991 Alexader Zhicharev’s flat bell were officially patented in Russia. The form of a bell allows not only for creating an amazing sound, but also makes a transportation easy and helps to save metal – casting a flat bell takes much less bronze than a usual one with a similar power of sound. Today a lot of small churches order flat bells because casting traditional bells costs significantly more.

In accordance with the laws of physics, every object has its own “still points”. These are points unaffected by sound vibrations, which keeps them always still. Alexander Ivanovich has invented a special device, using which it is possible to locate such points at any flat object. Rectangular flat bells have four still points, and to make an ideal, undistorted sound bells should be hanged from a belfry by a rope, led exactly through these points.

While a usual bell use as its percussion element a tongue, attached to it once and for all, gavels could travel from one flat bell to another and can be made of largely different materials: wood, rubber, plastics, led, steel, copper alloys, aluminum. By changing gavels, variation for the same bell’s sound could be practically endless. Another flat bells’ feature is that they make a sound lower than that of a traditional bell. Practice shows, that lower tones affects a human physiology more beneficially than higher ones.

As a result of rolling of a bell bronze its crystalline grid obtains the ideal structure and, along with it, special acoustic properties: if a good traditional bell can make a sound with a 20-30 sec. duration, flat bells sound for several minutes on average, and their maximum sound duration reaches as high as 10 minutes! This “singing ability” is unachievable for any other musical instrument.

Flat bells also have an amazing “soundability” – their sounds cover vast distances, while keeping their frequency. It is quite symbolic that flat bells are literally “eternal” – once tuned, they never change their sounding, unlike other instruments, and they also immune to corrosion – even after millennia they will make their original sound!

Today, on a lot of belfries flat and traditional bells are placed together, complementing each other successfully.

People’s instrument

After Alexander ivanovich managed to uncover the mysteries of the matter and achieve things he dreamed of for so long, he strived to introduce his invention to as many people as possible, so they could share his joy and satisfaction those beautiful sounds bring. Flat bell belfry sounds very eloquently in accord with nature, when a natural landscape allows a music to flow infinitely, filling all the space around with itself…

A suitable scene for such concerts was found in Kolomenskoye park – it is here, from a year 1997, Alexander Ivanovich amazes park’s guests with his music every weekend. With time, a small circle of followers formed around the craftsman, united in their passion for the new instrument – so a small music group “Singing Bronze” was formed. Beside the Temple of Ascension and St. George’s belfry musicians perform on their flat bells improvisations of their own composing, classics and people’s favorite melodies – to their own enjoyment and fascination of those listening. Lately, the newest tradition appeared for just married, celebrating their union in Kolomenskoye, to consecrate their wedding with a ceremonial bell ringing performed by Alexander Ivanovich and a music of his flat bells. The newly wed believe that their union will be as beautiful and eternal as the music gifted to them at that day.

These days Alexander Ivanovich is often being invited to perform in different musical festivals and concerts. The master is actively trying to uncover a perspective to unify hi belfry’s music with instruments more familiar to us. For instance, in Catholic cathedrals of Moscow Bach’s organ pieces were repeatedly performed on flat bells.
More than that, Zhicharev’s creation is marching triumphantly through Europe: their acquaintance with flat bells have already made people from Bulgaria, France, Italy, Germany, Spain… But not only the Europe gives its applause to a genius invention of Russian self-made master – Alexander Ivanovich had twice made his way to India, where he performed a master-class in building stone flat bells. In every corner of the world Zhicharev’s flat bell inevitably becomes a sensation – until now the world haven’t heard such sounds.

“Icon flat bell” not only became a new musical instrument, but also a new remedy: a lot of listeners reported a significant improvement in their health and even a recovery from serious illnesses after listening to Zhicharev’s flat bell music. The curative effect of this music is also confirmed by a number of European psychotherapists, who are actively purchasing flat bells for healing their patients. Scientific research of the “sound healing” mechanism are still pending – the phenomenon is still too new. But the more sensitive listeners note that the ascended and clear melody of a flat bell belfry is as if bringing them back to their long past childhood, washing away stresses and troubles as negative layers put by time, and then the spiritual rejuvenation is followed by a physical one – there comes a return to a pristine, clear state and healing.

Sadly enough, such a raging popularity of an invention inevitably provokes a number of knockoffs. Seeking an easy money, charlatans create instruments that look like flat bells on the outside but, as they are built without following the necessary rules, they make unattractive, low quality sound, thus desecrating the very idea of the clear sound of an “icon flat bell”.

Despite a wide recognition, Alexander Ivanovich isn’t going to stop – his always searching and restless nature continues to strive to perfection, demonstrating to the world the endless capabilities of his instrument. He develops and builds more advanced types of belfries, creates flat bells of different forms made of different materials, for instance, using crystal glass and acoustical species of stone (granite). Today the master makes flat bells on orders from temples, private clients, musical groups. In year 2000 for a church in the town of Akulovo, Odintsovo region, the world’s largest flat bell was built, weighting more than two tons, named for its size “Tzar Bilo” (“The King Flat Bell”). The height if its sound equals that of a 110-ton usual bell.

Despite the fact that most listeners count flat bells among full-fledged musical instruments, the inventor himself doesn’t count his creation as such. He compares his flat bells to strings, which, taken by themselves, hardly qualify as a violin or guitar. An instrument gets is completed by the form, which gives it a precise outline and allows to uncover all of the sound possibilities.
By the masters’ concept, such a form, which would allow flat bells to sound in all their glory, should be a room, constructed especially for flat bells, with consideration for their acoustical properties. There, in that closed space, it will be possible to feel all the beauty of a metal’s sound, to hear subtle tones that evade an ear in open space. Direct and deflected sounds of singing metal, meld together, would create a fantastically enchanting melody. Nobody have ever heard such conjunctions of sounds in real life. A person in this closed space would find himself as if inside of a musical instrument and will be able not to just hear sounds unheard before, but literally let them pass through himself, sense with his whole body an extraterrestrial healing sound vibrations and feel himself a fragment of a glorious and regal “temple of sounds”.

Flat bell belfry has become a true peoples’ instrument tanks not only to all people’s recognition and admiration, but also to the fact that it’s possible for everyone to partake in its performing – even if you strike several bells spontaneously a few times, they will answer with a beautiful and unexpectedly harmonious melody. This feature is caused by the absence of any discord in an instrument – so all the sounds meld with each other harmoniously. Magic happens – the art of music cease to be something unachievable, reserved for the chosen. From this moment people of any profession and age could feel themselves talented creators and artists by simply striking a flat bell with a gavel. Having attended a conservatorium and enjoyed classical music nobody gets an idea to purchase a violin or violoncello to enjoy themselves – in the hands of a non-professional those instruments make a repulsive impression, instead of a harmonic melody you will get a chaos of discorded sounds! But after a flat bell concert Zhicharev constantly receives requests from listeners to build them some flat bells for “home use”, for the soul.

The melody of a magic belfry causes an elation in children and adults, believers and scholars, professional musicians and ordinary people, unwary of musical nuances. Music of Zhicharev’s bells is at the same time people’s music, emphasizing the mystery of a Russian soul, and extra-national – for it is comprehensible to anyone, regardless of nations and continents. The sound of this instrument is integrated organically into the world around, the nature, the history of mankind. It is hard to believe that Zhicharev’s music is only 20 years old – so accessible and natural it is, it seems that it has been there forever.

Alexander Zhicharev’s instrument, capable of bringing out to a God’s light and drape into a musical form something primeval, living deep inside everyone of us, allowing to tune to the very source, the only source… The Life-beginning Trinity – a Orthodox symbol of harmony and unity – gained its sound in the creation of a bell Master. It’s no surprise that with these sunny chords get carried away physical and spiritual maladies, flee troubles and fuss, and then come tranquility and light, hope and believe in a better tomorrow. The magical music makes wonders, allowing a mortal human soul to ascend to heights heavenly, to piercingly pristine snow and angel’s reaches and at the same time mend as one with nature, with a wild and beautiful primeval matter of the Earth. How fortunate are we all to bear witness to the reclaiming of the Trinity, Trinity in sound.

It is known that children inevitably inherit traits of their parents. Just as well, Zhicharev’s flat bells appear before the world as something ascended and unfathomable, but at the same time simple and earthly, as their father and creator is. And who can now make it out, listening to these pristine, tranquilizing, divine sounds: is it a belfry playing, obeying the hands of a genius Russian craftsman, or is it the craftsman himself – by the touch of the Lord – have become an instrument of higher powers, selfless and inspired, transfers to the world His will and grace.

Author: Anna Tolstenko