Caroline Saunders 0000-00-00 00:00:00
<b>Bong! Bong! Bong! High in the sky, 48 bells swing in the belfry, ringing out a harmonious cacophony of music history. DISCOVERY901</b> “Okay, we’re going to climb,” says Peggy. We’re about to ascend Idlewild Presbyterian Church’s bell tower so David Caudill and Peggy McClure and can show off the Midtown church’s massive 48-bell instrument, the carillon, one of the few in the nation. “It’s 256 steps straight up,” says David, senior carillonneur. My eyes widen. “I’m kidding,” he says, smiling. “I think there are 52.” “You count!” Peggy tells David. “You’re on the bottom.” Clomping up the steep, narrow, spiral metal staircase, David counts. Has he ever tripped going up these stairs? “Yes,” he mutters. There’s probably a story there, but David is still busy counting. We suddenly hear the wind blowing and can tell we’re almost there. “Fifty-four!” announces David, as we arrive — slightly out of breath — on the observation platform. Looking up even farther, we see what David calls his “48 girls” — bells that can play four octaves and are heard for miles around. Despite their imposing size, they’re surprisingly personal, each inscribed with dedications to and from church members. If We continued up to the very top, we would see the Downtown skyline. Though Idlewild was constructed in 1921 to 1928 to hold a carillon, the instrument itself is a recent addition. The church was built during the Depression, and an expensive carillon simply wasn’t plausible at the onset. For years, the church used an electronic system that played through speakers outside. When the electronic instrument broke sometime in the mid ‘70s, organist Billy Christian started a campaign to put in a real carillon. In 1980, the church installed a set of 12 bells, and several years later added 11 more. Led by longtime church member Conrad Seabrook, a new fundraising effort began to “complete the carillon,” and in 1999, the instrument officially became a carillon when the final 25 bells were added (fewer than 24 bells is considered a chime). Ranging in weight from 26 pounds to two and a half tons, the bells were shipped on barges in three massive shipments from the Paccard-Fonderie de Cloches bell foundry in Annecy, France, and are valued at more than $1 million — not including the cost of renting the crane at $1,000 per day. But the difficulties of raising the funds and installing the colossal bells were worth it for the bragging rights. There are no carillons in Arkansas, Alabama, or Mississippi, and no others in Memphis, although three more exist in Tennessee: First Presbyterian in Jackson, Belmont University in Nashville, and University of the South in Sewanee. Peggy, associate carillonneur, straps on several Band-Aids, then adds weight gloves to help protect her hands. David does the same. The playing end of the carillon looks somewhat like an organ, but has a set of batons that juts out of the front. Attached to each baton is a titanium rod that is attached to a bell. The carillonneurs pound on the batons with the sides of their hands, making clip-clop horse-hoof sounds reminiscent of Irish clog dancers. Twenty-four foot pedals replicate the lower two octaves of the same notes as the hands, making the carillon an instrument that requires full body strength and stamina from its players. But David and Peggy happily sacrifice their hands, their time, and their energy to Play this sky-high instrument. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” David says. “In 2001, the first carillonneur, Paul Hicks, had me play ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ which I completely slaughtered — and which rang out for blocks around! Still, I was fascinated by the sound it produces, that you could hear it for blocks. The more I played, the more I liked it.” David is an organist by trade — “which puts Ramen noodles on the table!” laughs Peggy — and was able to catch onto the carillon quickly. Peggy played the piano growing up — “‘Chopsticks’ and ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’” David jokes — and sings in the church choir. When she saw a blurb in the church bulletin in 2005 asking if anyone was interested in learning how to play the carillon, she jumped at the chance. The carillon can even take credit for recruiting a few of Idlewild’s members. One couple who was looking for a church heard Peggy playing the University of Memphis fight song, and decided, “Now that’s the kind of church we’d like to go to!” Being stationed 120 feet above the sanctuary during a church service or wedding ceremony led to some creative communication solutions between the carillonneurs above and the church organist below. When it’s time for the carillon to play, the organist calls David on his cell phone. “It’ll ring, and we’ll start playing,” says David. David and Peggy arrange the music because what’s traditionally written for the carillon is limited, and they prefer more diversity. “We try to get the gist of the music,” says David. “We usually reverse it by playing the melody in the bass line because the heavy lower bells dominate everything. If it doesn’t work, we just throw it in the trash and find the next piece!” “B-A-B-Y” by Carla Thomas didn’t quite translate for Stax’s 50th anniversary, so Peggy opted for “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” During Elvis week, they play all Elvis music, and on Valentine’s Day, “love music” rings out over the neighborhood. On December 5 at 3 p.m., David will play the carillon’s first Christmas concert — everything from “Silent Night” to “Frosty the Snowman.” David dubbed the four bottom bells the “Four Swinging Tenors.” “They represent C, F, G, and A, like the Westminster chime,” he says. “The largest bell is the big C, just under 5,000 pounds. All four bells swing full circle when they’re in motion. The clappers have wires that go around the top of the bell to keep them from flying out into the middle of Union Avenue!” Peggy plays one of the big bells, and the sound is both deafening and unexpectedly rich. David laughs. “That’s only about one-fourth of the sound it makes when it’s swinging!” The carillon requires major maintenance twice a year. Specialists come in and check every nut and bolt of the 50,000-pound framework, inspect all the transmission rods, and lubricate as needed. The carillon holds up surprising well, considering it’s exposed to the drastic swings of Memphis weather. And even though David and Peggy play the carillon in a climate-controlled room, they watch the weather closely. “I just don’t want to be up here with 48 lightning conductors,” says David. “I don’t feel like being fricassee just yet!” But today, there’s not a lightning bolt in sight — the perfect day to play. The pair sits down at the intricate instrument to practice. During their “jam session,” they yell to one another to trump the near-deafening sound of the bells. Their music choices sound refreshingly unusual for church bells: “Pink Panther,” “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” “Blue Room,” “Send in the Clowns,” and the grand finale, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Which they end with a big C bong. “You can see how it’s contagious,” Peggy says, grinning. “It’s just so fun!” A few people disagree — one grouchy listener called the church to complain that the carillon music was interrupting Judge Judy. The two laugh that one off easily, likely because they get so much more positive feedback than negative. David remembers when Senior Pastor Steve Montgomery said he looked out his office window and saw a woman in the Schnucks parking lot across the street holding up her cell phone so the person on the other end could hear the bells. Still, the nature of the instrument keeps them from becoming too arrogant. As the saying goes, you can’t un-ring a bell. When David or Peggy hits a wrong note, people for blocks around hear it — for quite a while. But the occasional bad note aside, Peggy and David make the carillon undeniably Memphis — and, in its own special way, part of the Memphis music scene. It’s a Memphis one-of-a-kind that dwells in a city that has always held music in high regard. “It’s a gift to the community,” says Peggy. That rings true, too. Idlewild Presbyterian Church, 1750 Union, 726-4681, idlewildchurch.org.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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