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Wait, the Campanile's bells aren't automated?

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NOVEMBER 07, 2014

The carillon, man. The carillon. It’s what all the cool kids are playing these days. It’s replaced the melodica as the current quirky musical flavor of the month. But this instrument is a bit more cumbersome than the travel-friendly melodica. We bet that all of you are just dying to know where to get one so you can be the hippest kid on this side of campus. Well, you surely can’t just prance on down to your regular old music store and demand the finest model, but you can find it housed in our very own Sather Tower. The carillon is the instrument that is responsible for the Campanile’s ringing bells. Through a vast array of wires and levers connecting keys to the clappers of the bells, we are able to hear the lovely tunes that keep us company on our walks to class. Like everything in the Campanile, the carillon is a bit shrouded in mystery because many either don’t know about it at all or know very little. To the surprise of many, the bells are not automated. There is actually a university carillonist, Jeff Davis, who even teaches a class, Music 40, on how to play the carillon. This means that some students can play the actual carillon from time to time. To investigate further into this, the Clog interviewed campus freshman Anders Lewis, one of the four students enrolled in Music 40.

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Q: What is a carillon?

A: It’s kinda weird because I’m pretty sure you can have a carillon that’s not in a bell tower. It counts as carilloning if you were to just tie a bunch of ropes that are attached to bells to your body and move them around. There’s actually a picture of a man in Sather Tower just covered in ropes and moving his arms around. In America, it’s nice because it has a standard for how a carillon should be, whereas in Europe you go around, and everything is different. Overall, it’s some kind of chromatic keyboard attached to all these different bells to play some sort of music. We have a great carillon because it has a low G as the bourdon, which is the lowest bell of the carillon, so you can imagine it takes up a lot of room and is really impressive. It’s what you hear every hour on the hour in the clock tower. You play with your fists.

Q: It’s closest to a piano, then?

A: It’s actually closest to an organ because of the foot pedals. It’s similar to a xylophone in that it’s percussive, and you can’t really play any big chords with it.

Q: How do you deal with the resonance of the bells, since it’s out of your control? It’s not like a piano where if you hit a note, it doesn’t sustain unless you hold it down or have a pedal on.

A: You’re not allowed to hold it down. All playing is staccato. Everything will ring for as long as it will ring, which makes it kind of hard to arrange because there is so much sound hanging in the air.

Q: How do you get into the class?

A: Every so often this big, intimidating head carillonist, Jeff Davis, will on a whim say that he will take four more Music 40 students. I was lucky because the carillon program was just cut in half with people graduating this semester, so there were open spots. About nine people auditioned. You’ll step into a room with a grand piano, and you play a fast or slow song. He then critiques you. He’s always unimpressed with you, no matter how good you did. You take an ego-depleting audition and that’s how you get into Music 40 essentially. He looks for musicality and musicianship. Particularly, if you stop playing if you mess up because that’s one of the cardinal sins. It’s about a 50 percent acceptance rate.

Q: Do you feel like the carillon is an underrated instrument?

A: It could never be popular because no one can just drop $200,000 on a practice carillon or several million dollars on a bell tower. So many people here think it’s automated, which really offends me because we’re working hard to bring you good music. (Note: This was said in a sarcastic and stuffy voice.)

Q: You just get to play the practice carillon, not the actual carillon?

A: Every two weeks we go up to the real one. You can technically play the real one with the big kids, but for the first semester you don’t have key card rights. So, you need to ask someone else to let you into the building for those practice hours.

Q: So once you take Music 40 you’re in the Carillon Studies program. You don’t just prance off into the sunset away from Sather Tower?

A: You can’t get out unless you mess up really badly. You are actually in the official UC Berkeley Carillon Guild for life. They put your picture up in the Campanile and everything.

Q: What is Jeff like? You make him sound scary.

A: He is scary, but it’s a lovable kind of scary. He’s this kinda old, tall man. He is kinda gruff because he makes enough money and doesn’t need anything else out of the world.

Q: I hear he dresses up as Dumbledore every year. Is this true?

A: For every Harry Potter party, he does. The one this year just happened to be near Halloween. It was the funniest thing to be discussing his prominent and successful career while he had his fake beard wizard hat on.

Q: How did he get into carillon playing?

A: I know he’s been doing it for some 30 odd years. He’s been in a composing board. I know he composes stuff that isn’t for carillon. At Hearst Hall, they’re actually playing some of his stuff. I think he wrote something recently for percussion and carillon.

Q: What do you guys usually learn songwise?

Really anything composed for carillon. In Music 40, it’s all very much classical. Jeff gets really pissed at you if you just play classical pieces you know, though. He gets especially pissed if you play “Happy Birthday.” Once you get to 41A, he asks you what you want to learn instead. There are people learning who are learning theme songs and Disney songs.

Q: What would you like to play on the carillon if you were given carte blanche?

A: Sarah McLachlan’s entire album.

Q: Wrong. The correct answer is Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”

A: I’m arranging that! I don’t know if that would work well with the carillon, though, because it is a very polyphonic instrument.

Image Source: Alan Fung-Schwarz via Creative Commons

Contact Nora Harhen at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 08, 2014