Friday, May 31, 2013


Until earlier this week, I had never heard of the word carilloneur before.

Turns out, it's a musician who plays a carillon, as in a series of pitched bells, hung in a tower and played by striking a series of connected pegs ("batons" in carillon-speak). The batons are arranged much like a traditional keyboard, with a row of naturals and the sharps and flats in patterns of twos and threes above it.

I learned all this meeting Doug Gefvert, the carilloneur at Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge National Historical Park.

I had reached out to Doug for a work-related project, and he graciously agreed to meet me at the Chapel and give me a tour.

Full disclosure: I told him beforehand that I was a long-term organist. I figured it would save him a bunch of time explaining the instrument etc. if he could talk in musicianship shorthand.

It did.

Doug met me at the base of the 120-foot tower. A jangle of keys -- almost bell-like themselves -- unlocked a grate that covered a thin doorway in one of the corners, and we began the climb. The spiral staircase is extremely narrow and a bit chilly even on a warm June afternoon.

Up and up we went. There are a few skinny windows placed along the climb, and these feature small plaques with bell trivia along the way (the largest bell weighs 8,000 pounds, I learn). The spinning motion as we rise brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.

About 3/4ths the way up is Doug's office. Again, a jangle of keys allows entry. It is a spacious, square room housing a "practice" carillon that enables him to brush up on a piece without disturbing half of Montgomery County. The ceiling and floor feature trapdoors, and a powerful winch system is in place, all for the purpose of removing and replacing bells when necessary.

We exit Doug's office and continue the climb. At the peak of the tower, he unlocks yet one more door, revealing a small, metal catwalk to a square, wooden structure with windows on all four sides. My heart-rate races just a bit at the height, but the view is spectactular.

Doug unlocks the final door, revealing the carillon. It is amazingly simple; for we organists who are accustomed to ranks and pipes and bellows and reeds and worries about air pressure, the carillon is a purely physical instrument. Pound on the batons with your fist, and a series of cables grabs each clapper and draws it to the rim of the bell, producing a tone.

Doug climbs aboard, spreads his music out and settles in to play. A pair of razor-thin fishing wires keeps the sheets in place, preventing them from ruffling to the floor in the breeze.

The angelic music begins to float over the lush countryside of Valley Forge National Historical Park.

I'm amazed at the color he's able to coax from the instrument. Like a piano, it is possible to vary the dynamics, adding subtlety and character: The harder you strike, the louder the tone. He's also extremely agile at this, feet and fists flying up and down the keyboard, as the piece he's picked is a prestissimo waltz.

When he's finished, the final tones ring out and he grins. As do I.

We talk for a while more. The instrument is ever-changing, subject to tone variations based on weather, humidity and even wind speed, as the sound waves can be expanded or compressed by a even a gentle ululation of air.

Then he does something unforgettable: He rises from the bench and tells me to sit.

Again, my heart races.

Doug thumbs through a nearby hymnal and comes up with "My Country 'Tis of Thee." He places it in front of me, orients me with regard to the batons ("Middle-C is there."), coaches me a bit on technique ("Strike between the first and second digit of your pinkie fingers.") and lets me go.

Tentatively, "My Country 'Tis of Thee" begins clanging out of the bell tower. The eight notes associated with "from e-ev-ry moun-tain side" are a little sketchy, but the tune is recognizable.

I'm in heaven.

Doug then directs me to play it again. And as I do, he beings improvising on the upper end of the keyboard. Now, "My Country 'Tis of Thee" is embellished with a ringing descant and amazing harmonics that turn it into something artful.

We finish together.

And I thank him for one of the most memorable experiences in my music career.