31 March 2013

Striking tones

It has a unique sound and it’s one of only two in Australia. It’s the Carillon. The National Carillon was a gift of the British Government to the people of Australia to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Canberra. It was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 26 April 1970 (still our common monarch). This year is the 100th anniversary of Canberra, so a concert was appropriate although they are frequent in this town. Lyn Fuller played a set of tunes for Good Friday. It was a beautiful day, sunny with just a little crispness in the air. There were kids and bicycle riders and every second person seemed to have a dog.

A carillon is a keyboard percussion instrument, played with fists and feet. It must have at least 23 bells (2 octaves – these are chromatic instruments). This one has 4.5 octaves and 55 bells. Lyn told me there’s an overlap between foot and hand keyboards. I was lucky enough to visit the performer’s room. It seems there are two full claviers, presumably allowing four handed performances. There are also a few small rooms with electric and acoustic pianos and computers and printers. It’s quite a little neat workplace up there. What we see as audience below is a 50 metre tower and an idyllic island garden. I also noticed that Lyn was playing a handwritten chart and that fits the frequent annotations of arr. Lyn Fuller or arr. otherwise in the program. This is not a common instrument (probably less than 1,000 in the whole world) and it also uses uncommon techniques. I expect carillionists learn early on how to arrange their favourite tunes. I loved the high bells ringing in fast passages and I reckon a carillon would handle dissonance well in a slurry of high notes. The slower and lower tones felt different. Bells are carefully cast and tuned for tone and pitch, but I still felt a little uncomfortable with some pitches and some undampened chords. I’ve been reading up since, and I’m not surprised. Bell making is a complex art and the sound is a complex mix of overtones that decay at different rates. There’s a low enduring hum note (octave below strike tone), a tonic (strike tone), minor third, fifth, octave, major third, fifth, etc, with various decays. All very complex, but this mix of minor and major make for an interesting tonal structure. Read about it under “Strike tone” at Wikipedia.

But what of the program? I found it relaxed, spacious, obviously bell-like. Lyn played various classical and folk themes. A sparse Benedictine plainsong called Adore devote. An arrangement of Sibelius’ Finlandia. A Sonata da chiesa. Traditional tunes like Just a closer walk with thee and Amazing grace and Picardy. A carillon can play dynamics but it’s limited. I found variation more in a rubato feeling of relaxed time and no rush between tunes. It’s a big instrument; it moves like it is. It has lugubrious, billowing pitches, but also joyous, high bells that sing with the wind. It’s one of the joys of Canberra that we walk the Lake and hear these reverberent tones on the wind. And on a day like this, it’s a particular and, at least in Australia, a rare pleasure.

Lyn Fuller performed on the National Carillon at Aspen Island for Good Friday for the C100 Musical Offering. See link below to take a virtual tour of the Carillon and play it.

  • Carillon tour
  • Play the Carillon!
  • Stirke tone from Wilipedia
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