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ASU’s unique instrument lets tradition ring

New university carillonneur appointed to keep chiming the bells

man playing carillon
April 07, 2016

Have you ever wondered where the bell chimes on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus come from? They are not ringing from some mysterious tower, but instead can be traced to the university's carillon in Old Main, played over electronic speakers.

A carillon is an instrument that has at least 23 cast-iron bells, which are connected to and operated by a keyboard. The ASU Maas-Rowe Symphonic carillon — which has 258 bells — was a gift from the student government in 1966 and represents tradition on a campus driven by innovation.

“What makes it cool is that it is anachronistic,” said Brendan O’Connor, ASU’s most recently appointed university carillonneur.

O’Connor, an assistant professor for the School of Transborder Studies, was an audience member during a carillon Fall Hymn Sing at ASU in 2014. He volunteered to play a few pieces on the carillon and was a natural, according to Carl Cross, co-chair of the ASU Carillon Society. 

“Each carillonneur has a unique style,” explained Cross. “Brendan’s is more like an organ player. He plays hymns well.”

O’Connor said that although he’s no organist, his experience playing the piano and musical background is why he was initially interested in the carillon.

“I had never played a carillon, or seen one before. I am a musician and I hadn’t participated in anything musical in Phoenix. This was strange and different from anything I had done at ASU,” said O’Connor.

man playing carillon

Brendan O’Connor, associate professor and ASU’s newest university carillonneur, plays the carillon at Old Main on the Tempe campus.

Appointing university carillonneurs is an integral part of keeping the tradition of the carillon alive.

For 35 years, the carillon was buried in storage, forgotten. Judith Smith, co-chair of the ASU Carillon Society, and Cross worked hard to uncover and implement the carillon. Together they started the ASU Carillon Society and appointed two of the original university carillonneurs in September 2006.

“We decided to appoint university carillonneurs to provide professional leadership for the carillon. Their appointment is part of the intention to make the carillon a vital part university life and tradition,” said Smith.

Once appointed, the University Carillonneurs play concerts like the seasonal hymn sings and at holiday festivities. They are welcome to produce their own concerts and serve as mentors to students who are selected for the Arizona State Credit Union Student Carillonneur scholarship. 

Smith and Cross hope that O’Connor’s appointment will allow the carillon’s presence on campus to grow. 

“I think people enjoy having music as part of their day,” said O’Connor, “Part of the coolness is that it is a strange thing and is surprising to people that ASU has something like this.” 

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