The man behind the curtain: Ph.D. student rings bells

by Sabrina Peric | 11/26/02 6:00am

There are few things that are as constant in a Dartmouth student's life as the ringing of Baker Tower's bells. Whether it be "You Are My Sunshine" or the alma mater, Dartmouth students can count on hearing those bells every day.

But Dartmouth students are not the only ones that take notice Baker's music. October's issue of "Wired" magazine took note of Baker's bells and their operator, Kimo Johnson, a first year Ph.D. student in electro acoustic music at the College.

"All of this is linked to the interest in Dartmouth's wireless network and how I can reach the tower through wireless," Johnson explained.

The Baker bells are controlled by an iMac computer in the tower that runs software custom-designed for the system, connected via a wireless link to Johnson's own workstation in Gerry Hall.

The computerized programming of the bells is a very recent addition to Baker Tower. However, technological advancements have been implemented to make the bells easier to use -- and their songs more complex -- since they were first installed.

Baker's famous bells have been ringing since 1928, when the College commissioned the Meneely Bell Company to cast a 16-bell set for the Tower. Each bell plays a different note on the musical scale.

The bells were rung manually until the following year when William Durrschmidt, an instrument maker and music professor invented an automation system from three machines and a clock to regulate the bells' music.

The bells, which vary in size from 200 to 2,500 pounds, worked in a manner similar to a player piano. Songs for the bells were punched onto paper rolls, which were then fed into Durrschmidt's machine, triggering the bells in sequence.

Though this system was innovative at the time, Durrschmidt's automation system had a few drawbacks. The bells did not work in foul weather -- a severe hindrance in New England -- nor could they play multiple notes at the same time.

But despite these shortcomings, General Electric bought the patent for Durrschmidt's system. Yale University still uses his system today.

The first songs to resonate from Baker Tower were popular songs of the 1930s that Durrschmidt transcribed and punched onto the paper rolls.

About two decades later, the wife of the then-Glee Club director had the idea of punching the alma mater on a roll of paper and the song became a mainstay in the bells' repertoire.

The Baker bells continued to operate under this system for many years, but after decades of use, the paper rolls began to show signs of their age. By 1979, Dartmouth switched over to a computerized system invented by two students, Paul Grossi '80 and Chris Walker '73.

In 1981, Donald Morse '51 donated a 17th bell along with money to pay for the maintenance of the system and to pay the bell ringer.

Johnson, who has been running the bells for a year and a half, was approached about the job by another student who passed the job over to him after graduating.

"I was a student in the electro acoustic music program, so it was a pretty natural choice," Johnson said.

Johnson's rise to the his position of bell ringer was typical; the job has been passed from student to student for years, though Johnson has not yet decided who he will pass it on to.

"I think the music department decided that the bells position should be a grad student in music because it requires a lot of technical skills in programming," Johnson said.

Because Johnson has several years left in his course of study, he expects to continue ringing the bells for the forseeable future. "I could conceivably do the job for the next four years," Johnson said. "But if someone is interested, I'll just pass it on."

Johnson is also in charge of maintaining the bells. "[The maintenance] is usually unexpected. The power might go out in the bell tower, and the computer won't restart properly," he said.

"I'll need to climb up to the tower and figure out what's wrong. Maybe once or twice a month I'll have to do that," Johnson said.

The bells also have to be turned every year so that the hammers don't wear out the same spot on each bell. This maintenance of the bells has been complicated in recent years due to the construction of Berry Library and smaller projects in Baker Tower.

But barring unforeseen obstacles, the bells ring out on the hour and half hour, and songs are played three times a day -- the alma mater at 6 p.m., and varying pieces during the intervals between classes.

Songs for the Baker Bells can be requested by sending a BlitzMail message to "Bells." The bells' current playlist is rather eclectic, ranging from Billy Joel's "For the Longest Time," to Christmas carols, largely because most songs are too complex or have too fast a tempo for the bells to play.

"I don't do every request I get," Johnson said. "Some of them I don't do just because the song isn't possible on the bells."

Many requested songs are ruled out because the same note cannot be played in quick succession on the bells, which can be struck at a frequency of only one note per second. Songs like the "Indiana Jones" theme, or the theme from "Jeopardy" are ideal for a system with this limitation, because their instantly recognizable tunes meet this criteria for tempo and score.

When a new requested song is adaptable, Johnson programs it into the computer's database.

The transcribing process largely involves paring the song down to its most basic components.

"I have to simplify it considerably to get the bells to play. This usually involves slowing it down a lot," Johnson said. The songs most suited for the bells, then, are those that have instantly recognizable melodies that remain so during this process.

Range can also be a problem, since the bells do not span more than two octaves.

Yet, despite these technological modifications, the Baker system is still unique in that it is based on "real bells." Many other institutions use electronic bells that are based on recordings or synthesizers and then played over a loud speaker.

Dartmouth's bells are still genuine -- and as technology expands their repertoire, the bells continue to ring true.

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