Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ulsan Bell of Sisterhood

A few months ago I wrote a post about the Sapporo Friendship Bell in front of the Oregon Convention Center, a gift from Portland's sister city of Sapporo, Japan. I mentioned briefly that there was a second bell nearby, and suggested there would be a post about it sooner or later, when I got around to it. Today we're visiting the second bell, the Ulsan Bell of Sisterhood which was a gift from Ulsan, South Korea, another of Portland's sister cities.

A note on the Portland-Ulsan Sister City Association's Facebook page calls it "a copy of the famous Shilla Dynasty bell". The famous bell in question is probably the Bell of King Seongdeok, cast in 771 AD during the Silla Dynasty period. Portland's copy is obviously a scaled-down version of the original bell. A larger copy, the "Korean Bell of Friendship", is located in a park in Los Angeles.

In addition to the bells themselves, the bell-ringing system is a public artwork in its own right. Bell Circles II is a sound installation created by composer Robert Coburn. The system rings the two bells according to a programmable and varying schedule. I'm not clear on exactly how this schedule works; signs near the bells merely warn visitors that they ring without notice and are quite loud. I'm thinking the sound installation stuff deserves a blog post of its own, but for that I'll need a video or audio clip of at least one of the bells ringing. And to do that I'll need to figure out the ringing schedule, since I'm not going to hang around in front of the convention center all day filming bells just in case. That's just not going to happen. The news items below give some clues, but it could easily have been reprogrammed any time between 1990 and today.

Anyway, the Oregonian covered the Ulsan bell when it was donated in January 1989. The article explains that the original concept would have included a third bell, donated by Beaverton's sister city Hsinchu, Taiwan, along with some aluminum wind pipes, and continues:

According to Coburn, the $30,000 bell is modeled after a 7th-century Buddhist temple bell. It's decorated with images of Korean angels and topped by a dragon. An inscription commemorates the sister-city relationship.

When installed, the three bells will give off deeply resonant tones that will serve as aural landmarks at the convention center, orienting visitors to the building's entrances, Coburn said. One bell will be in the main courtyard and the other two will be at entrances. Each bell has a specific pitch. A computer will activate automatic striking devices that will sound a slow melodic pattern.

Coburn will arrange the cyclic patterns so they change over long periods of time, coinciding with the changes in seasons. On each equinox and solstice, the cycle will restart, Coburn said.

In addition to the temple bells, clusters of two or three aluminum wind pipes will hang in trees around the center. The pipes will be oriented to the wind and will sound pitches that relate to the bronze bells.

Much of Coburn's music is concerned with sound and the environment. The bell project is an attempt to neutralize urban noise, welcome visitors, orient them to the building, and provide sanctuary, he said.

The convention center opened in 1990, and the paper's architecture critic went on at length about all the art. After a bit about the big Foucault pendulum in an atrium, he spent a few paragraphs on the bells:

As the pendulum marks time inside with its metronomic swing, two bronze Oriental bells outside will mark time in sound. In a project conceptualized by composer Robert Coburn, Portland's sister cities Sapporo, Japan, and Ulsan, South Korea, each donated bells. They will be struck with a computer automated device according to a composition created by Coburn.

At this writing, Coburn had not completed his score, but he explained his two main goals are to orient people to the convention center's outdoor spaces with what he describes as ``soundmarks'' as opposed to landmarks. And, he wants to call attention to two scales of time.

``The intention is not a musical composition,'' Coburn said, ``but to make references to how we measure time versus how nature does.'' He explained that the Sapporo bell will be struck hourly while the Ulsan bell will be struck on a daily and seasonal cycle. ``On the equinox and solstice, they will be struck together at noon,'' Coburn added.

Three other wind bells, donated by the Republic of China, will resonate when a breeze blows. ``Usually architects use waterfalls to mask the traffic noise,'' Coburn said. ``I wanted to create a situation where the traffic would become a background to my composition.''

In addition to the pure aesthetics of sound and the marvel of seasonal rhythms, Coburn's bell project also represents a cultural handshake, an anticipation of the growing economic friendship between Portland and its potential Pacific Rim trading partners.

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