Sunday, June 05, 2011

Venice Journal, 10: Sounds

Venice, June 5, 2011—
WE WERE AWAKENED at six o'clock this morning by the bells in the church, just outside our window, striking the hour. At least I was awakened; I think the girls slept through. Thankfully the bells don't ring through the night: they tell midnight, then go to sleep themselves for six hours.

At six-thirty I barely noticed the single peal marking the half-hour, and fell back into my doze. But seven o'clock! On this Sunday morning, all holy hell broke loose, and the girls were as wide awake as I. The bell-tower's hardly a hundred feet from our bedroom, and I'd left the double-paned window ajar for the night; I hate sleeping in still, stale air.

This happened to us for the first time in 1974, on our first trip to Europe, when we booked a cheap hotel room in Maastricht right next to a big church. There the bells told the hours, and the half-hours, all through the night. Furthermore, they respected the maddening convention of telling each hour twice, at two minutes before, to give you warning, and on the hour, in case you'd counted wrong two minutes earlier. That was a rough night.

Here in Treppo Carnico there are three bells, pitched roughly a major second apart. The highest bell is the first to sound, and peals pretty regularly for quite a while. Then the lowest enters, going at a slightly different speed, while the other continues at its pace. Finally the middle bell comes in at yet another pace. It's fascinating to hear the overlapping cycles, to hear rhythms grow gradually more regular, then further apart: the individual pitches act like children who wander toward one another to form a trio, then apart, each at his own pace, to strike their own individualistic postures.

At the same time, of course, both within each bell and among the three of them various overtones become more and less prominent. The tonality suggested by the falling major third grows less certain as the shimmering overtones declare greater substance and interest. The shimmering becomes a buzzing sometimes; you're not quite sure those sounds are actually there, in the bells, or in the air around the bells, or in your ears. Maybe they're really only in your mind.

And the major third isn't really quite a major third. It's certainly not an equal-tempered major third; it's "out of tune", except that there isn't really any tune. And why should there be? The bells may well have been cast in different places, at different times, by completely different hands. They certainly sound as if they're composed of different alloys, cast to different specifications.

They're musical, no question about that; but the music they sound is theirs, not Bach's or Mozart's or Wagner's (God knows!) or Webern's. Xenakis's, maybe. It's clearly man-made, but the sound of this music has declared its independence from the conventions of music as most of us know it or think of it — that is, the tonal equal-tempered and rhymically rather unimaginative music of Western Europe from Palestrina, let's say, through today's rock, country-western, and concert music.

The bells continue to peal for seven or eight minutes; we try to drift back to sleep, knowing (or suspecting) they'll be at it again at eight o'clock. Then, remembering we have to be on the road at nine, we get up, dress, and go down to breakfast. Sure enough they begin again, hardly any quieter for the few feet we've added to our distance from them.

This time I record them with my iPhone, which tells me they play for seven minutes and forty seconds. At 8:38 they're at it again, a little quicker and more insistent; this time they only continue for a little over five minutes. Each of these little concerts is sonically, even musically interesting for a different reason: at first the physical sounds of the bells; then the interplay of the cycles; finally one's curiosity as to the history and intent of this custom.

In my usual town, Healdsburg, the Catholic Church replaced its bells quite a few years ago with some kind of pre-recorded bell sound. I'm pretty sure it's a recording; this was done too long ago for a synthesizer to have been installed. The sounds are played through loudspeakers, of course; they're installed up in the bell-tower and played at rather a muted volume. Still, they're really annoying. They don't have the physical substance of bells. The loudspeaker is the worst invention of the twentieth century, I think, even worse than the internal-combustion engine; the only twentieth-century invention I can think of quite as insidious and pernicious is the back-beat.

As the bells died away this morning they gave way to the sounds of birds. It's birds that first wake me every morning: here in Treppo, swifts, sparrows, and blackbirds; at our apartment in Venice, some kind of aquatic bird whose call is halfway between quack and gargle. Later in the day there's the everpresent sound of pigeons, whose slightly rhotic cooing has such an endearing quality you almost forgive the things being pigeons.

The other bird in Treppo to surprise and delight us with its sound was the cuckoo. Friulian cuckoos do not sing the falling third familiar from clocks and Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, nor do they often sing the falling fourth Mahler's more accurate ear observed. Friulian cuckoos, or at any rate those in the woods around Treppo, sing a falling major second, slightly wider than an equal-tempered major second but very close.

Perhaps because of the church bells I usually hear this as the third and second degree of a scale whose keynote is always left implied. I like this, of course, because a never-achieved implication promises continuity, even futurity. And the insistence of the cuckoo, which would be maddening if it were closer or a less interesting sound, contributes to this sense of guaranty, of endlessness.

In Australia, years ago, I encountered the bell-bird, who sings a single note, rather a resonant one, unvaryingly, frequently, insistently. The bell-bird is an egoist making its noise only to announce its presence, a presence otherwise completely unremarkable. The cuckoo is I think a poet and a Romantic, nostalgically calling over and over in the selfless hope that a resounding wood will somehow respond, contributing to an evocative universe of sound.

We heard our first cuckoo many years ago, in Norway, outside Bergen, on a walk to a stave church not far from Edvard Grieg's studio. Until then I never quite believed the birds were less than mythical, serving Swiss clockmakers and German composers with a pleasant fantasy. (No composer gets the bird quite as accurately, or to quite as poetic an effect, as Frederic Delius, in his On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.)

Since then we've heard them fairly often in The Netherlands, in forests in the eastern part of the country. But never until now have I heard them sing descending seconds; only fourths and, very occasionally, wide major thirds.
I like this Friulian version, and hope to hear it again — preferably, next time, with a recorder handy.

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