Timeless tunes of UNH

A look inside the T-Hall bell tower

By Catie Hall
On February 28, 2014

  • The UNH class of ‘43 gave the university the 246-bell Grand Symphony Carrillon as a class gift in 1983. Catie Hall/Staff

Above the Thompson Hall roofline, years of ringing memories chime the day away every half hour. At 11 a.m., programmed songs echo outside the chamber, filling the Durham air. But since Thanksgiving, the Thompson Hall bell system hasn't been working.

Carillonneur Peter Urquhart, who is also a renaissance musicologist and associate professor of music at the University of New Hampshire, turned off the bell system.

Someone pulled the plug for the speakers and then Urquhart, who did not know, shut the system off manually in the Elliott Alumni Center because no one can figure out the problem.

"The university is also working with an outside contractor on the issue and hopes to have it resolved soon," UNH Director of Media Relations Erika Mantz said in an email. 

That got some thinking: How does this bell system really work, and why aren't we hearing it? 

The Thompson Hall bell that students hear used to have to be manually cranked for 15-20 minutes, three times a week. And according to Guy Eaton, information and communication coordinator within the facilities organization, the crank was roughly 50 pounds.

Eaton, '76, used to run the housekeeping department earlier in his career. He has a relationship with the Thompson Hall clock and the bell, as housekeeping was responsible for the bell's maintenance and upkeep. 

"I was first made aware of taking care of the clock by one of the housekeepers there," Eaton said. "He took me up one day and said, 'This is yours when I'm on vacation. So you need to know how to do it.'"

The single bell and crank were put into retirement after the Thompson Hall renovation in 2006, according to Eaton. Now, when the bell is working, that familiar Westminster chime dawns on campus and Durham through eight speakers in the Thompson Hall tower. Except for the occasional visitor and a cleaning, the bell doesn't see much action. 

Before that renovation, though, the Thompson Hall bell signified a lot to the university and its inhabitants. 

"There was a time when the actual starting and ending of classes ran by the clock," Eaton said. 

The bell held significance during special events as well.

When there wasn't enough seating during a football game, Eaton said, not everyone could see the game. Therefore, people who couldn't see the field knew UNH had a victory if they heard the bell. 

Urquhart said the bell system that you hear today is not the single bell hanging in the clock tower; it is actually an electromechanical device. 

According to Urquhart, the electromechanical device is programmed through a piano keyboard in the Elliott Alumni Center. Urquhart can play songs and program them onto the keyboard's memory. Then, the 246-bell Grand Symphony Carillon console can play the songs through a series of small metal bars. The signal gets transmitted through two telephone wires from the Alumni Center to Thompson Hall, where the eight speakers amplify them throughout campus. 

Urquhart tried to explain why the signals go through telephone lines instead of wirelessly.

"This was built in the '50s," he said. "If it ain't broke, they don't fix it. Now, its really broke. But wireless especially now would be subject to all sorts of other things. You'd hear everyone's telephone conversations coming from T-Hall, or police communications ... so they have a dedicated telephone line. But apparently, something's wrong with it."   

In the Alumni Center conference room there are four tall wooden boxes standing against the wall. A wooden frame and glass face showcase what actually makes the sound you hear from the Thompson Hall tower. 

And it's nothing you'd expect.

"It was a big deal in its time, and I guess still might be," Urquhart said, examining the Carillon, a '43 class gift. "It's very carefully organized and done. And it's an electronic, mechanical device."

He pointed to long metal bars, thinner than pencils and longer than a foot each. The metal bars represent bells, Urquhart said. Solenoids, which resemble golden-wrapped Rolo chocolates, strike the metal bars. 

"They're all played off that keyboard there," Urquhart said, walking over to an encased keyboard. "So this was an alumni class gift to the university. And there are plaques that describe it."

Before Urquhart was the carillonneur, he could hear the difference between the electromechanical device and the sound of real bells.

"The music department hasn't been too involved in the bells ... for 30 years, because for quite some time ... Frank Heald was his name. He lived in town. Everyone knew him. And he was the UNH carillonneur for ages."

"So I heard the carillon when I first got to UNH," Urquhart said. "Something bothered me, something in my ear told me this was not a sound I'm used to. I'd heard bells before. I approached to ask him about the carillon, in part because of that annoyance in my ear, and partly because I had freshman theory students who were writing little ... exercises. And I thought [we could put those exercises] on the big bell. Give them some incentive."

Heald and Urquhart then worked together to give students a chance to have their songs play through the Thompson Hall bell system. Not only did Urquhart's class learn about the bell system, but so did he. 

"I also learned what bothered me about it [when I first heard it]," Urquhart said, "Which was accurate. I was hearing the somewhat artificial nature of it ... So it was a useful instrument to introduce my students to, so every two years or so I would bring another class down there and [Heald] loved having students come by."

Since taking over for Heald as the UNH carillonneur, Urquhart has put in songs by students, himself and other composers. 

"I try to cycle through my lists pretty evenly," Urquhart said in an email,  "since if someone is actually listening (as you implied they do, although I'm still not sure), they would hear repetitions with only about 120 'songs' in active use. Ok, I think I play the Couperin harpsichord pieces, the English Renaissance sets and the American Folk Hymns more often than some of the others. But the most common song remains the Alma mater. Really."

Some students can think back on the time they heard "Hedwig's Theme" play throughout campus for Homecoming 2013. What people may not realize is that it was Urquhart who arranged, composed and played that song. 

"I got this somewhat unusual request to help the student committee having to do with homecoming," Urquhart said. "They wanted to do something about Harry Potter. I thought, 'Oh, I can't do that. I don't know any Harry Potter, I don't know the theme.' So I had to ask my daughter. She whistled the tunes at me."

Originally, Urquhart said no to the request to play "Hedwig's Theme" on the bell. But, he eventually decided to do it. Collectively, Urquhart said he worked about eight hours, thinking about it, composing and talking to people about it. 

"To put the 'Hedwig's Theme' in, yeah I wrote the piece out because I really had to compose it," Urquhart said, "because I knew that arranging for this particular carillon, I had to have sort of a thin harmony and not ask too much of the harmony for it to work."

Lately, since there's an unknown problem with the bell system, Urquhart hasn't been able to program new songs into the system. 

However, if there's a sparkling of curiosity brewing in your bones, this rich history is accessible to those who wish to take part. Eaton isn't afraid to share his stories.

"Whenever someone wants to go up [to the Thompson Hall tower]," Eaton said, "I take them up." 

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