Keep calm and carillon
This story originally appeared in Yale Engineering magazine.
Does the name Joey Brink ring a bell? While an undergraduate student majoring in mechanical engineering, Brink was not only a star carillonneur on campus, his senior project focused on modernizing the centuries-old art of bell-ringing.
Today, he ranks among the top carillonneurs in the world (in 2014, he won the International Queen Fabiola Carillon Competition, considered the most prestigious honor in the field). And he continues to apply his engineering skills to the craft, expanding what carillon music can be and who can play it. He has toured the world playing the carillon, and released the CD, “Letters from the Sky,” featuring his own compositions for the carillon.
When he was a student at Yale, Brink quickly became entranced by the music coming from the Harkness Memorial Carillon and joined the Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs. By the time he was a senior, his musical and engineering lives merged neatly into a senior project where he created a miniature practice carillon that could be adjusted to mimic the feel of a real instrument. He took advantage of the laser cutters and 3D printers, newly available at SEAS at the time to create a practice carillon that was “haptically accurate” — that is, the larger bells have more weight resistance than the treble bells which are much lighter.
The goal, he said, was to make the process of learning and practicing the carillon more accessible to someone on a student budget. In the carillon world, accessibility is something of an issue. The carillon — a set of chromatically tuned bells usually housed in the tower of a church or institutional building — is arguably the least accessible musical instrument. Its sounds may be ubiquitous, but to actually play a carillon is to enter a rather exclusive club. For one thing, there’s only about 185 of them in North America. And even if you are among the few who gets to play one of these, how do you practice? In many cases, you have to practice on the carillon itself, which means that everyone within a few blocks can hear your rehearsal, flubs and all. There are practice carillons, but they go for $15,000 to $100,000. “No student is going to be able to afford one of these,” Brink said.
Not only are most practice carillons extremely expensive, using one often doesn’t feel much like playing an actual carillon. That’s largely because of the difference in the weight of the bells. For instance, Yale’s carillon has 54 bells. The lightest is 23 pounds, and the heaviest is seven tons. To strike each note, the carillonneur depresses a baton connected to a clapper for each bell. For the higher notes (the lighter bells), the batons are depressed without much force, but the lower notes require considerably more. Most practice carillons don’t take these differences in force into account. Complicating things further, each carillon is unique in its number of bells and their respective weights.
For his senior project, Brink traveled throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts to better understand the wide range of bell weights and how that affects the feel of playing different carillons. Doing so allowed him to build a 15-key device that could be adjusted to mimic different carillons.
After graduating, Brink received his diploma from the Royal Carillon School in Belgium, and then a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Utah. He continued his research on practice carillons and how to make them more accessible and received a grant from Guild of Carillonneurs of North America (GCNA) to advance his research.
“I made some prototypes — I had learned a lot from my time at Yale about fabrication and materials that lend themselves to efficiency and portability,” he said. To inform practice carillon designers and manufacturers about how to better make affordable practice keyboards, he conducted extensive surveys of those in the carillon community about what carillonneurs are looking for in a practice instrument. Using his prototype, subjects would offer feedback about their preferences on such things as materials, spring tension, and whether digital or analog generated better sounds.
A year ago, he presented his research at a conference of the GCNA. He also caught the attention of Benjamin Sunderlin, a carillon manufacturer, who has long wanted to sell an affordable practice instrument.
“I was really interested in Joey’s research,” said Sunderlin. “I think one of the things that’s a big concern is the price — trying to find something affordable enough to call it ‘affordable,’ but robust enough to stand up to regular playing.”
Taking Brink’s research, Sunderlin started building models, and finished the first ones that were ready for sale this past summer. A four-octave instrument goes for $4,000, and a five-octave one sells for $5,000. It’s still pricey, Sunderlin said, but much more in the range of something many carillonneurs can afford. He’s already heard from more than a dozen musicians, asking about the instruments.
Ellen Dickinson, advisor and teacher for the Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs, said her former student’s unique mix of expertise gives him a valuable perspective.
“Joey understands the whole picture, which is one of the things that makes him a really important person in the carillon world,” she said. “He really understands the engineering, understands the business side of things and — first and foremost — he’s one of the finest players out there.”
And Brink is using his engineering skills for other carillon innovations. This year, he set a goal to install a new speaker system in the bell tower at his new home, the University of Chicago. Besides honing his audio engineering skills, it helps broaden the possibilities of the carillon. As an instrument, the carillon isn’t the easiest fit for a collaboration with other musicians. It’s not exactly the kind of instrument that you can pick up and bring to a nearby jam. Other musicians pretty much have to come to you.
Brink and another musician recently took advantage of the new sound system with a piece for trombone and carillon.
“Normally, of course, no one would hear the trombone outside, so he played it through a microphone hooked up to these huge speakers in the tower blasting the trombone at the same volume as the bells,” he said. “So you’re hearing at the same time the trombone and the bells, which is a strange experience.”
Another recital also expanded on the possibilities of the instrument when Brink performed “The Curve is Exponential” at the University of Chicago’s request. The piece, a 28-minute commission for carillon and electronics written by Ted Moore, commemorated the 75th anniversary of the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, which occurred under the bleachers of the university’s football field.
The world of the carillon may be steeped in tradition, but it’s a growing one. New carillons are being built at a faster rate than ever and Brink says interest from students has increased since he started teaching. And with his efforts to expand the carillon’s repertoire and how people can practice help ensure that the artform will continue to evolve.