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Carillon is an instrument that comes with a peal

Author Melissa Bray in front of the National Carillon on Lake Burley Griffin… “When people play well-known music, the audiences love it.”  Photo: Katarina Lloyd Jones

The National Carillon is a well-known landmark, but few people know that it is actually an instrument, and even fewer people know about those that play it, says Melissa Bray, author of a new book, Australian Carillonists.

The carillon is a pitched percussion instrument, made up of a minimum 23 suspended bells, operated by pedals and a wooden keyboard, called a clavier. 

Wires and cables connect the bells to the keys and pedals, resulting in an iron-clapper hitting the bell.

It is one of the world’s heaviest instruments, and the largest in Australia.

There are only three in Australia, with the one in Canberra being a gift from the British government for the golden jubilee celebrations of the founding of the national capital.

“Belgium is kind of the home of carillon, there’s about 100 carillons there, and they released a book last year, and I thought this is something we need in Australia,” says Melissa, who doesn’t play carillon but is connected to the instrument through her son.

“My son plays it, he’s been playing it for about 10 years,” she says.

“Turns out he’s pretty good, he’s over in Europe doing a concert tour at the moment.”

The instrument is made up of the whole tower, and the National Carillon on Queen Elizabeth II Island, Lake Burley Griffin, is 50 metres tall. It includes a kitchen area in the middle of its 57 bronze-cast bells, a bathroom, a practice instrument on the top floor, and an area underneath where it is played from, Melissa says.

“The practice one is set up effectively like a xylophone, so it doesn’t sound outside, it just sounds for the person who’s playing, so they can hear the notes,” says Melissa.

“It doesn’t sound nice, but just to get the routine, so you know what you’re playing.” 

Melissa says music can be written especially for carillon or other music can be arranged for it, most often piano music.

“There was a guy, who they’ve named the room that you play in after, George Howe, he played for 33 years, and he was a pianist who improvised on the carillon,” says Melissa.

“He would have the song in his head or on his piano music and just play it […] and he loved playing well-known music.”

George Howe OAM isn’t the only one who sought to modernise the carillon, with Melissa saying her son, Peter Bray, organised a Star Wars day with another carillonist

“When people play well-known music, the audiences love it,” she says.

“In the book, one of the carillonists talks about playing everything from opera to AFL songs on it.”

Another way Melissa says carillon can be made more accessible is by making them mobile, so they can be performed anywhere, from the Opera House to Uluru to the Great Hall in Parliament House.

“They’re kind of the size that they can be on the back of a truck and you can take it anywhere,” she says.

“In Europe they have a few, and often they break apart so you can make it smaller and take it wherever you want. 

“Obviously, the biggest bell in there [the National Carillon] is six tonnes so you can’t fit that on a mobile carillon, so you’ve got the higher bells, but they can still play some amazing music.”

Melissa says carillons are mostly popular in the “low countries,” such as The Netherlands and Belgium, but there are also some to be found in Portugal, Germany, France and Spain.

The other two Australian carillons can be found in the town square in Bathurst and the quadrangle at Sydney University.

“Ours is the biggest. It’s got the biggest bells and is the tallest,” says Melissa.

“We’ve got 57 bells, Sydney has 54, and Bathurst, 47.”

At the moment the National Carillon is closed due to façade and instrumentation works being underway.

But, the National Capital Authority says initial planning has commenced to support the return of music and activities to the National Carillon on the completion of these works. 

Australian Carillonists is available at Pop Canberra, The Book Cow, Paperchain, the Portrait Gallery, the National Library, and An e-book version is also available on Amazon.

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Katarina Lloyd Jones

Katarina Lloyd Jones

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