How Moscow’s Tsar Bell found its voice — at Berkeley

We’re at UC Berkeley’s Campanile courtyard listening to sounds of an ancient bell that have never been heard before. It’s the 20-foot-tall, 200-ton Russian “Tsar Bell” — the largest bell in the world — in duet with the campus’s carillon.

But the bell isn’t actually here. It’s at the Moscow Kremlin. A UC Berkeley team, along with researchers at Stanford and the University of Michigan, worked together to digitally create the sound they believed the bell would make.

Tsar Bell

The Russian “Tsar Bell” is 20 feet tall and weighs 200 tons. (Flickr photo by eimoberg)

Greg Niemeyer, part of the Tsar Bell team, is an associate professor for new media in the art practice department at Berkeley and director of the Berkeley Center for New Media. He recounts the story of how this massive Tsar Bell came to be.

“In Imperial Russia, tsars got into making larger and larger bells as a form of one-upmanship. At some point, they started failing. That was around the time of Peter the Great. They started falling out of the towers. Like you would obviously think as a tsar, if it fails, you just make it bigger. Clearly, it’s going to be better that way.”

Tsar Bell

In 1737, a fire broke out at the Kremlin, where the Tsar Bell was cooling after being cast. Guards threw cold water on the bell to put out the fire, causing several cracks and a huge slab to break off. (Flickr photo by Rob)

They made a 100-ton bell and that failed. Instead of cutting their losses, they decided to construct an even bigger 200-ton bell made of bronze. But in 1737, when the bell was finally cast and raised above the pit to cool, a fire broke out at the Kremlin, cracking the bell before it ever had a chance to ring. It fell back into the pit, where it stayed for nearly a century.

So now, hundreds of years later, the bell’s voice is finally being heard.

Niemeyer says bells were especially important to Russian culture in the pre-industrial period.

“There were no loud sounds at the time. No amplified music. What they wanted to do is bring everyone together from far away.”

Bells were used to signal that something important was happening. Whether it was telling people to come together in a religious service or warning them of an enemy attack, a bell was a type of messenger that united people for a common purpose.

And because Russia was so expansive, bells had to be big to carry the sound across a large area of land to reach as many people as possible.

“The low sound really carries over the distance. You can hear that it’s a very polyphonic sound. It’s very rich and deep and you hear low sounds and high sounds and they change as the bell rings out in their intensity.”

To create the sound, the team calculated the thickness, shape, movement and materials used to make the bell and created a computational model that simulated the real thing.

Niemeyer says the bell symbolizes modern society’s need to unite and work together to solve collective problems, like climate change.

“It’s like many voices coming together. But still they say what they need to say. So it’s this point where freedom and togetherness merge.”

The 200-ton broken Tsar Bell is on display at the Kremlin for all to see. And now, finally, we can hear it, too.

To learn more about the Tsar Bell project, go to tsarbell.com.