As the ringing of the carillon bells subsides, a voice crackles over the walkie talkie: “That sounded great!”
Prof. Augusta Read Thomas is calling up to the belltower of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, where University Carillonneur Joey Brink and his student assistants—fourth-years Emily Kim, Joseph Min and João Francisco Shida—are seated in a row on the carillonneur’s bench, striking large wooden keys with their fists.
They’re practicing a piece that Thomas has composed for the Oct. 29 inauguration of Paul Alivisatos as the 14th president of the University of Chicago. To be played on the University’s 72-bell carillon—a massive instrument suspended within several stories of the tower’s interior scaffolding—the new music is among the works by UChicago faculty that will help set a celebratory tone for the ceremony.
“There are only two carillons in the world with so many bells, so the sound of them ringing together is distinctive and momentous,” said Thomas, the University Professor of Composition in the Department of Music. “It puts sonic waves into the sky that will ripple and shimmer in honor of the new presidency; it’s very metaphorical in a way.”
The four-minute carillon composition shares its title with the University’s motto: “Crescat scientia; vita excolatur,” translated as “Let knowledge grow from more and more; and so be human life enriched.”
A world-renowned composer and the director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, Thomas wanted the piece to sound optimistic, joyful and majestic. The music will greet inauguration guests shortly after they enter Rockefeller Chapel, before any speeches.
The piece’s resounding final chord will also mark the first time all 72 bells of the carillon will be rung at the same time. That chord requires the combined efforts of 12 carillonneurs simultaneously pressing dozens of keys, and another assistant in the basement more than 200 feet below activating an electric circuit that sets in motion the larger “swinging bells”—each the approximate size of a Smart car.
Those bells are so heavy that they cannot be swung by people striking keys. They have never before been played at the same time as all the manually-controlled bells.
“It’s sort of a crazy idea to ring every bell at once. Normally, you’d have a three-note chord, or a four-note arpeggio or a six-note run,” Thomas said, demonstrating each on the piano before smashing her forearm into the keyboard to simulate the weight of the final bell chord. “So it’s just extreme … but I like the sonic image of it.”