22.02.1992

By GAYLE K. TURK

Stop Those @!&# Bells

EVERY SUNDAY at one o’clock, a great injustice rings out through the Harvard community. From a prominent bell tower on campus come the clangs and bangs of inharmonious bells, polluting the air from the River to the Yard.

While respecting Harvard traditions and admiring the tones of properly tuned bells, this University cannot continue such artistic distortions as those which echo through the campus every week. Put simply: Don’t ring the Lowell House bells.

Though some may question the importance of this issue, its significance extends far beyond a simple plea to let the old bells rest. Lowell House residents, awakened by the cacophonous bells on a Sunday following a Saturday night of revelry, might make such a request based on a purely pragmatic appeal. The bells are seriously flawed, for reasons beyond their intonation.

FIRST, A BIT of bell history. The Lowell House bells were a gift from a former U.S. ambassador to the USSR when the house was built in 1930. They originally hung in the Donailov Monastery in Russia and were slated to be melted down into scrap metal before being saved by the philanthropic ambassador.

From the start, the Harvard career of these bells has been marked by tragedy. President A. Lawrence Lowell hired a Soviet to install and then tune the bells, unaware that they could not be tuned. The poor bell-tuner, thrust into Cambridge without knowing a bit of English, started to file notches into the bell rims, much to Lowell’s chagrin. (He promptly had the man fired for defacing them.)

So Lowell summoned the help of other, more trustworthy bell experts when it was discovered that one of the bells was not a member of the original set. Because one bell would forever be inharmonious, all efforts for tuning would prove futile. (The Soviet tuner may not have been so bad after all.)

President Lowell shipped the errant bell across the river to the B-School and contented himself with an incomplete set. Future attempts at tuning never succeeded.

It’s plain from their history that these are not bells, as bells were intended. The problem is not with the diligent carillonneur who plays these bells every weekend, for it is beyond the scope of this argument--and the capacities of this writer--to judge one carillonneur against another.

Still, no one can do a proper job if the equipment is so intrinsically flawed. Even the Mozart of bell ringers couldn’t make this orchestra sound decent--the instruments are permanently out of tune and the concertmaster is forever absent.

Certainly, those of Russian origin may feel it is culturally insensitive to silence these treasures from the Donailov Monastery. Others may insist that such an act means discarding the Eastern six-note scale in favor of the Western eight-tone scale.

But to stop ringing the Lowell House bells would not stifle Russian or Eastern cultural influences on campus. It may even increase student appreciation for the music of foreign cultures. An injustice is being done to what Russian bell carillons should sound like by letting this incomplete, out-of-tune set of bells represent this musical genre. Understanding of this art form could be greatly enhanced if students were allowed to hear it in a form uncorrupted by discordant bells.

SOME MIGHT shout censorship. But would the elimination of the bell-ringing be an instance of a community rising up against art, as North Carolina Sen. Jesse A. Helms rises up against nearly everything? Some may wonder: What will be targeted next, the mural in Leverett House dining hall?

Still, while art should be experimental and exploratory, it should never be intrusive. It shouldn’t knock you over the head. The sound waves emanating from these hopeless bells pierce the air. They do not discriminate in choosing the audience for their terrible aria.

It is one thing to let the Mapplethorpes of the world do as they please, but quite another to allow the community to paint billboards advertising their artwork in public space. A Sunday afternoon free of these distorted bell sounds is one privilege the Harvard community deserves.

No, this is not the end of a cherished tradition. It is simply the elimination of an unnecessary disservice to these incomplete and out-of-tune bells. President Lowell tried and tried to get his bells right, but never quite succeeded.

Why should Harvard remind itself weekly of this failure? Lowell House tradition would be better served by Sunday afternoon silence. Not cacophony.

Source: The Harvard Crimson Online

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