The Bells of UChicago

Oliver McDonald, UChicago third-year, takes us behind the scenes of the carillon at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel

The Bells of UChicago

Oliver McDonald, a third-year music major, walks up 271 steps to play an instrument he can’t quite hear for an audience he can’t see. It might sound like one of the twelve trials of Hercules, but for McDonald and seven other undergraduates at UChicago it’s a weekly feat. They call themselves the Guild of Student Carillonneurs and, as of seventh week, they are an official RSO.

“I read about [the carillon] before I came here as a first year and just knew I had to do it,” said Guild president McDonald, who takes lessons from Jim Fackenthal, the assistant University Carillonneur. “A carillon isn't something you see every day. Nevertheless, our campus happens to have one, and an amazing one at that.”

But what exactly is a carillon, and where is it at UChicago? The carillon resides in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, and everyone on campus has heard it.  A carillon is a set of bells and the keyboard used to play them. The one in Rockefeller Chapel was installed in 1932 and is the world’s second largest musical instrument: 72 bells and a total weight of 104 tons.

The carillon is extremely difficult to play, especially considering the keyboard’s location inside the bell tower. Consequently, the carillonneur can’t see if anyone is listening outside and must compensate for the different quality of the sound outside the tower. Plus, the carillonneur can’t control when the bells stop ringing. According to McDonald, “The bells of Rockefeller Chapel are distributed over a distance of around two stories. Fourteen of the heaviest bells are below the playing cabin while 58 are above. It is easier to hear the bells closer to you, but the audience isn't in the playing cabin: they are on the ground.”

It’s also physically exhausting. In addition to the extensive climb to the top of the tower, the carillonneur must then play the instrument by hitting different pedals with his fists. He must slide up and down the bench and control the lower octaves with his feet. Lessons tend to be only half an hour long partly because it’s so tiring.

“You also have the pressure of constantly being in a performance situation,” said McDonald. “The audience is literally created in the vicinity of the instrument by an anonymous performer. If you're walking by Rockefeller Chapel, you might become the audience at any moment.  There's something extraordinary about that. It's public art that is forced upon its audience. It seems like a modern idea but it's a 500-year-old tradition.”

Although everyone hears it, few realize lessons are free for students at UChicago. First-year and potential Math major Hunter Chase has been taking lessons from McDonald for about a month. “The music that I’ve been starting off with has been classical,” said Chase. “Eventually, I’ll probably start to arrange some music myself, but that’s something to hold off on at this stage.” Chase plays on the practice keyboard in Rockefeller’s basement. It allows beginners to rehearse without the pressure of being heard across campus.

It’s best, however, for students to get a feel for the real instrument right away. McDonald started playing on the actual carillon during his second or third lesson but he had to siphon off minutes of his teacher’s playing time since none was officially set aside for students. “The practice keyboard in the basement only gets you so far,” said McDonald. “Like my teacher says, it's the difference between a flight simulator and flying the F-16 for real.” Now students officially have time of their own to play when they’re ready to start on the official carillon.

McDonald hopes that the creation of an official RSO will make the instrument even more accessible to students. The Guild is actually the third incarnation of a carillonneur RSO on campus. McDonald outlined its goals as, “first, we work toward creating an infrastructure for the students to take lessons and play the carillon. Second, we hope to act as the carillon’s ambassador to the community, drawing attention to this incredibly unique asset that no one seems to know much about.”

Although the Guild is working to make the carillon more accessible to students, it’s already an underlying part of campus life. “The carillon does what it does,” said McDonald. “Music continues to emanate from the tower and travel down University and Woodlawn, over the Booth School, through the Midway, and into the Main Quadrangle regardless of whether or not it 'wants' to be listened to.  Just as every member of the University has entered into the architecture of the campus, entered into relationships with the people of the campus, and even entered into the reputation of the campus, they have also entered the carillon. Much more than being a musical instrument, the carillon is an indispensable part of the University's identity.”

Recitals occur every weekday at 12 pm and 6 pm and one after services on Sunday. Tours to the bell tower leave from the front desk at Rockefeller half an hour before each recital on weekdays, and immediately after the end of the service on Sundays (12:15 pm), $3 per person, free with a UChicago ID. Anyone interested in learning can stop by Rockefeller for information about lessons.

Tagged: College, rockefeller, RSO, Arts