“since the notion of the cosmos was too great for men to grasp, the cathedral had to symbolize it in a manner such as the eye and the mind could compass” Willem Elders
The soundscapes of modern cities are dominated by ubiquitous sounds of car’s engines and, on a secondary level and on a variable degree, by human voices.
Thus, the sonic identity of a modern city is given by the phonetic and phonologic singularities of their inhabitant’s speech and by their specific sound marks. In Guimarães, a city heavily dominated by Christian culture, the bell is one of the few elements that can still override the background dominated by cars, since the conditions of the geographical region, characterized by their small mountains and hills, makes the sound propagate freely from the towers of churches and chapels across long distances.
One cannot ignore the great cultural importance of bells in Christian culture. Besides being a symbol of power and a visual mark of representation of transcendence and of an unattainable order, they are also used for secular social purposes, regulating social routines and signaling intervals of time. In modern cities and in the modern era, though, bells lost their predominance for different reasons, such as the massification of watches, the loss of cultural influence of religion, the introduction of automatic and electric bells and the increase of background noises. But, in a strictly musical point of view, this transition doesn’t mean a loss in the sonic complexity of a city soundscpape. Bells still maintain their spectral characteristics that have been improved through the centuries, and these features can now be analyzed according to a perspective in which the strong historical relationship of the bell with its social function can be exceeded by their strict musical qualities.
Several recent studies have pointed out the great spectral complexity of bells, something that has been artistically explored in various cultures. The fact that the fundamental note we perceive is not present in most of the bells (a psychoacoustic phenomenon called virtual pitch), the subtle tuning deviations of the main partials, the inharmonicity of the lower and higher partials or the production of more than one fundamental note (due to irregularities in the construction) charge the bells with a rich and mysterious sonority, in permanent mutation. There are several uncontrolled elements in the sound production, and these variants provide different interpretations through the ages. Nevertheless, they still appear to us as transversal symbolic connections to the lifestyles, to the spiritual dimension of culture and even to the history of music itself, being encompassed both by the mind and by the eye.
Composed and performed by Fritz Hauser, Jorge Queijo, Brendan Hemsworth, João Filipe, Gustavo Costa and Henrique Fernandes.
Curated by Benjamin Brejon, Ewen Chardronnet, Manuel João Neto, Jonathan Saldanha and Filipe Silva for Sonores | sound / space / signal at Guimarães European Culture Capital 2012.
Images by Mónica Baptista.