There Are Real, Live Musicians Up There, Hitting Those Levers With
by Fernando Quintero
The music of physical chemistry graduate student David Osborne has a certain ring to it.
Osborne is one of two recently certified additions to the campus carillon staff, an elite corps of men and women who several times each week play the giant musical bells from high atop Sather Tower.
Often heard and seldom seen, carillonists are extremely dedicated to their musical craft, enduring hours of rigorous training and preparation before they are allowed to perform for the public.
Three times a week, at dusk and at dawn, Osborne fills the campus air with the stately sound of his unique instrument.
"I like the fact that it's such a rare instrument. It's something special," said Osborne, a fourth-year doctoral candidate. "I feel extremely lucky to be a carillonist."
Since 1978, when the Class of 1928 gave the university 36 French-made bells, carillon concerts have been performed regularly on campus.
The Campanile, as the 307-foot campus landmark is more popularly known, was originally installed with 12 bells. Cast in England and first played in 1917, the dozen bells constituted a chime, and music was played one note at a time.
On carillons, which constitute at least 24 bells, more complex music can be played. The Campanile's present total of 61 bells was reached in 1983, with the donation of 13 French bells by alumni Jerry and Evelyn Hemmings Chambers.
Today, Berkeley is among the premier centers of carillon performance. University Carillonist Ronald Barnes is considered one of the top players in the world. And almost the entire playing staff at Berkeley are certified members of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America.
To join the 300-member guild, a candidate must go through a rigorous certification process. First, the candidate submits a tape of three required compositions chosen by the guild's board of directors. The list of candidates is narrowed down, and the successful candidates are then invited to play a recital before the entire guild at its annual meeting. Afterward, carillonneur members vote in new colleagues.
Osborne and Lori Lamma, a woman who also works locally as a horse wrangler, were recently accepted into the guild. The other carillon players are Jeff Davis, assistant carillonist; David Stillman, an engineering grad student; David Hunsberger, an attorney and Boalt Hall staffer; Richard Strauss, a carillon consultant and Oakland resident; and John Agraz, a medical worker.
"I suppose some people don't realize there is actually someone playing the bells. I sometimes feel like we're thought of as a bunch of little gnomes playing bells in the tower," said Davis, who began studying the bells in 1984 under Barnes' tutelage.
"Many people think it's a tape they hear," said Lilyanne Clark, elevator operator at Sather Tower.
Carillonists make bells ring by striking small wooden levers with the sides of the fists and by pushing foot pedals. The bells range in weight from 349 to nearly 12,000 pounds and comprise five chromatic octaves.
Davis, who has written his own compositions for the carillon, said the bell is a complicated musical instrument because it vibrates in every direction, unlike wind and string instruments.
"The allure for me is the dynamic range the carillon affords," said Davis. "You can play soft or loud. It stretches the musical range of expression to great extremes." He enjoys the "element of risk involved. If you make a mistake, everyone can hear it. It hangs in the air."
It was Osborne's love of rock climbing that inadvertently introduced him to the carillon as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, home to one of the largest carillons in the country.
"I climbed up through the tower one day, rather illicitly," Osborne recalled. "I saw the bells on the way up and ran into the carillonist. I asked him to show me the bells, and then I asked for lessons. The rest is history."
Davis said carillon playing is currently going through a "second golden age." The carillon first came into existence during the Renaissance, when two Belgian brothers figured out how to tune a bell. But when they died, the art died with them.
Around the turn of the century, an English priest became curious why he couldn't identify what notes a bell had. He eventually figured out the secret to tuning a bell, he published several articles on his findings, and the art was reborn.
"Berkeley will long be remembered as a place that stood right in the center of carillon performance," said Davis. "It's quite extraordinary what we have here."