Sam Pimentel interviews Steven Ball, 7/26/05

SP: What kind of musical training have you had?

SB: Very diverse. I started playing the organ almost since before I can remember. I was told at a certain point that in order to become a better organist I needed to take piano, and so I began my serious study of music with these five years of piano at age 6. My first organ teacher was Dr. John Hammersma of Calvin College in Grand Rapids.

I think a major turning point in my life was meeting Marilyn Mason. I did a Bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan studying Organ Performance. During this time I was appointed Assistant Carillonneur at the University.

At a certain point after my graduation I made the decision that I was going to go to France to study culture, language and music. My travels to France took me to many parts of Europe as well. It was an important time in my career- both musically and personally. It was while I was in France that I learned that I had received a Fulbright Scholarship to study Campanology in the Netherlands.

SP: Now campanology, is that the study of bell towers?

SB: That’s the study of the science of bells. So within that, you have the study of how to make bells and how to ring them. So as part of that scholarship, I studied at the Royal Carillon School in the Netherlands, the Royal Carillon School “Jeff Denijn” in Mechelen, Belgium, and conducted independent campanology research. It was that year, 2002, that the company that I co-own called Het Molenpad Expertise, was founded with my business partner Gideon Bodden.

I moved back to the United States because the Michigan Theater, where I had worked as an undergraduate, had offered me the position of Staff Organist. It was very unusual- there are only a couple of theaters anywhere in the country that still have an organist on staff.

SP: For silent movies?

SB: For silent movies and overtures. The theater is a special place. Once there were over 7000 of these instruments across the country. Now, there are fewer than 40 left in their original home- this is one of them.

And of course, once I was back in Ann Arbor, there were several very interesting opportunities and resources for me to take advantage of at the U of M, and Doctor Mason encouraged me to come back and do a Masters Degree in Organ Performance. Now, in taking the position of Carillonneur and GSI here at the University, part of my work here will be to eventually finish a Doctorate. So that’s a brief overview.

SP: So you’ve had experience with organs and other instruments then. How is playing the bells a unique experience?

SB: There’s actually an interesting similarity between the bells and what I have done with other areas of my life, in particular the theater organ. These are all public musical instruments. Of course, I’m just as interested in all other aspects of the classical organ- I frequently explain to people that the organ is like an ancient tree- the Theater Organ is just one branch! At any rate, in its own way, the church organ has in the past also been a much more public musical instrument. The role the church building plays in our life in the 21 st century is quite different than what it might have been even just a century or so ago.

SP: And by “public” you mean what, exactly?

SB: I mean that they are instruments which make music for the general public. Anyone who comes to the theater hears the organ. Anyone who walks on the streets hears the carillon. And for that reason, the performer has the peculiarly difficult task of playing music without ever knowing who’s listening. Always, one is trying to communicate with the audience. In the seventeenth or eighteenth century, it would have been obvious that there was a performer in the tower, but in the computer age, people come up and say, “Oh! We thought this was a recording or that there were speakers or something.” I am a big advocate of opening the towers to the public so that they can explore this fascinating and ancient machine- it is, after all, the world’s first public musical instrument.

. . .

SP: Playing another instrument is what we were talking about, and the difference between playing one carillon and another.

SB: . . . The carillon sound is really determined first of all by the quality of the bells. This is critically important. Any given bell is just not the same as any other bell. A seventeenth century bell and an equivalent copy made in modern times…they’re as different as night and day. The object reflects the hand and spirit of its creator, it cannot help but do otherwise.

If the bells are good or if the bells are bad, that’s the first thing. The other thing is, of course, [the bell tower]. In most Dutch towers, the bells hang just in the open windows, so there’s technically there is not much of an acoustic. Where the bells hang in relation to the listener is quite important. The treble bells are much harder to hear [than the lower ones]. For instance, Delft is one of the few towers I’ve seen that still preserves a very logical and original configuration- the treble bells hang in the central lancet window closest to the listener and are flanked by the lower bells in the adjoining lancet windows. Other towers (such as Gouda) where we know the bells originally had such a configuration, now have trebles in the top windows with largest bells in the bottom of the same windows because it looks nice. It is not the ideal sound, however.

The American installations and certainly the Belgian instruments are frequently enclosed in bell chambers, and then one has to be aware of the bell chamber acoustic. Our tower (Burton Memorial Tower) is a very open tower, with cement block on the inside, so we don’t experience a great deal of reverberation . . . This acoustical environment can have an enormous effect on the blend and quality of the sound of an instrument- a good acoustic is just magical.

As far as the mechanism goes, a fine mechanism which is not properly maintained will not sound well. I stress [taking good care of the mechanism]. . . . Maintenance is very important, especially with historic instruments. I am also a great advocate for the preservation of historic mechanisms and instruments as a whole. The instrument needs to be approached on it’s own terms. That’s a very long-winded answer to your question!

SP: Have you ever played a much smaller instrument, like a chime?

SB: Yes.

SP: How is that different [from playing the carillon?]

SB: Well a carillon is defined in the United States (by the Guild of Carilloneurs) as a chromatic instrument consisting of 23 bells arranged in chromatic sequence. Anything less is a chime.

. . .

You can tell a good bell from the sound of a bad bell- its quite simple! A good one should be pleasing to listen to.

It was only Taylor early in the last century that re-discovered the art of bell-tuning sine the art was lost in the 18 th century. It is, of course, possible to have a good bell that is just not well tuned! These are separate issues, and that is important to remember.

Can I show you an example?

SP: Sure.

SB: *going over to the CD player* I think, for example, [the music] on this new CD. This is from the carillon of the Loretto Church in Prague, which I believe is a carillon by Claude Fremy from 1695

*playing CD of carillon music* So that’s actually the perfect example right there – I’ll play that piece again – is that you hear that the big bell here sounds quite sharp.

SP: *listening to CD* Oh yes, I can hear it.

SB: Obviously, 350 years after when it was made, you cannot any longer capture it and say “This is the way the maker originally intended it to sound.” *turning off CD and returning to seat* From what I know about the founders of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, I have the greatest respect for what they have done. It is easy to criticize something you don’t understand . . . it is important to hear what the bells actually have to say and approach them on their own terms.

SP: What do you think of the tuning of the Burton carillon?

SB: I haven’t studied it completely in detail just yet, so I’m not prepared to comment on it just now. I am preparing a tuning analysis of all the bells here. I will say, however, that it is a remarkable instrument and possesses some very important bells. It is the most important example of Taylor’s work from the mid 1930’s- a sort of golden age for them.

SP: I’m curious – when I was up there in the bell tower during Art Fair, it seemed really loud. Do you need to wear any ear protection?

SB: Well, the cabin is somewhat soundproofed. We actually mike the sound of the trebles in. They are located at the very top of the bell frame right next to the ceiling of the bell chamber. This is so they have no trouble projecting out easily. Because of this, though, they can sometimes a bit difficult to hear clearly in the cabin.

SP: Do you know how they used to do it back in the 1930s?

SB: They just opened the door. The microphone system is something that was added by one of my predecessors. But I’m very old-fashioned in many things, so I usually just turn the mikes off and open the door, too!

SP: My professor suggested I look into how much the carillon cost. How extensive would [the cost have been]?

SB: I can look for you. I can tell that you that the building in 1936 cost $243,640.61. Let me look and see if I can find the price of the carillon. *gets up and goes into adjoining room*

SP: It’s not terribly urgent, if it’s inconvenient.

SB: *looks through files*

SP: But it would have been, presumably, a larger expense. Kind of a major gift.

SB: It was definitely a major gift. I can remember the clock costing somewhere in the order of six or seven thousand dollars.

SP: And this is in the 1930s as well.

. . .

*Mr. Ball cannot find the information conveniently, and returns to his seat*

SP: Just to wrap this up, you mentioned a few things about how you’d like the carillon to engage the community more. In general, what’s your vision for the carillon – ideally, what kind of interplay would it have with the college campus and the community of Ann Arbor? It’s a pretty hard question.

SB: You’re asking me to give away my secrets. *laughs* . . . I think the carillon is a great asset. To utilize that, the community needs to become aware of its existence. As I mentioned, I am a great advocate of opening the tower to the public- it is the first step in making the community aware of this incredible art form.

I would like to see at some point, perhaps, other events coupled with carillon concerts as we did this year with the Art Fair Carillon Series, so that audiences can be drawn from different artistic an cultural backgrounds. It brings the carillon to something that they wouldn’t normally first think to see. . . .

I’d also like to see much more concentration on lighting. Nothing has been done in terms of lighting the tower, but the light really does affect the mood of music. So, for instance, the week before last, I was in Rouen where I witnessed an “ Illumination” performed upon the faced of the C athédrale N otre-Dame. I must confess that I began that artistic experience as a complete skeptic…but what an impression to come away with! It was quite remarkable.

The carillon has traditionally been used here for all the UMS [University Musical Society] events, and has played a major role as a function of [community] life, has announced concerts and graduations and been the centerpiece of our longstanding international Summer Carillon Recital Series “Seven Mondays at Seven”. So the question is how can we maximize our exposure and really get to the community? . . . All the possibilities do nothing but excite my imagination.