Rockefeller Chapel carillon rings in 54th ‘Bells of Summer’ series

University carillonneur Joey Brink poses with the 100-ton Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

Rockefeller Chapel is holding a 10-week summer concert series on their 72-bell carillon, hosting players from around the world 271 steps up in the bell tower every Sunday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.

“Visitors can come sit out on the lawn, if the weather’s nice; bring a picnic, bring lawn chairs, bring their dogs, their children,” said University of Chicago carillonneur Joey Brink. In good weather, Rockefeller Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave., will stream video of the carillonneur striking down the notes with his or her fists from a small room up 200 feet in the bell tower. In bad weather, visitors can sit in the chapel, audio piped in through its speaker system.

“I’m well connected in the carillon community, and I like to invite performers whom I know play well, who haven’t performed here in a number of years or ever and can offer something new to the series,” he said. Two performers, Leslie Chan from the University of California, Berkeley, who will perform on July 28, and Alex Johnson from the University of Rochester in New York, who will perform on Aug. 4, are both recent college graduates who passed the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America’s examination last year.

Kimberly Schafer, currently the carillonneur at St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church, 1424 N. Dearborn St., will perform keyboard transcriptions by Black female Chicagoan composers on July 7. Carlo van Ulft, who directs Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon in Springfield, Illinois, will play a concert of his own arrangements on July 14.

Dutchman Bernard Winsemius (“the Baroque master of carillon,” said Brink) and Belgian Jan Veheyen, both from the carillon’s ancestral Low Countries, will play on June 30 and Aug. 11, respectively. Veheyen will play a concert with selections from classical to the rock and pop genres with guitarist Cedric Honings, his strumming broadcast far and wide with massive speakers up next to the bells.

Brink will play last, on Aug. 25. His student Simone Browne, who just graduated from the U. of C., passed the Guild of Carillonneurs’ exam this year and will play during next summer’s Rockefeller Chapel series. Brink teaches weekly lessons to 20 students, calling it the best part of his job.

The U. of C.’s instrument, 1 of only 5 in Chicagoland, is officially the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, named in honor of the John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s mother. It is among the largest in existence, just 5 bells smaller than the largest at the Kirk in the Hills church in Metro Detroit; by its weight (100 tons), it is the world’s 4th-largest. Its bells were cast in the early 1930s and installed 4 years after the building was finished in 1928.

Unlike church bells, carillon bells do not traditionally have names, but Rockefeller Chapel’s largest — the 3rd-largest tuned bell on Earth, weighing 18.5 tons and sounding a C-sharp — is nicknamed “Big Laura.” Some students call the 2nd-largest Big Ben, because it is roughly the same size as the famous bell at the Palace of Westminster in London. The smallest weighs 10 pounds. A system of wires links to the keyboard and pulls the clappers, all mechanically with no electronics.

Carillonneurs strike down stick-like keys called batons with their fists, moving a clapper only an inch to strike the individual bells. Though the largest bells take more effort to strike than the tiny ones, it does not take much effort. Brink, who plays the instrument with spectacular dexterity, has but faint calluses on his pinky fingers and explained that, like in all percussive instruments, loudness is determined by how quickly one accelerates the key down. A player has to quickly let up on the baton, however; otherwise the clapper holds against the bell and arrests the resonance. Brink said it is a common beginner’s mistake.

“We can play with a lot of dynamic range: very, very quietly, so that nobody can hear, or very loud, with all 100 tons of bronze,” Brink said.

Carillons do not carry the religious connotations of organs — although they look similar, with two rows of keyboards and another of pedals played with the feet. Though often found in church belfries, they are also common to cemeteries and parks, typically in memory of some benefactor or war dead. Neither is their music as typically sacred as that written for the organ. Brink said most contemporary music written for it is secular.

The carillon’s peculiar dynamic is that its community of players is very small — there are only around 600 worldwide — but whole communities hear its sound whenever it is played. “Something that we strive to think about frequently is how to reach everyone in our community with what we’re playing, rather than just people like us — especially in a diverse neighborhood like Hyde Park,” Brink said. “We want to play music that everybody can relate to.”

The instrument’s corpus, which has been overwhelmingly composed by carillonneurs themselves, includes compositions from folk traditions worldwide and a variety of religious traditions, including Judaism and Islam.

“The carillon repertoire is typically very White and Western, as you’d expect, but trying to expand the repertoire to include more people in the University soundscape is something we’re trying to do,” said Brink, adding that the only styles that do not translate well are those without a clear melody, making rap and R&B adaptations tricky, and styles that do not use chromatic scale like Indian classical music, with its myriad microtones (though Brink has played adaptations from Bollywood scores).

The instruments themselves came into existence in the early 1500s as a signal for the beginning of church services or clarion warnings about natural disasters and invasions. Towns would eventually come to compete to see which could build a bigger instrument or host a better carillonneur, with the instrument eventually becoming a concert instrument in the 20th century, when technical improvements allowed for better dynamics, tuning and other variations. The World Wars were not good for carillons; Brink estimated that only 20% of the instruments survived by 1945. (“Bells become cannons,” he said wistfully.)

He began playing as an undergraduate at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; he first learned about the instrument as a high schooler on a campus tour. “I didn’t expect the carillon to become my life. At that time, it was my hobby, and I was an engineering major in school,” he said. “But I really fell in love with it over those four years.”

After graduating, Brink passed the Carillonneurs Guild’s exam and studied in Belgium for a year after that. But after earning a master’s degree from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, he realized he might have a future playing the instrument professionally, dedicated himself to the practice for a year and got hired by the U. of C. in 2015. After some time living in Hyde Park’s Qumbya Housing Cooperative, he moved with his wife and daughter to Edgewater.

“Bells sound beautiful,” he said. “Big bells; little bells — they’re just really nice. Hearing a bell ring is wonderful. Hearing music on bells is a whole other thing. Playing such a public instrument is very rewarding. There’s always an audience, and you don’t know who your audience is. But they’re going to hear you, and that’s pretty cool.”