Although the telephone, the burglar alarm, and the alarm clock are predicated on the Industrial Revolution, bells have been distracting our attention from the ordinary continuum of our lives for millennia. With the exception of Islam, every major religion uses bells in connection with worship, whether to call the faithful to prayer (the evening Angelus), at the elevation of the consecrated bread and wine during mass, or in celebratory peals as the newlyweds leave the church in a hail of mixed birdseed (formerly rice, but then someone figured out that it swelled up inside birds who ate it and killed them. Millet is recommended instead.)

Belling the cat refers to putting a collar on Kitty on which is hung a crotal; this type of bell is a dapped metal sphere with a slit in it and a pebble inside, and comes in a variety of sizes, the larger ones being used for sleighbells. Cowbells, on the other hand, are usually fabricated from sheet metal that is welded or brazed into a tapered rectangular solid open at the bottom with a clapper suspended inside. The semiotic function of all these would seem to be “Here comes an animal [so get out of the way].” The cowbell found a second career in the trap set of dance-band percussionists, not infrequently for humorous effect (compare the kettledrum glissando. Both featured prominently in the ragtime signature music for the Ernie Kovacs TV shows.)

We have all been thoroughly conditioned to respond to bells. From a church bell rung to signal the canonical hours and summoning worshipers to services, to the chime that marks the more finely calibrated time of a public clock (the word clock originally meant ‘bell,’ and is cognate with the glocken- of glockenspiel, a direct steal from German meaning ‘bell-play.)’ A homely example is the rural Swedish vällingklocka (‘gruel-bell’), a feature of every substantial farm from the early 1800s on whose sound was imitated “in a rich folklore of rhymes and ditties,” according to Jonas Frykman and Orvar Löfgren’s Culture Builders (Rutgers: 1987), whose “message was often a social protest about hard working conditions and bad food, ‘blue gruel and sour herring.'”

Of course, it is not only people whose behavior can be regulated and conditioned with the bell as stimulus, as the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov famously demonstrated with his salivating dogs. Still, to a far greater extent than our four-legged friends, we are suckers for the semiotics of sound, with a rich lore of poetry and song to show it. Poe’s “The Bells” is a triptych of our sociological associations with bells of three different metals; rounds such as “Great Tom is Cast” and “Maudit Sois-Tu, Carilloneur” play on the inescapable presence of local towers populated by bells and their ringers; and Dorothy Sayers built what is arguably her best murder mystery (The Nine Tailors) around a trope of change-ringing, set in a rural church in England’s fen country between the wars.

Art nicely illustrates life in Christina Kubisch’s Clocktower Project at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams in the old Sprague Electric Company factory building, whose two bells were once a pervasive feature of the town’s soundscape. By digitally recording the sounds the bells make when played with a variety of tools from hammers and brushes to her bare hands, and then coupling the tonal data-base to solar sensors mounted on the tower, Kubich works with a sound spectrum that varies according to the ambient natural light and functions as the input to an aleatory program that generates short “compositions” which are played through speakers on the tower throughout the day.

The striking of a bell in a regular rhythm exemplifies the parceling up of time even as it signifies it. A sundial creeps; water in a clepsydra trickles and sand in an hourglass quietly whooshes, and clocks tick, all pretty inconspicuously, but a chime is by definition meant to get your attention, from the village clock to your great-grandfather’s “repeater” pocket watch (at least before its miniature fusee chain broke). The trope of the striking clock is conspicuous in a number of pieces from the classical music repertory, such as the “Dance of the Hours” from Amilcare Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda (immortalized in the Walt Disney film Fantasia‘s animated ballet-bouffe of alligators, ostriches, and hippos), the stroke of midnight that opens Camille Saint-Saëns’ tone poem Danse Macabre, and the morning bell that summons the demons back to hell at the end of the drunken peasant’s witch-sabbath dream in Modest Mussorgsky’s Sorochinsk Fair, a scene better known to Westerners in its orchestral arrangement (by Mussorgsky’s friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, of Scheherezade fame) as Night on Bald Mountain.

A didactic song from our earliest school days capitalized on the obvious fact that the larger bell the louder, and contrariwise. Its lyrics told of a king who, on hearing the bells at his coronation, engaged the smallest, not the largest, to play at his wedding because he “got a headache from the bong, bong, bong/But he loved the little bell that just went ding.” The analogy with loud vs. soft-spoken children seemed self-evident at the time: the former may be denied the gratification of their wishes by the big people that the quiet ones get. But as this runs contrary to most children’s experience (which runs instead to the proverb about squeaky wheels), it is perhaps no wonder that our teachers decided not to press the point through tiresome exegesis, but merely allowed the song to adhere to our memory like a cockleburr, where it has remained ever since.

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