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Russian Tradition of Semantron, aka Slavic Flat Bells, Part 2
June 10, 2015 14:58


The late 20th century saw the revival of ancient Russian tradition of playing the semantron (aka bilo). However, the centuries old music instrument was thoroughly studied, developed and perfected. In many aspects the credit goes to the bell master and inventor Alexander Ivanovich Zhikharev. He always dreamed of creating a music instrument that sounds even more harmoniously than the bells.
After years of study he came to the conclusion that flat bells, despite their seeming simplicity, are capable to produce sounds that are equal in tone characteristics and power to traditional tulip bells and are even better in certain parameters.
Various forms of flat bells were tried and tested: square, triangle, trapeze, oval, etc. In 1988, after 12 years of purposeful search, the optimum shape was found: it was a rectangular shape of icon proportions that gave the most harmonious and pleasant sound. Therefore Alexander Ivanovich Zhikharev named his invention “the icon bilo”. Such a proportion gives a consonant chord, i.e. three same tones of various octaves. This phenomenon can be recorded with the acoustic signal analyzer or a special computer programs, whereas a person just feels the result of enchanting long sound with tremendous harmony and beauty of timbre. Actually, all bell casting masters aspired for attaining such a unique acoustic effect – the Trinity in sound as an indispensable condition of harmony, in music and acoustic, as well as spiritual sense.
For comparison – pure sound time value of the best multiton bells makes about 30 seconds, whereas “the icon bilo” sounds 4 to 5 times longer on average. No other music instrument has such canorous voice. In addition to that, the semantron sound can travel long distances without changing its frequency.
One of the facts testifying the uniqueness of the flat bells (bilo) is their use as a chiming clock in the Spasskaya Tower of the Moscow Kremlin.


The unique acoustic phenomenon of “the singing bronze” was created over 20 years ago. Until that time bronze could only “ring”, but not “sing”. As a result of this invention the ancient alarm instrument was turned into a brand new music instrument.
The birth of “the singing bronze”, in turn, made it possible to create a unique music instrument – the semantron (flat bells) belfry, which is a modal selection of tuned bronze plates fixed on a wooden frame with soft ropes. Two to three frames with bilos of various registers are usually used at the same time. The planks making a belfry are selected in a special way: each of them gives four absolutely harmonious sounds at the same time, and each of the four sounds of the following plank is totally in tune with all sounds of the previous one. All this creates an integral sound field sated with tones and overtones harmoniously interacting with each other.
By varying the rhythm and power of beats, and using hammers of various materials and weight one can get sound variations in a wide range.
Nowadays the magic music of the semantron belfry can be heard in the Kolomenskoye historical and architectural memorial estate in Moscow, some Moscow concert halls, the methodical center Drevo Roda, numerous Orthodox churches all around Russia, as well as in Belarus, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Finland, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, India and many other countries.

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Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Russian Music Russian Music Instruments Bell Ringing Semantron Bells 

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