A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

SOUND: The bells of St. Martin’s Church, Harlem

Parishioners in Sunday hats trickled from the doors of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church onto the sidewalk of 122nd Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. As throbbing SUVs and wheezing tour buses idled at the stoplight, the air above rang with the tintinnabulation of one of only two carillons in New York City. When the tolling ceased, I glanced up at the ninety-foot bell tower and glimpsed a shadow darting beneath the bells: Michael Smith, the self-described “unofficial, unpaid Quasimodo of St. Martin’s.”

The carillon is the largest instrument known to mankind. Wires connect a “keyboard” of pedals and knobs to clappers on the bells. St. Martin's forty-two bronze bells, which were cast in 1949, comprise three and a half octaves. The smallest is the size of a flowerpot, and a man could curl up inside the largest.

In contrast to his ancient and enormous instrument, Michael Smith is an unassuming middle-aged man in khakis. I had the privilege of meeting Michael on two previous occasions, when he had invited me up to the carillon room—a pigeon-spattered box accessed by a ladder high in the church tower—to watch him play.

As I listened to the tapping of Michael’s worn penny loafers on the pedals and the rattle and creak of the wood as his fists slammed down on the batons, I felt like I was hearing the secret heartbeat of these bells whose ringing can be heard within a six-block radius of the church. Michael once described carillon playing as a “pointillistic art”: one strike of a pedal or baton creates a note that cannot be dampened, and the sounds layer and merge in an “illusion of polyphony.”

Fittingly, St. Martin’s carillon owes its existence to a civic polyphony of sorts. The instrument was built in 1939 to celebrate the resurrection of the church from a fire that almost destroyed it, and was financed entirely by donations from the working-class families of the parish. Today’s congregation, however, lacks the funds needed maintain it. The bells need to be rotated. The tower roof needs to be repaired, and the bricks are crumbling. Because their music carries so far, the bells effectively have a constituency of their own. The challenge is to convince potential donors that they are not financing a church but rather preserving a more ecumenical piece of Harlem’s history.

Michael once told me, quoting from Ovid, that one thing he loves about playing the bells is being “a voice and nothing more.” After his plinks, clangs, and clongs have faded into the Harlem afternoon, no one knows that the “sweaty-looking white guy walking back to the subway” (as Michael put it) was the reason that they had paused, if only for a moment, to look up--and wonder, and listen.