Drive by the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist some Thursday evening in July and you will surely hear the dulcet tones of bells that appear to be ringing from the very sky. This is the sound of the carillon, a musical instrument located in the bell tower of St. John's, one of the highest points in Spokane.
Most people have no idea what a carillon actually is, though. To help people understand the instrument -- Webster defines it as a set of chromatically tuned bells that are played by depressing keys on a keyboard -- the cathedral offers free carillon concerts for the public during the month of July. As the Cathedral Carilloneur, Dr. Andrea McCrady, says, "They don't realize a human being is up there," she says. "[The concerts] showcase the carillon as a concert instrument."
The concerts kick off with the Fourth of July, when people can sit near the cathedral while overlooking the city and listening to the bells. McCrady will play patriotic ballades and American music at 9 pm for an hour before the fireworks start.
At 7 pm every Thursday night this summer, guest carillonneurs will be featured in hour-long concerts that can be heard best from the Cathedral lawn. The guests are all professional carillonneurs from around the world -- this year, from Kansas, Illinois and Portugal. "It's very different than sitting in an auditorium," says McCrady. "People can bring their families and picnic on the grass." The music ranges from classical concertos to much lighter fare. "I'm notorious for playing ragtime," McCrady says with a smile.
Because the bells can be heard several blocks away, McCrady rarely practices on the actual carillon. Instead, she practices in the crypt of St. John on a practice carillon that hits a xylophone instead of bells. After the Cathedral carillon concerts, the audience can see the practice carillon, meet the guest artist, and tour the cathedral.
To put on a concert, McCrady must first ascend to the carillon, which is a decidedly gothic ordeal. The cathedral was built before the bells were put in the tower, so there is no easy access route. It takes a journey in an elevator that fits two people (snugly), up several stories by ladder and through four-foot-tall doorways to get into the bell tower. "This is probably the second-most difficult carillon to access in the U.S.," McCrady says -- the most difficult one is California's Crystal Cathedral -- adding that she has even had performers balk at the trip.
Despite the dictionary definition, the actual carillon looks very little like a typical keyboard. "It's a touch instrument," says McCrady, revealing a contraption vaguely reminiscent of an organ. The carillon has baton-like keys that correspond with notes on a piano. There are two levels of keys as well as foot pedals covering four octaves. Wires and weights directly connect the keys to each of the clappers of the 49 bells in the tower. When a carillonneur depresses a key (with the side of the hand, not a finger), the clapper is brought to the side of the bell. The speed and force with which the keys are depressed dictates the sound of the notes.
"I wear dancing shoes to play in order to feel the touch with my feet," says McCrady. The delicacy of the playing style contrasts with the bells' massiveness. (The biggest individual bell weighs 5,000 pounds.)
The carillon concerts at St. John's are unique in the Inland Northwest; there are no other carillons in Washington, Oregon, or Idaho. It is much more common for churches to use electronic bell systems, which McCrady dislikes. "Electronic bell systems break down so much faster, and you can't create the expression. Nothing electronic can create that," says McCrady with finality.
The Cathedral carillon was made by the John Taylor Bell Foundry of Loughborough, England, and installed at St. John's in 1968. Although it was formally dedicated the following year, it was first played on Christmas Eve by the organist, who braved a snowstorm to ascend the tower and play "Silent Night."
McCrady shows the same dedication by ascending to the tower every Sunday to play the carillon. She began playing the carillon in her undergrad years at Trinity College. She "caught bell fever," as she puts it, and went to Europe on a fellowship to study the carillon before attending medical school. Now, when she is not practicing medicine, she can be found practicing in the cathedral.
There is something truly magical about listening to music that cannot be traced to a source but which instead envelops the listener. It is as magical as realizing that dozens of feet in the air sits a musician, caressing the keys of the carillon, completely lost in her private world of the bells.