For students, faculty and staff on the University of Chicago campus last year, the absence of the carillon bells was noticeable. When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Rockefeller Chapel closed along with the rest of the University—silencing the signature sounds of its 100-ton instrument.
But now, the familiar ring of the bells has returned, often in the form of hits as The Lord of the Rings theme song, one of the most requested carillon songs. Adopting a number of new protocols to ensure their health and safety, carillonneurs have resumed their twice-daily schedule—playing the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon at noon and 5 p.m., six days per week.
University Carillonneur Joey Brink spoke with UChicago Arts about his monthslong absence from Rockefeller Chapel, how COVID-19 changed the way he and students practice, and what it means for him to return to his beloved instrument.
How has your daily routine with the carillon changed since the onset of COVID-19?
The carillon was silent for three months from March 15 to June 15, as the University shut down through the stay-at-home order. In those three months, my students and I were unable to play or practice the instrument at all—carillons are too big to take home! We opted instead for weekly virtual get-togethers, workshops and classes. I would prepare a short class on a particular carillon topic—composing, arranging, a historical snapshot, diversity and inclusion in the carillon community, practicing tips, etc. I spent more of my time in these months composing and making arrangements, including several arrangements of Frozen songs, being unable to get these out of my head as I quarantined with our 2-year-old daughter!
What was it like returning the Rockefeller Chapel and the carillon?
Returning to the instrument on June 15 was a breath of fresh air. For me, it was empowering, uplifting and deeply gratifying. I began playing on June 15, Monday through Friday, every day from noon to 1 p.m. Normally I would have had several students, and many guest performers playing throughout the summer as well, but in these next three months, I was the only individual allowed back in the tower, as the policy for returning students to the instrument was still being worked out. As a result, I felt even more like Quasimodo, being the only one in the tower, and often the only one in the chapel. I actually really enjoyed it! I guess that’s not surprising.
We received many comments from the campus community in those first weeks expressing gratitude for the return of the bells. The carillon is unique in many ways—one being that it is the perfect social-distance instrument. I never interact with the audience, or even know who is listening. With very little live music in the city, I felt that I was able to contribute something even more powerful to the community.