The New Yorker has a great article on giant Russian bells. From this comes details of Konstantin Saradzhev, Moscow’s most famous bell-ringer, who can hear in ‘microtones’ and whose contempt for the piano led him to refer to the instrument as “The well-tempered nitwit”.
If I hadn’t settled on the Mock Duck theme, I definitely would have called this blog The Well-Tempered Nitwit.
As for Konstantin Saradzhev, he was forgotten altogether – until the nineteen-seventies, when Anastasia Tsvetaeva, the sister of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, published a memoir about his life and fate. As it turns out, Saradzhev really was Moscow’s most famous bell ringer, known not just for ringing but also for his superhuman natural acuity: between two adjacent whole tones, he perceived not just one half tone but a half tone flanked on either side by a hundred and twenty-one flats and a hundred and twenty-two sharps.
When Saradzhev was seven years old, the sound of a particularly powerful church bell caused him to lose consciousness, and he was captivated for life. Although he was a skilled pianist, he always referred to the piano as “that well-tempered nitwit”: a piano can produce only twelve tones per octave, whereas Saradzhev perceived one thousand seven hundred and one. This sensitivity perhaps explains Saradzhev’s intense delight in Russian bells, which are unparalleled in their microtonal complexity. Each bell sounds a unique cloud of untempered frequencies, producing intervals unplayable on any twelve-tone keyboard. By such acoustic fingertips, Saradzhev could distinguish all four thousand of Moscow’s church bells. He described his hearing as “true pitch” (by contrast with perfect pitch). The capacity for true pitch, he said, lay dormant in all humans, and would someday be awakened. But in the meantime he was, like a superhero, cruelly isolated by his own powers. He spent more of his time working on a theory of the future of music that was incomprehensible to anyone who couldn’t hear a thousand or more distinct microtunes in an octave.