The Silent Sounds of Notre-Dame’s Bells

Courtesy of Bill Fontana

Bill Fontana’s latest project, Silent Echoes Notre-Dame, is a contemporary sound installation in Notre-Dame Cathedral’s bell towers. The soundscape records the sounds that Notre-Dame’s bells emit in response to the environment around them. 

Fontana is a composer and media artist known internationally for his pioneering experiments in sound. His works create live listening networks that collect information from sources as diverse as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the Millennium Bridge in London, the beaches of Normandy, fog horns in San Francisco, old growth forests, hydroelectric turbines and now, Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Placing accelerometers, or vibration sensors, on Notre-Dame’s ten monumental bells, Fontana captures their harmonic echoes, never-before-heard sounds of the bells that constantly ring in secret.

He began the project in 2021, first installing an accelerometer on Emmanuel, the bell with the lowest pitch, ringing in F sharp. Also known as the “bourdon”, Emmanuel is the only bell to survive the French Revolution – the others were melted down to create cannon balls. 

Hear Emmanuel’s silent echoes!

Courtesy of Bill Fontana

The French Ministry of Culture granted Fontana access to the bells for this project, aided by Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris. The Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Ircam) is another important collaborator. 

Fontana now has accelerometers installed on all ten bells. He records the vibrations each bell emits at different harmonic pitches and mixes them together for a landscape of sound produced by the bells due to the environment around Notre-Dame Cathedral.

In addition to recordings, Fontana will livestream the audio of Notre-Dame’s bells for the public. Starting June 7, 2022, he will exhibit the audio at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The soundscape is also scheduled to come to the Albertine at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York City on June 25 and 26, 2022. In the future, Fontana hopes to exhibit the piece at museums around the world.

Fontana presented his project and recordings of the bells at a virtual event exclusively for 1163 Society members at the Builder level and above, on April 21, 2022. Join today and receive invitations to special events like this one!

Notre-Dame Cathedral’s Bells Spared from Fire

The bells housed in Notre-Dame Cathedral’s north and south towers survived the 2019 fire. While the north tower sustained some fire damage, firefighters managed to stop the blaze before it engulfed Notre-Dame’s towers and the bells.

These photos, taken shortly after the fire was extinguished, show the damage to the north tower.

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Courtesy of Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris

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Courtesy of Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris

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Courtesy of Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris

As the cathedral’s reconstruction efforts continue, eight of the bells will be lowered during the restoration of the north tower’s belfry.


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