Milo Brandt ’19 and I are 100 feet in the air when he scares the hell out of me. We’re halfway up Harkness Tower, the sandy granite spire that rises from Yale’s gothic core. You’re going to play the hour, he informs me. (Actually, it’s the half hour — according to the digital clock in the corner, it’s 5:29 p.m.) Long blonde hair framing his long, expectant face, Milo gestures toward one of the 54 wooden levers that protrude like witches’ noses from a chest-high console in the center of the room. Metallic cables connect each lever, called a baton, to an unseen bell high in the tower. Together, the bells and batons constitute a carillon.
I came up here to watch Milo play it. He’s the seasoned carillonneur, not me. But he’s just standing there, and someone has to mark the time, so I push down on the six-inch baton. It resists. An E quarter note barely squeaks out from above. C’mon, Milo prods, hit it harder than that. I follow his hand to the next lever, then the next, ending on another E, the lever shuddering back into place this time. Bum bum bum bummm, bum bum bum bummm.
Now everyone knows what time it is, Milo says. I feel namelessly powerful. Everyone in a three-quarter-mile radius heard those sounds. No one knows I made them.
Few people have seen an entire carillon — even Milo, co-chair of the Yale Guild of Carillonneurs, needs permission from campus security to reach the high-pitched bells at Harkness’s peak. The instrument looks like an oversized Christmas tree, with the smallest bells at the top and seven-ton deep-toned monsters at bottom. Metallic rods as long as 30 feet drop from each bell, through holes in the playing room ceiling, and into the wooden console. Foot pedals run along the console’s base for the A flats and F sharps that stir only under the force of a good kick.
It’s an odd instrument, seldom encountered and rarely mastered. Invisible yet inescapable. Its players set the campus score without ever being seen.
My own sonic reign doesn’t last beyond 5:31. Milo slips into soft, raggedy boat shoes with white strings that fray from every loose seam. Perfect for the 50-year-old pedals. He slides some paper out of an overstuffed black binder, pads over to the carillon’s long bench, and secures his sheet music to the built-in stand with metal threads thin as spider-silk. The witches’ noses jut toward him.
While Milo prepares, I melt into the scenery — which is easy, because it’s hot. The room, a steel box just large enough for the console and a few chairs, smells like sweat and PVC pipe and cramped blue metal. Like a bunkroom on a Navy cruiser. Though statues of Hale, Homer and Virgil grace Harkness’s exterior, this battleship box is spartan, too sparse to be called dirty, yet not exactly spotless either. The light fixture, two fluorescent rods held together with strands of masking tape, looks like it should flicker, but doesn’t.
The carillon bench rests directly underneath the only light in this odd industrial cube. For a moment, Milo’s fists hover over the batons like fleshy gavels, the illuminated hairs on his tensed arms and legs motionless.
Then the hairs are scurrying to catch up to arm and leg and leg and arm as he unleashes a four-pronged assault on wood and metal. Their limbs flying in all directions, carillon players at peak performance resemble toddlers throwing controlled tantrums. But one carillonneur can out-ring a handbell choir. This close to the instrument, I can hear the batons thump and the rods rustle as Milo’s jabs, hooks and well-timed kicks thrash deafening melodies from the stubborn apparatus. In one fit of harmonic passion, he jams his foot so hard into a pedal that his hands, still balled into fists, fling up over his head. He looks like an old man disciplining an errant cur.
“I like knowing that I can make it do whatever I want it to do,” he says later.
Milo and another less experienced carillonneur take turns playing for an hour. The other’s pieces, punctuated by occasional missed notes, lengthen as the evening progresses. Milo’s selections shorten. Around 6:15, he pulls just two pages from his binder: a spare Appalachian folk song called “The Lovers’ Tasks.”
“This one is terrifying to play,” Milo says. “If I hit a wrong note, everyone will know.”
He lowers a single fist, then another. A heavy groan from above, then another. His coal country melody plods along, sad and slow, each deliberate peal slinking in through the windows and sagging in the September heat. We’re skimming a West Virginia creek waiting for a flood.
Milo does not miss a note. His shoulder-length spaghetti locks stay impossibly still.