Friday, June 5, 2009

Bong Bong Bong Bong Bong Bong Bong

Hah! Now I’m virtually assured that people Googling on marijuana paraphernalia (“bongs”) will locate my site and be sorely disappointed to find that this post’s subject is . . . church music. But I’m ready for the annoyed comments. In fact, I think it will be funny.

But let me back up a bit. This is a very bongy town. And by that, I mean ding-dongy: There’s always a bell ringing someplace. From our house we can hear bells from the Cole County Courthouse, St. Peter Catholic Church, and Central United Church of Christ. And then there are the dingers of the Presbyterians, which are not, strictly speaking, bells but a carillon system that plays out of loudspeakers.

Let me back up a little bit more. (Sorry this is so disorganized. Call up some editor and complain.) See, not long after Grandma passed away, I found myself sitting alone in the backyard of her house (our house now), looking at her flowerbeds, hearing the birds chirp, and feeling, quite sharply, the passage of time.

And then the bells rang. It was St. Peter’s. They must have some really old bells—yeah, real bells—and they always do the “Westminster Chimes” melody, which uses four pitches: a first (tonic), a second, a third, and a fifth. The fifth is the lowest tone. You know this tune—it’s the same thing Big Ben uses in London.

And I started thinking about how long those bells must have chimed in this town. I reflected on how my grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides heard those and other bells and regulated their lives by the chimes.

Bells ringing: time to get up.
Bells ringing: time to be at work.
Bells ringing: time to break for lunch.
Bells ringing: time to knock off for the day and get some dinner.

Such bells served an important public service. I sat there on the bench and dialed back to a time I never knew, a time when there weren’t three clocks in every room, before you had a cell phone, a wrist watch, and a clock on the dashboard, all telling you the time.

A time when a pocket watch was a piece of fine jewelry, each adult allotted maybe one, and a clock on the mantel a valuable heirloom. Not everyone had watches, and these clock towers kept the whole town regulated.

It was an interesting thing, to listen to the bells with that perspective.

But here is something funny and quirky about the St. Peter’s bells: the low note is flat. Waaaay flat. Like almost a half step. And it sounds reeeeeaaalllly lame. And it should! A flatted fifth (diminished fifth, a.k.a. an augmented fourth) played against the tonic creates a huge dissonance (like a C and an F# played together).

It sounds so dissonant that early music theorists referred to this interval (a tritone—the span of three whole tones) as the “devil’s interval,” “the devil in music.”

So of course, I find myself chuckling when I hear that flat bell, and I think of how medieval (Catholic) composers and music theorists eschewed this “scary,” “evil,” and “diabolical” interval. There’s some debate about whether or not musicians were actually excommunicated for performing this interval.

I just think it’s funny when I hear that flat bell: “Bong, bong, bong, buuuung . . .” The Catholic devil’s tritone wafting over the heart of the city makes me think of how the overly religious types have moved on over the centuries to find their devils elsewhere, like in households where same-gender couples are living in “Til death do us part” committed relationships and wanting the same legal recognitions, rights, and responsibilities as those in heterosexual unions. And when they finally accept that as normal, like the flatted fifth, they’ll just move on to some other devil or scapegoat.

No comments: