Musicians of Carillon Arts Gather to Celebrate Historical Instrument at Rockefeller

More than 150 carillonists from all over the world attended the annual GCNA congress in June, which also celebrated the 90th anniversary of Rockefeller’s flagship instrument, “Big Laura.”


Anne Ryan

Carilloneurs Congress at The Rockefeller Chapel June 18, 2022 2022 GCNA Congress (photo by Anne Ryan)

By Casey Kim

More than 150 carillonists from all over the world convened at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in June for performances and presentations of research and historical studies as part of the 79th Annual Congress of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America (GCNA). It marked the third time the University hosted the GCNA congress after holding the 1953 and 1977 editions.

Rockefeller Chapel’s famous bells are often heard but rarely seen. They rest in a tower inside the chapel’s Gothic exterior, wrapped in a channel of rooms, belfries, cabins, and 271 steps. The carillon is a pitched percussion instrument, usually a set of bells arranged in chromatic sequence, played with a keyboard that is similar to a piano. Carillonists strike the keys with half-closed hands and feet when they perform.

The event, led by then University Carillonneur Joey Brink, also celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, affectionately known as “Big Laura.” The instrument, which has 72 bells and a weight of 100 tons (200,000 pounds), is the second largest of its kind in the world, second only to the Riverside Church carillon in New York City. It has been housed in the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel since 1932.

The event also celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, affectionately known as “Big Laura.” (Eric Fang)

Second-year Yurou Li, the publicity director of the UChicago Guild of Carillonists, said her favorite song to play on the carillon is “Colors of the Wind” from the soundtrack of Disney’s Pocahontas.

“I just think it sounds beautiful on the bells,” Li said. “The lower bells have very strong resonance, and they’re able to carry the sound of the music far and wide to every corner of the main quad and most of campus. Songs that are somewhat emotional and sentimental have an especially good ring on the carillon.”

Behind the scenes, the UChicago Guild of Carillonists, a 14-person student group, joined Brink to host GCNA. From Sunday to Friday, the Guild of Carillonists holds recitals twice a day—from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.—and accepts requests for songs by artists as diverse as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ye (formerly known as Kanye West). The guild also hosts tower tours for students and visitors from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays during the academic quarters.

Li also attended the Congress and said it helped open her eyes to the larger carillon community beyond the school.

“Some of [the attendees] were from Europe, and some of them were from different states and universities across the northeastern region,” Li said. “It was really cool talking to everyone and learning about their own very intimate experience with the carillon in their own towers.”

At the congress, Class of 2022 graduates Emily Kim and João Shida passed their GCNA carillonneur examination to become certified carillonists. Several carillonist alumni, including Joseph Min ’22, Christine Cao ’22, Maria Krunic ’21, and Simone Browne ’19, played for the concerts.

A student carillonneur plays the instrument at Rockefeller Chapel. (Eric Fang)

“Every time there was a concert going on, we would all take our chairs outside and put them under the tree in front of the Rockefeller Chapel,” Li described. “We would have blankets out and just have a picnic. I would sit with all my girlfriends, and we would talk and listen to music. It felt like time was passing by and we were not realizing it. It was the best moment.”