When the Burton Tower at the University of Michigan strikes noon, you can hear the chimes of the Charles Baird carillon.
Above Ann Arbor, in a tower reaching nearly 200 feet, the carillon can be heard a long way. Climb the stairwell to the top of the Burton Tower, and you will meet Professor Pamela Ruiter Feenstra, the musician ringing the tower bells.
“It’s aerobic exercise. We’re playing with both fists and we’re playing with both feet.” – Pamela Ruiter Feenstra, carillon player
“The carillon has a long history,” says Pamela. “Bells have a long history of being signals. Announcing the beginning of a war, peace, it could be the announcement that a royal person has arrived, or that some important meeting is about to take place.”
Click on the player above to hear Pamela Ruiter Feenstra play the carillon and talk about the people she reaches from the tower.
Pamela teaches music. She started playing the carillon through her passion for historical instruments. She also performs the Robert and Ann Lurie Carillon on the university’s north campus, and is serving as the university’s carillonist this academic year as a friend and colleague, university carillonist Professor Tiffany Ng, is on a research sabbatical.
In a small room at the base of the carillon’s 53 bells, a window looks out on an observation deck. She sits at the keyboard on a long wooden bench. It’s sort of like an organ: two keyboards, separated between white and black keys, and a pedalboard.
The keys are like large wooden dowels facing her. Each connects to a wire, which connects to a clapper in a bell. Playing it is sort of like hitting a giant typewriter.
“The strange thing about playing the carillon is that we never know who’s listening.” – Pamela Ruiter Feenstra, carillon player
“It’s aerobic exercise,” she says. “We’re playing with both fists and we’re playing with both feet. So all four limbs are engaged most of the time while we’re playing.”
The largest bell in Burton Tower weighs 12 tons, so it takes a great deal of force to ring that bell.
She plays the traditional songs. But Pamela also does something unique. She composes songs. For inspiration, she’ll interview an individual who has been marginalized in some way, such as ‘Morning Call,’ a song she wrote for a women from Ethiopia who faces discrimination working as an engineer.
“I’m constantly thinking about the audience,” she says, referring down to the city just outside the window. “The strange thing about playing the carillon is that we never know who’s listening.”
This audio feature was produced as part of the Transom Traveling Workshop in Detroit, Mich.