Letter: The toll of the bells

The toll of the bells

I read with dismay the report that one of the towers in the new northern colleges may be equipped with bells (“New residential colleges may have bells,” Sept. 24). To the ears of anyone who has tried to teach when the Harkness carillon is blasting away — and to anyone who has sat in class and tried to hear what was going on in the class with such heavy artillery outside — this is most distressing news. Student rooms and Yale classrooms have become much more thought-friendly in the past decade with the replacement of stereo amplifiers blasting on old campus with civilized ipods and headphones; yet the carillon remains a source of public nuisance to anyone who does not want to be forced to listen to that particular tune at that particular time.

Years ago, I remember sitting in an exceptionally intense seminar on Shelley’s poetry by Paul de Man. Just when his argument reached a particularly breathless height, the Harkness carilon intruded with its deafening roar. One of the students asked de Man if he were tempted to revise his master trope of “blindness and insight” to “deafness and insight.” But de Man could only smile benevolently and say, “I’m sure what you just remarked was very clever, but I could not hear you.”

Leslie Brisman

Sept. 24

The writer is the Karl Young Professor of English.


  • Yale12

    Thank you–this really had to be said. The bells go off for much, much too long, and too often. One 15-minute concert a day would be plenty; two noisy concerts, right when I’m back in my room for lunch and, later, to study, is just ridiculous. I don’t know anybody living or working within hearing distance of Harkness tower that actually enjoys hearing the bells so often.

  • penny_lane

    It’s not just classes…ever tried to live in BR or SY and take a nap, read, study, converse with friends or even unwind with a movie while the bells are playing? It’s impossible. The bells interrupt all aspects of life for students in those colleges.

    On the bright side, perhaps having two carillons will help to disperse the interruptions, as the Guild of Carilloneurs can then alternate which one they use.

  • ElizabethWeinSM86

    This new set of bells will not be a carillon, but a set of change ringing bells hung in the traditional English style. There will most definitely be what’s called “sound control” installed, and it’s likely that practice sessions will take place with the bells “silenced”–ie, their clappers will be tied and you won’t hear them at all! Rest assured that because you need 6 or 8 ringers at a time (one for each bell) rather than a single carilloneur, you won’t get sporadic fits of ringing outside scheduled sessions. It’s also *very* unlikely that they’ll ring as often as the carillon seems to, if it’s true that there is a concert twice a day. Everyone will be able to plan their naps accordingly :)

    There’s more about change ringing at the North American Guild website:


    Yale is VERY LUCKY to be in the market for a set of change ringing bells–how I wish it had happened 30 years ago when I was there!

  • PaulWindelsES79

    I would respectfully draw Prof. Brisman’s attention to the critical fact that, thanks to modern sound control technology (including the use of “simulators”), tower bells can be rung without disturbing neighbors at all. A good example can be found at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York, which holds practices on Wednesday evenings when plenty of people are working. That system was perfected as a result of tremendous effort by the ringers themselves, and I have no doubt that a ringing tower at Yale could benefit from it. I’m sure that the Trinity ringers would be delighted to invite Prof. Brisman to visit Trinity and inspect the sound system there, so that he can know what he is talking about BEFORE he sounds off.

    I would also note that a change ringing tower would add a delightful, quaint, and wholesome element to the richness and diversity of the Yale community. I have been a ringer for nearly 40 years and have learned many big lessons in life from it. The ringing community is an extraordinarily hospitable one — welcoming visitors and strangers. In no other activity have I seen the intense level of perfectionism combined with with such generosity of time and attention towards those less capable, for example five of the very best ringers in the world readily forming a band with one novice to help the novice learn a basic method. The activity itself exercises both the mind and the body — mens sana in corpore sano.

    Unless things have changed a whole lot, I seriously doubt that a monastic silence pervades the Yale campus throughout the day and night. When I was an undergrad, there was plenty of noise on campus, ranging from loud music to frisbee or touch football games to parties in general. I have a most keen memory of a class in Phelps on a pleasant spring morning when windows were open having to compete with the Beatles. We all smiled and made the best of the situation.

    I hope that the Yale community can approach this issue in a mature and scholarly way, understanding the facts and weighing all of the pros and cons before forming an opinion. There is no reason that existing sound control technology can’t eliminate almost all of the noise and that fully open ringing can’t be scheduled for a very limited time when it will not interfere with classes or with most people’s study times. With a little bit of effort and mutual toleration from everybody, Yale can make itself an even more wonderful place for those fortunate enough to be part of its community.

    Paul Windels
    Ezra Stiles 1979

  • tfurnivall

    I’ve followed the comments on the possibility of a new set of change-ringing bells with great interest, especially in terms of the effectiveness of sound control. I’d like to share two anecdotes that will (I hope) demonstrate the degree of sound control that is now readily achievable.
    When the Trinity Bells first got their sound control we had a request from some British ringers to join us for our practice. Naturally we said yes, and waited for them to show up on our Wednesday practice night. None of them showed, and the next day we received an e-mail saying that they came down, but couldn’t hear anything, so decided that we’d canceled the practice! We responded, with some degree of embarrassment, that this was the norm, and that they should simply have called up to the tower, and we’d have come down and let them in.
    So much for the outside world – but the inside world has an even more remarkable story. Due to one of those scheduling conflicts that occur once in a while, courtesy of an Irishman called Murphy, we had a peal scheduled at the same time as a recording session for the Trinity Choir. Neither event could be postponed, so with some trepidation we tested to see if the bells would affect the recording. With the church empty and the microphones turned up all the way there was a faint tapping audible, but that was it. The recording went ahead and was released, by Naxos, earlier this year!
    The substantial benefits of having these change ringing bells available to both students and the wider community need not, in way, be denied due to unsubstantiable charges of noise pollution.

    Tony Furnivall

  • yaleeleven

    I’m not so sure of the appeal of change-ringing bells. Watch this video:


    Give me a carillon that plays Hey Soul Sister anytime.

  • Carl

    Of this YouTube clip, only the second half is actual ringing in changes.

    From 0:00 the Abbey band are ringing ’rounds’ — that is, the band are ringing repeated downward scales. To question the appeal of rounds is like questioning the appeal of scales.

    Things get more interesting at 1:07 or so, when the conductor says ‘Go, Stedman.’ Two blows later, the band launch into Stedman Caters.

    ‘Stedman’ is the method — the pattern that each ringer executes from memory, starting at a different place in the pattern. ‘Caters’ means that the method is being rung on ten bells (nine ‘working’ bells, with the tenor ringing behind).

    At 1:14, and again at 1:42, the conductor calls a ‘bob.’ Each bob introduces a small permutation in the Stedman pattern, so that the same algorithm produces different musical sequences.

    These calls of ‘bob’ signify that the Abbey band are launching into a ‘touch’ of Stedman — a stretch of ringing in which no row of notes, at either handstroke or backstroke, will repeat. Given enough time, the method and the calls, taken together, will awaken all of the sequential music inherent in the 9 working bells.

    So Stedman and Hey Soul Sister are two very different things. But Stedman has been rung for over 200 years, and probably will be rung centuries hence. The Abbey band are really focusing on it. And even in the ringing room, they have an appreciative audience.

  • russellhdavies

    As a recent graduate of Yale Architecture School, I know there is constant discourse at Yale about the old and new in building design and thought. My experiences with change ringing when I was young resonate strongly in me today with the importance of buildings and their benefit to people. It was enough for me as a child to enjoy the mesmerizing tones of bells moving enigmatically (and mathematically) through time. My days playing amongst the pews and gravestones at various village and city churches throughout England left an indelible conviction that good contemporary buildings should have similar powers with transcendent spaces, sounds and other effects under the purview of only the best architects. We can ask the most of buildings by making available their full range of capability. In the case at hand, there is the opportunity to lend to Yale a sensibility shared by other beautiful campuses (e.g. Oxford, Perkins School in Watertown, MA, Kent School in CT and many others). As change ringers and communities know well, the opportunity for a new ring is golden. President Levin, Dean Stern, Professors Harries and Scully must be aware of the great potential of a new ring of bells on the Yale campus. It will bring more to the university than beautiful (and controllable) sound.