Today’s Youth Climate Change Strike has captured the attention of the world, as well it should! My support goes out to them for real transformation at the national and global level to mitigate the environmental catastrophe awaiting us. And I’m pleased that faith communities from Cape Cod in Massachusetts will ring out their support of the strike. At 11 a.m. this morning, twelve faith communities will ring their bells.
Perhaps, in ringing for this event, the bells serve more as an alarm. In medieval Europe, that’s certainly one of their functions—to alarm the populace of an invading army or fire. Ringing bells for today’s event resonates with Greta Thunberg’s urging to “panic like the house is on fire.” And in Colorado, another bell ringer has been ringing a bell outside the state capitol to raise the alarm on climate change. Mary Beth Downing has been doing this the 11th hour or the 11th day of every month since last December.
Just another instance in
which bells are connected to our history and made relevant today.
The fourth main value of bells I perceive is their connection to histories. The first history I mean is the particular history of Western Europe. Today we are familiar with one main use of tower bells that dates to the middle ages—to signal to faithful Christians. For example, tower bells would signal when to pray the Angelus, when to come to church for Mass, and when the bread was transubstantiating into the host. Church bells frequently still signal the beginning of a church service. Bells in Western Europe during the middle ages were also critical signalers for secular affairs, which is perhaps lesser known today. They would sound the alarm of advancing armies or fire and announce the opening of markets or nightly curfew. The sound of bells regulated the workings of a city from dawn to dusk. Bells were upheld as symbols in another crucial history in the USA—the fight for freedom stretching from abolitionism to the civil rights movement. Abolitionists used the Liberty Bell as a symbol for their movement to free slaves. A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. described bells ringing for freedom in his civil rights speeches.
Bells remind us of these histories, and in doing so, remind us in turn of their values. Today, I think tower bells in North America are primarily associated with churches and are heard as messengers of the faith. The future of bells here, I think, lie in their power to reclaim their association to more secular values. While we no longer need bells to regulate our day, the sound of bells can serve as advocates for community values—collaboration, orderliness, and promoting the common welfare—and our American value of freedom.
I have already touched on the third value of bells for us today—as public sound art. The sounds of tower bells are the aural equivalent to the visual arts on display in public. As public visual arts provide an aesthetic experience for the entire community, so the same goes for the sounds, and in particular the music, of bells. The shared aesthetic experience can serve as a touchstone for the community.
The sounds of bells can define the communal boundaries, just like streets or other landmarks serve as visual, physical boundaries for a neighborhood. Chicago itself has a wonderful example of this—it is said that if you can hear the bells of St. Michael, then you are in the neighborhood of Old Town. The bells figure prominently in the community’s conception of itself.
There is a pronounced drawback with bell ringing regularly floating out over a community. That is, some listeners won’t appreciate them and will rally to stop them. Of course, the same fate can happen to public art perceived as an eyesore. That is the trick with tower bells today, especially with the waning influence of churches—negotiating the use of bells so as to fit within the community.
R. Murray Schafer (no relation) coined the term soundmark, meaning a sound unique to an area, analogous to a landmark. Taking it a step further, Schafer argued that soundmarks should be preserved, since they define the acoustics of the surrounding community. And I agree! Tower bells fit this description. Bells are not so ubiquitous (at least in the US) as to be ordinary. Furthermore, if you listen carefully, you can hear the timbral and tonal differences in sets of bells, which lend themselves to providing a unique aural stamp on a location.
When community members or frequent visitors hear bells from a particular location, they begin to associate that place with that sound. The bell sound helps ground us in that particular place, and perhaps even a particular time. How many people associate the sound of bells with their church or Sunday morning? Or the same sound with their college campus and carefree student days? (That second association is potent—I wrote a dissertation exploring it.)
The pleasant sound of bells wafting through the air can provide a brief mental escape for listeners—passersby may hear a favorite song played on the carillon and think back to a fond memory—but at the same time the sound reminds them of their current particular place and time at that moment. A bit of a paradox, but I think the escape/grounding dichotomy is not mutually exclusive; I think both can operate together at some level
For the next few days, I’ll post on the most important reasons for bells in our current time. I look forward to your responses in the comments!
One reason I think tower bells are important today is the occasion they provide for serendipitous beauty. A passerby is walking along, minding her own business, when she suddenly hears a bell (or two, or three, or many) and recognizes it as a beautiful sound—perhaps even as music. It is an unexpected moment of beauty in her day. So many of our aesthetic experiences are curated to us as a discreet entities; I find it endearing to still have artistry interwoven with our daily life. These experiences can also trigger awe and its accompanying effects.
In this respect, tower bells function similarly to public art works. Sculptures, murals, and other outdoor visual arts are meant to provide an aesthetic experience for the passers-by in a public setting. Tower bells are the aural analogue. And how many other aural analogues can you think of? Perhaps music piped onto the sidewalk outside of stores? There are not too many instances of pleasant sounds, let alone music, being performed in public for the enjoyment of an incidental audience.
I personally love the serendipitous moment of beauty that catches me unawares. That’s the stuff I live for! And that will bring me to my next post on the second reason tower bells are important—their function as a soundmark.