Texas Tech University

School of Music Students, Faculty Ring New Life Into Carillon

Amanda Castro-Crist

April 26, 2018

(VIDEO) The group of Red Raiders hope to increase the number of performances on the Texas Tech University Baird Memorial Carillon in upcoming semesters.

The two bell towers atop the Texas Tech University Administration Building are some of the most identifiable sights on the Lubbock campus. The sound of the Victory Bells in the east tower are recognizable to anyone who has been within hearing distance after a Red Raider victory.

But unless they've attended the annual Carol of Lights in December or the TECHsan Memorial during Homecoming Week, chances are they are less familiar with the music from the Baird Memorial Carillon, housed in the west tower.

A group of students from the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts wants to change that and plans to bring the music of the carillon to Raiderland on a more regular basis.

“There are a quarter-million dollars worth of bells up there,” said Matthew O'Neill, a doctoral student of musical arts and musical composition in the School of Music. “It's here, it's something that gives visibility to our university, and it's something that belongs to everybody, not just the person who plays it, but every single person who walks by.”

O'Neill is president of the Texas Tech Society of Composers, Inc. His interest in carillon music began when he first began composing and saw an ad from the North American Guild of Carillonneurs for a competition. His first question: what exactly is a carillon?

“Most simply, a carillon is a big set of bells,” said Peter Martens, an associate professor of music theory and the associate director for graduate studies in the School of Music. “They're all upstairs in the tower. We have 43 bells, and they're laid out, more or less, just like a piano keyboard.”

The difference between a piano and a carillon is in the console, or the area where a person actually interacts with the instrument. While a pianist uses their fingers and feet to play keys, on a carillon, a carillonneur uses their entire hands (and feet) to press down on lever-like batons that each activate a bell to produce a specific pitch. 

Martens said in Texas, there are around 15 carillons in use. In the entire country, it's just about 175. Unlike other institutions that may use the instrument on a daily basis, Texas Tech's carillon is generally used only for special events and memorial services. One reason there aren't more performances is the difficulty of practicing before the actual event.

“It's definitely a challenge from a learning standpoint, because you don't really have a chance to practice this instrument in private,” Martens said. “You tend to practice an instrument in a room or your home. Here, when you play a note, the entire campus can hear it.”

Marten hopes to soon have a solution to overcome that obstacle. In the School of Music, a practice carillon sits in a faculty office. While it's not currently easily accessible for practicing students, he said they are actively searching for a space to serve as the practice instrument's new home. Once the opportunity to practice is there, there are between 15 and 20 students waiting for a chance to play in the tower.

The benefits of having regular carillon performances are numerous, Martens said.

“One of them is simply to use the instrument and to have this public music being made as a basic artistic expression and engagement with the campus,” Martens said. “In the School of Music, we have a group of composers for whom the carillon is kind of this interesting, mysterious instrument, and it actually behaves very differently in terms of its acoustics than any other instrument you compose for. It's a uniquely challenging sound and situation.

“Another is that it provides for some interesting performance possibilities. For instance, we could play the carillon up here, with another ensemble somewhere else around campus, and with modern technology being what it is, actually sync up those sorts of things. So some of our student composers are really interested in exploring the unique resources of the instrument itself, but also in collaborations that I don't know have been done before.”

O'Neill said using the carillon more frequently also will give current students the chance to recognize the efforts of those who played and composed at Texas Tech before them.

“A composer and faculty member who was here for many years, Mary Jean van Appledorn, was a carillonneur herself and wrote many pieces,” O'Neill said. “There has to be at least 30 in the Texas Tech University Library that are her original pieces. Some of them are in her original hand, which is quite neat, and she sat in this very tower, so it's quite interesting to keep that legacy going at Texas Tech.”

This semester, O'Neill, Martens and Chad Scarborough, another music theory graduate student, have already started additional carillon performances to coincide with “Office Hours with the President,” sessions where students can share ideas, ask questions and get to know Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec.

The next carillon performance will be just before the final office hours session of the semester, from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday (May 3). Martens said he is working with students to create a schedule of performances for the coming semesters and invites others interested in the carillon to reach out.

“We certainly want to use these initial events as a call for increased participation,” Martens said. “If there are other people we don't know about who might be interested and would have the capacity play, come and talk to us. It would be good to get you on board.”