Ring Tones

L ike something out of The Lord of the Rings, “Harkness Tower” sounds foreboding enough to match the look of its bearer, the craggy Gothic grimace rising 216 feet above High Street south of Elm.

Then you hear its lovely singing voice.

Harkness’s songs emanate from 54 bronze bells hung in stacked groupings at the top of the tower. The lightest bell—perched highest among the stacks, out of sight—weighs 26 pounds. The heaviest, positioned at the bottom next to three other behemoths, weighs nearly seven tons. Inside each bell, a metal gumdrop—or “clapper,” occasionally the size of a cannonball—attaches to a bowed metal piece, which connects to a system of pipes, which distills into a series of thin mechanical (that is, non-electrical) wires. Reaching down through a steel-girder support structure into a grooved metal box sized like a small bedroom, the wires connect to sets of thick pedals and wooden handles like half-finished chair spindles, which, when pressed, ring corresponding bells.

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Together these components make the Yale Memorial Carillon. But a carillon, or at least this one, doesn’t make music on its own. In front of its pedals and handles is a bench, and on that bench there’s got to be a person pulling the strings—a brain controlling what and how the tower sings. During a March 2015 visit, carillonneur Elena Perry (pictured in various shots above) did it with feet below and hands above, the latter usually bunched into loose fists extended from fluid wrists and forearms moving a lot like a drummer’s. Despite being about as tall as the rig in front of her was wide, she managed to range up and down the entire thing with relative ease, sometimes playing deliriously fast runs.

Then a senior at Yale and a co-chair of the Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs—the proudly student-run group that manages and performs the ringing of the bells—Perry had had a lot of practice. New guild members have to endure a nine-week intensive training process just to make it to a final audition phase (typically weaning an initial crop of sixty to eighty applicants down to four to eight admissions, I’m told). Headquartered out of an office located just a few levels below the carillon, with practice carillons for off-the-clock polishing, the guild’s 25 active members take turns playing the bells when Yale’s in session, performing most days from 12:30 to 1 p.m. and 5 to 6. Songs range from the canonical to the pop-cultural: atop a foundation of more traditional music, the repertoire includes tunes like “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift, “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera and “Go the Distance” from Disney’s Hercules.

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The guild actively fields song requests from the public, which it accepts via its website. Ellen Dickinson, a Yale and guild alum who’s been advising and teaching carillon performance to new rounds of guilders ever since, says, “We try to honor every request as long as it’s reasonable,” which is to say, as long as it can be done on the carillon. They’ve gotten “every kind” of request, she says, like “folk songs of different countries to honor [foreign-born] professors’ birthdays or love song requests for a marriage proposal. Lots of cool things come in.” And then come out, via those bells.

If you’re in the vicinity during a performance, their ebullient, transportive, sometimes even haunting sounds are tough to miss. What’s easy to miss, and extraordinary besides, is the fact that you can get a front-row seat for pretty much any performance you like. By request, the guild offers performance-coincident tours that, among other things, lift the veil on Harkness Tower.

Meeting on High Street at its base, a guild member takes you up a series of tall spiral staircases, where brick-and-mortar construction gives way to metal. Eventually you make it up to the bells and the bedroom-sized box that houses the keys. Outside the box, a larger space offers some room to gawk at the bells that rise above, with doors leading to tight balconies along the exterior upper reaches of Harkness.

Standing there taking in a long view of the city with carillon bells ringing right behind you, the tower takes on a new air, and not just because it gets pretty blustery that high up.

Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs
Harkness Tower – 74 High St, New Haven (map)
Daily performances at 12:30 and 5:30pm during the school year.
Tours at 12:15 and 5:15pm during the school year, by request.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. This lightly updated story was originally published on March 24, 2015.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories.

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