There is a structure in the University of the Philippines whose music has survived some of the most tumultuous years of the 20th century. No symbol other than the Oblation captures the timelessness of the UP alumni’s loyalty to both country and alma mater. Moreover, it is the only structure in the University with an unofficial Twitter account that religiously echoes its real time activities online.
Iskos and iskas are likely to have realized at this point that the structure in question is none other than the Andres Bonifacio Central Carillon Tower or, simply, the UP Carillon. The 130-foot tall brainchild of National Artist Juan Nakpil has been the Diliman campus’ official time-keeper and music player since 1952. It served as the eyes of student activists during the First Quarter Storm of the 1970s and witnessed UP’s transformation into the country’s only national university in 2008.
Despite its iconic sound, very few people have any understanding of how the Carillon actually plays its music. While the notes of L’Internationale proudly rang out during Karl Marx’s 200th birth anniversary and a somber rendition of “Bayan Ko” marked the May 2018 ouster of former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the mechanisms and individuals behind the music have remained obscure. Are humans or machines to thank for the gift of music that punctuated these events?
According to Henriette Baes and David Israel of the University Theater Complex, the process involves a little bit of both. Ever since the UP Alumni Association (UPAA) turned over the Carillon to UP Diliman in 2010, the task of operating, recording for, and maintaining the Carillon has been taken over by technical assistants like them. Through their work, human musicality and improvisation are married with computers to compose and time the tunes that we now know so well.
A quick internet search of carillon-playing reveals clips of skilled carillonneurs striking the long, baton-like keys of a clavier with closed fists in order to play the solemn carillon music in old European cities. And, indeed, Baes says that this was initially how UP’s own Carillon was played. Masters like Adrian Antonisse, Jr., Eva Gonzales and Wesley Tubuyoyong once graced the landings of the Carillon to make its bells sing.
With the refurbishment and modernization of the Carillon in 2008, however, Dutch bell-makers Royal Bellfounders Petit & Fritsen included a computer together with the structure’s 36 new bells that allowed users to easily pre-record tunes via keyboard and automate their playing over weeks, even months.
“You have two methods of control,” Baes said. “You have manual control and you have a Midi keyboard.” Indeed, walking into the tower, the control mechanism with its LCD display and array of buttons are more reminiscent of science fiction movies than classical music. From the Carillon’s main menu, one has the choice to either play a melody already saved in the system (each melody has an associated ID number) or to play one manually.
Choosing the ‘manual play’ option, someone familiar with the Carillon’s bells can choose to play a tune in real time. To the right of the control panel’s LCD display are numerical keys and LED lights that are connected and correspond to specific bells. Pushing each key will play a bell by either swinging or pealing (striking with hammers). Technicians like Israel, who typically scales the tower’s spiral staircase for this task, can play an impromptu melody or test each bell and its components in this manner.
For more technical pieces, like the aforementioned “Bayan Ko”, however, the Theater Complex team is typically assisted by volunteers from the UP College of Music. These volunteers transpose the notes of each melody into a format appropriate to the Carillon’s 36 bells that are playable by a special Midi keyboard. Baes explained that each key in this keyboard can be programmed to associate with specific notes/bells, which in turn form the basic elements of each composition. Then, with assistance, these players can begin the meticulous process of recording the tune for posterity.
“These things are programmed,” Israel said. “So, for example, somebody requests ‘Bayan Ko’. Our player will usually practice it first on the keyboard before we save it onto the computer. That’s until he gets it completely and everything is in tune. And only then do we record, because once recorded you can’t make edits to it. You have to start over.”
The careful process of transposition and recording is essential given the Carillon’s condition. According to Baes, volunteer players must transpose their requested tunes to make allowances not only for the uniqueness of the instrument, but also for bells that have been damaged and degraded by nature.
“During the last assessment, it was found that there were three bells that can’t be used. Two have wiring problems. That was in November of last year, so the bells are not in good condition.” The Carillon’s exposure to the elements has, indeed, left it with not only shorted-out wiring and damaged solenoids, but also broken windows and chipped paint.
Both Baes and Israel hope that the bells of the Carillon that mark every hour remind members of the UP community to care for this UP icon. “For one,” Baes said, “because its architect is a National Artist. But also because of its rich history, that UP has to maintain it.”
“Not only members of our community but prospective students, tourists and alumni who have long graduated come here just for that structure. They all really want to hear the Carillon play.”