The Ancient Modern

The Bell Park /  Joshua Alan Sturgill

So, we’re calling it The Bell Park, because we couldn’t find any signs and the few people we tried to ask about it didn’t speak English. So for anyone reading this, the Park is somewhere between Osterberg and Havelberg, right along one of the tributaries of the Elb. It isn’t exactly in a town, so we can’t give better directions than that.

We were only there for a day, so we got as many notes as we could while the rains kept the level of the river high enough to ring all the bells. We wasted time not realizing the significance of what we were hearing, which I’m sure is pretty common if people are only passing through, or if they’re not interested in music theory.

If you’ve been there, you’ll recognize this description: a low spillway spanning the whole river with a long kinetic sculpture built all across the top. The two-part construction of the sculpture is the point of interest. First, there is a network of paddled wheels that hang down into the river—all painted a deep red-orange that reminded us of the color of the Golden Gate Bridge. The wheels turn with the force of the river pouring over the spillway, and as they rotate, they lift long hammers up into the second part of the sculpture. The second, top part is made of what looks like 43 repurposed acetylene (actually, the whole sculpture looks like it may have been sourced from recycled material).

The tanks have been cut at the bottom, making them into long, narrow bells, each painted a slightly different shade dark blue which remarkably mimics the late Autumn sky here. The bells are different lengths and different diameters, so at a glance, they don’t look like bells at all, but like huge seed pods or just abstract repetitive shapes.

The first impression we had is that this was simply a strange modern art piece spanning a small river in an out-of-the-way bit of northwest Germany. If someone happened to drive by, they’d be struck by the sculpture’s contrasting colors and its cool, lumbering bravado. At a glance, it’s really interesting, but there’s so much civic post-industrial artwork around that it kind of blends in, too. Unless you go to the park and sit for a bit and watch it, you can’t see that it’s moving and you can’t hear that there is some kind of musical message being performed or relayed by the bells. (At least, that’s our theory!)

If you’re reading this, and you’ve seen what I’m talking about, but didn’t stop to hear it, I highly recommend going back to find it again. My friend and I were out for a touristy drive and were searching for a place to stop for lunch. We grabbed sandwiches and beer at a deli, and walked down to the benches by the river to get a better look at the sculpture. The sculpture itself didn’t interest us so much as we just wanted something to do for an hour while we ate. But after we got a closer look, we were mesmerized.

First, we heard the bells. Then we saw the wheels and gears moving very slowly. Then, we saw how the whole thing worked!

The wheels, like the bells, were all different sizes, and at different heights above the river. We were lucky, because that morning there had been a heavy rain, and the river was high enough to submerge and rotate all the wheels. We sat for a long time, and even as we watched, the level of the water dropped below a few of the wheels and some of the bells stopped ringing.

You may have gathered the basics. As the wheels turned, they slowly lifted long hammers up which struck the bells and then, tension released, dropped back down. But, though we counted 43 wheels in the water and 43 bells above the water, there were so many gears and cranks and levers that it was frustrating, but rather fun to figure out which wheels were attached to which hammers striking which bells. One wheel closest to us appeared to be striking a bell almost on the other side of the river.

As the wheels were different sizes, the hammers different lengths, and the bells different tones, the effect produced a completely strange, non-repeating melody hanging in the air over the river for the whole time we were there to listen. The bells were well-tuned and not very loud, so the harmonies and even the dissonances were pleasant to hear. We kept recognizing familiar combinations of notes from songs we knew, which would fade in and out of the melodious chaos.

But after listening for a while, my friend and I were curious to know more. We wanted to know what key was being played. We had a cell phone with a keyboard app, so we tried to pick out the notes. We wrote them down just for fun at first, but then we noticed a pattern. The 43 bells were not 43 different tones. Some were high and some low, so we knew we were listening to a definite set of notes over several octaves. E flat seemed to be the tonic. And we think it was a major scale. But there were notes that didn’t fit. My friend loves music history and suggested that the bells had actually been tuned to one of the ancient Greek modes—Dorian or Lydian perhaps. He swears he heard quarter tones. I laughed at first, but as we were trying to write down what we were listening to, we both came to think that something more than chance created the music.

The Greek modes (if we go with this theory) were all connected to certain moods and psychological effects, and were also thought to embody various kinds of ideals: divine justice, courage, frenzied excitement, nature or old age. My friend and I felt like these moods were present in the music as we listened. Honestly, we have no idea if this had been the sculptor’s intention. We may have been just two guys trying to make sense of our poorly scribbled key—and time—signatures, with only enough music education to over-think the whole thing.

But it really did feel, as we were sitting there with our food and beer, and as the sun came out, and as the river level dropped so that fewer and fewer bells were playing, that there was a purpose and a meaning—something beautiful and a little sad, something bright but a little dark. We felt that, if we had enough time, we might be able to decode it. It left such a deep impression on both of us, we’re still talking about it, and that’s why we’re posting this message in case anyone else has been there.

Does anyone know the history of the sculpture, or the identity of the sculptor, or if there is any significance to the tune the bells are playing? It’s all so quietly extraordinary. There must have been a lot of planning and creativity behind it—either a collaboration of artists, musicians and engineers, or maybe a single artist who carries genius. But the community and the local government must have been involved, too, because it looks like the dam and the park and the sculpture were all built at the same time, which would require a lot of planning.

If we ever get a chance, we’ve decided that we will go back to hear the bells again. And next time, we plan to bring a lot of staff paper and spend all day if we have to—writing down notes and comparing the melodic patterns we are certain have some meaningful intention!

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

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