Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Bells and repetition

Think long enough about musical repetition and sooner or later bells will work their way into the mix.  Bells are heard at significant times in our lives and mark the hours of our existence.  Whether in the form of wood or metal they have been a part of our aural landscape for thousands of years.  They range from a single tolling bell to carillons, from the old fashioned school hand bell to the great cathedral and Buddhist temple bells.  The sounds they produce are complex, and the science of tuning bells has been a long and difficult process.  They are a source of inspiration to many composers, ranging from the incidental programmatic touches in The Fountains of Rome to the complex organisation of Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco.  (Jonathan Harvey introduced this work on "Hear and Now" some years back, but I do not know if a transcript of the talk is available, I would be pleased to know if anybody has information on the matter).

We would expect references to bells to play a significant part when Debussy took the theme of the sunken cathedral in his 10th prelude.  I am not going to enter the argument about music and representation though it is fascinating, this blog is concerned with repetition. However I am tempted to refer to a short section from Music and language available here:

Every input to our senses is a stimulus, available for us to interpret as information, and from which we can derive further information. Our physical sensory receptors--our ears, eyes, etc.--can well be thought of as information "transducers" which convert external stimuli--changes in air pressure, light, etc.--into nerve impulses recognized by the brain. Scientists and philosophers have advanced many conceptual models of what the brain does with these nerve impulses to derive knowledge and meaning. Regardless of the mechanism by which our brain accomplishes it, it is clear that we generate (interpret, deduce, recall, or create) information ourselves, stimulated by external information.
For example, when we hear a lion's roar, our ear drum simply receives continuous changes in air pressure. The cochlea, so we are taught, responds to the frequencies and amplitudes of those changes and conveys those responses to the brain. Our brain, by means largely unknown to us (past experience, instinct, deduction, instruction in roar analysis?) evaluates those time-varying frequencies and amplitudes as a lion's roar. Our brain then derives further information about the actual source of the sound and its meaning. A person in one time or place might interpret the sound to mean "My life is in danger. I must run away from the sound source immediately as fast and as far as I can." A person in another time or place might look around calmly for the electronic recording device that produced the simulation of a lion's roar. A person who had never learned to associate that sound with any particular source--e.g., a person who had never heard a similar sound before--might attempt to compare it with other known sounds, or might even remain unconcerned as to what produced the sound.
When we hear a strange sound--thinking "What was that?"...we try to identify it....Occasionally we pay attention to the sound itself. Then it is more than a cue, and we are listening in another mode, music mode, regardless of the source of the sound.

To return to the matter at hand, Debussy’s treatment of La cath√©drale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) is fascinating from the aspect of recurrence, and one sheet of analytical notes cannot do justice to the degree of repetition.  There is an account of the music on Wikipedia which goes into some detail on the representation of the legend of Ys (if you want to consider the illustrative nature of the music).

Thinking about repetition bells under water may be a more common cultural theme than we think, Cantre’r Gwaelod is a Welsh ancient sunken kingdom and inspires artistic endeavors amongst my Celtic brothers.
Here is a little information, again from Wikipedia:

I hope the manuscript will provide the argument for repetition rather than explain each detail as text.  When I was making a study of using MIDI I made a version of this Prelude which I listened to with embarrassment before finishing this blog, I mention it only to note that the arrangement brought out a powerfully oriental character.  Yes of course there are pentatonic references in the music, but it goes further than that, and reminds me powerfully of sections of Ma mere l’Oye (the “Mother Goose” suite).