The invisible musician: carillonists at Michigan

Sunday, December 10, 2017 - 5:37pm

The chimes start ringing, 120 feet above, just as the heavy doors shut behind me. Underfoot, the feeling of rough carpet mat. In the corner stands a newspaper rack, gleaming with all its ordinariness. The lobby is dimly lit, but warm and welcoming all the same, with muted wooden surfaces and aged fixtures.

One elevator trek later and I’m greeted with a much louder version of the same bright, sparkling piece. A few classrooms and offices are housed on this floor, a quiet reminder that we’re still on campus. I push through yet another door that reveals the narrow staircases leading to the bell chamber and start the final leg of the journey.

The passage opens up into a cavity that feels perplexingly indoor and outdoor at the same time. Wind whips through the metal grilles that line the space, which allow for a beautifully panoramic view of downtown Ann Arbor. Overhead, the bells loom, humongous and impossibly close. At the center of the chamber sits Assistant Professor of Carillon Tiffany Ng, her hands moving deftly and precisely as she plays the pedals and keys that power the Charles Baird carillon, each note clear and strong.

Ng is one of a growing population of carillonists in North America, and the carillon housed right here in Burton tower is actually the fourth heaviest in the world. A primarily European instrument, the carillon was developed in and around Belgium in the mid 1650s. Although bells were invented far earlier, around the Bronze age, it wasn’t until the 15th century that the processes for tuning bells first emerged. In the years since, carillon traditions have popped up all over the world, although they are still most heavily concentrated in Europe.

How does one get started with such a unique musical instrument? Ng’s carillon journey blossomed out of her undergraduate days at Yale University, where she joined a student run group completely focused on carillon. The process was highly selective: out of dozens of students, only five or six spaces were allocated for new students every year. However, because the group was so small, Ng was able to take much more responsibility that she would have been able to otherwise, such as organizing tours to Europe and curating a museum exhibit, all before she had even graduated. She ended up receiving a fellowship to attend Belgium’s Royal Carillon School “Jef Denyn,” the first and largest carillon school in the world.

Perhaps most impressive about Ng’s legacy as a carillonist are her efforts to introduce variety into a genre where little exists. Because the carillon was developed mainly for Western Christianity, most of the published repertoire focuses on a very homogeneous audience, which has become more of a problem as the instrument has spread outside of its European roots.

“Eventually, my goal is that everyone on campus, regardless of their background, should get to hear music that reflects their identity at some point,” Ng said.

Ng often coordinates with the University Musical Society to provide music before their events, and also tries to connect her music with incidents happening on campus — during January’s Women’s March, Ng performed songs such as John Lennon’s “Let it Be” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

“Being at Michigan in particular has really opened wonderful opportunities for me to address this problem, particularly because we have an annual Martin Luther King Jr. symposium, where we actually have the day off to just focus on racial equality. I have every year been able to put together a recital of all African American composed music, and every year to commission a new piece by an African American composer,” Ng said.

Ng’s work to introduce diversity into the genre routinely breaks boundaries — before she came onto the scene, there wasn’t a single original carillon composition by an African American composer published in the United States. The problems with such a homogenous musical community are not always evident at first, and tend to impact fledgling musicians and composers more than any other demographic. Ng’s drive to instill change comes from her own experiences as a music and English double major at Yale, where most of her music professors were older white males.

“I couldn’t actually see myself in a music career, and at the time, I didn’t really think of a reason why," Ng said. "I mean, I noticed the homogeneity of my professors, but I didn’t think that was barrier; I thought, ‘Of course I can imagine myself  in any position that I want to!’ because that’s what we’re always told."

It wasn’t until grad school that she was finally able to work with female mentors and professors.

“I realize now that it was having those role models, people who looked like me and understood my experience made all the difference," Ng said. "Now I really try to provide that for my students."

Recently, Ng won a U-M Diversity, Equity and Inclusion grant to commission underrepresented composers to write culturally recognizable music for carillon. Along with her efforts to foster a more diverse and welcoming environment for carillonists and composers, she also seeks to adapt the distinctive relationship between carillonist and audience.

“It’s a strange environment," Ng said. "Very few other musicians are so audible yet so invisible."

Ng specializes in experimental carillon music and performance projects, such as last April’s interactive carillon jukebox, where the audience could use an app to vote for what song the carillonist played next.

“The carillon developed as a one way communication instrument — it told the time, it told people whether it was an emergency, when the city gates were closing, it had all these one way functions in Europe — and I would like to think of the carillon now more as an instrument that is dialogic, one that has a conversation with the community and is also answerable to its community,” Ng said.

Outside of her experiences on campus, Ng spends summers with other carillonists performing on tour at Europe’s historical carillons. The uniform demographic of musicians is particularly noticeable during these tours; in Europe, carillon jobs were historically filled by men, so there’s far less diversity overseas in comparison to in America, where the movement has a bit more gender diversity because it rose to prominence during the early 20th century.

“Oftentimes, I find myself the only woman on the entire summer concert festival series, and I’m also usually the only person who’s playing at least a large percentage of women composers and usually the only person who’s playing composers of color," Ng said. "I take real pride in that and also in raising awareness or at least giving people the idea that this is a direction in which their institutions could move."

Although Ng is always working to better the carillon community, her efforts stem from a deeply rooted appreciation for her instrument.

“I think what I enjoy the most about my job is that I get to bring music to people’s everyday lives," Ng said. "They don’t have to go seek out culture or beauty for a special occasion, or inside a concert hall, or for a paid concert; I’m a public servant in that sense. That’s a real privilege, I’d say, for me."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Burton Tower carillon was the third heaviest in the world, it is actually the fourth heaviest.