Sunday Afternoons in Princeton Have a Soundtrack All Their Own
On summer Sundays at 1 p.m., there is a gathering of sorts on the lawn outside Princeton University’s Cleveland Tower. The Collegiate Gothic style building is home to the University’s carillon, on which a short concert is performed by carilloneurs who come from as far as Australia to take their turn on the massive instrument.
Sitting on blankets and lawn chairs under the trees and reading their Sunday papers, or in their cars if it rains, local residents come to experience the music up close. But you don’t have to be near the tower to hear the rich, deep tones of the carillon.
“Princeton’s is the fifth largest instrument in North America, and its location is perfect because there aren’t any competing buildings surrounding it,” said Lisa Lonie, the Princeton University Carilloneur and a planner of “Tuning the Sky!,” the concert series that runs through the end of August. “So the sound can ricochet, and the instrument has room to breathe,” she continued. “People tell me all the time that over at the Institute for Advanced Study, they can hear it as clear as a bell. The sound travels, and that’s a really big plus for an instrument this size and weight.”
That weight is considerable — the largest bell of the carillon weighs 12,880 pounds. It was dedicated in 1927 and memorialized to the class of 1892. The instrument’s 67 bronze bells were cast in England, France, and the Netherlands. After a period of neglect, the carillon was renovated and rededicated in 1993. Since then, carilloneurs have been coming to Princeton each summer as part of “the Philadelphia circuit,” Ms. Lonie said. “There are others in the area, but Princeton is really the jewel because of its size, location, and prestige. People really love playing that instrument.”
Ms. Lonie was a teenager in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when she discovered the carillon. “I played in a handbell choir at my church, and the director was a carilloneur at Valley Forge,” she said. “One Sunday afternoon, we played at the chapel. Afterwards he showed us upstairs, and there it was. I was completely smitten. I went home and told my mother I wanted to learn how to play this thing. It had big, huge bells compared to my itty bitty handbells.”
Her parents signed her up immediately. “When a teenager shows an interest in anything you agree with, you’re all over it,” Ms. Lonie said with a laugh. “I wasn’t even driving yet. They took me for lessons at Valley Forge and I practiced at a local church.”
More than anything, it was the sound that captivated Ms. Lonie. “It’s so glorious. It’s atmospheric music, in a way,” she said. “And as a kid, I always dreaded public performances and piano recitals. With the carillon, you can’t see the player unless you put in a video camera. This gave me the opportunity to not feel eyes boring into my back. But I could make music and perform, without all the drama, if you will.”
Just about anything can be played on the carillon, from pop tunes to classical, and folk songs to original compositions. “I personally like to play a smattering of everything, because I don’t know who is listening at any given time,” Ms. Lonie said. “I love to play new age music, because its rhythmic and kind of minimalist. In fact, an upcoming sophomore from Westminster Choir College wrote a piece for the tower and it’s been published.”
At the upcoming concert this Sunday, August 9, Ms. Lonie will combine live playing with musical tracks for a “Karaoke Carillon” theme. “I’ll play songs like ‘The Best Day of My Life’ but also movie music and things like ‘Carol of the Bells,’ she said. “I think it will be a lot of fun.”
Ms. Lonie also plays the carillon at St. Thomas’ Church in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, and at The Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. Her repertory varies, depending on where she is. “Here I can play the theme from Game of Thrones at the University, you can’t do that at church,” she said. She plays on Sundays during the school year, “… just about every Sunday except during PhD exams, when the students need quiet,” she said. “The only other time I don’t play is if there’s a lot of ice. You go up an inside spiral stair to get to the carillon, but there’s a little part that goes through the lower belfry, which is open. So if there is ice, I don’t go.”
The nine people who study with Ms. Lonie practice on a console in the basement of the tower. The group is made up of University students and people from the community. “There is only one who is a music major, at Westminster,” she said. “Most of them are math majors, psychology majors — they just run the gamut. They do this because it’s a release. You can just go over and bang it out. It’s fun, and it’s physical. But you’re also providing music to the community.”
The concert series continues on Sundays, from 1 to 1:45 p.m., through August 30. Grover Cleveland Tower at The Graduate College is located off College Road. Call (609) 258-3654 for more information.