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Michela 2020-01-08

The carillon (pronounced ‘keh-ruh-laan’), as defined by the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America, is a musical instrument consisting of at least 2 octaves of carillon bells arranged in chromatic series and played from a keyboard permitting control of expression through variation of touch.

For 3 years in college, I spent a lot of my time playing and teaching the carillon.

It’s weird that the definition of carillon involves the word carillon itself, but, also per the Guild, that’s because a carillon bell is a specific kind – a cast bronze cup-shaped bell, whose partial tones are in such harmonious relationship to each other as to permit many such bells to be sounded together in varied chords with harmonious and concordant effect. Neat.

Takeaway: If you line up 23 sleigh bells and hit them with sticks, that is a fun time, but it is not a carillon.

I’d say I learned a lot of things from the carillon.

For instance, while teaching my first class, I picked up the story of the Tsar Kolokol III, or the Tsar Bell. No carillon involved. The Tsar Bell stands 20 feet tall, and currently sits outside the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Some consider it to be the world’s heaviest existing bell.

Back in Imperial Russia, making bells bigger than other bells was a standard royal one-upmanship project. So, after failing to cast the first 20-ton Tsar Bell, and then again failing on a 110-ton version, the behemoth Tsar Kolokol III was successfully cast in 1735 and weighed in at 216 tons (that’s about 90 average-sized SUVs). After such a feat, the bell needed to spend significant time cooling above its casting pit.

Two years later (still cooling), and, before our Tsar could be hung and rung, a fire erupted in the Kremlin! The blaze spread to the young bell’s wooden support structure, and a choice arose: throw water on the bell and risk cracking it to oblivion, or let the fire burn and risk sending the bell down to its doom?

The fateful firefighters chose the former, and, alas – CRACK – down in the pit still fell the bell, cleaving from its mouth an 11.5-ton metal slab (4.5 SUVs). The Tsar Bell remained in its casting pit for another century before it could be rescued and begin serving its eternal watch outside the palace.

So, it didn’t ring. The bell never rang! World’s heaviest... bell-shaped sculpture?

(Who cares?)

Wikipedia fact: “In the spring of 2016, a team of UC Berkeley, Stanford, and University of Michigan researchers publicly performed an electronic reproduction of how the Tsar Bell would sound if it had not been damaged during casting. To simulate the sound of the bell, the team researched the bell's material characteristics and constructed a polygon mesh that modeled the shape of the bell. The team then used finite element analysis to compute the component frequencies of the bell when rung. For the first public performance, a stack of twelve speakers installed below the campanile on the UC Berkeley campus played the digital simulation of the Tsar Bell. The fundamental frequency of the sound was approximately 81 Hz.”

So, it did ring. The bell rang!

Personal fact: For an entire week before the simulation’s public debut, the team set off test knells as night fell. The Tsar’s 81 Hz and its melancholic minor tierce wafted past my walking path each evening that week. I found myself drawn in close, lingering a long while, savoring the deep resonance and its impossibility. My bones were uneasy, yet at home, and the air was just a little too cold for April.

Carillon history and repertoire no doubt left their mark on me, but this feels more indelible.

I’d say I learned a lot of things from the carillon.

For instance, if you eat cottage cheese and lie on the floor, you might quell some of your performance anxiety. The world’s largest carillon bell takes the weight of 2 young adults to properly sound, yet no one on the New York City streets below can hear it anyway. I learned to give in to the thunderous anonymity. To climb to the Widow’s Walk of the tower, you only need to pick the lock to the maintenance staircase with a lanyard and a spork. And, after the tower closes, you can still perch on the ledge, wrap your fingers around the open-air safety bars, and stretch your legs out, pushing against the sunset and floating above the lights that are just turning on for the evening. And somehow, like that, you’re no longer afraid of the height.