Chimes ring again after digital restoration

The Bells of Washington are back, though in a digital format, thanks to a gift from the President’s Fund for Excellence that replaced an electro-mechanical system broadcast from Denny Hall.

A $15,000 digital chimes from Van Bergen Bellfoundries replaces a deteriorating system from 1949. The new system had its inaugural concert on Feb. 16, with a selection of tunes, including a piece written by Music Professor Joel François Duran, Un chant lointain (“A Distant Song”).

The tradition of campus bells goes back to 1912, when Seattle Times Publisher A.J. Blethen donated 12 bells to the University, which were placed in a converted water tower. Blind music graduate George Bailey, ’17, played them daily from his graduation to their destruction in a mysterious fire in 1949. Once the 1949 system was ready, Bailey again performed twice daily until his death in 1960.

The 1949 carillion used small, tuned metal rods for the notes of the scale. The rods were struck by electro-mechanical strikers and the notes were amplified and sent through speakers in the tower of Denny Hall. The old system was becoming difficult to maintain, with scratchy or out-of-tune renditions. It was rarely played outside of tolling the hour and on commencement.

The new system can play live songs or digitally recorded sound. School of Music Director Robin McCabe, who played on the 1949 system when she was a student, will oversee the selection of students to play on the new system.

McCabe played the carillion in the late ’60s and was known for doing baroque variations of football songs on pre-game Fridays and sometimes played the opposing team’s fight songs in weird permutations.

For the chimes’ debut, McCabe and Music Professor Carole Terry performed works by Copland and Beethoven, the theme from “Schindler’s List,” “America the Beautiful,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and, as a favor to President Gerberding’s fondness for Frank Sinatra, “My Way.”