Episode 31: There were bells, featuring Tiffany Ng

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Episode 31: Tiffany Ng — “There Were Bells”

Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.

In this episode of Listen-In Michigan, my guest is Tiffany Ng, an assistant professor of carillon, and university carillonist – or carillonneur if you prefer – here at Michigan. What is a carillon, you ask? It’s that instrument, high atop the Burton Memorial Tower, made up of bells. The Baird Carillon on central campus was dedicated in 1936, and is named for the original donor, Charles A. Baird. More recently, donors Robert and Anne Lurie dedicated the Lurie Carillon Tower on North Campus, and that was in 1996. There are fewer than 10 full-time carillon jobs in the U.S. and Tiffany holds one of them. In addition to teaching at the U of M, she performs 30 min carillon concerts at each carillon each day. You’re gonna have to take off your earbuds if you’re walking across campus and want to hear her version of “Circle of Life” from the Lion King, or “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” or the lesser known contemporary composition of “Newt” by African American composer Trevor Weston — part of which you’ll hear in this podcast. For her part, Tiffany is seeking to free the carillon of its medieval roots: working to expose her audiences to the music of ethnically diverse, living, and underrepresented composers, especially women. She holds a PhD in Musicology and New Media, and she’s premiered or revived more than 40 pieces by emerging and established composers.

So recently, I trudged up the million stairs (felt like a million) to the top of Burton Tower, where I watched Tiffany kick out the jams on this amazing musical contraption! So next time you hear bells in the sky, don’t take them for granted. It’s likely someone is high atop the tower, performing alone in a room, for an audience they can’t even see. Both towers at U of M are open to the public and visitors are always welcome at the concerts. And of course, you can take the elevator, but what’s the fun in that? Let’s go find Tiffany.

Jeez, it’s hot in here!

(panting, steps up stairs) Man!

Tiffany Ng: Hello?

Holdship: Hello!

Ng: Hi there!

Holdship: (Laughs) I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to meet you down there or up here!

Ng: Oh, down here!

Holdship: Oh, ok!

Ng: Bells are very unusual among musical instruments, they have what’s called an inharmonic spectrum. So, instead of having a major third overtone (sings), they actually have a minor third overtone (sings). So they have this really sort of sad and mournful sound. People sometimes think that bells are out of tune, but they’re not, it’s just that there’s always that mournful overtone that sometimes gets mixed even into happy-sounding music and so it sounds unfamiliar. But, that’s one of my favorite things about it.

Holdship: So, describe what a carillon looks like for someone who’s never seen one before.

Ng: Oh, yes! The carillon is always such a mystery in terms of what it looks like. So, here are rows and rows, four potentially, circles of bells and they all have internal clappers. The bells don’t move back and forth, those are swinging bells, that’s a part of the British and many other traditions. But specifically for the carillon, the bells stay still. The clappers are just maybe 1 cm away from the bell. So that they’re not hard to move, and then all of those clappers are connected to transmission wires that go down to a keyboard and petal board. And this isn’t a typical keyboard, the keys are bigger and they are all spaced apart from each other so that you play each key with your fist, rather than with your finger. You’re gonna move a clapper that weighs 100 lbs, for example, you’re not gonna get it by pushing your pinky finger on a piano key.

Holdship: Yeah, and I know, what… the one in Burton Memorial Tower has 53 bells? Is that right?

Ng: Yeah, Mhm!

Holdship: And the largest one is 12 tons?! That’s the big bass, right? Does it have a nickname?

Ng: Yes! We do fondly call it “Big Baird.”

Holdship: And how about the little guys?! And the little ones’ are only like what, 12 lbs or something?

Ng: Yeah! Sort of like a flower pot! (Laughs) Mhm!

Holdship: (Laughs) It’s like the fat man and little boy or something! The big boy and the little boy!

Ng: Well, that’s part of what makes that carillon so interesting. The colors across the range of the keyboard are incredible. Ranging from this really mournful and long-resonating large bell, to these tiny little clanking bells at the top. So, there’s just an infinite variety of gradations that you find in playing that carillon. Normally, because we’re up in a tower, people oftentimes kind of assume that there’s not even a human being up there and it’s just played automatically.

Holdship: But they are wrong!

Ng: The bell carillons are great. (Laughs).

Holdship: So when we hear the chimes, the…

Ng: Westminster Quarters! (Chimes in background play)

Holdship: That’s automated. Is that correct?

Ng: It is! Yes, you don’t need someone to run upstairs every 15 minutes at either tower at the University of Michigan. In Burton Tower, it’s particularly neat. We’ve got an old clock system that dates from 1936, that was designed by International Business Machines, IBM, which at the time had acquired an international timekeeping division. So, they developed this whole sort of time synchronization system for the university, and there are all these gears and motors up in the tower that play the quarters every 15 minutes. So, depending on which part of the 4 part Westminster Melody you’re hearing, you’ll know if it’s 1:00, 1:15, 1:30 or 1:45.

Holdship: Mhm! It’s so helpful! You know? Especially on a college campus. Do you think that’s why they’re so popular on college campuses? To keep us on time? To keep the students on time? Where does that tradition come from?

Ng: That’s a good question! Many of the carillons in the U.S. were donated as memorials, and so I think that university donors have found that the carillon is a particularly beautiful gift to give to Universities.

Holdship: Very true! (Carillon music plays)

Ng: There’s about 600 carillons in the world, they consist of at least 2 octaves or about 23 bells minimum, of cast-bronze bells that are all tuned in accord with one another. And the whole instrument is played from a keyboard and petal board, kind of like an organ. So, carillons vary tremendously in size, they can go up to 77 bells. One specimen of that largest limit is actually here in Michigan at Bloomfield Hills. So, we are very lucky to have a pretty carillon-rich state.

Holdship: Yes we are!

Ng: And the carillon developed during the 16th century in the Netherlands in Belgium. It developed more as a kind of time-telling and signaling mechanism that became more and more elaborate until people were hooking up keyboards and playing full melodies, and then later polyphonic music on them. It became kind of a concert instrument, one that was more dependent on church services or the public market for example. After World War I, however, Americans in particular began looking for a kind of living memorial that they could build in public spaces. And that is how the first carillons essentially got built in this country.

Holdship: Now, when did you first discover carillon? How does one decide that they’re gonna become a carillon player? There are not many in existence, there are not many programs to learn it, but what… tell me your trajectory.

Ng: It was by accident, really! When I got to Yale University as a freshman, I went to the freshman bizarre where they have all the stands with the extracurriculars trying to recruit you. And then I found that there was a student-run carillon guild. So I showed up to the informational meeting later on, and I got to this Neo-Gothic Tower and pushed open this heavy, carved, wooden door, started climbing these spiral stone steps as bell music echoed down at me. It was the most magical thing. And I finally, after climbing hundreds of steps, suddenly this vista opened up in front of me, and there was this young man at a keyboard playing incredibly virtuosic baroque music. And I thought, “I have to do this!” And I’ve been doing it ever since. (Carillon music plays)

Holdship: So what is it about the carillon that, you know, enchants you or keeps you on this path you’ve been on for so long?

Ng: Well, I’d say that the premial appeal of it has always been that even as a student, we would go on carillon tours around the country and around Europe. Just being given the keys to some old tower, and climbing this hundreds-of centuries-old tower, seeing an entire city from the top and then sharing music for free with everyone is just an incredible gift of an experience.

Holdship: It’s such a nice combination of the setting and the instrument. You don’t often have such a marriage like that, you know? If you play the recorder or you play the keyboard, you can take it around and it’s more mobile. It’s not always associated with a specific environment like that.

Ng: That’s something else that makes Lurie exceptional and kind of bizarre! It’s really a single purpose tower. There’s nothing else that goes on in there!

Holdship: Really?

Ng: It was an entire instrument built just for one person to play concerts every day.

Holdship: Wow!

Ng: It’s fascinating! Architecture professors find it endlessly intriguing. Burton Memorial Tower has many residents. So, the University Musical Society is on the first 3 floors and they are amazing and inspiring neighbors. They’ve inspired a lot of my work, actually. And then there are faculty offices and classrooms that are shared, actually, between different units on campus. So, you’ll walk in and maybe you’ll hear a composition seminar one day, and then a japanese language class being taught the next day.

Holdship: Wow! So, you do recitals or performances… these 30 min concerts on a regular basis here on campus? Or who?

Ng: Yes yes, there are recitals Monday through Friday. On Burton Tower starting at noon, and then at Lurie Tower starting at 1:30pm. So, itt’s myself, we also have community carillon players, many of whom who are alumni of our program. Some of my more advanced students, so we’ve got a great rotation. I sometimes like to joke that our concert hall is the entire zip code. (Laughs)

Holdship: That’s good because, I mean, it’s just so charming, the music as it fills the air. Like is that a part of it as well? Like, being high above everything and just sort of putting it out there? Putting this beautiful sound into the universe?

Ng: It is! It’s magical, yeah it’s magical. It’s a little bittersweet because you can’t actually see the people listening to you, and so oftentimes you have no idea whether they liked it or not. But after I give some of my concerts, you know., there will be an audience member downstairs still 20 minutes / 30 minutes later when I come downstairs. And they’ll tell me that it meant a lot to them.

Holdship: That’s fantastic!

Ng: And nowadays with social media, all you need to do to check audience reception is to go on Twitter or Instagram and see, “Oh, who tagged a video?!” (Laughs).

Holdship: Right! And I know in reading your bio and stuff that you’re very interested in diversifying and decolonizing, I read, the carillon repertoire? I guess, what does that mean?

Ng: So, the carillon repertoire traditionally had been developed with the assumption that listeners were white, male, Northern European, and Christian. And the repertoire hasn’t changed all that much until recently. Even once carillons started being played in America, the assumption was still that they were being played in churches. And so having just Christian repertoire, for example, for the wider public doesn’t make sense, especially at a place as diverse as Ann Arbor.

Holdship: Mhm!

Ng: So I really feel that we have a responsibility to all of the people who have been traditionally marginalized by carillon music. In public space, in a place where they can’t opt out of hearing it. They didn’t buy tickets to that concert hall, they’re just there. I really feel we have the responsibility to arrange and compose music for them too. So, I’ve done everything from arranging Aretha Franklin, which went over really popularly this summer, even in Europe. People LOVED hearing “Respect” on the carillon…

Holdship: (Laughs)

Ng: …to commissioning the first African American composers who have ever published carillon music in North America. It’s unbelievable to me that took until the year 2018 for an African American carillon composer to publish their music. But it’s kind of a sign of how behind we’ve been. And I think it’s partially a function of us being in our towers, we’re not as directly accountable to our audiences. We don’t even see them, right? It’s easy to kind of forget. So it’s an ongoing challenge, you know, arranging or finding Arab-American music, for example, is a challenge. And some of the music that I’d like to have represented is in different scales that the carillon doesn’t even play. So, it’s something that we’re figuring out, but I think we are, in fact, the national leader in at least foraging the way and trying. Not just myself, but our whole team.

Holdship: Yeah, so as you’ve said you’ve seen quite an uptick in students coming to you. So, tell me about that too?

Ng: Well, the University of Michigan offers one of the only Masters Degrees in the world in carillon and students who come here particularly have the opportunity to focus on new music, so working with living composers. Electro-acoustic music, so which is the combination of amplified electronics or generated music in carillon. We’re very avant garde here, and also working on diversity in carillon music.

Holdship: Well I see too that you’re really into new media and new technologies, and you’re just noting about the electronic kind of aspects you can explore and pursue here. That just seems so unusual to me because the carillon is so quote-en-quote “old fashioned” and in analog. And here you are interested in new media and new technology where does that come from and where do you hope to take that?

Ng: It’s a common association of the carillon with medieval times. But the fact is that most of the carillons that stand in towers today were built in the 20th century. Over the years, many carillons have been taken down and melted down, during wars typically melted into cannons and artillery. So the carillon is essentially now a modern instrument. And I was trained at UC Berkeley for my doctorate degree, and so I worked a lot at the Berkeley Center for New Media and there, everyone was so interested in signing on and finding ways to make the carillon audience interactive, to create crowd-sourced performances, where via their mobile phones they can determine what note gets played next. And accompanying the carillon with computer music.

Holdship: Wow, that’s crazy!

Ng: It’s really exciting because then it really explodes all the expectations people have about what they’re gonna hear from the tower. People start to take for granted the sounds of bells in the background, and they stop paying attention. But, the sounds of recorded train whistles, and other things start coming from the tower, people stop in their tracks.

Holdship: That’s wild!

Ng: And it opens up all of these new musical and compositional possibilities.

Holdship: Now that you teach and you perform as much as you do, how has your relationship to the instrument changed since the first day you walked up that tower at Yale?

Ng: Oh! Gosh! I think that actually, it ties back really nicely to my need to diversify carillon repertoire, because when I came here with my focus on avant garde music, computer music especially is a totally white male dominated field. I was the only woman teaching in the Eastman Computer Music Center when I was working on my Masters Degree there. I just took that for granted. When I got this responsibility, stepping up from playing maybe one 10 minute recital a week to being responsible for an hour of publicly played music every day. I started to look back after 1 semester of what I have played, and I realized just based on the fact that I was playing the music that was already published, music that was on the library shelves. That I had served as kind of a mouthpiece for just white, male composers for the entire year. And that in that sense, I was inadvertently reproducing a kind of power structure in public space, and I wanted to change that immediately.

Holdship: That is fascinating!

Ng: So I started looking for women composers, I started commissioning more music and that created the whole emphasis that I work on now.

Holdship: And how are your students responding to that?

Ng: Oh, my students have loved it! Especially this past year, we started working on a carillon arrangement of the new book Music by Black Composers, which is a violin method book. So I involved my whole entire studio in working on and testing these carillon arrangements. And it was just gonna be fun for us, you know. Bringing new music from Guinean composers, for example, to the carillon. New sounds, new rhythms, it was so fun! But then, I wrote to the editor of the collection, Rachel Barton Pine, and I just informed her. You know, we got permission in advance just to do this project. But I wrote to her with the final draft and she wrote back and she said, “Do you want to publish this? This is so great!” So, my students are all gonna be essentially, you know, co-authors on this project!.

Holdship: Oh, that is thrilling!

Ng: It’s so rewarding.

Holdship: So, do you remember the first day you saw the carillon here at Michigan? How was that experience for you?

Ng: I first saw this carillon during the World Carillon Federation Congress in, I think, 2011. It was quite an impressive and imposing tower is what I remember.

Holdship: Mhm!

Ng: And that goes actually to one of the challenges of being a carillonist here. Which is that Burton Tower and Lurie Tower both: their architecture is sort of imposing and doesn’t really invite people in. So even though our doors are open during our concerts, people just assume that they can’t visit. You know, they look at this imposing tower and they assume there’s nothing inside, first of all, that even if there was they wouldn’t be allowed. So, I would like to make the towers more welcoming.

Holdship: And why do you think that’s important? Like why do you think it’s important that we have a carillon on our campus?

Ng: It fills the space with beautiful music, and I think it ultimately creates strong sensory memories for the students about what it’s like to be on campus and what it’s like to take things slow on campus. Especially these days, students are so in a hurry, they’re so absorbed in listening to whatever’s on their headphones. But for the carillon, it encourages them to take out time to talk to their friends, to sit and enjoy the green space, and I hope that stays with them forever.

(Carillon music plays)

Holdship: Oh, how pretty was that?! Tiffany arranged that piece, called “Hypnose” by female composer Phyllis Chen. You also heard “Circle of Life” from The Lion King, and Trevor Weston’s “Newt” earlier in this podcast. Thank you so much for listening. You can hear more episodes of “Listen-In Michigan” at michigantoday.umich.edu and at Spotify, iTunes, GooglePlay Music,TuneIn and Stitcher. And don’t forget to give us a rating! Alright, that’s it! We’ll catch you next time! Until then… go blue!

Isn’t it grand

Tiffany Ng

Tiffany Ng performs on the Baird Carillon. (Image: D. Holdship.)

It’s a beautiful Thursday morning on the Diag and the sounds coming from the Baird Carillon inside Burton Memorial Tower are sassy, expressive, and eccentric, not the typical fare one associates with a gothic tower and its mournful chimes.

That’s just the way assistant professor and U-M carillonist Tiffany Ng likes it. From her private concert hall high above the Michigan campus, Ng subverts tradition and makes it a point to commission, debut, and showcase underrepresented composers. She actively seeks out work by African-American composers, including Trevor Weston (who she met on social media). She also is on the quest for female writers and recently arranged a piece intended for toy piano by Phyllis Chen. Contemporary, living composers are her carillon jam.

“The carillon repertoire was developed with the assumption that listeners were white, male, and Christian,” she says. “I really feel we have a responsibility to all the people who have been marginalized by carillon music to arrange and compose for them too.”

In addition to conducting research and teaching, Ng presents two 30-minute concerts per day on the University’s two grand carillons, the Baird on Central Campus, and the Lurie Carillon on North Campus.

Ng holds degrees in musicology and new media and loves to experiment with technology, sounds, and genres. She is one of only seven full-time carillonists in the country. Ng will be on a faculty fellowship in the near future, but will be back to ring your bells before you know it.


  1. Matthew Boulton - MD 87, MPH 91

    Fascinating interview with Tiffany Ng, she projects such love of the carillon. I first came to UM in 1988 for my medical residency, and I can’t begin to convey how much I have enjoyed the carillon music over these last 30 years. I live close enough to the university in the arboretum area that I can often hear the carillon from my home which I’ve always considered a wonderful bonus. It’s great that Tiffany is diversifying the music, featuring the work of new composers, and reaching out to non-traditional audiences, we’re lucky to have her on faculty at UM.



    • Deborah Holdship

      I agree. She is fantastic.


  2. Ann-Ellen Akeley - 1980-Ph.D, Slavic Languages and Literatures

    Such a pleasure to listen to this interview and think of Burton Tower and the music which greeted me as I came and went so many times at the Modern Languages Building next door. Congratulations to Dr. Ng on her work and sense of forward movement. Is there a carillon recording available from U of M?


  3. Elissa Hepner - 1956

    What a beautiful and informative interview with Dr. Ng. I have special reverence to the Burton Tower as its architect was my great uncle, Albert Kahn. Thank you to both of you.


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