Carillon: The Bells of the Season

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It’s just after dark on a cold December evening, and Stephen Knight is in a hurry to get to work. Holding his white cane, he clatters with surprising speed up flight after flight of a precariously skinny spiral staircase. Finally we arrive at a quiet, paneled room about 15 feet square.

SHORT: “So, we’re just underneath the instrument?”

KNIGHT: “That’s right. Those wires go straight up through the ceiling, to the bells. I’m going to climb this ladder now, and open the trap door. There’s a piece of pipe that holds it open.”

When he opens the door in the roof, a gust of cold air sweeps down. Through the hole, you can look up and see the stars…and the circular bottoms of some gigantic iron bells.

The huge bells, almost close enough overhead to touch, let loose a virtual hurricane of sound that vibrates all the way to the core of your bones. Steve sits in front of an assembly of pegs and wires that looks like an old-fashioned weaver’s loom. The mechanism requires a surprising amount of force! he has to use his entire hands to slam and knock each note into place. If you hold your ear next to the console, you can hear the violence that’s underneath the gentle melody!

Steve Knight and this carillon – at Samford University, on the side of Shades Mountain in Homewood – go way back. As a college student, he was the first person to take lessons on the instrument, when it was installed in 1967. He went on to study carillon in Belgium and France. Today, in addition to playing for special events on campus, he averages a couple of spontaneous concerts a week. As the notes roll down the hillside, he has no way of knowing how many people are listening. But people have told him that when the weather is right they’ve heard the massive bells as far away as Brookwood Village shopping center, almost a mile away.

KNIGHT: “The largest one weighs about two and a half tons, 5,000 pounds! The smallest one weighs 24 pounds. About the size of a teacup.”

There’s a reason, Steve says, for the sort of plaintive, bittersweet air that a carillon gives to even an upbeat Christmas carol.

KNIGHT: “Each bell sounds sort of like a minor chord. Listen! See that? In the last 350 years, since the tuning was perfected, bells have more metal in them – and, as a consequence, ring for a longer time. It’s very noticeable, you know. Very dominant. Now I’ll do Noel Nouvelle. It’s a nice little French carol. Christmas is the biggest one of them all. It’s really the favorite time of mine, to play.”