Carillonneurs play the world’s largest musical instruments—and they’re all but invisible

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Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon in Springfield's Washington Park - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon in Springfield's Washington Park

It can be lonely at the top—and it almost always is at the top of the monolithic musical instruments known as carillons. On Saturday night in Springfield, Illinois, UIC graduate student Hunter Chase was one of just five people chosen to venture alone to the peak of the 132-foot bell tower in Washington Park to perform at the Rees International Carillon Competition.

Carillon contests are even rarer than the instruments themselves—currently there are about 180 in the United States—and the Rees event was advertised as the country's first-ever "open" competition for carillonneurs. That is, it wasn't invite only, but rather asked potential contestants to send in audition recordings.

A carillon is defined as a set of at least 23 bronze bells controlled by a keyboard or similar mechanism so that they can produce a melody. Carillons originated in the 16th century in the Low Countries of Europe: Belgium, France, and Holland. Church towers or municipal buildings were retrofitted with big bells and became capable of broadcasting music as a mass medium, arguably for the first time in history.

Good carillons were once a sign of a well-run city. They fell out of favor around the time of the French Revolution, but enjoyed a European resurgence in the early 20th century due largely to the efforts of Jef Denyn, a Belgian carillonneur who improved carillon technology (resulting in better-sounding bells) and held a series of popular concerts. At around the same time, a New York civil servant-turned-activist named William Gorham Rice began publishing a series of books that helped popularize the carillon in America.

A disproportionate number of the carillons in the U.S. are located in the midwest, and the several prominent instruments in the Chicago area include the granddaddy of them all, the Rockefeller Chapel carillon on the University of Chicago's Hyde Park campus. The historic church's 72 bells, totaling 100 tons of bronze, make its carillon the second-largest musical instrument ever built—and a hell of a practice room for Chase, who began playing it regularly as part of a carillon club while an undergraduate at the U. of C. He still plays it about once a week.

"It can be a challenge to practice," says Chase. "You don't always know if life will take you near a carillon."

At UIC Chase is studying math, not music, and he admits he's an underwhelming piano player. But tapping the tiny ivory keys of a piano, he insists, is almost a completely different skill than thumping the heavy wooden planks and batons that serve as keys in these oversize bell towers.

The only way to watch the carillonneurs compete is via a live video feed. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • The only way to watch the carillonneurs compete is via a live video feed.

Watching him play, it's easy to believe that. When it was his turn to impress the judges on Saturday evening, Chase took an elevator to the eighth floor of the carillon and sat stiffly on a wooden bench. He spent his entire 20-minute, four-song performance staring intently at sheet music as he struck "keys" so massive that he had to make half-closed fists to deliver enough force. Each time he pressed one of the carillon's 67 keys or foot pedals, a bronze bell ranging in size from 22 pounds to 7.5 tons rang out—the smallest made a delicate tinkling, while the largest shook with chest-rattling reverberations that still felt huge a quarter of a mile away.

I wouldn't have been able to see any of this were it not for a live video feed of the performers projected onto a screen a few dozen yards north of the carillon tower. Like many of its peers, the Rees Memorial Carillon occupies an enclosed tower. You can see a few bells peeking out from the walls, but the player is obscured by stone and concrete. Perhaps this visual barrier between musician and audience, combined with the soothing tones of the bells themselves, explains why the 25 or so spectators sitting in lawn chairs didn't applaud or cheer after each carillonneur's song or performance. The echoes of the final notes from Chase's performance were met with unnerving silence, broken only by the chirping of birds and crickets. A couple minutes later, Chase exited the carillon through a glass door and made a beeline for an empty picnic table, where he sat and fidgeted with his phone. 

Chase performs on the Catherine Colt Dickey Memorial Carillon in Pennsylvania.

The lack of fanfare? Chase is used to it. Many people assume that the music ringing from these imposing towers is automated or computerized—as though a carillon were a massive music box, not an instrument. He's just happy he was chosen as one of the five finalists to compete, even though he ended up in last place among them. Saturday's winner was a Massachusetts-based astrophysicist named Margaret Pan.

"A lot of people can hear you play," Chase says. "Everything you do ends up being a public performance, but it's mostly anonymous." It's the irony of being a carillonneur—even one of the very best. You're easily heard but almost never seen.

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