“One who has lived for a time in sight of Cayuga Lake and its valley and hills can never forget the chimes,” wrote Albert Smith, Class of 1878. “This music of the bells becomes a part of the emotional memory of Cornellians; and when they return, the first sound of the bells brings back unforgotten days.”
For the denizens of East Hill, the chimes are the mellifluous soundtrack of daily life, their ringing marking the hours and the seasons. On graduation weekend, “Pomp and Circumstance” peals from McGraw Tower; during finals week, the bells have been known to ring out “If I Only Had a Brain.” And every day, Central Campus hears the three Big Red standards: the morning “Jennie McGraw Rag” (named in honor of the benefactress who donated the nine original bells in 1868); the afternoon Alma Mater; and the nightly “Evening Song.”
The thrice-daily concerts are open to the public, the only price of admission being a 161-step vertical commute.
Although many enjoy the chimes, few have earned the honor of playing them. Each spring, the current crop of chimesmasters—there are twelve for 2015–16—choose two or three new members from dozens of hopefuls who undergo a rigorous ten-week selection process. There are two basic requirements: the competitors (dubbed “compets”) must know how to read music and also be able to climb the McGraw Tower stairs. The bells—most of which are located in a cage inside the tower’s spire—are played on an instrument, called a stand, that resembles a large wooden organ with foot pedals and long levers in place of keys; cables run from its back and up through the ceiling. The compets spend a month learning the ropes on a practice stand before seven finalists are selected to perform a series of try-out concerts for the whole campus to hear. “Learning to play the chimes was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I’ve ever had,” recalls the current head chimesmaster, Charlie Xu ’16. A biological engineering major from Corning, New York, Xu cites the 549-note “Jennie McGraw Rag” as his bête noir. “It’s a really fast and technical piece, and it was probably my Goliath in the competition,” Xu says. “I had practiced it for so long and I could play it really well—but then every morning I’d go up there and make a mistake somewhere.”
Over the decades, roughly 2,700 songs have been arranged for McGraw Tower’s bells, which underwent their most recent restoration in 1999 and now number twenty-one. Tunes range from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to the Star Wars theme to the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” to Pharrell Williams’s 2014 hit “Happy.” Excluding the three traditional Big Red songs, the playlist on any given day is largely up to the chimesmasters. Cornellians and visitors alike can watch the musicians in action: their thrice-daily concerts are open to the public, the only price of admission being a 161-step vertical commute. The chimesmasters even take requests from the audience—among the most popular tunes, unsurprisingly, is “Happy Birthday”—as well as via e-mail. “With equal measures of musicality, imagination, playfulness, and athletic endurance,” observed a book marking the tower’s centennial, “the chimesmasters offer their fellow Cornellians a unique gift: the music of the bells.”