Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1963
Art, Music, Books & Film

Music to a Knell

I live across from a church. Well, practically across from it; there’s an intervening low-lying building between us, but you can still see the entire dome of the church and its modest white cross from my veranda. I hear this is bad feng shui, something to do with the killing breath of negative energy associated with performing the ritual of the dead. Drawing this into your house, so the theory goes, can cause sickness and other yucky manifestations of yin such as cold limbs, listlessness and loose stools.

I haven’t yet figured out exactly how this dragon breath of bad energy gets into the house. I wonder if it just wafts in through the cracks and seams of the walls. It makes me think of the opalescent mist of insecticide that the town’s mosquito-control truck used to spray the neighborhood with. We kids would rush indoors, but there was no escaping its sickly-sweet smell.

How bad the feng shui seems to depend on the church itself, whether it has a spire (Orthodox churches usually don’t, and St. Basil’s is no exception) and how often weddings and baptisms (good) and funerals (not so good) are performed in the church. You would think at first that life being life, the ratio of weddings and funerals is a relatively fixed external constraint that wouldn’t vary much from church to church, but of course there are inner city churches like St. Basil’s with an aging and ever diminishing congregation and others, like my brother’s evangelical Catholic mega-church in upstate New York, the kind that has a flagstone-lined memorial path dedicated to the “memory” of aborted fetuses, where you need to book a wedding date months in advance. Truth is, I don’t know how often funeral services are actually conducted at St. Basil’s. I’ve lived here ten years and never saw one. Or heard one. Apparently no death knell is tolled for the deceased.

Friends ask me about the bells. Whether they bother me or if they wake me up on Sunday mornings. I tell them I’ve grown used to them and that I’m almost always up before the first round of bells are rung. Although I register the general mood of the bells—confident and joyful, plaintive or lugubrious—I don’t listen carefully enough to discern an algorithm in the permutations of tones I hear in the rounds of pealing. Usually I don’t pay much attention to them.

Except this past Friday, which was Good Friday. I spent the afternoon at home alone, as I would through much of the weekend, nearly all of my friends having abandoned the city for their summer home or the family’s country homestead or London or Warsaw or New York. I had decided not to take up Dieter’s invitation to spend Easter in Berlin, which, having since discovered that my ex is also now there, was probably a good decision. It’s bad enough thinking that he’s romping through my city; it feels as if he’s having sex with my best friend, only worse. Actually being in the city at the same time would be infinitely worse, like sitting in the living room while he’s in the upstairs bedroom doing it with said friend.

The bells tolled all afternoon. One doleful ring. Silence. Then again, another ring, then silence, and then again a single clang. The lament drew out for hours like some slow, never-ending funeral procession. But something about the insistent repetition of the bell’s tolling defused the very grief it sought to express. It was more benumbing than mournful, like being wrapped in a cold, wet shawl.

I’ve been listening this weekend to the extraordinary soundtrack of Scorcese’s ambitious but failed psychological mystery film Shutter Island. If you saw the movie, you will have noticed the music, which, like the set design and direction, was somehow too much, too intense, too deliberate, calling attention to itself rather than supporting the film. But there’s some amazing music on the soundtrack, and a good deal of it is the kind of contemporary serious music that you don’t often see on concert bills—John Cage, John Adams, Ligeti, Penderecki. Of course I know that experimental music, dissonance, atonality have snuck through the back door of movie-goers’ musical subconscious many times before, often but not only in suspense thrillers. Kubrick used Ligeti’s music freely: in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Eyes Wide Shut, and The Shining, the last featuring the same piece, Lontano, that’s heard in Shutter Island. And both The Shining and David Lynch’s Inland Empire feature music of Penderecki.

Some of the music is very dark. Like the opening piece, Ingram Marshall’s sepulchral Fog Tropes, a desolate soundscape built on an unvarying bass line inspired by the composer’s recordings of foghorns and overlaid with brass and voice. Marshall said of the piece, “to me it is just about fog, and being lost in the fog,” but of course it’s more than that; there’s something deeply menacing in the music. Even more ominous is Ligeti’s Lontano, which swells from a single wailing note to a great wall of shifting tone colors.

But the real find for me was Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, scored for timpani, celeste, choir, viola and bells. Yes, bells. I don’t know much about 20th century music, and even less about avant-garde composers of the 60s. I’ve been reading Alex Ross’s illuminating guide to the music, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which Nikolas gave me for my nameday, but I need to listen more. Feldman’s work, which I learned from Ross’s book was written on the occasion of Rothko’s suicide (the painter was a friend of Feldman’s) is riveting. There are moments of such mournful beauty in this work—the viola’s solo dirge, a haunting soprano melody, the choir singing a single attenuated chord which is punctuated by bells that have never sounded so melancholy.

Maybe it was the circumstances of this particular Easter weekend, the awkward melancholy of being more or less alone during a holiday, that predisposed me to listen to the music and to the bells differently than I would have at other times. It wasn’t especially creepy being alone. I wasn’t miserable. I took long walks and read a lot. I swam and rode my bike. I bought an armful of white fresias and cooked well but not extravagantly for myself, like Good Friday’s meal of spaghetti, farmhouse tomatoes, chilli and the sweetest and smallest of vongole. But it felt disorienting, like being adrift on a fog-enshrouded bay, and now I’m impatient for it to end.


Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1963


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