Lai and Joo: The truth about the carillon

Harkness Tower and its loud bells are a mystery for most people at Yale. Although the campus hears the bells twice a day, much of what is going on inside the tower remains unknown. Given the recent flyer that accused the Yale carillon of being rude and demanded that we stop, we’d like to take this opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about the instrument and our activity. After all, we are not just a bunch of Quasimodos living in the tower.

A carillon is a musical instrument that consists of at least 23 bells, tuned in chromatic sequence. It is played from a console with batons and pedals; think piano, but with batons played with fists, both feet on the pedals. Our carillon has 54 bells, with a total weight of 43 tons. The 10 oldest bells were cast in 1921, when Branford and Saybrook Colleges were founded, and the rest were added in 1964. The Yale Memorial Carillon is considered one of the best carillons in North America both for its sound quality and size.

With the addition of these extra bells, the Yale Guild of Carillonneurs was founded. (A person who plays the carillon is called a carillonneur, pronounced kar-uh-luh-NUR.) We’re the only entirely student-run group in North America.

This year, the Guild has 23 members who take turns to play the carillon every day at 12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. for half an hour each. Full members of the Guild are assigned a “ring slot,” during which one or two members play the carillon. The Guild is not allowed to play outside of these designated ring times, chosen by the University precisely because there are few classes in session and most students are in dining halls.

All other rings, such as the Halloween Ring at 9 p.m., require special permission from the administration. We understand that students need quiet time to study, and therefore the carillon isn’t played during reading period or finals.

We play a wide range of music. The Guild members play everything from original carillon pieces to arrangements of famous classical tunes to pop songs. If you want to hear your favorite tunes, you can request them on our Web site as well (www.yale.edu/carillon).

Guild members take carillon-playing seriously. We understand that we must maintain our responsibility and professionalism. Because the carillon is a public instrument, we inevitably play for the entire Yale community, as well as for visitors. Whether there is an audience or not, we make sure the bells are rung at every designated time and each ring is of a good quality. We don’t want to cause people pain when we make them listen to our music — we don’t get any pleasure from that.

We’re well aware that our recitals are not perfect, and we are always on the lookout for ways to improve. There is a strong tradition of constructive criticism in the Guild, and we don’t hesitate to offer each other suggestions. The Guild also invites guest carillonneurs from around the world to give lessons and master classes in order to help us improve the quality of our playing and of our repertoire.

So what does the carillon contribute to Yale? The carillon serves to enrich University occasions, such as commencement and reunions, and we strive to play seasonally appropriate music during holidays and other seasons — such as Christmas songs in December and the Halloween concert. The Guild also hosts an annual summer concert series, inviting professional concert carillonneurs to campus every week; these concerts are open to all members of the Yale and New Haven community and are an opportunity for improvement of town-gown relations.

Harkness Tower and its bells are part of what makes Yale the place we know. The beautiful architecture is Yale’s face, and the carillon is its unique sound. The bells add atmosphere and a backdrop to the campus. We understand that there are some who will never like carillon music; but we hope everyone else can appreciate the carillon music as a unique characteristic of Yale. Our goal is to provide the campus with something that is aesthetically pleasing and, most importantly, fun to listen to. We work towards this every day.

At least we don’t go to Harvard. If you get a chance, listen to the Lowell bells online. Those are truly abysmal.

Andrew Lai and Jin Su Joo are juniors in Trumbull College. They are co-chairs of the Yale Guild of Carillonneurs, and Lai is a former copy editor for the News .

Comments

  • Proud Eli Parent

    Last spring, near the end of Bulldog Days, I was delighted to hear the strain of "Simple Gifts" ringing out from the carillon. After years of hearing my son spontaneously burst into this song, at some of his most joyful moments, I had no doubt, "'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be," and that Yale was a perfect match. As for me, I'm a fan, and look forward to hearing the bells of Harkness Tower each time we visit!

  • Anonymous

    Very interesting article. Are there any recordings of some of the carillon music available - perhaps on the Yale section of iTunes? Thanks.

  • Hieronymus

    Ubiquitous music--and the carillon chief among campus providers--make Yale…Yale.

    Keep it up!

  • Andrew

    Proud parent/Hieronymus: thanks very much for your comments!

    Frederick: I don't think recordings of carillon music are available on iTunes, but it's a wonderful idea. We'll look into putting up some recordings of the carillon music on our website (yale.edu/carillon), since it makes perfect sense to have recordings available to let people know what it sounds like.