The Bells of Berkeley

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs


Jeff Davis

Davis spreads sheet music across the wooden keyboard console, which is housed below the carillon itself. Looking a little bit like an organ, the console consists of wooden keys and foot pedals used to ring the bells. Noah Berger photo

06 SEPTEMBER 00 | His instrument is the most public of all. But most of the time, carillonist Jeff Davis is invisible.

Listeners usually don't realize there's somebody up there, 30 stories above them, playing carefully selected arrangements from Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn, Purcell, Schubert and other composers 18 times a week.

But each day, like clockwork, the melodious bells of Sather Tower, all 61 of them, begin to chime at high noon.

"The Sather Tower carillon is really a fine musical instrument," Davis, the campus's new carillonist, said.

The original chime of 12 bells was installed in 1917, and the full complement of 61 bells was completed in 1983. Through the years, Berkeley became renowned for its carillon performance, along with about 10 other bell towers around the world. "But I didn't come here only to play the bells," said Davis. "I came here to implement a program that would be appropriate to our university setting."

Davis, who returned to Berkeley in 1999 after spending a year as university carillonist at the University of the South, Sewannee, Tennessee, plans to re-establish an instructional program for carillonneurs. The program will not be designed for music majors alone, but for all interested and qualified students on campus. "This means, of course, that the instrument will be used as a teaching instrument as well as a concert instrument," he said.

"I am going to encourage composers to write for the instrument by providing them with an opportunity to work with a professional composer and carillonist, as well as the chance to hear their works performed," he said. "I hope to start an ongoing composition competition on campus for undergraduate and graduate composers in our music department."

His plans are not so lofty. Berkeley's love affair with the carillon began in 1914, when Sather Tower was completed, and Jane Sather's gift - the original chime of 12 bells - was cast. A generous gift from the class of 1928 transformed the chime into a full carillon of 48 bells. Fifty-five years later, a gift from Evelyn and Jerry Chambers paid for 13 more bells and established an endowment for the university carillonist's position. Funds were used for practice rooms, practice keyboards, a campanology library and the Carillon Festivals, which are held every fifth anniversary year of the class of 1928 in its honor.

"In keeping with this tradition, I want to encourage scholarship about the carillon," said Davis, who is a professional composer as well as a performer. "The instrument has been sadly neglected in terms of musicological research, and Berkeley has always been at the forefront of musical scholarship. I hope to provide the opportunity for students to do research in a very under-researched field."

The carillon has a history as rich as it is long. For more than five centuries, it has been the symbol of a well-run city. Bronze bells from the Shang Dynasty (1520-1030 BC) have been found in China; earthenware bells from around 2000 BC have been found in Romania, Knossos and Crete. Historians trace the evolution of carillons in more recent times to the lowlands of Holland, Belgium and northern France. During the 13th and 14th centuries, these rich mercantile towns flaunted their status by erecting fine carillons in their church towers and arranging tunes to be played every quarter hour by an automatic mechanism. By 1480, the first true carillon to be played manually had been built in Flanders, the Netherlands.

"Carillons have always been used to signal an event," Davis said, after playing a tune that began with the soft pings of a distant bell. "Towns used them to signal anything that was going on. It's fitting that one of the original compositions by Berkeley's first carillonist, Ronald Barnes, whom I studied under, is entitled 'Signals.'"

The bells can be heard two to three miles away, Davis said. "The one drawback to playing a public instrument is that if you make a mistake, everyone hears it."

The bells are cast from bronze, an alloy composed of approximately 78 percent copper and 22 percent tin. The bourdon bell, the largest of the collection, weighs five and a half tons, "which isn't particularly large," he said. The largest bourdon bell weighs 40,000 pounds and hangs in the Rockefeller carillon in Riverside Church, New York City. A bell's weight and profile, or shape, determines its note and the quality of its tone.

The bells are played from a keyboard console having wooden keys and pedals directly linked to the bell clappers, the iron balls inside the bell that strike the side and produce sound. Although the keys are played with a closed fist, the carillonneur does not "pound" or "beat" the keys, but rather presses on them with a minimum of effort.

Before each performance, Davis has to regulate the bells by adjusting the length of the wires on the bell clappers to accommodate temperature changes. Aside from that, the bells, which are in concert pitch and fully chromatic from low G to the G note five octaves above, never lose their original pitch.

As part of his plans, Davis hopes to revive the Berkeley Carillon Institute, a publishing and research arm of the carillon program.

"Carillon music is going through a second golden age right now," he said. "I have high hopes that we can bring some of our music students into a new program of study and performance, and cultivate musicians in this field."



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Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.

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