In-Spired Music

Last Friday, I walked out of the downtown salon where I get my monthly haircut to the makings of a beautiful late winter afternoon. A few cars motored by on the street, yet nobody blared the horn or blasted the radio. Pedestrians kept their conversations to a low tone.  Songbirds made melody, willing the next season to an early debut.  Above all (literally), the nearby Methodist church bells rang out the hour of the day from the steeple, followed by a cheerful rendition of… “The First Noel”?

Found the culprit on Google Street View!

Last time I checked Christmas was well over two months ago.  Decorations are boxed and returned to the closet, lights are taken down, and Starbucks no longer offers my seasonal favorite Chestnut Praline Latte.  Yet here I was, a block from a downtown church in March, with happy steeple bells daring me to burst into Christmas song. 

Talk about a case of bats in the belfry.  You think I’d pause for such a strange moment.  Instead, I simply took in this carol of the bells with a smile, got behind the wheel, and went on my “merry” way.

So it is with church bells, especially the ones in steeples big enough to broadcast their melodies for miles around.  I find church bells comforting, so much so they can play anything they choose and I’ll be happy to listen.  Even a tune that sounds so three-months-ago.

The church I grew up in, on the far west side of Los Angeles, had a tall steeple with bells.  If you pulled up to the parking lot within ten minutes of the start of the service, the bells were making music.  More importantly, they were telling you (as they’ve done for centuries in older churches) it’s time to get yourself inside for worship, buddy.  I didn’t watch every episode of Little House on the Prarie but I watched enough to remember the steeple bells summoning the people of the small town to church.  Believe me, you didn’t want to be the last parishioner in Walnut Grove to pass through the sanctuary doors, earning a steely-eyed stare-down from Rev. Alden.

Here’s another memory from childhood church.  In “Sunday School” they taught us how to lace our fingers together, tips pointing down, palms face-to-face below, and thumbs side-by-side in front.

Church! Steeple! Doors! PEOPLE!

[Go ahead, I’ll wait while you make your little “church”.]

Then you’d look at your hands and say, “Here’s the church…” (now raise your two index fingers into a point), “Here’s the steeple…”, (now separate your thumbs a bit), “Open the doors…”, (now flip your hands over and wiggle your fingertips), “… and see all the people!”  That little ditty was clever enough to recollect all these years later, the moment I heard “The First Noel” from the downtown steeple.

At least in America, the appeal – ha – of steeple bells is probably because you don’t hear them all that often (unless your neighbor is a church).  Most modern churches can only afford the structure of the steeple, not the complicated mechanism of the bells within.  Just like train crossings, today’s “bells” are often an electronic equivalent, and so realistic you can’t tell the difference.  But you can with steeples.  If the church was built in the last fifty years, the steeple bells probably don’t ring true (ha again).

Charleston, South Carolina is known as the Holy City because you’ll find over four hundred churches in its rather compact downtown streets.  You can’t look in any direction in Charleston without seeing a steeple, and many of them are hundreds of years old.  That means bells; hundreds and hundreds of bells.  Take a walk in Charleston on a Sunday morning and you’ll be “treated” to the overlapping competition of steeple bells.  They’re summoning you to church, of course (but which one, exactly?)

The Sound of Music has a brief but charming steeple scene in the movie, just before or after Maria weds Captain von Trapp at Mondsee Abbey.  The camera points to the very top of a steeple, where the abbey bells are visible just below the cupola.  In the era of the story, steeple bells were rung by hand.  In this scene, the “ringer-boy” is shown holding on for dear life as he clings to a rope, the weight of the bell dragging him up and down like a pogo stick.  The moment always makes me laugh.

One of these days you’ll be walking down the streets of your own town and church bells will ring.  Stop for a second and give them a listen.  You’ll probably hear a melodic hymn.  You might even be gifted with an “unseasonal” Christmas carol.  Doesn’t really matter.  Those big, happy bells make beautiful music no matter the tune.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #9

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

We are closing in the piano’s insides now, as you can see by the almost complete black frame in both photos. Bag #9 – of 21 bags of pieces – contained a good chunk of the frame curves, including the graceful “S” you can see just beyond the right side of the (future) keyboard.

Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was just about the perfect length for today’s build, with a couple of hold-your-breath moments where pieces from previous builds snapped off and skittered away. They’re back where they belong now,

Running Build Time: 7.5 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G-Minor. Leftover pieces: 2 (tiny unnecessary extras for the frame).

Conductor’s Note: We have a hinged trap door built into the frame now, for access to the battery pack and on/off switch.  When it’s closed, the frame is seamless and you’d never know the door was there.  They have clever people at Lego.

Personal Space

We’re in the midst of Holy Week (for us Christians), which for some means spending more than the usual amount of time in church. Starting with this past Sunday, most Christian denominations conduct a total of five church services unique to this week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Our Methodist church here in Colorado devotes an hour to each of these services (short by Catholic standards); some during the day, others at night. No matter how you slice it, Holy Week means a lot of time in the sanctuary.

The church sanctuary wasn’t always a welcoming place.  Growing up in Los Angeles, my family and I belonged to a formal Methodist church, with a sanctuary I can only describe as intimidating (at least from a kid’s point of view).  You entered the building from the back, where the doorway greeters beckoned you to a narrow narthex.  So far, so good.  But the imposing sanctuary lay just beyond, through a wall of soundproof windows and closed doors, with stern-faced ushers protecting its every entrance.  The pews were hardwood and upright with thin cushions, thirty deep on either side of the main aisle, marching in perfect unison towards the steps of an even-more-intimidating white marble altar.  The booming organ drowned out any conversation (which was always at a whisper anyway), and the soaring structure of the ceiling made a kid wonder when it would all come a tumblin’ down like Jericho’s walls.

The congregation of worshipers was a lot of “old folks”; the kind of people who thought kids belonged in “Sunday School” instead of the sanctuary (that is, neither seen nor heard).  Hence as teenagers, my friends and I sat up in the balcony (at the back of the space, kind of like the last seat on the bus).  You couldn’t always hear the pastor, but at least we didn’t feel the eyes of the disapproving adults down below watching our every move.  From our vantage point they were just a bunch of suits and dresses, topped by a whole lot of gray hair.

“Sanctuary” took on new meanings as I grew older.  The San Diego Wild Animal Park (now the “Safari Park”) opened its gates in the 1970’s and put a completely new spin on the concept of a zoo.  Animals lived in wide open spaces instead of enclosures; broad, beautiful environments designed to mimic their natural habitats.  Instead of pressing noses against cages or glass, visitors saw the animals from a distance, confined to the seats of a quiet tram circling the park.  If I ever come back as a member of an endangered species (like the northern white rhino I mentioned last week), put me in the San Diego Safari Park.  That’s what I call an animal sanctuary.

Also in the ’70’s, Hollywood produced “Logan’s Run”.  The movie depicted a utopian society of the future, offering a wealth of pleasures and resources and good living… at least until you turn thirty.  At thirty you reported to the “Carousel”, where you were assured a place in “Sanctuary” – the supposedly better hereafter.  Logan and his friends decide to find Sanctuary before they turn thirty, and that’s where the curtain of the ugly truth is drawn back.  I can still hear Logan fighting the controlling supercomputer as he moans “THERE IS NO SANCTUARY!”  Logan’s world was seductive for sure, but it was the mystery of sanctuary that had me watching to the end.

Recently, sanctuary has taken on more puzzling associations.  In the 1980’s, American thrash metal produced the band Sanctuary (but nothing in my research explains the name).  Sanctuary Clothing is a line described as “…capturing the Los Angeles lifestyle… vintage styling with a handcrafted focus on detail…”  Again, nothing about the name.  The SyFy Channel’s Sanctuary ran for four seasons and explored gene therapy and cloning, and the “strange and sometimes terrifying beings” that emerged within the human population.  Finally, today’s sanctuary cities appear to be anything but, as the political feud between the Fed and the state overshadows any sense of actual security.

My definition of sanctuary will always be that primary space for worship in a church; or to put it in broader terms, “a place of refuge or safety”.  Whether that’s somewhere inside, worshiping in the pews as I’ll do tonight; or somewhere outside; say, walking on a quiet path in the forest, it’s more about a feeling than a location.  Sanctuary is all about personal space.

Field of Flowers

In the heart of timeless Rome, not far from the Pantheon and the Coliseum and the Vatican City, lies a field of flowers.  The Italians call it the Campo de’ Fiori (literally, “field of flowers”) and it is a welcome retreat from the bustling metropolis that surrounds it.  The Campo is open and happy and bright; a sanctuary nestled within a vast maze of winding streets and crowded buildings.

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You can see the Campo in the photo above: the rectangular area with all the white tents.  Admittedly the Campo is not really a field, but rather a piazza (a public square).  But the place abounds with flower-vendors.  And the square hosts a daily food market, bars and restaurants, and a bath-like fountain to keep all those cut flowers fresh.

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The Campo has a special place in my heart, because in 1982-1983 I spent nine months in Rome, studying architecture.  The Hotel Lunetta (also in the map photo at the upper right) was our “dorm”, and the streets of the city our “campus”.  The Campo was our “quad”.  It was where we played Frisbee (while the Italians played soccer alongside us).  It was where we had our laundry done or grabbed a snack or shopped for conveniences.  But mostly it was just a cozy place to hang out after classes.

The Campo is one of Rome’s smaller piazzas.  To contrast, here’s a photo of nearby Piazza San Pietro, the vast open space in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican City:

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The Campo has an interesting history that dates back to the Middle Ages (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campo_de’_Fiori).  It really was a field to begin with, until a Cardinal had it paved over in the fifteenth century.  Many of the buildings that surround the open space are the originals from hundreds of years ago.  My wife Brigid, an equestrian, would enjoy the fact that a) the one church on the Campo is for Santa Brigida (a Swedish saint), and b) the square was once the site of a twice-weekly horse market.

Several streets that lead to the Campo are named for the trades that occupied the area all those years ago.  Via della Corda – approaching from the southwest – means “Street of the Rope-makers”.  Via dei Cappellari – approaching from the northwest – means “Street of the Hat-makers”.

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The Campo also boasts a not-so-nice aspect.  In the seventeenth century the square was used for public executions, particularly for those at odds with the Church.  Almost in kind, the Campo of recent years has become a gathering place for drunken tourists, soccer enthusiasts, and overzealous youth, earning the distinction of “one of the most dangerous places in Rome at night”.  What a shame.  Perhaps the Campo should remain a keepsake memory for me instead of a place to revisit – my Campo – an unspoiled sanctuary more akin to a field of flowers.

Photos courtesy of Google Maps: https://www.google.com/maps)