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Electronic replication of world's largest bell rings for first time

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APRIL 18, 2016

Although the sound of a ringing bell washed over campus Saturday, its source was not the Campanile — instead, the sound came from an electronic replication of the Russian Tsar Bell, according to a campus press release.

The bell — the largest in the world at approximately 200 tons — has never been able to generate sound because of an accident during its casting. That is, until a team of campus researchers, in conjunction with researchers from other institutions, set out to capture the sound, according to the press release.

The team concluded their year-long project in time for this year’s Cal Day, during which the team’s rendering of the bell’s sound was projected from loudspeakers at the base of the Campanile, according to Stanford University researcher Chris Chafe, one of the team’s members.

The sound of the bell was meant to instill a sense of community among campus visitors and Cal Day participants, according to Chafe.

“There’s one bell up there that plays at a time and synchronizes our lives, but when you use the bell for musical purposes, you’re communicating something more than clock time,” said Chafe of the bell’s effect on listeners. “Everybody gets thrummed by the same (sound) frequency.”

Before the Tsar Bell’s music could be debuted, a mishap during its construction prevented its sound from ever reaching the public, according to the press release.

Campus associate professor Greg Niemeyer noted that during a 1732 fire, a group of workers unevenly poured cool water onto the bell in an effort to save it and inadvertently shattered a chunk of the cast.

Niemeyer added that the incomplete Tsar Bell has been on display at the Kremlin ever since.

By experimenting with sound frequencies expected of a bell of its shape and dimension, the researchers electronically calculated the Tsar Bell’s sound, according to Chafe. He noted, however, that the process of experimenting with sound frequencies constitutes “an imperfect art.”

“The challenge was that we were travelling towards a destination that was unknown and didn’t know if we had ever reached it or not,” Niemeyer said of determining the sound of a one-of-a-kind bell.

According to Niemeyer, Russian citizens remain divided over their perception of the replicated bell sounds — some believe that the researchers “copied” the sound unrightfully. Despite the controversy, Niemeyer maintained that the intent of the project was not malicious, but rather meant to pay homage to the original bell.

“The gesture of American cultural appropriation is dramatic and can be harmful … (but) I feel like for me it’s about pointing back to the origin and honoring the origin in some way,” Niemeyer said.

Kimberly Nielsen covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].
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APRIL 19, 2016


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