Remember the Chapel Bells?

Thanks to a generous donor, Vassar’s historic soundscape gets a digital boost complete with an 8,000-song playlist!
Photos Karl Rabe

Those melodies that waft across the Vassar campus twice a day sound like they’re emanating from the chimes at the top of the Chapel. Sadly, those chimes have been in disrepair for some time, but thanks to a gift given in memory of an alumna, a computer-generated music box called a digital carillon has come to the rescue.

The carillon, which was installed at the start of the Fall Semester, is attached to speakers on the roof of the Chapel, enabling everyone on campus to enjoy songs that are played daily at 12:30 and 5:00 p.m. It is capable of playing more than 8,000 tunes, and music major Chelsea Zak ’23, an intern in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices, has been taking requests to add even more to the carillon’s repertoire. “I’ve had requests for (songs by) Taylor Swift and Cardi B and even some music from some video games,” said Zak, who records the songs via a keyboard attached to the digital machine. The new carillon can also be controlled from the organ keyboard.

Drama and Music major Chelsea Zak ’23
Drama and Music major Chelsea Zak ’23 has taken some requests and added a few songs to the carillon’s repertoire.

The carillon was a gift from Michael Karam of Bethesda, MD, in memory of his late wife, Linda J. Morgan ’73, who died in 2015. “Linda truly loved Vassar, and each year since she died, I have continued to make donations to the College,” Karam said. “Linda loved music and she had a real fondness for the Chapel, so the idea of the carillon seemed like it would be a good tribute to her.”

Karam said he first met Linda while both were attending Georgetown Law School a year after she graduated from Vassar. He said they visited the campus several times after they were married, and the Chapel was one of their mandatory destinations. “I think Linda would really appreciate the music that everyone on campus can listen to now, and I look forward to visiting the campus soon to hear it,” he said.

Rev. Samuel Speers, Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices, said the carillon would play a major role in exposing everyone on campus to a wide range of music, including songs from disparate religions and cultures. Two members of the faculty, Associate Professor of Music Kathryn Libin and Associate Professor of Art Yvonne Elet, are working with Speers on the project, which they hope will eventually lead to an expanded program of daily music, as well as the repair of the chimes at the top of the Chapel. “The chimes need to be restored,” Speers said, “and the rest of the structure required for playing them must be completely rebuilt.”

Elet said that renewed interest in the chimes was sparked two years ago in concert with her new “intensive” course about the Vassar campus in which she included a segment on the campus soundscape and brought to light the current state of the carillon and its repertoire. She prompted a student in the course, Jennifer Gee ’20, to write a paper on the history of the chimes. She and Gee climbed to the top of the Chapel tower to inspect and photograph the chimes. “Only one bell was still working, and the rest of the instrument and its frame have to be rebuilt,” Elet said.

Gee said she enjoyed conducting the research for her paper. “It was wonderful having the opportunity to learn more about Vassar’s history,” she said.

Elet subsequently mentioned the soundscape project in a presentation about Vassar’s new “intensive” courses. The idea for a new carillon was hatched—and President Elizabeth Bradley was a strong proponent of expanding the repertoire. “We hope that our next step, in addition to building the repertoire of the new digital carillon, will be to restore the historic instrument of tubular bells that was installed in the Chapel in 1904,” Elet said.

Libin said she was glad the digital carillon is now providing a wide range of songs for everyone on campus to enjoy, but she was looking forward to a time when the original chimes are restored. “Many of our alums recall hearing those bells as they walked across the campus,” she said. “It’s part of the history of the College and a tradition that dates back to cathedrals in the Middle Ages. Those bells have been a signature of Vassar’s soundscape for 120 years.”

December 1, 2021