Lords of the Ring

H arkness Tower, Yale’s craggy Gothic spike rising 216 feet above High Street, sounds as foreboding as it looks.

Then you hear its singing voice.

Flowing through downtown most lunchtimes and evenings, Harkness’s music rings out from 54 bronze bells hung in stacked groupings near the top of the tower. The lightest bell—perched highest among the stacks and out of sight from the bottom of the belfry—weighs 26 pounds. The heaviest, positioned at the bottom next to three other behemoths, weighs nearly seven tons. Inside each bell, a commensurately sized clapper attaches to a bowed metal piece, which connects to a series of pipes, which distills into a system of thin mechanical 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 chair legs, which, when pressed, ring the corresponding bells.

sponsored by

The New Haven Symphony Orchestra

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 visit several years ago, carillonneur Elena Perry showed me how, her hands 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 impressively quick runs.

Then a senior at Yale and a co-chair of the Yale 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 endure a weeks-long intensive training process just to make it to an audition phase. Headquartered out of an office located just a few levels below the carillon, with practice carillons for off-the-clock polishing, the guild’s active members, now numbering 39 according to the website, take turns performing songs that range from canonical to pop.

The guild accepts song requests from the public via this form. 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.” 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 out, via those bells.

If you’re in the vicinity during a performance, their ebullient, transportive, sometimes haunting sounds are tough to miss, though the uninitiated may wonder where they’re coming from. Someday, I hope the guild will return to its pre-pandemic practice of offering performance-timed tours to the general public (in addition to Yale folks), affording extraordinary access not just to the carillon but also Harkness Tower itself.

For my own pre-pandemic tour, Perry met me on High Street at its base, then took me up a series of tall spiral staircases, brick and mortar giving way to metal. Eventually we made it up to the bells and the bedroom-sized box that houses the keys. Outside the box, a larger space offered some room to gawk at the bells rising above, with doors leading to tight balconies along the exterior upper reaches of Harkness.

Standing there taking in a close view of Harkness and a long view of the city as the carillon rang out right behind me, the tower took 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 updated story was originally published on March 24, 2015.

Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

Leave a Reply