The first time I heard about the carillon four years ago, I was standing at the base of UC Berkeley’s beloved Campanile. Peering up, up, up at the 61 bells that loomed impressively from the top of our 307-ft tall bell and clock tower, the first word that came to mind was “Wow!” Ever since I’ve heard about this majestic instrument, I’ve wanted to learn how to play it. This semester, I am one of twelve lucky students in the Carillon DeCal, a class facilitated by two experienced carillon students. We will be having weekly private lessons, and at the end of the semester, I will be playing the bells for the entire campus to hear!
As part of the application for one of the coveted spots in the class, I observed a noontime concert up close from the top of the tower. With joyful peals and triumphant chimes, it was the perfect way to ring in the first day of classes for spring semester. I really enjoyed the artistic 10-minute performance by professional carillonist Tiffany Ng. She played with incredible grace and agility while performing “Pealing Fire” by Libby Larsen and “Hymn Preludes for the Kirk” by Geert d’Hollander. There were long, clear tones, with pregnant pauses in between, as well as twinkling cascades of notes during more playful sections of “Pealing Fire.”
In addition to the beauty of the music, the physicality of playing the carillon struck me. I was captivated by the way Tiffany’s fists danced across the batons and how she braced herself with her arms and leaned into some of the lowest notes that she played with her feet. I can imagine it takes a lot of strength to play the carillon, as they’re attached to massive clappers above! Since carillon bells can weigh up to several tons, the clappers are the ones that move to strike the bells; the bells themselves do not move. UC Berkeley’s carillon spans five octaves, and the largest bell is the Great Bear Bell, which weighs 5.25 tons and rings on the hour. While 5.25 tons may seem like a very heavy bell, 20-ton and 100-ton bells exist in other places. Heavier bells produce more sonorous sounds, whereas the Campanile carillon bells have a brighter sound quality. The smallest Campanile bell weighs a modest 19 pounds.
On the first day of our Carillon DeCal class on February 3, we watched the 7:00pm Natural Frequencies Concert, a special concert in honor of the 100th Anniversary of the Campanile, played as a duet by carillonists Jeff Davis and Tiffany Ng. The light show made for an intriguing visual display, as well as an exciting acoustic performance. While a few of my classmates mentioned that the bells sounded like they were out of tune, we learned in a lecture by Jeff Davis that the Campanile carillon is one of the most in-tune carillons in the world. The tuning of a carillon is unique, and 5 different pitches resonate from one bell when it’s struck. The bells are arranged in chromatic sequence, and produce concordant harmony when many bells are sounded together.
This is an especially opportune year to learn to play the bells, in celebration of the Campanile’s 100th year. One of the best aspects of Berkeley is the opportunity to discover and try different things. As I am graduating this semester, I am hoping to maximize the breadth and depth of my experiences here, and am very excited for the opportunity to take the Carillon DeCal. Now comes the joy and challenge of picking which song to play for the end of the semester recital!