How the bells tolled – Hamish Moore

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“It was in Aristos one cold morning in April and there were the four of us, Aristo, Marino, Keane and myself. The door was closed to the miserable cold and wet mountain air. (“fredoliiiiiinnnnnnnno” echoed round my ears as the lovely old lady sang out with a tortured painfulness in Fornaceto one morning of that extraordinarily cold and wet April) The wee gas heater was on and our bellies were full of lovely warming coffee. Quite the bunch of us when you think about it.

The Bells were playing their all familiar 3 notes and they certainly penetrated the creative consciousness of Keane that morning. The idea arrived with him of playing the bells maybe on the pipes. Aristo was straight on to the idea and knew without hesitation the notes to go for – G – F# and E.

Off came the cover of the keyboard and the bells were being tracked.
I ran (metaphorically speaking) round to Piazza Angelio to gather the pipes and we were up and running. The notes of the bells fitted perfectly on my D Small Pipes.

From that moment onwards the Bells have become engrained in my consciousness, I worked out the system of time keeping and finally realised the monumental importance of these sacred sounds to the people of this magical castle. There is no escape. Every 15 minutes, a minute before the hour, on the hour, before masses, on Feast Days, baptisms, weddings and funerals and probably a lot more. This is why if you are willing to be at maximum 14 minutes and 59 seconds late (or for that matter early) for any given event you really don’t need a to own a watch in Barga. I recently lost mine and haven’t bothered to replace it – never more than 14 minutes 59 seconds away from the time. Sounds good to me and another stage closer to going native. I suppose the next stage will be to loose my wallet and walk around with no money !

Back to the Bells. I would at every opportunity, after that morning, when the bells were playing pick up my fiddle or my pipes and play along, to get right inside them, the notes, the randomness (or not) and the changing rhythms. Keane was on to something – there was a tune emerging from the notes and sounds of these bells. The F# is a wee bit flat I thought to myself one Sunday morning as I sat in my studio playing along. Now this is quite amazing you know. The old pipe scale is not a modern even tempered one but carries ancient and uneven (weird to the modern ear) intervals which of course sounded right to the old civilisations and peoples who devised and used them. The old pipe scale indeed does have a flat 3rd note which happens to be the equivalent note to the F# of the Bells scale.

I remember well being at a summer school in California and the Californians being perplexed by this very note when played by the grand master of the Scotch Fiddle from Cape Breton Island (Buddy MacMaster) who was teaching that summer. “But why is your 3rd note so flat” the Californians would complain. Buddy would just reply that this is the way that we play it !!!

Of course its the way that they play it because the old Scotch fiddling of the 18th century and before came straight from the piping traditions (and they have been jealously guarded ever since) and as I have explained this old pipe scale has a flat 3rd. The Californians needing to put this concept in a box, name it and categorise, coined the term – “supertonic third note of the scale” WOW !

So a tune based on these three notes, over time emerged and a new part came just this week.
The Concert of Scottish Traditional Music and Song which Paolo Marrone asked me to organise in the Theatre in Barga and which will take place on the 24th September will have this new tune played to open the concert. The choir who are coming over from Scotland have learned the notes of The Bells, they have learned the new tune “The Bells of Barga” and they will sing it; and all the musicians who are taking part have learned it. It will form the focus of the concert and Paolo has agreed to have the actual bells sounding to start the concert. (article about the concert here)

So the concert will be signed in and blessed by the bells.

But over a small glass of wine one night in Piazza Angelio, Paolo said to me, “ah but Hamish do you know where the notes came from – what the inspiration for these three notes were ? – it was a medieval lullaby, The Nina Nana”

Paulo found the music and the words for me and Mairi Campbell is as I write learning this ancient lullaby. She will sing it to close the concert.

What fortunes and riches were born from a cold April morning in “The Cultural Centre of Barga”

Hamish Moore – artist in residence Barga 2008 – all Hamish articles can be read here

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Hi Hamish

Good luck with the concert. Wish I was there but sadly back in England painting like crazy. Will have to view it on Barganews.


For those of you who couldn’t be there: The bells tolled for everyone at the Teatro tonight. For the Italians who opened the concert, with the Duomo companile providing its sonorous first notes. For the extraordinary performers who traveled to Barga from the distant corners of Scotland. And most resoundingly for the brilliant Hamish Moore, who knows that the best music is an eloquent bridge between cultures, rather than a stony wall. It was one of those nights that will never be forgotten by anyone who had the great good fortune to experience it.

Mc Zambo of Nini
Mc Zambo of Nini

Howzit gawn Hamish,
You old D-Day Dodger? Don’t you think that with patter like that Frank was wasting his time with the National Geographic for all those years. Instead of rooting about in the soft underbelly of Europe he should have got a real job with the Melody Maker or the New Musical Express. The concert clips are fandabadozie, I just wish I could have attended.
Well done,