Uchicago

Rockefeller Chapel presses its majestic carillon into service for a two-day festival of new music

By Peter Margasak

If you've spent much time on the University of Chicago campus, you've heard the chiming bells of the Rockefeller Chapel carillon carrying across the grounds. I'd been hearing them for years before I learned how impressive the instrument actually is—the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, installed in 1932 following a two-year casting process, includes 72 bells totaling 100 tons of bronze, controlled by an array of keys and pedals. Its low C bell is the third largest tuned bell in the world. Carillons seem suited to traditional and liturgical music, not least because they're often installed in church towers, but over their 500-year history they've also been used for very different sorts of sounds.

In 2014, in the process of arranging a series of concerts by idiosyncratic composer and keyboardist Charlemagne Palestine (including one where he played Rockefeller Chapel's massive pipe organ), I learned that on Palestine's previous visit to Chicago, way back in 1982, he'd performed on the carillon as part of a New Music America program curated by John Cage. In 2001 the Rockefeller carillon played a concert in collaboration with Friends of the Gamelan, who spread out their own bronze instruments on the lawn below. And in 2016 composer and University of Chicago professor Augusta Read Thomas made the carillon part of the Ear Taxi Festival, presenting a concert performed by Rockefeller carillonneur Joey Brink that featured three of his own compositions and works by Tomas Gueglio and Iddo Aharony. Below you can check out the title composition of a recording built around that program, Letters From the Sky. In the background you can hear the chirping of birds, which is certainly a quality that distinguishes a carillon concert—to experience the full splendor of the bells' sound, you have to be outside.

On Friday evening and Saturday, Rockefeller presents an even more ambitious event: the Rockefeller Carillon New Music Festival features pieces written exclusively in the 21st century, the overwhelming majority within the past five years. Many were commissioned for the fest.

Dutch composer Geert D'hollander has contributed two pieces that feature other instruments: Simple Suite no. 3 for Carillon, inspired by Bach's Cello Suite no. 3, will pair carillonneur Frans Haag with cellist Sihao He, while Introduction & Aria will pair Brink with trombonist Riley Leitch. I'm not familiar all the composers, many of whom are quite young, but I do recognize some of the important rising voices on the program—among them Los Angeles-based Laura Steenberge, multidisciplinary sound artist and composer Yvette Janine Jackson, and Chicago-based Cypriot composer Maria Kaoutzani. Thomas is involved too, of course, and her Ripple Effects will get its world premiere on Friday at 6 PM. The festival is free to attend, and the full program and other details can be found on the Rockefeller website.

Published online by the Chicago Reader on May 24, 2018.