Live music’s last stand: the carillon bells of the University of Michigan

Sunday, October 4, 2020 - 3:48pm

NOSELL

File photo/Daily

When we think of live music, we often think of dancing bodies with all eyes focused on the musicians. The experience is an immersive one, an event that demands attention and proximity. While COVID renders many incarnations of live music dangerous, there’s an unlikely source of live music that remains standing at the University of Michigan and that’s the carillon bells.

Carillon bells are a set of bronze bells that one can play through a keyboard and pedalboard. There are two sets at the University: the Charles Baird Carillon in Burton Memorial Tower, and the Robert and Ann Lurie Carillon on North Campus. At first glance, carillons don’t seem to be the most accessible form of music. Few know how to play them; they are rare and expensive, sit high above your head and are hardly something you can dance to. And yet, they’re revealing themselves to be one of the most accessible forms of music. No tickets, no special knowledge required — if you happen to be walking in their vicinity, you are in automatic attendance of the show.

“It’s a really powerful instrument ... in terms of shaping the whole landscape of a place,” first-year Civil and Environmental Engineering PhD student Eva Abalgalhiti recently told The Daily. “You play something, and everybody has to listen to that.” The audience is everywhere.

The carillon world, Abalgalhiti explained, is really small. Everyone knows everyone — she’s met the composers of pieces she plays that can correct her mistakes and help her further interpret the music. From the outside looking in, one might assume it to be an elitist community. Carillons obviously aren’t available everywhere. They most often make an appearance at prestigious and expensive institutions. But, Abalgalhiti explained, “that’s not necessarily the case. It’s more a matter of we need more people who play carillon to be excited about sharing that.” Of course, carillons are not easy to gain access to, but once you are part of an institution that has a set, it is surprisingly easy to get involved. Abalgalhiti did so with very little musical training beforehand.

Performing for an audience so far away, often including people busy in transit, seems like an odd experience. One doesn’t get to feed off the energy of the crowd, like many musicians do in concert. Instead the artist sits alone in their tower. The isolation — something not often found in music — may seem extreme, but Abalgalhiti offered a touching story to combat this impression. During the recent GEO strike, she watched the picket lines from above and played a few well-known union songs for her concert, to hearten the crowd. 

“Everybody on the ground, apparently, was like, ‘Look what’s happening!,’” Abalgalhiti said. “I think people take more notice now, of what’s going on with the carillon ... It can be an opportunity to inject your personal beliefs, or whatever, into the campus scene.” Demonstrations like this can provide a strange sort of heavenly support for campus actions like the strike.

Having just arrived at the university, Abalgalhiti is still getting to know the carillon program, but has enjoyed it thus far. The community is filled with passionate individuals. They are innovative in finding ways to drive the craft forward. She advises anyone interested in carillon or any collaborations to come forward and seek out a way to get involved. There are lots of ways to participate.

“What I think about a lot is how can you use carillon to kind of project something about what you believe, or send out a message of sympathy or welcoming or care?” Abalgalhiti said.

Daily Arts Writer Fia Kaminski can be reached at fiakamin@umich.edu.


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.