Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Bells, The Bells

Hofburg interior

I know English church bell ringing is supposed to be something unique and special, with our complex traditions of change-ringing -- "Plain Bob Minor" is not Handsome Bob Minor's ugly cousin -- but I do love the sonorous cacophony of European bells. That thrice-daily ringing of the Angelus bells that marks off the progress of the day is how you know you've woken up in Europe. I'm told it drives some ex-pats crazy, but what can you say about the sort of Brit who wants to turn the whole world into a suburb of Birmingham?

Yesterday afternoon, I was hanging around the square beneath the imposing baroque facade of the Cathedral of St. James, where the Hat Men were gathering, when the bells went off at full blast, like the foghorn on some ecclesiastical ocean-liner leaving port. Suddenly, one became acutely aware that a "square" is actually a hollow cube, as the off-the-scale bass reverberations ran through one's body. Talk about Heavy Metal. It was like being inside the sound-box of God's guitar.

The only thing to do was to surrender to the sensation. Not a problem: I find the apparent randomness of the complex overlay of chimes, reverb, and over- and undertones as trance-inducing as gamelan music, or the aleatory beauties of cow-bells as a herd moves further up an alpine meadow. It was actually quite a thrill to feel such a direct, full-body connection with the something that causes humanity to raise standing stones and to build cathedrals.

The words "he's not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays" came into my mind, though, as the Hat Men dutifully filed out of the sunshine into the interior gloom.

Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum 


Sean Bentley said...

The daily morning alarm I have set on my phone sounds approximately like church bells, but oddly (or perhaps intentionally) gets more and more dissonant the longer you let it ring. Much more so than normal bells, which I find pleasing even when muddled by echo and delay from the surrounding buildings...

Mike C. said...


Yes, the pleasing complexity of the interaction of such sounds is, I suppose, what distinguishes acoustic music from pure electronica. It reminds me of watching the interference patterns in a sunlit body of moving water.

Mind, if you could get cathedral volume on your phone, repeats would be unnecessary...