Soundtrack of a century: College chimes still sound a sweet note across campus

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On a brisk Schenectady winter afternoon, Zihan He ‘20 enters Memorial Chapel and heads toward the balcony. Ducking inside a door, she gingerly makes her way across a long, narrow wooden catwalk decorated with decades of dusty insulation stuffed between the building’s ceiling and roof.

After a careful climb up a 20-foot ladder and then a second, shorter one, Zihan continues the arduous journey across the Chapel’s ceiling to the building's drafty tower.

There, she begins to play.

Standing on a compact, screened-in platform directly below the chimes, the soft-spoken senior intermittently grabs at some of the 11 wooden levers connected to a series of chains and cables. As she forcefully pushes down on a lever, a hammer strikes the corresponding bell.

Zihan warms up with a scale melody, then shifts to a processional hymn, a piece by Bach and a traditional Yiddish song. She concludes her performance with “Ode to Old Union,” the school’s alma mater.

The clacking of the chimes makes the sound nearly indecipherable inside the tower. Outside, though, the powerful notes serenade a campus at the midpoint of its day.

As more colleges and universities switch to recordings or synthesizers, Union maintains its tradition of mechanical bells to create an authentic sound.

A neuroscience and visual arts major, He is among the generations of students who have rung the chimes since Memorial Chapel opened on June 8, 1925, for Commencement. The wooden beams surrounding the platform serve as a scorecard, with the names or initials of past chimes ringers etched into them. The earliest inscription belongs to Byron T. Borst ’26. With no records found to refute the claim, Borst is believed to be Union’s first chimes ringer.

Cast by the noted Meneely Bell Foundry (Alfred Meneely, Class of 1914) in nearby Watervliet, the chimes were a gift to the College from the Class of 1922. The range is one octave plus a whole-step. It includes two accidentals, a B-flat and an E-flat.

“This range and these accidentals allow the performer to play many melodies in several keys,” said Dianne McMullen, professor of music and College organist. Since 2011, McMullen has been curator of the chimes, overseeing its maintenance and auditioning students who want to play.

Students are free to choose the music. A hefty, weathered songbook kept by the keyboard has inspired students to perform everything from Bach to the Beatles to Taylor Swift.

James Henning ‘74 recalls his time in the tower as one of his favorite Union experiences. A musician by trade, Henning leaned toward popular songs of the day, including “Hey Jude” by the Beatles and “Scarborough Fair” by Simon and Garfunkel. He also performed classical tunes.

“I loved it,” said the retired Henning, 67, who lives in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y. “It was a lot of fun. I’d love to do it again, if not for the stairs.”

The toughest challenge for a chimes player may not be the choice of music or the stairs. The energy and strength required to push down on the wooden levers rapidly nearly matches the intensity of a P90X workout.

“The first few days of every term, my arms are very sore,” Zihan He said.

At times, age, weather and lack of money silenced the chimes. From the mid-1950s to 1967, the mechanical system needed repair. In addition, Schenectady’s harsh winters periodically froze the grease box that caters to the chimes and its roommate, the clock.

In the early days, Union provided its chimes player with a scholarship equivalent to the amount of tuition, or around $150. When the College was unable to award the scholarship in 1933-34, two students, Thorton Whipple ’35 and Edgar Moulton ’37, volunteered to play free.

An editorial in the Concordiensis praised the pair for their service, opining, “It is indeed gratifying that there should be proof that in Union College there are students who do not put all their services on a mercenary basis.”

For decades, the College relied on volunteers to play the chimes.

In spring 2002, Moulton returned to campus for his 65th ReUnion. An accountant whose hobby was music, he introduced himself to McMullen, and the two spent hours that weekend talking about his time at Union. He asked to visit the chimes. Climbing the tower as he often did back in the 1930s, Moulton gave an encore performance.

When he learned that students were not playing the chimes on a regular basis, he again stepped up.

“He wanted to make sure that qualified students had the opportunity to play them as he did and that people on campus could hear them every day,” said McMullen.

The E.L. Moulton Endowed Fund pays a stipend to two students who play during Common Hour throughout the academic year. The chimers also play at special events, including Convocation, ReUnion and Commencement. Moulton died in 2010.

This year, Zihan He shares duties with Max Caplan ’16, who lives close to campus. Both have a strong background in music, which McMullen requires, and had to audition. Caplan also assists with repairs as needed.

Zihan’s path to the tower began during an organ lesson in the chapel in her sophomore year. She heard the chimes and assumed they were prerecorded. When told it was live, that was music to her ears.

Zihan does not listen to contemporary music, so her chimes selection leans toward church hymns and classical music. Her repertoire also includes tunes from her hometown of Fuzhou, the capital of southeastern China's Fujian province.

When she graduates this year, she will miss the opportunity to merge her love of music with the chance to carry on a unique Union tradition that struck its first note 95 years ago.

“It’s almost like playing piano,” He said. “I’ve enjoyed doing this very much.”