The Secret Sounds of Notre-Dame’s Bells

An artist is live streaming the bells’ imperceptible vibrations, which reflect the city around them

Giant bells lined in a row
Notre-Dame’s oldest bell, Emmanuel, dates back to the 15th century and rings in F sharp. Thesupermat via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Since the devastating fire in 2019, Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral has been closed. The beloved structure, which is over 850 years old, is not scheduled to reopen until 2024

But in the meantime, Bill Fontana is bringing the sounds of the cathedral’s bells—which survived the fire—to the public. 

Fontana, an artist based in the Bay Area, isn’t capturing the familiar ringing of church bells. Instead, his focus is the imperceptible sounds of the bells’ vibrations, reports the Art Newspaper’s Helen Stoilas. Even when the bells are not ringing, their vibrations change constantly based on what’s happening around them. For hundreds of years, these vibrations have been quietly reflecting the city. 

“It’s a physical fact that these bells are actually vibrating all the time; it’s like a spirit that’s living inside of Notre-Dame,” Fontana tells the Art Newspaper. “It’s the voice, soul, the breath of the bell.”

Since he was permitted to enter the cathedral last year, Fontana has been installing accelerometers (devices that can track even tiny vibrations) to listen to each bell. By adjusting the recorded sounds to make them audible to human ears, Fontana has made it possible to experience the never-before-heard vibrations that the bells make while at rest. 

The result, he tells Helen Stoilas in Artnet, is a “very beautiful, almost mystical sound.”

“The personality changes with the weather and the time of day,” he adds. “During normal business hours in Paris, Notre-Dame is a construction site. So, the bells will hear the construction. When it is the late afternoon or evening, you sometimes have a street musician with a boombox in front of the cathedral. Early in the morning in Paris, I hear birds in the bell tower.”

Notre-Dame has ten bells in its bell towers. The oldest, known as Emmanuel, dates back to the 15th century, though it was recast in 1681. Ringing in F sharp, the bell is “considered one of the most harmonically beautiful in Europe,” per the Art Newspaper.

During the French Revolution, Emmanuel was the only bell not to be melted down for ammunition. Some of the melted bells were then recast in the late-19th century. But in 2013, due to poor acoustic quality, all of the bells—with the exception of Emmanuel—were replaced. Throughout history, Emmanuel has rung to mark major events in Paris, including the coronation of kings and the end of World War I and World War II.

Fontana is now live streaming the sound of the bells at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and he is working with the French telecommunications company Orange to find out if he can add live video to future exhibitions—which will be particularly useful in locations far away from Paris, he tells Artnet. Soon he will be bringing his work to the Arter gallery in Istanbul and the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria. 

His contract runs through the end of the restoration process—and until then, he’ll keep listening.

Silent Echoes: Notre-Dame 2022” will be at the Centre Pompidou through July 2.

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