Audible Matter / Wave #5 Essay September 2021

The Sky’s Like a Bell—the Moon Is Its Tongue

Xenia Benivolski

[1] "The Sky’s Like a Bell—the Moon
Is Its Tongue"
“Небо — как колокол,
Месяц — язык,
Мать моя — родина,
Я — большевик.”
Sergei Yesenin, Jordanian Dove, 1918

[2] Georgia today, archived. June 14, 2015. Retrieved August 22, 2021:

1. The Bell and the zoo

In 2015, a massive flood overwhelmed the capital of Georgia, destroying many parts of the city, including the zoo. Tbilisi, nestled in a valley, saw buildings carried away by the raging waters, and wild animals roaming the streets. Alarming images of lions, tigers and bears struggling to stay above water dominated the news: hippos took to the main square and were consequently shot by the police, bears were lying snout down in the mud and being carried away by construction vehicles. An African penguin swam to the border of Azerbaijan. Seventeen people and over 600 animals died in the aftermath of the disastrous event: including 30 lions, tigers, bears and wolves who had managed to escape and terrorize residents for several days. With images conjuring a kind of Noah's Arc gone wrong, the floods were repeatedly described in biblical terms. On June 14, 2015, Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia, and the priests of Georgia declared that "a terrible tragedy has taken place. Rainfall and flood have resulted in fatalities. The Zoo has been destroyed. Predators left their cages and posed a threat to people. When the Communist government established itself in Georgia, it began melting church and monastery bells for profit and the zoo was founded by such means. As such, the Zoo in its current location is bound to failure." [2]

This research paper invites contemplation on the material and spiritual establishments that mediate between the religious icon and the political monument. The bell undergoes a series of transformations: the casting and melting, shaping and re-forming of metal alloys create new objects, with a focus on the bell as the intermediary form that ‘sounds’ a present condition. The paper brings together disparate historical threads collected in Vienna, Tbilisi, Amsterdam and Hamburg between 2018 and 2021, and draws from the Russian Orthodox notion of Russian bells as ‘singing icons’, through the looting and melting of church bells in the first half of Europe’s 20th century, to the present-day riot of global material and spiritual warfare. Using examples of specific historical instances that necessitated material transformations, I argue that the sonorous space articulated through these geopolitical moments can be found in the metallic epistemology and tonality of the remaining bells.

The Tbilisi Zoo was established in 1927 as a civic infrastructure project that went hand in hand with the colonization of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan by the Russian invaders. It was the first, and biggest Zoo to be established in the Caucus in a Soviet attempt to engineer spaces that would encourage the ‘proper’ use of time for the newly minted worker. Built as a symbol of universality in a city which in turn was ruled by the red army, it represented the fauna of the USSR, and animals were dispatched there from across the Soviet statehood. In the 1970s, it had over one thousand animals, but by the 1990s half of them had perished. Poorly placed and badly engineered for the climate, the Zoo suffered frequently from floods that killed animals and their caretakers. While being touted by the communist forces as a gift, the Zoo was built using funds obtained by the looting, melting and selling off of various religious objects from Georgia’s churches, in particular its church bells. This objectionable practice was rooted in war-time shortages of the metals needed to produce weaponry.

Bell cemetery in Nürnberg, awaiting transport to be melted down, in 1942.

Between 1917 and 1945, all of Europe was engaged in a series of conflicts that resulted in the melting of church bells, mostly to produce weapons. But “the Soviets took the destruction of bells, as they took many things, with deadly seriousness. Stalin’s ‘Great Break’ of the late nineteen-twenties aimed for a total transformation of every aspect of life. A staggered workweek was implemented, abolishing the concept of Sundays. Moscow’s Church of the Nativity became a holding pen for circus lions, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour became the world’s largest open-air swimming pool, and rural churches were turned into carpentry or plumbing collectives.” [3] The Soviet Army also produced statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other Communist monuments from the melted bells. Lenin is the most reproduced iconic figure after Buddha and Jesus, and the new statues brought in along with the Soviet occupation provoked an uncomfortable reaction in the highly religious nations of Georgia and Armenia, where many people at that point haven’t encountered a political monument before. When asked how the locals reacted to the monuments that were being erected, the archivist in Tbilisi’s city archives told me that they prayed to them. After the war, In Latvia, Lithuania and Croatia, Lenin monuments were once again melted and hundreds of church bells were re-produced from the metals.

[3] Bautman, Elif. “The bells: How Harvard helped preserve a Russian legacy”, Onward and upwards with
the Arts, April 27, 2009 Issue, the New Yorker, NY.

[4] Price, Percival. Campanology, Europe 1945-47, ​​uitg. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 1948, 31

2. The destruction of another made me

Traditionally, bells are made of Bronze - an alloy of 78% copper and 22% tin. The higher tin content increases the resonance of the bell and lowers the sound velocity by forming a molecular crystal lattice that resonates without distortion. It also renders the soft metals hard. This alloy contains much more tin than the Bronze used in monuments and canons, which has a higher copper percentage. In his expansive 1947 research manuscript Campanology, Europe (1945-47) [4] Percival Price accounted for the composition of the European Bells and found their copper-to-tin ratio to be 81% to %15, with zinc and aluminium in the mix. The metallic difference renders the bell metal ready for melting and reappropriation for weaponry and monumental use. In his manuscript Price compares two bells of the same shape and size, one made using this bronze alloy and the other a combination of different metals, such as zinc, tin and iron alloys. He mentions that the latter doesn’t sound right. For the majority of bell production in Europe, a swift melting and casting procedure allows for the quick transformation of objects, from one form into another. Specifically - from bells to monuments, weapons, and to bells again. Could it be argued that it is precisely the metallic viability of the European bells as a potential weapon or monument that produces their familiar sound? And if so, are those bells merely cannons and monuments in waiting?

Variation in the metallic composition of the bell was often dictated by the availability of certain geological resources in different regions, and the cosmological significance of the metals themselves, in particular in areas that painstakingly produced their own bells, such as rural Russian towns. For the Russian orthodox, the bells essentialize a history of the local soil - the ‘pochva’ that produces individuals with a biopolitical sense of belonging to a specific region, a concept adjacent to the problematic, Fascist ‘blood and soil’. Various sources confirm parallels between Russian and German conceptions of soil and naturalization. To this effect, in a 2012 paper, L. M. Erley writes:

“German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder produced an organicist discourse of nationality that inserted symbolic values into the episteme of natural history that had a profound effect on Russian discourse of nationality. Primordalist theories of nationalism habitually reified national essence through an allusion to ‘soil’ claiming the material substance as the ordinary medium of national differentiation and identity. Such theories of national primordialism transferred social and cultural phenomena into an organic conceptual domain, creating the complex metaphor that nations ‘grew’ out of ‘native soil’” [5]

[5] Erley, L. M.. Reclaiming Native Soil: Cultural Mythologies of Soil in Russia and Its Eastern Borderlands from the 1840s to the 1930s. UC Berkeley, 2012, 2

[6] Bakhtin, M. (1981). "Forms of time and of the chronotope in the novel". In The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: Univ. Texas Press. pp. 84–258.

[7] Epstein, Mikhail , “Russo- Soviet Topoi,” in The Landscape of Stalinism; The Art and Ideology of Soviet Space,eds. Evgeny Dobrenko and Eric Naiman (Seattle; London: University of Washington Press, 2003), 277

[8] Marx, Karl ,Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Friedrich Engels, New York: International Publishers, 1967, 3:710-737

[9] Elif Bautman writes that the “Russian bell is not a musical instrument but, as Father Roman puts it, “an icon of the voice of God.” A Russian bell, he said, must sound rich, deep, sonorous, and clear, for how can the voice of God be otherwise? It must be loud, because God is omnipotent. Above all, Russian bells must never be tuned to either a major or a minor chord. “The voice of a bell is understood as just that,” he said. “Not a note, not a chord, but a voice.”

[10] Price, 12

[11] Thorne, Stephen J. The seizing of Europe’s Bells, Legion Magazine, November 21, 2018. Accessed august 22, 2021.

[12] Price, 60

Russian literary theorist M.M. Bakhtin coined the term ‘chronotope’ in 1937 as a way of establishing a conduit through which meaning enters the logosphere. His argument was that different literary genres utilize different configurations of time and space, which help establish particular narratives. [6] Following Bakhtin’s dialogic into Russian literature “one discovers a curious linguistic pattern: chronos is consistently swallowed up by topos.” [7] The role of Topos in Utopia is constantly undermined and interrupted by the presence of time units. Soil is ostensibly the basis of all human production and the development of organized labour. Marx connects the composition of the soil to the productive and economic potential of the society that cultivates it: “It is not the mere fertility of the soil, but the differentiation of the soil, the variety of its natural products, the changes of the seasons, which form the physical basis for the social division of labour, and which, by changes in the natural surroundings, spur man on to the multiplication of his wants, his capabilities, his means and modes of labour.” [8] The Russian bell, cast underground, becomes a custodian of the soil - a keeper of the sacred composition of minerals that defines and sounds the biological identity of its worshipers. In Russian tradition bells cannot be tuned - they represent the voice of god [9] - that god that formed the cosmic iron dust that keeps our blood as red as the national star recycles immortal through the land and its inhabitants. Russian bells don’t swing - the sound is produced by chiming the bell’s clapper - the “tongue”. In Russian, the word for tongue and language is one and the same. The voice that doesn’t sound right to Price might just be speaking for the region where it was produced.

Before 1939, the Netherlands appointed Dr. W. Van Der Elst of Utrecht to select the most valuable bells to be saved from this usage. “This was to be indicated by marking the letter M (Monument) on each bell.” Signs in Four languages: English, German, French and Dutch were posted at the bell towers declaring these bells to be “internationalized monuments, inviolable in war.” [10] The bells were shipped to different locations, crossing borders throughout Europe to ‘bell cemeteries’. On July 22 of 1917 Deacon Karl Munzinger in Cologne, while mourning the loss of his carillon, said in a sermon “They will speak a different language in the future...they, who like no other preach peace and should heal wounded hearts, will tear apart bodies in gruesome murders and open wounds that will never heal." [11] A summary of common and uncommon Latin Bell inscriptions collected by Price in various Bell cemeteries in the aftermath of WW2 reveals playful dedications ranging from the functional MORTUOS FLANG (I weep for the dead), VIVOS VOCO (I call the living), and FULGURA FRANGE (I strike the lightning) to the less ubiquitous VNIVS CORRVPTIO EST MEA AEDIFICATIO [12] - “the destruction of another made me” - a play of words meaning “the disintegration of one thing is my edification” referring to the bell being made from something else.

The transfer of the "Pummerin" to St. Stephen on November 5, 1711, in Bischofgasse (today Rotenturmstrasse). Drawing by Ehrenberg, Collections of the City of Vienna: Reports and communications of the Alterthums-Verein zu Wien. Volume XIII, Karl Gronemeyr, Vienna 1873, pp. 1-9.

While many Western bells were taken down to make weapons, some originated as weapons themselves. One such example is the Pummerin (“Boomer”) Bell hanging in St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, famous for its size and volume, and the role it played in Beethoven's final days: it is rumored that the composer, who lived in proximity to the Cathedral, realized the totality of his deafness when he saw a flock of birds flying out of the tower. At this moment he realized the animals were escaping a sound he could no longer hear. It was originally cast in 1705 using 208 of the 300 cannons captured during a pivotal battle between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire in Vienna in 1683. The battle was the first major defeat to the Ottoman empire and the beginning of its historic decline: the bell was created to commemorate that historic moment. The Pummerin rang last in 1937 when a fire burned through the interior of the church sending it crashing onto the stone floor. Its successor was made from the old Pummerin’s metal and the remainder of the Turkish cannons that were procured for the cause from Vienna’s Military Museum. Throughout the Ottoman empire, bell-ringing was prohibited but the bells were still recognized as symbolic loot. Samson Young in his 2017 artist talk at the Art Institute of Chicago, describes a Spanish church bell that was captured and relocated to Fez, Morocco in 1333, during the second Islamic inquisition of Europe. The bell's tongue was removed and it was repurposed into a lamp and hung in the local mosque. The ring was silenced. [13]

[13] Young, Samson, artist talk: For whom the bells toll, Art Institute of Chicago, April 6, 2016

[14] Bautman continues to write that “Whereas Western European bells are tuned on a lathe to produce familiar major and minor chords, a Russian bell is prized for its individual, untuned voice, produced by an overlay of numerous partial frequencies, with only approximate relations to traditional pitches—a feature that gave the Lowell Klappermeisters’ performances the denatured effect of music played on a touch-tone telephone. Where Western European bells play melodies, Russian bell ringing consists of rhythmic layered peals.”

3. The tower

A bell normally rings on the diatonic scale. But in early European bells and Russian bells, the tone and pitch of each individual instrument was largely the product of the founder’s artisanship and the materials available. [14] The Pummerin’s voice, which can be heard only on special occasions, starts off with a clear bang and continues through an evolving resonant sound that articulates the movement of air through the dome as the bell swings. The copper sings, and the sound becomes deeper with movement, akin to a giant singing bowl. As the humming waves envelop the tower and take on a life of their own, the banging becomes somehow tinned and hollow. It feels as though the bell is swinging in silence while it is the sound all around it that is activated. Finally, after a few minutes, the waves collide, creating a unique metallic drone generated by the acoustics of the tower and the square. At that moment, it feels as if the different metals comprising the bell resonate together yet apart. The bell is then joined by other bells, their bright, small sounds clapping through the deep baritone as it fades away. The bell exerts a massive force as it swings, its peak vertical and horizontal forces equivalent to four times and two times its weight respectively. As such, some bells require a massive structure to maintain the integrity of their swing. Pastors have testified stories of groaning towers that sway during ringing. The structure supporting the bell is often the body of the church, the parish complex, and all attachments support and stabilize that swing.

As an instrument of colonizing missions, the church bell has always been at the helm of the institutional trinity, brought in to instill a European set of priorities in the guise of goodwill: the hospital that breaks down holistic systems, the school that breaks down indigenous systems of ration, and the church that breaks down local spiritual beliefs, all serviced by nuns. On top of the church is the bell tower - that which announces a call for labour and the time to go home, an architectural spore of the spreading colony. The bell, by inscribing Christian values onto time itself, produces labour, and labour is the result of the re-education offered by the three institutions. A solid base allows for bigger bells, swinging harder, louder and reaching further.

[15] Thompson, E. P. “TIME, WORK-DISCIPLINE, AND INDUSTRIAL CAPITALISM”, Past & Present, Volume 38, Issue 1, December 1967, Pages 56–97: 61

Ironically, it is speculated that the move from variable, natural work-times to the predetermined ecclesiastical tempo originated with the labourers themselves. Working from dawn until dusk, workers accustomed to the chiming of the church bells at regular intervals, noticed that their summer days contained more chimes and therefore longer work times. Therefore, they demanded that the church bell and not the sun determine their workday. This eventually worked against them as their employers insisted on a value of production to align with the ringing of the church bells, as opposed to the natural viability of the production field and the Marxist inclination to leave the soil in charge. The predetermined ringing of the bells has become a way to control and devalue labour. Abstract time units announced by the bell appeared to be objective: that is, imposed by no one in particular but applied to anyone in general. However “[t]hose who are employed experience a distinction between their employer's time and their "own" time. And the employer must use the time of his labour, and see it is not wasted: not the task but the value of time when reduced to money.” [15] The objective guise of an abstract time unit did little to conceal the fact that work was ultimately regulated in the interests of the bourgeoisie.

“The ringing of the bell, end scene from Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky, Andrei, 1966.

The final chapter of the 1966 Tarkovsky film “Andrey Rublev”, co-written with Andrei Konchalovsky, describes a feudal Russian town, populated by pagans, believers and other archetypal figures, which has been ordered to construct a church bell to please the incoming Duke and the Italian ambassador. Since the bell-maker is dead, his young son is summoned for the task. A painstaking process of metallurgic labour takes place swiftly as the town is carried away in the task of producing the massive bell and in the process, its protagonist literally hoisted along with the instrument into the tower. The massive efforts are rewarded with a perfect ring, accompanied by panning shots across the barren pastoral landscape where figures stop to listen to the resonant hum, miles away. With it, the main character suddenly collapses into sobs and he professes his father never told him the secret of the Bell: that secret being that the use of the Bell is to regulate labour. The bellmaker’s son understands that from this day onwards their lives will be ruled by the sound.

Soviet contempt for religion is well documented. By taking down bells in the nations it colonized, the red army was aiming at its essential target - the church bell as the ringer and determiner of labour conditions imposed by the church and the bourgeoisie, an instrument that has corrupted people’s essential relations with the holy soil, and disrupted the cosmic and material alignment with its metals and minerals - and turning them into political statues that then essentially became new icons. Each path you choose to take through the winding story of the bell, the cannon and the monument, leads you back to the gates of the Tbilisi zoo: to peer into the story of capital and its many incarnations; exotic animals covered in mud, the workers trying to clean up the mess, the massive failure of Soviet empiricism. Etymologically, the Germanic word for Bell - Glocke, or Klok is tied to the word Clock through a shared reference to the Latin Clocca and French Cloche - or cloak, a covert garment which resembles the shape of the bell. The bell conceals a matrix of time, space and labour in its mineral composition. Bells are considered to be symbols of peace and freedom, but for whom? By cloaking the powerful hum contained within, the bell registers time units devised by materials and societies that are organized around the violence of forced labour and the readiness and availability to be instantly transformed into instruments of war.


This research paper in progress is generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and will continue in Moscow throughout 2022. Much of the archival information on the manuscript of Percival Price was obtained from the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam. With thanks to Brendan Flanagan and Rosa Benivolski.

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