Well-heeled residents of Fishers Island, the prestigious summer community off the Connecticut coast of New London, have a certain fondness for the atonal ‘call and response’ tones emitted from two nearby nautical markers known as Latimer’s’ Lighthouse and the red nun channel marker at the entrance to East Harbor. The locals find these tones as soothing as a mother’s sweet lullaby. As comfortably familiar as the tinkling sound of ice cubes being dropped into a lowball glass at sunset or of fireworks being set off at Grey Gulls each July 4th by the FIOA crew in their matching orange pants and blue button-down shirts. Yes, those ‘call and response’ tones reaching across the water from Latimer’s’ Lighthouse and the red nun channel marker in the distance are like a warm invitation that beckons them back each year.
It’s one of life’s constants. And I mean constant. All day every day, in fact, 9 times a minute (I timed it), Latimer’s’ Lighthouse peels off a low F# (sharp) note and the red nun channel marker chimes in at almost a full octave higher, but at an ever-so-slightly lower F (natural) note. Eek! In musical terms, these two tones together create what is called dissonance. In music, dissonance can serve a purpose. For example, Beethoven would deliberately play two notes that were a half step apart to create ‘tension’ in his compositions. But then he would ultimately move one of those notes either up or down into a relationship that ‘resolves’.
Whether or not you are a trained musician, each of us can naturally feel it when two notes settle into this comfortable resolution. But Latimer’s’ Lighthouse and the red nun channel marker continually emit their respective half-step-removed tones over and over again 24/7 creating perpetual dissonance, day and night, night and day. Cole Porter would not be amused. It never quite resolves.
For most individuals, these are just two little tones ringing out in the distance amongst many other tones one hears every day, no different than the myriad bird calls all around us. And as I mentioned before, for the locals it’s actually a reassuring balm for the soul. It’s the sound of home. But for a musician (or maybe it’s just me?) it can be the equivalent of Chinese water torture.
For years I have accepted, with great delight, my friend Wendy’s generous invitations to join her in various Fishers Island Club member-guest golf tournaments. And once in a while, when the stars align, we triumphantly bring home some ‘hardware’, those much-coveted Fishers Island logo glassware sets which are awarded as tournament prizes. The invitation to join her on Fishers Island, when offered, is one we never turn down. The golfing, the tranquility of the island, the elegance of the ‘Big Club’ and even The Pequot (…but that’s a story for another day.) All of it is quite lovely. The Fishers Island experience never disappoints.
However, during every visit there inevitably comes a time late at night while lying in Wendy’s guest cottage, curtains gently billowing with the soft evening breezes, that I must try again make peace with those two atonal nautical marker calls. Bong….boop, Bong….boop, Bong… Boop. Dissonance. Tension. No resolution. Augh!!! It’s grit in the oyster with no pearl. It drives me crazy! But then again, I suppose it’s a bit like politics, as painful as any particular situation might be, sometimes one has no choice but to stoically forge forward. Suck it up. Deal with it. Stiff upper lip. All that. So I do.
Then last night it happened. As I slept peacefully dreaming of my golf prowess in tomorrow’s 2018 Mixed-Member Guest golf tournament, a persistent little voice (…you know ‘THE little voice’ that we are admonished to heed?) relentlessly implored me, ‘wake up, wake up!’
My eyes popped open in the dark and I groggily tried to determine what had caused me to wake up from my deep, peaceful slumber. It couldn’t have been the restless tossing and turning of my sweet husband, Spencer, because he was sound asleep in a separate twin bed. Good gracious, I thought…what time is it??
It must certainly be the dead of night. A bit of fumbling around the bedside table in the dark produced my iPhone and the sudden flash of the screen showed August 11, 2018 1:01 am. Startled, Spencer grunted, mumbled something in a slightly aggravated tone then rolled over the other way.
So why was I wide awake? The little voice was still there and it urgently whispered to me, ‘Listen.’
Huh?…Then it suddenly came to me…OMG the notes were in tune!!! Whoa. The notes were in tune!!! OMG Latimer’s’ Lighthouse and the red nun channel marker were chiming together in a perfect octave. Oh, wow.
Good God, this felt good. SO satisfying. I swear I could hear the angels sing in chorus that ‘AH…AH!’ thing.
How long I have waited. Ecstasy! Mmmm. I shuddered with happiness and let out a deep sigh. Ahhh… It was good for me.
But as I laid there with a self-satisfied smile in the dark I had questions. What had caused this sudden tonal alignment? Why tonight of all nights? Or maybe it was just my imagination? (No, I had NOT slipped down to the Pequot for a few peenie-weenie woo-woos. For goodness sakes, I was in training!)
There was no going back to sleep without an answer. The tones had somehow resolved to a perfect octave and now I needed my own personal resolution. I had to know why.
The breezes softly blew across my body and the sudden awareness of those very breezes offered a clue! The memory of an old high school Physics lesson about the Doppler effect offered the answer. Aha! Yes, of course, that was obviously what must have come into play here. Just as the perceived whistle of an approaching train sounds higher to our ear at first but then diminishes to a lower note as the train travels away into the distance, the breezes had shifted that night. The effect had perfectly altered those two individual pitches emanating from Latimer’s’ Lighthouse and the red nun channel marker to create a perfect harmonic match.
All sorts of pleasurable things can happen in the dark of night. But who knew that those two tones merging in the Fishers Island night air could trigger such rapture? After all these years, finally, tonal resolution, if only for a fleeting moment. Such satisfaction. But who to share this moment with? Well, like everything in life, joy is doubled when shared with a friend… so I guess it’s gonna be YOU, dear reader.
This morning as I write this little essay its back to F# (sharp) at Latimer’s’ Lighthouse and F (natural) for the red nun channel marker but I will always remember that for one brief moment, there was harmonic bliss across Fishers Island Sound.
About the writer: Lisa Macalaster is a resident of Beacon Hill. As the daughter of a Presbyterian Minister, she grew up with a LOT of music. She sang with the Wellesley College Tupelos and currently sings with Beacon Hill Jazz, The Walkin’ Blues Band, and Five O’Clock Somewhere. And according to 23 & Me, she is a distance cousin by marriage of Fishers Island resident Wendy McAllister.