Each year, Cornell sponsors the Big Idea Competition, a contest in which students pitch ideas for non-profit and for-profit enterprises in the hopes of having their entrepreneurial ambitions realized.
While I hardly exude CEO-cool — see: that time I left my math notebook on a hot stove — I have a submission for this year’s contest that I think could sway a few judges, an idea crystallized after countless strolls past McGraw Tower at certain hours of the day (i.e. 8 a.m., 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.).
My Big Idea? Put a clamp on the Cornell Chimes.
For readers unfamiliar with the chimes and hoping to simulate the auditory experience of a chimes concert, try sticking your head inside a grand piano and having a friend attempt “Claire de Lune” with bass drum mallets. The simulation won’t quite capture the bombast of the real thing, but it will give you an idea.
I’ve always felt ambivalent toward the chimes. On the one hand, they’re part of Cornell lore and a tradition nearly as old as the school itself, so I feel I should pay them due respect, if only for posterity’s sake. I certainly can’t knock the “chimesmasters” for their musical passion. It’s not their fault they chose an instrument that can only be played after ascending 161 steps, or that their performances are broadcast to the Cornell community at large. It must be tough to learn something so unwieldy, so publicly, like practicing driving by taking a cement mixer out for a spin around the neighborhood.
But, on the other hand, the chimes are annoying, obnoxious, deafening and maddening. Especially when, as often happens to me, you’ve just gotten out of class and the thing you want most in the world — more than Slope Day, more than free NetPrint — is to listen to your iPod without Coldplay’s “Clocks” à la chimes bleeding into your music. Indeed, from the Arts Quad to Ho Plaza, the only way to block out the chimes is to blast something loud and aggressive on the iPod. (Nirvana works, Weezer’s good. Grizzly Bear? Not so much.)
The catch is, I don’t have a problem with the quality of the chimesmasters’ performances. Sure, sometimes it sounds like they’ve let a wild animal loose in McGraw Tower. And yes, a small part of me dies every time I hear a chimesmaster’s rendition of “Imagine.” But generally the execution is stellar, and thankfully, Lennon’s masterpiece aside, there are few egregious songs on the concert playlists.
No, what bothers me so much about the chimes is their ground-trembling, head-rattling, ear-splitting, sonic boom-approaching volume: they’re way too freakin’ loud. Even from the ground below the tower, I feel violated hearing the chimes up close, which is why I can’t understand for the life of me why people actually go up into the tower during the concerts — especially since, once they’re up there, they seem to pass the time covering their ears and clutching their heads in agony. I know Ithaca is Gorges, but really, is it worth losing your hearing for a panoramic view of Lake Cayuga?
Over time, my reaction to the chimes has grown increasingly severe. Even though I’m aware of the chimes’ concert schedule, I tend to lose track of where I am and what time it is — again, not really the stuff of a future CEO — and as a result often find myself perilously close to McGraw Tower.
In such moments, my reaction to that first thundering note from above is like a soldier’s to an explosion: instantly tense, terrified and seeking cover. I have on occasion left conversations mid-sentence to pursue shelter from the chimes, which hasn’t exactly helped alter my friends’ perception of me as a whacked-out, neurotic Jew.
The chimes’ website explains that “because of the direct link between the playing stand and the clapper of the bell, it is possible to vary the dynamics of the music.” While I’m having a hard time picturing the first half of that sentence (what the hell is a “clapper of the bell”?), I’m having an even harder time with the second half. Varying dynamics? Please. By my judgment, the chimesmasters are familiar with only one dynamic marking, and that’s fortississimo.
Since Cornell isn’t likely to be on board with bagging the chimes altogether, maybe we can work out a compromise: how about we bring the volume down to at least mezzo-forte? That way the chimesmasters can play without feeling restrained, and students can walk around campus without feeling violated.
Please, chimesmasters, consider this request — I’ll be listening. (And, of course, so too will everyone else.).