Looking into Clouds

Two Decades of New Music for the Carillon in Berlin-Tiergarten


by Jeffrey Bossin


My interest in contemporary music dates back to the time when I studied music at the University of California at Riverside. There I took courses in composition and performed as a pianist in an ensemble for new music. I also learned to play the carillon under the able tutelage of Lowell Smith, who had studied with Leen ´t Hart in Amersfoort. After spending a year as an exchange student at the Reid School of Music at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and getting my Bachelors Degree in Music in 1972, I moved to Berlin because it was one of the centres of contemporary culture and music in Europe and enrolled at the Technical University of Berlin in 1973 to do a master´s degree in musicology with Prof. Carl Dahlhaus. After completing my studies in 1984 I began work on building the Berlin carillon, inspecting many instruments in Europe and North America, gathering advice from colleagues, drawing up the instrument´s specifications, overseeing its production and installation, and playing the dedication recital on October 27, 1987. The new grand carillon had an F0 bourdon weighing 7.8 metric tons and a completely chromatic sequence of 68 bells weighing 48 tons and was thus not only the then largest and heaviest in Europe but, more importantly, its North American standard keyboard with 68 keys and 30 pedals allowed the carillonneur the broadest range of musical possibilities.[1] The instrument was cast by the Eijsbouts foundry and installed in its own tower in a park setting so that it could be played with a minimum of distubance to the neighbours.[2]

During my many years as Berlin carillonneur I had the chance to commission several pieces and work together with a number of professional composers.[3] I showed them our instrument, expained its musical possibilities and demonstrated its playing technique, and provided them scores and recordings. I proof-read and edited their first versions, pointing out unplayable passages, proposing changes to the notation and the distribution of the notes between the manuals and pedals, ect. Although one composer refused to make any alterations, others were very cooperative, open to suggestions, and eager to learn. It was interesting to see how, in spite of all the explanations and examples I gave, many still came up with unplayable passages. The carillon is a unique and exotic instrument, perhaps best compared to a large vibraphone. It is completely unknown to the normal composer who has had no experience with it. While some try to understand and develop their piece out of its sonorities and playing technique, others simply apply their own highly specialized method of composition to the carillon regardless of how suitable it might be. Some seem to have an intuitive grasp of the instrument and others need years of writing carillon pieces in order to learn to write well for it. Sadly, since it brings them neither fame nor fortune, most either ignore it or only write one piece out of curiosity before returning to more prestigious projects. One of my most interesting experiences has consisted of going over the first drafts. While most are written with the help of computer software, some were still hand-written, not easy to read, and, in one case, so tiny I literally had to use a magnifying glass to decipher it. In such cases I typed the piece into my computer and sent it to the composer asking him to verify it. I also constantly ran into numerous simple errors made by almost every composer - missing accidental and natural signs, rests, and ties, bars with too few beats - one composer even forgot to number his pages and faxed them to me in the wrong order. Whether it be a written or musical text - the author is not good at recognizing his own mistakes because his own imagination often overlooks or fills in the missing gaps. Most interestingly, most of the composers were good for a surprise. The first attempts of those with no experience of the carillon sometimes proved very suitable while some of the experienced carillon composers sent me something quite different from their previous works.

Even before the carillon was completed I had the opportunity to commission and premiere my first new piece of carillon music. The Berliner Festspiele put together a music program to entertain the crowd waiting to watch an hour long spectacular display of Japanese fireworks in August 1987 on the airfield of the Templehof airport and asked me to organize a performance of music for three travelling carillons as part of a larger group of activities. I arranged to play Islands of Sound
by the American composer Richard Felciano, who was a professor of composition at the University of California at Berkeley and asked him to write a new work as well. The result was the Berlin Fireworks Music, a fast and lively piece of minimal music consisting of a sequence of repeated modules made up of 16th note motives making the bells sparkle. After the performance Felciano presented me with a version for solo carillon and it quickly become one of the standard pieces of my repertoire. A few weeks later I asked Roy Hamlin Johnson, professor of piano at the University of Maryland, to write me a piece for my new carillon. Johnson was an experienced and well-known carillon composer and his magnificent Summer Fanfares had inspired me to model the Berlin carillon on the large American instruments it was written for. Johnson generously supplied me with a piece called Tower Music, a short fanfare consisting of brilliant cadenza like passages based on the octotonic scale and which use the entire 5 1/2 octave range of the Berlin carillon. This composition was followed by the first piece ever written by a Hungarian composer, i.e. Lásló Dubrovay, professor at the Budapest Conservatory. His Music for Carillon consists of several sections of contrasting tempi, texture, and character - one of slowly rising ponderous tone clusters, one of single tones and motives embedded in groups of fast eighth notes, and one of a lyrical melody set over an alberti bass. The rhythms, various styles, and harmonies derived from the natural overtone series recall aspects of Bela Bartok´s style of composition. That year also provided me with the chance to make a small contribution to the production of Robert Wilson´s stage work The Forest which was being performed in Berlin. Wilson collaborated with David Byrne, the lead singer of the internationally known New York pop group The Talking Heads, who had produced several albums of their music. Byrne had heard the carillon while cycling through the Tiergarten park one day and, enchanted by its sound, immediately decided to incorporate it into the music he was writing for Wilson´s theatre piece.  Byrne and his technicians came to the tower and recorded a few short passages of chords which were played from tape during the performances and integrated into the orchestra music. As a souvenir of our collaboration I received a tape of Byrne singing the corresponding passage to the accompaniement of my carillon playing.

The following year witnessed the premiere of a work on a much grander scale: Musik einer Sommernacht 1989
  (Music for a Summer´s Night 1989) by the Polish composer Piotr Moss, professor at the Paris Conservatory. This large scale work was written for carillon, large chorus, brass quartett, mandolines, saxophone quartett, xylophones, accordeons, and cow bells. It was huge outdoor soundscape, blending the carillon with artificial bird sounds, softly played mandolines, snatches of accordeon music, outbursts of brass music, the shrill free jazz outpourings of a trompeter, and the sound of the sighing and groaning of a large chorus. The piece was aleatoric so that, although everyone performed simultaneously, the whole was coordinated with the help of stopwatches. A further piece of aleatoric music was written in 1991 by the Berlin composer Friedemann Graef. His Farbwolkentrio (Colourful Clouds Trio) for carillon, saxophone, and a percussion ensemble of a marimbaphone, xylophone, temple blocks, gongs, and various drums, was written for a special concert staged as part of a carillon competition. The extensive 22-minute work consists of various motives, figures, chords and tremolos sometimes organized into repeated modules and which the three musicians use in a free dialogue reminiscent of a jazz ensemble.

In 1993 the Russian composer Alexander Knaifel who was working in Berlin on a stipend of the German Academic Exchange Program DAAD, became interested in the Berlin carillon. Knaifel had studied cello with Mstislaw Rostropowitsch and composition in Leningrad and was a versatile and experienced composer of orchestral music, chamber music, songs, ect.
His Aria for solo carillon is based on an excerpt of one of his film scores and is a short, soft, expressive and lyrical fragment in a neobaroque style of composition making prominent use of the diminished seventh chords so well-suited to the sound of the carillon. 1995 produced a bumper crop of new music for the Berlin carillon - composers from Denmark, Russia, England, Germany, and Italy wrote no less than six pieces. The first four were written for a concert given on the occasion of Christo and Jeanne-Claude´s Wrapped Reichstag in the summer of 1995. After many years of discussions and debate the German government had finally allowed the couple to encase the huge building in a cloak of shiny silver material. The result was a fascinating and bizarre work of art visible over a large expanse of the surrounding area. It stood directly opposite the carillon tower which provided a magnificent view.

The piece written for this concert by the renowned Italian composer Aldo Clementi, who studied at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rom and was professor at the conservatory in Pesaro, is titled Turmuhr (Tower Clock) and is appropriately based on the German chorale Vom Himmel hoch. It consists of a complex, chromatic, and strictly organized four-voiced polytonal texture.  Each voice is set in a different key, the four make up two pairs whose keys are a tritone apart. The soprano and alto voices are in A major and E-flat major respectively and the tenor and bass voices in C major and G-flat major. Though of themselves tonal, their simulataneous performance destroys any sense of tonality. The alto voice mirrors the intervals of the soprano voice and the tenor voice those of the bass voice. In the first line the chorale melody is in the soprano, in the second line it´s in the alto, in the third in the tenor, and in fourth in the bass line. The chorale melody is meant to be played loudest of all the voices and each of the four lines is to be played three times, getting softer and slower each time. Per Nørgård, the leading composer of Denmark, wrote the two pieces entitled Luftschloesser (Castles in the Air) for the concert. Nørgård studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and at the Royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen where he held a professorship. He was an experienced composer of international standing and wrote operas, ballets, orchestral and chamber music, ect. according to a carefully worked out system of atonal composition which he also applied to his two carillon pieces. In these he used special groups of notes which he called "tone lakes". Verwandeln (Transform) is reminiscent of a passacaglia. It is a ponderous work based on a repeated sequence of notes and which builds to a big dynamic climax. The composer stipulates that it can be repeated any number of times. Entfalten (Unfold) is made of a pointillistic texture in which the notes of the tone lake are distributed over the entire 5 1/2 octave range of the carillon in order to allow them to ring as long as possible. The Berlin free-lance composer Lutz Glandien who had studied with the noted composer Georg Katzer at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler and the Akademie der Kuenste in East Berlin wrote a rhythmically complex work appropriately titled Mensch, Christo und Jeanne-Claude! (Man,  Christo and Jeanne-Claude!). It is made of sections of stylised figures and motives that imitate bell ringing and become ever louder as they gradually descend from the highest to the lowest range of the carillon. The English composer Anthony Skilbeck also provided a piece for the Reichstag concert. Skilbeck had become acquainted with the Berlin carillon while on a visit to the city and was fascinated by its sonorities and musical potential. He works as a professional musician and music teacher and was awarded his Ph.D in composition from the University of Sheffield. As a professional organist he has a good intuitive grasp of the carillon and is one of the few who has gone on to write a continuous series of carillon pieces over a long period of time. He quickly developed his own unique style of composition for the carillon and one which has proven itself well suited to the instrument´s sound and playing technique. The form is episodic and consists of sections of changing, sometimes unusual metres. The texture consists of chromatic polyphony which, though not centered around any particular tonality, achieves a sensitive balance between consonant and dissonant passages. Although the whole tone scale and the intervals of the perfect and augmented fourth and major and minor second and seventh feature prominently, more traditional intervals and harmonies are also used. Skilbeck employs a broad range of dynamics and his style is lyrical, melodic, and expressive with occasional strong outbursts. His first piece, Intercalations, consists of quotations from the works of Skilbeck´s fellow English composer Henry Purcell, who celebrated the 300th anniversary of his death in 1995, set between sections of Skilbeck´s own composition, and also uses the motive B-A-C-H (H being the German equivalent of b-natural) in reference to the premiere in Germany.[4]

had been completed at the end of 1994 and the prospect of the impending concert the following June inspired him to write another two works in the spring of 1995, the set called Two Pieces after Caspar David Friedrich: Der einsame Baum (The Lone Tree) and Waldinneres beim Monschein (The Depths of the Forest by Moonlight).[5] Friedrich was an early 19th century German Romantic painter famous for his mystical and symbolic depictions of pastoral landscapes - ruined monasteries, crosses perched atop lonely mountain peaks, ships trapped in ice floes. Skilbeck´s pieces are correspondingly atmospheric. The first is made up of two episodes in which the gentle, lyrical, melodic and contrapunctal texture builds to an agitated outburst of ninths or sevenths ending in a closing downward cadenza figure, the second features a delicate texture of 16th note figures and scales depicting the moonlit landscape. In 1995 Johannes Wallmann, another free-lance composer based in Berlin like Glandien, contributed another new piece to the carillon repertoire. Wallmann, originally a bassoonist who directed his own chamber ensemble, who went on to study composition at the Weimar Conservatory in East Germany. He had rung bells as a boy and in 1995 composed and produced the Glockenrequiem Dresden, a work which commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Allied bombing and destruction of the city. It used 129 Dresdner church bells to create different ringing patterns which moved across the city in waves. Wallmann had come to a Berlin carillon concert at Easter 1995 and become an enthusiastic supporter of the instrument. He adapted an excerpt of one of his previous pieces and transformed it into the carillon piece  Linien, zu Klang geschwungen. Its pointillistic texture is made up of single lines and figures moving upwards and downwards and is based on fourths and fifths and inversions and mirrors of the phrases and motives. My colleague and friend Sergey Tosin provided me with a welcome surprise when he sent me a new piece of music written specially for the Berlin carillon. Tosin is a Russian bellringer, musicologist, composer, and teacher at the music academy in the Siberian capital Novosibirsk. I became acquainted with him when we both attended the bell ringing festival in Rostov-Veliky in 1989 at which the Russian Association of Campanological Arts was established. I met Tosin during a number of subsequent trips to Russia where he learned about our carillon from the lectures I held and from my own accounts of it. The result was his piece titled simply Composition für Carillon. It is an atonal piece, reflecting the fact that Russian chimes and bell music are constructed of arbitrarily chosen sequences of tones rather than being based on any traditional scales or tonalities. It begins with the exposition of the twelve-tone row used to compose the work in the form of a type of traditional sacred Russian bell piece called a perezvon, one of the oldest forms of Russian bell music in which each of the bells of a chime are struck individually starting with the highest and preceding to the lowest and ending with a cluster in which all are sounded together. As the Composition was written in memory of the victims of all wars, the perezvon presented here takes the form of a funeral chime. It is followed by a long, free-composed and middle section of virtuosic 16th note figures based on the twelve-tone row and interspersed with clusters. It ends with an entire series of clusters announcing the beginning of the final section, another type of traditional sacred Russian bell piece known as a blagovest or "glorious chiming". It is based on another type of traditional chime known as a trezvon and made of repeated variations of rhythmic and motivic patterns in strict time.

The following year, 1996, was full of surprises. The Berlin carillon repertoire was enlarged by two short transcriptions: the Slowakian composer Daniel Matej, then in Berlin on a DAAD stipend, made an carillon arrangement of the piano piece Spindulum
which he had written as a gentle lullabye for his daughter and Anthony Skilbeck transcribed his piece for celtic harp and organ titled .....but the willow drank too much for the carillon. Both of these expressive and interesting pieces are easy to play and thus also suitable for students learning to play the carillon. Skilbeck also wrote a work titled Verses consisting of five sections bearing that name. The piece is well-adapted to carillon playing technique: the wide leaps of sevenths and ninths, 16th note cadenza like figures built on fourths and eighth note figures are constructed to allow the carillonneur the use of alternate hands.

1996 also witnessed the Sonambiente, a music festival staged to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Akademie der Kuenste Berlin. As part of the festivities I was commissioned to play two concerts of spontaneously improvised performances in August. The first of these featured the music of the American musician and performance artist Charlemagne Palestine, who had studied film making, video, and electroacoustical music at New York University and multimedia, installation, and happenings at the California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles and had already written many compositions and created many videos, sculptures, and paintings and given many performances. From 1964 til 1970 he had played the chime of the St.Thomas Church in New York, where he developed his own unique style of minimalist carillon playing. In Berlin Charlemagne and I played his Sonority for Carillon for two carillonneurs. We each simultaneously played two groups of keys and two groups of pedals chosen by Charlemagne, repeatedly striking them as fast as possible without any breaks for fifty minutes and occasionally varying the choice of keys and pedals. In this way we caused the bells to vibrate in a previously unheard of manner and the carillon was surrounded by a magically pulsating sonic cloud.[6] The second performance took place in cooperation with the Spanish campanologist Llorenç Barber from Madrid, who specialized in giving concerts which used all the bells of an entire city and who had already staged such performances in the city centres of Hannover, Granada, and Innsbruck. Barber surrounded the Berlin carillon tower with a veritable orchestra of bells consisting of sleigh bells, inverted saucer bells swinging from long ropes, and a stand holding several small church bells and one fitted with

[1] A grand carillon is an instrument with at least 53 bells, a bourdon bell with a strike tone of A0 or lower, and a pedalboard extending from G at least to a1.

[2] My book Die Carillons von Berlin und Potsdam, Berlin 1991, provides a detailled account of the building of the carillon.

[3] I have also written a number of choralecompositions for the carillon but have decided in this article to concentrate on the original compositions of the other composers.

[4] For more information on Anthoy Skilbeck´s music see: http://www.skilbeckmusic.co.uk

[5] Two Pieces after Caspar David Friedrich are published by American Carillon Music Editions.

[6] The concert was repeated in 2003 and recorded on a CD titled Music for Big Ears and is available from Staalplaat. http://www.staalplaat.com

© Jeffrey Bossin