A swift wind orders the grass of the quad to stand at attention, leaves the cherry blossoms shivering and makes its way to the sunbathing turtles of the lily pond, cooling them off before they submerge back into their underwater homes. A second later, the breeze is chased by the sound of far-traveling melodies that turn the Brooklyn College spring campus into a wonderland for the senses.
The LaGuardia Bell Tower has a rich history of supplying Brooklyn College with tunes of celebration, mourning and daily scheduling. The instrument that produces those sounds is the carillon. The operator is Frank Angel, sitting across campus in an old gymnasium of Roosevelt Hall.
Angel, the Director of Brooklyn Center Cinema and Systems Supervisor at the college’s Center for the Performing Arts, has been the “keeper of the belfry,” for over 45 years.
When President Robert L. Hess came to the school in 1979, the carillon, which is typically a set of bells in a tower played by a keyboard, was broken. Hess, who was an avid lover of carillon music, quickly inquired about the instrument that left the campus silent. Angel rose to the occasion and rose to the top of the tower to finally fix the carillon.
“And then it was mine,” Angel said. “Then it was mine. I just love the sound of it and on campus it just sounds so peaceful.”
The current carillon system was introduced to the college in June 1986 after the 17-year-old Schulmerich carillon of Hess’ era broke down for good earlier in the year. A computer that sits next to Angel nestled away in his office, programs the new Mass-Rowe carillon melodies. All of the melodies are pre-programmed and set to go off exactly on time. The bells in the tower are actually now horns in the tower shaped like bells that project the recorded sounds.
The original carillon instrument had to be physically struck with hammers, a long way off from the digital interface used today.
After a long career, Angel intends to retire in the next couple years, hoping that someone will rise up and replace him as the keeper. “I want to find somebody that’ll take care of it and make sure that it still operates.”
When and What it Plays
Tunes are set to play at 12 p.m. 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on days when classes are not in session. When classes are in session, they play at class breaks closest to those hours. During club hours, “mini-concerts,” of three different melodies are played as well as between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
A two-bell strike sounds at the beginning and end of each class, however the Westminster melody takes precedence when a class begins or ends on an hour quarter. The De Profundis sounds at 11 p.m. After 11 p.m. the bell will not sound, as not to disturb its neighbors.
President Bill Clinton once came to the campus for a commencement speech and was welcomed by the iconic bell tower. “We played Hail to the Chief on the carillon,” Angel said. “It was so cool.”
The bells also sound on the anniversaries of 9/11 at the time of each of the five attacks.
The bell tower and the sounds that escape from it are an identity of Brooklyn College and will carry on for as long as the college decides, welcoming new students and faculty alike.