Kolokol Bells

There are ‘special places‘ all over the world — some familiar, others not so much. Grab a pair of headphones, and I’ll sonically take you to one in Russia.

Don Hill enjoys a familiar part of Moscow’s Kremlin (photo by Igor Florinsky)

I recently returned from the Russian Federation, and a research field trip: a circle tour of churches, monasteries, and Orthodox shrines ringing around  Serpukhov, a small city south of Moscow; special places near the confluence of two rivers and two geophysical faults (more on the significance of this in a moment).

Serpukhov has a religious history that dates back to the 14th century. During the Soviet Era, it was an important military and industrial city; it’s presently the home of the Military Academy of Missile Troops of Peter the Great. In 1983,  a false alarm nearly triggered a global thermonuclear war.

Pop this view of the Vladychny Convent into Google Cardboard or a VR (virtual reality) smartphone headset for a 360 panorama.

Serpukhov’s magnificent religious-inspired architecture, constructed over the centuries, fell on hard times by the 1930s. And it wasn’t until perestroika, and the 1990s, monasteries, such as Vysotsky and the Vladychny convent were lovingly restored and maintained.

Russian Orthodox kolokol bells.

I made a ‘binaural audio’ recording of the bell-ringing pattern that’s unique to the Orthodox Christian tradition. These bells — kolokol in Russian — were rung at a quarter-before-the-hour. It was the first time I heard the Orthodox way of bell-ringing in the flesh — an immersive sound that intrigued and eluded me for over seven years — it was worth the wait.

The first thing you hear (put on headphones, please) are jackdaws (the Russian raven); they chime along with the bells — ducking in and out — here and there.

An entrance way into the Vladychny convent.

This is a very special place for Russian Orthodox Christians.

From the outside, the visitor is greeted by a formidable wall and ‘squeeze & release’ architecture that opens into a tranquil sanctuary.

On this day — a Tuesday — visitors from near and far have come to make their peace, and to find it here.


The continuous flow of spring water is ‘sweet’ to the taste.

There’s a sacred spring, an artesian flow that you can drink from — a certain sweetness of taste lingers — the fountain is one of the attractions that beckons pilgrims.

Another key attraction is the Inexhaustible Chalice, an icon considered miraculous by the faithful; it’s venerated as a cure for alcoholism, and other addictions.

My copy of The Inexhaustible Chalice copy made in 1996.

This is a copy of the icon — the original was destroyed when the church that housed it at the convent was plundered during the Soviet Era. Orthodox Christians believe the icon is still potent, regardless of it being a copy, in the sense you can feel its presence.

The  bells are transformative too. Listening with my eyes closed (recommended) I felt the sounds were alive with spirit. Don’t ask me to explain it — please listen for yourself — tell me how you feel.

Now about the geophysical fault lines that converge on this special place: there are other spots in the Russian Federation, and notably in Crimea, that over millennia have attracted monasteries, churches, and former pagan sanctuaries constructed near prominent faults.

Russian scientists, such as my host Igor Florinsky, have investigated a relationship between sacred places and geophysical activity; transient phenomena  —  its reported affect upon human cognition  — is strikingly similar to what I’ve recorded, and in some instances experienced, at special places in Canada.

I’ll have more news before the summer is out. And with this posting, I start in on remaking an ‘immersive narrative’ familiar to our ancestors with the new  ‘immersive medium’ for the 21st century — virtual reality.

Thanks to Canada Council for the Arts for a ‘travel grant’.

CANADA DAY screening

IF YOU ARE in Calgary,  make a date to see SPECIAL PLACES: Writing-On-Stone on Canada Day in the SPARK Science Centre’s full-dome theatre.

SPECIAL PLACES is bundled with Horizon (a ‘signature’ Canada 150 presentation) and runs 01 July Canada Day. The double-feature begins at 11 AM and continues throughout the day. While it costs a few bucks to get into SPARK, the full-dome shows are free of charge.


If you’re interested in virtual reality (VR), have some fun with SPARK’s full complement of state-of-the-art VR  headsets:

Download the poster

HTC Vive, SONY Playstation VR, Samsung Gear VR and the Oculus Rift. You’ll get an even more immersive sense for SPECIAL PLACES and VR at SPARK on Canada Day.

SPECIAL PLACES looks fabulous in a VR headset, and according to a Czech Republic fan who recently screened it, “your show is immersive media par excellence.”


Special Places on the road

Panorama of cliff face at Writing-On-Stone where a 5,000 year old petroglyph has been located.

SPECIAL PLACES: Writing-On-Stone premiered in February at Denver’s IMERSA conference, a showcase of full-dome immersive experiences in a state-of-the-art presentation space.

Spring tour of Europe

Next stop:  JENA full-dome Festival in May at the Zeiss Planetarium in Jena, Germany, a university town which has shaped a lot of Western philosophy since its founding in 1558 ; the dome’s namesake Carl Zeiss, the father of modern optical lenses opened his first manufacturing plant there in the 19th century. And famous alumni — HegelMarx, Luther,  Schopenhauer, Nietzsche among other notables — either lived and worked in the east German city, went to school there, or taught at the university.

In June, SPECIAL PLACES next travels to the full-dome festival at BRNO Observatory and Planetarium in Czech Republic. And after that back home to Canada and Montreal’s SAT IX Symposium where you can immerse yourself in Writing-On-Stone in the VR Lounge.

In July,  Calgary’s SPARK presents SPECIAL PLACES on Canada Day, and throughout the summer in a programme of short 360 films in the planetarium’s dome (dates to be announced).

Next phase of development

A  simulacra of SPECIAL PLACES and kindred locations I’ve recorded in Canada (and elsewhere) is in the works — an immersive cyclorama that builds from the 2007 [em/I] public exhibition;  the replica will speak to and stimulate all modalities of human perception (not to be mysterious: I’ll reveal what that means in the months to come).

The technology of trance is about to take its next step…


An immersive experience for domes, smartphones, and virtual reality headsets.

Scene from SPECIAL PLACES preview at Edmonton’s Telus World of Science planetarium

THERE ARE “songs in the land,” says Leroy Little Bear, a Blackfoot elder and guide to SPECIAL PLACES, a panoramic tour of a spirit-filled land that hugs the border between Canada and the United States.

Leroy Little Bear

It’s a landscape of eerie hoodoos, endless sky, and a starfield that’s out of this world. What’s more “it’s the sound of the wind,” producer Don Hill recalls of his first encounter with Writing-on-Stone park in southern Alberta. “A sound that is felt as much as it is heard.” The sandstone cliffs are shaped by the persistent wind blowing out from the Rockies, which makes the curves and recesses of “the hoodoos sing,” says Hill. “They whistle with every breeze.” And they’ve been singing for millennia “with news from the ancestors,” says Leroy Little Bear.

Hill, along with Ryan Jackson and Sam Brooks of Full Circle Visuals, and Adam Kidd of Limbo Editing Services, recently made an 8 minute episode of SPECIAL PLACES, the first leg in a planned series that link extraordinary locations in Canada — some familiar, others not so much — that tell of the supernatural and an extraordinary way of knowing the country. It’s a 360 video that can play in planetariums and inflatable domes, VR (virtual reality) headsets, and even smartphones and tablets.

Left to right: Adam Kidd, Ryan Jackson, Sam Brooks and Don Hill

During the summer of 2016, the team built and field-tested a custom camera rig that delivers an 8K image that looks amazing, and is designed to complement high-performance projectors installed in large format theatres and planetariums. “We believe it’s a necessary step past the GoPro,” editor Adam Kidd says speaking for the team. It makes for a cinematic 360 experience that not only looks and feels immersive, but reproduces the wonder of a landscape that’s tricky to shoot with conventional gear.

From the shoot to the rendering and editing process, organizing workflow, and how to tell the story of a SPECIAL PLACE — every step was a challenge. Yet, the decision to build a custom-built camera and go beyond the GoPro model was a risk that paid off extraordinarily well. “It’s the kind of story,” says Leroy Little Bear that’s always been told “360 degrees around you.” And it’s in this respect SPECIAL PLACES is less a traditional documentary, and more of an ‘experience’ for people to enjoy.

The land has memory, says Leroy Little Bear. “You can feel it.”

The next episode of SPECIAL PLACES is in development for winter 2017.

EPISODE 2: Wind speaks well of you

writing on stone_3

Close to the Rocky Mountains, an ever-present wind lives on the southern prairie of Canada; it shapes Writing-On-Stone, a ‘special place’ in Alberta featuring miles upon miles of sandstone hoodoos and cliff faces adorned with petroglyphs — ancient images scratched and pecked out of the stone.

Leroy PICTOLeroy Little Bear, a Blackfoot elder and one-time executive director of Native Studies at Harvard University tells of the wind and spirits and how news from the ancestors is transmitted to those who can hear…

Here’s the link to  WIND SPEAKS WELL OF YOU.

To experience the immersive wind of Writing-On-Stone, put on HEADPHONES or earbuds for the 3D SOUND presentation. Let the sound sneak up on you and adjust the volume to find the ‘sweet spot’ for your ears.

writing on stone_4                                                                                                           CHAPTER TWO is brought to you by:

Helen Verbanz, Karna Mital, Ted Chamberlin, Karsten Heuer, Cleo Paskal, Brian Harris, Sue Kenney, John Beardsley, Lynn Thompson, John de Jardin.

Thanks for supporting my ‘art habit’!

EPISODE 1: Landscapes are inhabited even when they’re empty

INSIGHT TREKS is on the march (actually, the first episode debuted in February on Cafe Acousmatic, my new programme of electroacoustic music, sound art, and 3D binaural sound).

There will be six episodes dropped in between now and the beginning of the summer (possibly more, if radio and podcast listeners support the making of more aural adventures; 3D ‘locative media’ audio of the sonic architecture of ‘special places’ on the land — more on that in future postings).

You — yes, you! — will always get the first listen to each new instalment. Let’s begin with episode one presented in 3D AUDIONEW splash_INSIGHT TREKS

Put on headphones or earbuds.

Let the opening sound sneak up on you, and adjust the volume until it feels comfortable to your ears.

This is memory.

Terrifying bolts of lightning on a mountaintop and the ringing of church bells. What do the two events have in common?

Why would bell ringers in 19th century France think a thunderstorm was something they could play with?

And why is persistent sound — the long drone after a bell has been struck — so literally appealing?

This episode of INSIGHT TREKS  is brought to you by:

Donald Campbell, Brian Woodward, Rod O’Connor, Don Pugh, Gordon Freeman, Barbara Hartmann, David Whitley, Sarah Crummy, Gillian Pearlstone, Phaedon Sinus, Candas Jane Dorsey.

Thank you!

summer presentations + late fall release

Getting close to lift off!

Lots to tell since my last post — all of it good news for INSIGHT TREKS.

A generous Writers Grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts was instrumental in the creation of a ‘first draft’ (completed the first week of August); I also tested several ideas on how to present the materiel — demonstrations of key features of INSIGHT TREKS as ‘locative media’ (for instance, immersive 3D soundscapes derived from ‘special places’ — more on that in a moment).

Some of that content was presented as Sound Never Ages, a TEDx talk I gave to an enthusiastic crowd of 1,500 people at the Jubillee Auditorium in Calgary. When you watch the short twelve minute video, you’ll see some of the locations that will be in the final INSIGHT TREKS presentation.

In consort with the Edmonton Heritage Council, I created Edmonton Soundwalks “an innovative mobile app that combines archival audio with commentary to create vivid sound portraits of important landmarks”, a map of the cultural heart of the city. As a proof-of-concept, the 3D audio app (which you can download for Apple IOS and Google Android platforms at no charge) will give you a sense for what INSIGHT TREKS will sound like (use headphones or earbuds for the 3D immersive effect).

Reviewers in the Edmonton Journal  and Metro newspapers were quite keen on the free app for mobile phones and tablets.

Since my last posting, I’ve given several talks at conferences about INSIGHT TREKS;  I spoke about ‘special places’ as medicine; as a potent mnemonic device to transmit cultural memory over time; and that these extraordinary spots have personalities, as unique as you and me. At Toward A Science of Consciousness, a conference hosted by the University of Arizona at Tucson, I was interviewed for a new film featuring the ‘rock stars’ of consciousness research; among the notables you’ll see in this trailer are John Searle, Daniel Dennett, Deepak Chopra, Stuart Hameroff, Susan Blackmore — and me.

When should you expect to hear and see INSIGHT TREKS?  Mid-November at the earliest (and well before the holiday season kicks into high gear).

Neon-Audio Visual evite

Meantime: if you’re near the University of Calgary, consider joining me for this opening at the Kasian Gallery (in the Faculty of Enviromental Design). Please come and say hello!