Monday 17 May 2010


Although the UCB was originally founded to cater for studies in engineering, military sciences and agriculture, and is well known for its prominence in the ”hard sciences”, with many Nobel prices to show for it, the university has since long time back become a well rounded institution of learning, with letters holding their ground to sciences. The Arts are well represented among the departments and one has only to think back to Isadora Duncan dancing in the Greek Theatre to understand why UCB also has won the honourable denomination as Athenaeum of the West.

I have been told that the departments of Art, among them the department of music, do not suffer from a dearth of gifted applicants. In the field of music, this gives rise to a range of high quality performance groups of a standard comparable to that of professional musicians. To participate in and train for these groups gives credit like ordinary study courses. There is, to mention just a few, a symphony orchestra, a jazz big band (the UC Jazz Ensemble), the University Chorus, the Cal Marching Band. In addition there are training courses with credit for all common, as well as some uncommon instruments. For instance, there are four courses of increasing degree of advancement in the Carillon, which all count for study credit.

You may recall that I promised, at the occasion of my visit to the Campanile (“Mission in sight”), to revisit the tower in order to experience its Carillon in action. Since promises have to be kept, I took the trouble of remounting the edifice on a clear and sunny day at noon. I was not alone, apparently the love of music is more widespread than commonly believed.

Soon a young, lanky, person arrived, whom we first thought to be the janitor. Surely, mastering the carillon must take many years of practise? But this is Berkeley, whose music department is attracting many highly gifted students. So, without further ado, the youngster started to trim the levers, so as to get the right leverage when playing the spiel.

As you can see in the pictures, the arrangement of levers looks rather elaborate. Granted that a concert piano has more keys than the levers of this carillon. However, you need room around each lever, in contrast to the piano, since you are pummelling them with your fist, instead of fingering them like you do on the piano. So, the 61 levers (there are 61 bells to play in the Campanile) are being organised on 4 levels, two each for the hands and feet. This provides a very agitated playing, with the player pummelling with all his four extremities, to get the bells in the right mood so to speak.

How does it all sound? Well, let me first point out that standing besides the carillonneur is not the optimal position, in particular if you are holding a camera and cannot cover your ears with your hands. The sounds are extremely strong and render it impossible to discern the melody actually played. But, even if you are standing at a safe distance of the tower, you may notice a certain discomfort in your hearing. This does not mean that you lack a music ear, quite the opposite. The bells are, due to their construction through founding, unable to produce clear sounds and give off all sorts of very strong over- (and under?) tones. So, when a convoluted tune is being played, notes and harmonies are far from being distinctly heard and tend to merge, which gives rise to the impression that the bells are badly tuned. Therefore it is advisable to keep the playing to simple, easily recognisable tunes, which our young carillonneur happily disregarded. From the note-sheet, looking at the cover picture, you see that the tune played was far from simple. Still, this was a memorable experience.

Stepping down from bell heaven to Campus proper, there is always other music going on somewhere on campus. When I was wandering around Sproul Plaza during the Earth Day week celebrations, for instance, the UCB Octet was performing, once again, and this time on the chairs of Sproul Hall itself. The Choir’s mellow tones chimed in well with the mood of the audience, standing captured at its feed, as if the melancholic music mirrored scant chances of success with getting the American public to accept the need for sustainable development.

Underneath the Sathergate stood a gentleman from quite a different league. Holding a giant Sousaphone wrapped around his portly stomach, he was recruiting volunteers for the Cal Marching Band, which is inspiring the Cal football team to ever greater deeds. With the instrument’s innards gleaming with gold, could anyone resist the call to horns to support the valiant Bear Athletes?

Just in front of him, under the trees bordering on Sproul Hall, the youngest “avantgarde” was sharpening its skills by giving its premier performance in public. We see here a first sign of the beginning cutting down of funds for education in California. The youngsters, being unable to get funding for their instruments in school, played in fact for money to be able to buy their own stringers.

No such problems disturbed the next group of performers, glimpsed on the left hand side of Sather Gate. Like the Octet, their instrument was built into their throats. This was no regular UCB group. These young enthusiasts, singing for a happy audience relaxing on their behinds, were determined to service Jesus and sounded quite happy doing just that.

If that was not enough for one day, melodious and, at the same time, rhythmic notes could be heard from down the stairs, at Lower Sproul Plaza. There was seated a full jazz orchestra, with piano, drums, a large saxophone and clarinet section and, last but not least, an ample trombone and trumpet section. These people knew how to draft their sounds! Even Quincy Jones might learn a riff or two from those enthusiasts!

I am well aware of the fact that pictures and text are insufficient to convey the full impact of the Berkeley Campus bouncing with mellow tones. But this is no reason to finish looking at this blog posting! There is still a finale in the making. As a special treat for you, my trusted readers, here it comes now, a video with both pictures and tones, which in its simple and clumsy manner still may serve as welcome rounding up.


HC said...

So typical of you Emil. While reading this blog I felt it was such a pity that one could not hear the sounds of all these fancy instruments and talented musicians. At the end, of course, you did not let us down but gave us a fourfold concert. I guess you have a lot of fun out there.

Emil Ems said...

Dear Hans Christian,

I am glad you enjoyed my humble video. This encourages me to publish one or two more. Watch out for those when I start reporting from the graduation week!

On a different track, did you notice that the flashing girl from my posting "Big Games down Memory Glade" has responded to your question about her motives?