Thomas Rees Carillon in Springfield Credit: Ryan Smith

It can be lonely at the top—particularly from the great heights of the unusual musical instruments known as carillons. Or so it seemed for Hunter Chase, the UIC graduate student who was one of only five people chosen to venture alone to the top of the 132-foot bell tower to perform at the Rees International Carillon Competition in Springfield’s Washington Park on Saturday night.

Advertised as the first “open” competition ever held in the United States for carilloners (also known as carillonneurs), carillon contests are only slightly more rare than the instruments themselves. A carillon is defined as a set of at least 23 bronze bells played in concert with each other to make a melody. About 180 of them exist in the U.S.; a disproportionate amount of them located in church or municipal buildings in the midwest. There are several prominent ones in the Chicago area—including the granddaddy of them all—the Rockefeller Chapel’s Carillon on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park. The historic church’s 72 bells and 100 tons of bronze make it the second largest musical instrument ever built and a hell of a practice space for Chase, who began playing it regularly as part of a carillon club while an undergraduate at the U of C and still plays about once a week.

“It can be a challenge to practice,” Chase tells me during one of his competitor’s sets. “You don’t always know if life will take you near a carillon.”

It’s somewhat surprising that Chase’s life has managed to put him in orbit of carillons. He’s majoring in math—not music—and he freely admits he’s an underwhelming piano player. But tapping the tiny black and white keys of a piano, he insists, is almost a completely different skill than thumping the lumbering wooden planks of these oversized bell towers.

Watching him play—it’s easy to see why that might be the case. When it was his turn to impress the judges, Chase took an elevator alone to the eighth floor of the carillon and sat stiffly on a wooden bench. He spent the entire 20-minute, four-song performance staring intently at sheet music as he deftly struck wooden batons of a keyboard so massive that he balled his hands into half-closed fists to effectively hit them with enough force. Each time he pressed one of the 67 planks or connected foot pedals to play a note, bronze bells that range in size from 22 pounds to 7.5 tons rung out—some with a slight tinkle, others shook with a heavy, chest-rattling gong that reverberated a quarter of a mile away.

I wouldn’t have known this without a live video feed projected onto a screen a few dozen yards north of the building. This carillon—like many of its ilk—is an enclosed tower. You can see some bells peeking out from the walls, but the player is obscured by stone and concrete. Perhaps this visual barrier between musician and audience, combined with the soothing dulcet tones of the bells themselves explains why the 25 or so of us spectators sitting in lawn chairs watching the carilloners play remained silent after each song or performance. The echoes of the final notes from Chase’s performance were met with an unnerving silence broken only by the chirpy sounds of birds and crickets. A couple of minutes later, Chase exited the carillon through a glass door and beelined to a nearby picnic table, where he began fidgeting with his phone.
The lack of fanfare? Chase is used to it. Many people assume that the delicate classical music ringing from these kinds of imposing towers is automated or computerized—like it’s a massive music box.

“A lot of people can hear you play—everything you do ends up being a public performance—but it’s mostly anonymous.”

It’s the grand irony of being a carilloner. You’re easily heard but not seen.