Thursday, March 13, 2008

Get Thee behind Me, Martellato

There are things I do because I think they're right and things I do because I think they're funny, and unfortunately the latter tend to outnumber the former. It's a pathology, really. I read church newsletters. I menace squirrels. I buy people wind-up sushi for their birthdays.

I attend handbell concerts.

I mean, what isn't funny about handbells? They're shiny, oddly-shaped, and of limited utility. They have loony, antic overtones, require earnest concentration to play, and are blessed with a repertoire of overwhelming depth and dreadfulness. Go, handbells go!

So it goes without saying that the moment I discovered that a Presbyterian handbell choir was giving a concert (free pizza reception to follow) at a church a half-mile from my house was the moment I cleared my calendar. Handbells!!! I scratched: three exclamation points. And when the glorious day arrived, I bundled up, put on my silliest winter hat, and set off into the tinkly blue yonder.

Only to receive cruel karmic punishment in the form of Serious Thoughts:

1) Handbells are a unique musical endeavor. Normally in musical groupings (choirs, orchestras, chamber ensembles), the sound is layered like a hero sandwich, each instrument pursuing its own line through time/space. Apart from hocketers, handbell players are the only musicians I can think of who actually dice music, splitting it not only horizontally into different chord tones, but making quick vertical cuts to the melody and harmony lines as well. Sure, keyboard players divide lines between different fingers, but what other musicians divide lines between different people?

(Does it make you listen more carefully than you would if you had your own bone of a line to drag off to your den? Does it humble you? Is it any fun?)

2) Art is messy. And art is messy not because artists can't find their rear ends in broad daylight, though this is true, but because, with art, you get fooled into thinking you're absorbing information in one modality when really you're absorbing it in two. Case in point, music and movement. The handbells drew my attention to the overlap because they're so physical, coaxing smooth, choreographed movements from their players. It looks like dancing. It is dancing.

This made me think about when I was young, and the first thing non-musicians would tell me when I played was that I was fun to watch. I've leached the movement out of myself over time, but it's dawned on me that the reason concerts are more vivid than recordings is that you do get to watch, in real time, music moving through a person's body. It can be electrifying: a rawer, less conscious descant to the sound. Music is, for all its abstractness, fundamentally of the body.

It's funny it took handbells to make me see it. Just not funny-ha-ha. Sigh.


Andrew said...

People tell me I'm fun to watch when I'm performing as well. It may be distracting, but I won't stop -- it doesn't feel natural to sing without moving to the music.

Usually when I'm singing, though -- very seldom got that response while I was playing handbells.

wombat said...

I like handbells. I also stole your topic of conversation. YOINK!

Allan Anderson said...

I read this just before going to bed. I dreamed that a friend of mine, who does taiko drumming, got tapped to fill in for a handbell performance. But then during rehearsals, she got asked to leave 'cause she just couldn't quite get the musical flow right.

Samantha said...

Oh, handbells. Grew up with 'em, played 'em, sometimes enjoyed 'em. Especially the big ones. I liked playing at the bottom of the table, with my dad, freaking people out by being that tiny girl swinging the big bells. If that doesn't say something about my personality, I don't know what does.