Its existence is undeniable and undeniably powerful.

text
Kyre Chenven

photography
Ivano Atzori

THE EXPERIENCE OF SOUND

Sound is invisible, without shape, color or form, and yet its existence is undeniable and undeniably powerful.

The Floris family has been making bells in the small town of Tonara for longer than anyone seems to remember. This small mountain town is famous on the island for bell-making, which was originally such an important part of the village’s economy that the trade influenced the development of the town's language. Because in the past all of the shepherds from all of the different provinces would come once a year to buy a new set of bells, the Sardinian spoken in Tonara is a blend of the various dialects so it can be comprehended by everyone.

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Today Ignazio and his son Marco are one of only two families that still produce bells in the town. It is a jealously guarded profession, with the knowledge and skills passed down solely from father to son. Both left home at 18, determined to forge out a life far from their hometown. Both eventually came home to settle into the daily passion of the family business. “There was no other life for me,” Ignazio and Marco each smilingly confessed. Their workshop is a convergence of fumes and ashes; each bell is shaped with numerous ear-shattering hammer blows. But there is a poetry to their everyday work. They are, as Ignazio’s grandfather and father told him, the custodians of an ancient art given by the gods to the mountain people.

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And lest it seem an inflated self-view, consider that for a shepherd his animals are everything - his employees, his end-product and his co-workers. The sound of a herd is the only music that accompanies him throughout his days. It is his soundtrack and his sole companion. His animals' bells must be easily identifiable to him. A sudden quickening could mean danger - a roving wild dog, or a thief. His most trustworthy animal, the one that helps to lead the pack, has a larger and louder bell to signal his importance in the herd.

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A lamb in the womb is accompanied by the ringing of its mother's bell for five months. After birth it receives its own bell - a strong leather tie around its neck, a new and constantly ringing companion. For sheep or goats or any belled herd, sound is the persistent proof of existence. But, twice a year, in spring and winter, the time arrives for the lambs to be slaughtered. And before the shepherd ties the creatures legs, before he exposes its neck to the final cut, there is a first destabilizing step: the bell is removed. Imagine the moment. The lamb loses balance; it has been deafened and startled. A piece of perception itself has been removed along with the bell.

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The Floris' bells aren't simply coated with brass, as are most mass-produced bells, but use a special process for fusing the brass coating to the iron form. During the winter, the bells cool quickly once pulled out of the oven, meaning a rough and uneven coating which lends each bell its own distinctive look. During the hot summer months, the slower drying produces shinier, smoother bells. But no shepherd, no matter how vain, is concerned with the look of the bell. Fusing the metals together allows Ignazio and Marco to shape and manipulate the bell even after it is coated, which produces a superior sound.

And sound is everything.

A poster in the Floris' workshop featuring Antonio Gramsci's famous slogan:
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