Friday, June 5, 2009

Bong Bong Bong Bong Bong Bong Bong Part 2

Oops, I really veered off the subject there, but I’m not sorry at all.

This here post is about the loudspeakers on top of Jefferson City’s First Presbyterian Church, uptown on the corner of Madison and McCarty. It’s a stately brick building, built in the late 1920s, and the congregation is one of Jeff City’s oldest (it dates back to the 1830s).

The Presbyterians have an electronic carillon system: Bell-like sounds that blast out of loudspeakers, based on preprogrammed digital renditions of “favorite” hymns.

Are these your favorite hymns? If not, too bad for you, because they play for about fifteen minutes three times a day: 8 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m. They play one, two, or three verses of four or five different hymns. They change the hymn selections every month or so—to keep the town from rioting, I suspect.

At times it seems endless; just when one hymn ends, and you think the ordeal is over, another one whirrs into gear.

Here’s where I have problems with it: they do songs that would never have been played on normal (manually operated) bells, because they’re hymn tunes (not traditional bell chime tunes) with chords and diatonic and even chromatic tones or accidentals, and the songs involve many notes and chords in succession. To play these on traditional bells, you’d need dozens of differently keyed bells (like a handbell choir—and don’t get me started on them). And perhaps worst, with the sustain of the chime notes, the various tones run together and create dissonance. To my ear, anyway.

Imagine if a piano player kept the sustain pedal depressed through a whole song: Tonal mush.

One of the things that makes the “Big Ben” tune work for bells is that it’s all basically one chord, so there’s little dissonance when the tones overlap. Only four bells (notes) are needed.

Plus, I think as you get farther away from the Presbyterians’ loudspeakers, the wind and distance take a toll on the sound quality (pun intended). So when that church first started broadcasting their hymns this way, I usually bristled when I heard the system launch into what I knew would be fifteen whole minutes of dissonant hometown holiness.

Okay: Now I’m going to turn it all around, though, and tell you that although I used to gripe about how the Presbyterians and their loud system are drowning out the “traditional” dingers of the Catholics . . . I’m starting to kinda like them.

(Does this mean I’m starting to fit in, here in Jefferson City? Gads.)

But here is what happened: Because I work at home and leave the windows open, because I go outside a lot, I’m finding that like people from a hundred years ago, I’m using those bells to regulate my day. I’m a freelancer; I quit wearing a watch a few months ago.

So I hear the bells and think, “Wow, it’s time for me to get out of bed.” I hear them at noon and trot downstairs to fix myself a sandwich. I hear them at four and start thinking about kicking back in a lawn chair with an O’Doull’s.

And sure, I know all those tunes—they’re standard hymns. And I find them getting stuck in my head. I find myself humming “Come Ye Thankful People Come” and “Faith of Our Fathers.” I don’t think it’s making me a holier person, but the measured tempos and step-by-step chord progressions seem somehow to mirror the emerging pattern of these freelance days, superimposing the idea of structure where I so badly need it.

And so I’m finding it a welcome companion these days.

Even if the sustain of the tones leads to weird dissonances. Even if the sound comes from loudspeakers instead of real bells. This is the twenty-first century, after all; some stuff is going to have to change in order to stay the same.

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