The last sunset of summer 2010 took place on Wednesday the 22nd September and I set out to record its farewell. The poetics of this moment brings with it a cinematic anticipation of a silent sun seen falling slowly beyond the horizon of vision: a glowing red demise accompanied by a requiem of birdsong. But of course the sky turned out to be overcast and the birdsong remarkably quiet. However, I did remember that the sunset would coincide with Wednesday night bell practice at Winchester cathedral. It was Peter White, the Winchester based BBC journalist and presenter, who brought this weekly sonic event to my attention. Although the peel of bells was a very familiar sound, I had never associated it with a specific time or day, nor recognised its function as a rehearsal rather than religious pronouncement or call to the faithful. As with many of the sounds that make up the soundscapes of our life, I had heard the bells ringing, but never really listened to them.
Following his wonderful Radio 4 series Blind Mans Beauty, I was very fortunate to meet up with Peter at his local pub and was interested to learn how sound was involved in marking out time and place in a sightless world. Amongst other sonic events, Peter mentioned his childhood memory of the evening peel of cathedral bells, a ‘sound mark’ that told him it was Wednesday and 8pm. The term ‘sound mark’ was first used by R. Murray Schafer, the founder of the soundscape movement. Derived from landmark, sound mark refers to sounds belonging to a specific community, or sounds that possess ‘qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community’ (R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape, 1977).
The sound of the Cathedral bells certainly has a distinct relationship within the community of its audition. Schafer describes the chime of church bells as ‘a centripetal sound; it attracts and unifies the community in a social sense, just as it draws man and God together.’ The sound of the bells: ‘acoustically [demarks] the civilisation of its parish from the wilderness beyond its earshot’ (ibid).
Church bells are also involved in the temporal space of a community, reciting a calendar of festivals, holy days, births, deaths and marriages. In the 14th century the church bell became associated with mechanical time announcing and sounding out the hours of the day. In addition to religious bells the secular sound of the curfew bell (which still rings at 8pm from Godbegot House in Winchester) rings out the day: a Cinderella like announcement, which heralds the end of sunlight and the arrival of night.
A bell’s sound describes and is itself described by the climate in which it rings.
During the Second World War, fear of communicating too much information about the climate or weather over London, resulted in the live broadcast of Big Ben being replaced by a recording. In Far from the Madding Crowd Thomas Hardy alludes to this dynamic relationship between sound and its environment in his description of church bells:
‘The notes flew forth…flapping and rebounding among walls, undulating against the scattered clouds, spreading through their interstices into unexplored miles of space.’
On this last evening of summer the sounds of bell practice ring the moors, a distant rehearsal whose volume waxed and waned with the direction of the breeze: a metallic air drifting in and out of audition, like a lullaby for the end of summer.
The centripetal sound of bells has a visual equivalent in the concentric circles formed when rain falls on the rivers surface. A few days before the last sunset of summer, I had been caught in a sudden shower as I walked around the moors. Taking refuge under a tree, I could hear the rain describing the space around me: amongst the constant static of drizzle the occasional close-up drop of sound falling through the leaves of the tree. By the banks of the river I could see the rain falling onto the surface of the water and the spreading pattern of circles, as water returned to water and energy was equally distributed. I wondered if I could hear the rain from beneath the river’s surface. Dropping my hydrophone deep into the river, I found the wet static of light drizzle, sounding like a distant radio transmission with occasional peaks of individual raindrops. When the shower had passed, the trees continued to drip sounds into the river. This dripping event contained droplets of varied size, the circles that formed reminiscent of the early film animations of Oskar Fischinger. For younger listeners perhaps, these patterns would resemble those awful swirling images, which supposedly visualise music on windows media player. I placed the hydrophone in the river beneath the tree and listened to the chaotic rhythm of water dripping, now accompanied by the slightest shush of the rivers current. The idea of water music has a long history: the indeterminate score for John Cage’s Water Music (1952) includes instructions for using the sounds of water: ‘pouring water from one cup to another, using whistles which only produce sounds when filled with water’ (Michel Nyman, Experimental Music, 1999). The artist Annea Lockwood began recording the sound of rivers in 1966, later founding the River Archive in an attempt to record the sounds of every river in the world. The academic and author Douglas Khan devotes a whole chapter of his book Noise Water Meat to dripping and the sound of water, which includes the following passage from Aldous Huxley’s Water Music (1920)
‘Drip drop, drip drap drop. So it goes on, this water melody for ever without an end. Inconclusive, inconsequent, formless, it is always on the point of deviating into sense and form. Every now and again you will hear a complete phrase of rounded melody. And then – drip drop, di-rep, di-rap – the old inconsequence sets in once more […] Perhaps for those who have ears to hear, this endless dribbling is as pregnant with thought and emotion, as significant as a piece of Bach. Drip-drop, di-rap, di-rep […] The music of drops is a symbol and type for the whole universe, it is for ever, as it were, asymptotic to sense infinitely close to insignificance but never touching it.’