New Nao musical bell design


  • Australian Bell p/l
  • CSIRO Lab 22
  • Billmans Foundry Castlemaine


Using digital design tools and additive-manufacturing processes I have invented an elliptical musical bell based on an ancient Chinese bell design. I played the Marquis Yi set of Nao bells at the Beijing Bell Museum in 1999 and have cast experimental models of elliptical bells since to properly tune the design’s sound. In late 2017 I undertook a Synapse residency at Lab 22 CSIRO where I 3D-printed sand-moulds for the Nao bell design using their Voxeljet VX1000 sand-printer. I cast a number of these prints in my studio early this year and I submit this bell design to the award.

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I co-invented the ‘harmonic bell‘ design (US Patented) and invented the ‘Difference-Tone’ Bell (which produces a psychoacoustic pitch an octave below the bell’s lowest frequency) for use in the Longnow Foundation’s 10,000-year Clock project now under-construction inside a mountain in Texas ( the invention of a new ‘Nao’ bell design, based on humanity’s first known musical bell, brings the elliptical bell into contemporary musical use. Possible only through digital design tools, this ancient bell artefact is discovered as a musical bell with a pitch clarity matching modern musical standards and revive the bell as a resource for contemporary musical composition.


I am invited to exhibit this new bell design at the Chengdu Museum in 2019 as an ‘AUSTRALIA-CHINA FRIENDSHIP BELL’ and believe it will excite great interest in China at the hearing its sonorous tone. I hope to be invited to create orchestral groups of this bell design. Ancient elliptical bells found in Korea and Japan also makes them potential markets for my design. Properly understood, this bell’s celebration of an ancient craft tradition through digital design protocols will brilliantly connect peoples and cultures across time and geography in shared creative musical play, surely at a welcome historical time.


The transformation from ancient cultural artefacts, locked away in museums across the world, into tuned musical bells accessible to those interested in new musical sounds is a significant invention. Few sound-recordings exist of the actual tomb-recovered ancient elliptical bells (too precious to risk striking), while replicas at the Beijing Bell Museum (“The Imperial Bells”) are not properly tuned instruments. The most recent digital design tools have allowed the discovery of a profile that, whist not a copy of the original, nevertheless let’s flower the musical potential of an elliptical bell design in modern musical tune, ready for contemporary musical use.


Nearly 20 years of experimental design and casting using digital tools has accelerated the control of the bell’s sound through a long sequence of slight changes in geometry. Access to CSIRO’s sophisticated 3D sand-printer has finally brought the new ‘Nao’ elliptical bell design into contemporary musical tune. This large step in bell design pays homage to the first known musical bells from the Shang dynasty by re-imagining the bell with contemporary musical tunings (within itself as well as for its fundamental pitch). Significant product Innovation can herald important contextual shifts and this invention resonates just so in our geopolitical context.


Designing with the CSIRO’S 3D printing processes at such high levels of accuracy underpins this invention. The next iteration is to direct-metal, laser-3D print the new ‘Nao’ bell. The excitement of this bell design for me is that the next design iterations are so clearly in view. That this musical bell invention can help bridge cultures and connect peoples in an age when this is so important is a feature of its invention. New orchestral and compositional arrangements for musical performances around the world, based on this original bell design, comforts my picture of a possible future of cultural exchange.

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