Although students can’t climb the 161 steps of McGraw Tower and watch the chimesmasters in action, their concerts still resound across campus three times a day.
”We are all alone up there, playing by ourselves, but everyone can still hear us from outside,” said head chimesmaster Kevin Cook ’21.
Before the pandemic, the door to the tower was open, welcoming students and visitors to wander up the stairs, peer over at the lake, hear the chimes and check off a box on the 161 Things list. But now, students have to be lucky to be a visitor, invited as the one guest the chimesmaster asks to join them in the tower.
At the top of the tower that remains closed off to visitors, the chimesmasters are currently on week five of the 10-week audition process, on its way to onboarding Cornellians that can read music, climb 161 steps and balance on one foot to play the chimes.
This semester, around 20 potential chimesmasters started the audition process, spending the first four weeks learning the three Cornell songs that are played during the three 15-minute concerts each day: the “Jennie McGraw Rag” in the morning, the “Alma Mater” in the afternoon and the “Cornell Evening Song” to end the day.
Next comes a “silent audition,” when the auditioners show their mastery without pressing the chimes with full force. Those who advance spend the next six weeks playing two daily concerts through April, planning out the songs they wish to play with the help of a current chimesmaster.
During the last two weeks of the audition process, current chimesmasters listen to the concerts from Libe Slope, judging performances and recruiting the students they think meet the mark to become a chimesmaster.
Once a student becomes a chimesmaster, they arrange classical and modern songs to fit the 21 bells of the clocktower, continuing Cornell’s oldest musical tradition.
“All of our songs are arranged by past and current chimesmasters,” Cook said. “We have almost 3,000 in our library.”
The library contains songs that range from contemporary tunes to those arranged in the 1800s at the start of the Cornell chimes tradition.
”Any time a chimesmaster hears a new song or something that they want to arrange that we don’t have, they just arrange the song for the layout of the bells,” Cook said.
Earlier this semester, the chimesmasters held a competition to arrange songs by underrepresented composers, specifically by minorities and women, to expand the scope and diversity of their library that remains dominated by white male composers. Some songs added to the library through this competition were “Blue Monk” by Thelonious Monk, “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke and “My Girl” by The Temptations.
Now, Cornell Chimes is having a competition between chimesmasters to arrange as many popular pieces as possible, adding “Radio Ga Ga” by Queen and “Across the Stars” from Star Wars to their repertoire. They also honor song requests submitted through their website.
”We have a big variety of genres,” Cook said. “It depends on what people want to arrange.”
Ringing daily across the Ithaca campus, Cornell Chimes concerts include a mix of genres, making sure students hear songs that can make their day brighter.
“Hearing when I make someone’s day better, I think that’s the best part of being a chimesmaster,” Cook said.