Christians once ascribed powerful properties to bells—the power to drive away demons, for example, and still today some Christians believe they embody the voice of God. Before Christians, the members of ancient civilizations ascribed magico-sacral properties to bells too. Why were bells thought to hold so much sacred power? I never thought about this too much until my dissertation advisor and friend Phil Ford posed the question to me. With a little digging, I found the answer—it’s all about the unique property of bronze.
The peoples of ancient civilizations recognized the ability of bronze to resonate a very long time, much longer than other metals—or any other material. When it was struck, it was loud and the sound lasted for minutes, rather than just a momentary “plunk.” Ah ha! Bronze had a voice that could really carry. This does seem magical, right? It would seem easy to ascribe magical properties to such a material and also fashion objects, bells, to take advantage of this quality.
Luc Rombouts in Singing Bronze explains further. “When Horace ascribed eternal value to his own poetry, he called it aere perennius, more lasting than bronze.” Bronze was the one to beat, the metal producing the longest lasting sound.
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