July 5, 2023

Captivated by PU Campus Carillon, Young Musician Promotes its Charms

GETTING THE WORD OUT: Gustavo R. Almirall, a rising senior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, is so passionate about the Princeton University carillon that he has made it his mission to introduce others to its music. He is shown at an event with a poster he made of the carillon playing mechanism and other information about the instrument. (Photo courtesy of Gustavo R. Almirall)

By Wendy Greenberg

Although its chimes create a lovely soundscape across the Princeton University campus, the University carillon is not familiar to many residents and students. But one local high school musician is trying to change that.

Gustavo Rangel Almirall, a rising senior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, is so captivated by the carillon that he has mounted his own public awareness campaign he calls Project Carillon. Almirall has studied the instrument and its history, and has set up informational tables at events and fairs in the area.

“The carillon is part of Princeton’s cultural heritage,” he said. “My message is that it is important to keep it alive.”

On his Instagram, @project_carillon, he noted that bells go back to his childhood, when he rang a bell on his grandfather’s farm. “Bells are almost everywhere, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find one just around the corner,” he posted.

Almirall found his bell in the Cleveland Tower on the Princeton campus.

Introduced to the carillon through a Facebook post sent to him by his mother, Almirall attended a Sunday Princeton carillon concert, where the audience sits on the lawn outside the tower. He said that as soon as he heard the carillon play his favorite song, “Walking on the Moon” by The Police, he emailed Princeton carillonneur Lisa Lonie with some questions. “Next thing I knew, without ever being inside a carillon, I was up in the playing room, playing a simple song with her for all of Princeton hear.”

But he also noticed that not many people were listening on the lawn with him. “So I sat there,” he said, “and thought about how much heritage and culture is being lost because the carillon is going more unknown every day. Realizing that, I knew it was my time to give back to the place that gave me everything.”

Lonie said, “I always tell folks that the carillon is the loudest sound on campus that few know about. It’s a community instrument whose sound isn’t confined within four walls of a room, but spreads freely a quarter to a half mile in all directions.”

“If you live within earshot of the bells, or play golf at Springdale, you know when the carillon is played,” she added. “If not, perhaps someone reads about the instrument in a publication or views a website and is intrigued enough to visit on a Sunday afternoon.”

Lonie adds that it is so important for enthusiasts like Almirall to spread the word about the “gown to town” asset.

Having grown up in Brazil, Almirall said he moved with his family to the Princeton area when he was 10. He considers the carillon part of his Princeton welcome. “It has given me happiness, a sense of belonging, and so much more,” he said. “It even gave me a different, yet beautiful culture.”

To “give back,” he has found opportunities to educate whomever he can about the carillon. He has a tent and table that he has taken to area fairs and farmers markets, and he includes a model of a working bell he made out of wood, and a bell he got online.

He particularly likes learning about the history of the instrument — it goes back to 1644, and he notes in his materials that during World War II many bells were dismantled to provide copper.

Almirall describes it as “a cross between organs and bells.” The Princeton University carillon is one of 166 in North America, and one of four in New Jersey, according to the website of the Guild of Carillonneurs of North America. 

He was excited to find a copy of the Princeton Carillon Book (Princeton University Press 1948) by Arthur Lynds Bigelow, who was the carillonneur from 1941 until his death in 1967.

According to the Princeton website, and Almirall’s research, a carillon has 23 or more bells, which are hung stationary with only the clapper moving against the lip of the bell. It is played with fists and feet, activating batons and pedals. It is the carillonneur who controls sound variation. A manual carillon (like Princeton’s) can produce nuanced sound and musical expression.

The largest bell of the Princeton carillon weighs 12,880 pounds and the carillon is the fifth largest in the United States. Dedicated in 1927, it is a gift of The Class of 1892. The 67 bronze bells were cast in England, France, and The Netherlands.

Almirall is learning to play the carillon on a practice carillon in the Princeton Chapel, where he is adapting a Brazillian song and learning to play Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

Almirall also pursues his love of music at school, playing piano and percussion in his school’s orchestra and band, and guitar and piano for the jazz band. He is a teacher assistant for the wind ensemble, and served as drum major for the 2022-2023 marching band season.

He feels he has already made a difference in getting the word out about the carillon. Students at his school and at other schools are interested in hearing the carillon music, but the awareness, he said, “is still not where I want it to be.”

Despite Amirall’s passion for music and carillons, he plans to study psychology in college, as the link between music and mental health is another interest. In the future, he envisions the carillon becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And, he can’t wait to perform a full concert.

He said that anyone who wants to share his interest in the carillon can follow his Instagram @project_carillon, or Facebook at the same name.

And he encourages everyone to hear the carillon. The concerts in the Summer Series at Cleveland Tower, 88 College Road West, start at 1 p.m. every Sunday through September 3, and are held rain or shine. Admission is free. For additional information and directions, visit gradschool.princeton.edu/about/carillon.