The National Carillon is a striking vertical tower, standing proudly on Aspen Island on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin. It was a gift to the people of Australia from the British Government in 1970 to celebrate Canberra's 50th Anniversary. Inside the top of the tower, there are 55 bells which are automatically played every 15 minutes in a little tune called the Westminster chimes. If you are lucky enough to be in the vicinity on Wednesdays and Sundays between 12:30pm - 1:20pm, then you will be able to enjoy a musical performance by a Carillonist who travels to the top of the tower and plays the bells (see here for the program). If you would like to see what is up the top of the tower, there are free tours each year during the Canberra and Region Heritage Festival. These tours book out quickly, as there are limited places, so ensure you book early to avoid disappointment.
Our family were lucky enough to be part of a tour during the Canberra and Region Heritage Festival in 2017. We met up with our volunteer guide and a small group of Canberrans and visitors at the base of the tower. As there are only two Carillons in Australia, with the other at the University of Sydney, it was a rare chance to see this unique instrument in action - and finally get to see what is at the top of the tower!
Our knowledgeable guide began with a talk at the base of the Carillon and explained a little of the background history. Centuries ago in Europe, the Carillon was primarily used to let people know the time and it would also be rung when there was impending fires, storms, wars and emergencies. Each one would be built in locations with space all around it, so the acoustics could be heard all across the city. Today, some of these European Carillons are now are part of large cities, so they don't have the same acoustics they once had. Canberra's National Carillon however, was built right on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin so its melodic bells can be heard along its length.
In today's times, there are more than 180 Carillons in North America and 450 elsewhere in the world (see here for the full list). North America is now the hub of Carillon training, with schools to teach pianists and organists how to use their talents to play this similar instrument. The bells are controlled by a piano-like instrument called the clavier, which is played on the level below the bells inside the tower. Here in Canberra, there are 5 Carillonists who play the clavier, including a young man, Harrison, who is currently 5 months into his training and already playing with one of the leading Carillonists. We soon stepped into the small lift and went up one of the spires to see how it is played.
The tour begins at the bottom of the Carillon, before stepping into the lift
On the first level, there is a small room where the clavier is held and we met Harrison, the Carillonist in training. He explained that you play the clavier in a similar way to the piano, with the bottom row of the batons (which look like wooden pegs), representing the white keys and the black keys are represented by the top row. Instead of using your fingers to play the batons however, you make your hand into a fist and then hit down with your little finger. The batons at the left of the clavier represent the heavy bells to play, which are 6 tonnes, and on the right hand side the batons represent the smaller bells, which weigh 7kg. To play the heavier bells, the Carillonist steps on the pedals at their feet. The cables at the back of the clavier then travel up to the ceiling and directly ring the bells on the level above.
Watching the clavier being played is simply breathtaking as Harrison slid up and down the bench creating song from the bells. After he played, we then watched the professional Carillonist Lyn follow sheet music and perform a song about the creation of Lake Burley Griffin, which could be heard all around the lake and beyond...
Note the white cables going up to the ceiling, which are attached to the bells on the level above
After hearing about the complexities of the clavier, we then got back into the lift and moved up to the next level, which housed the 55 bells. As the lift opened, the large, 6 tonne bells were an impressive sight. In such a small area there were two large bells and then as you looked up, there were rows and rows of bells of varying sizes, which create different notes. This level is open to the air with grills on the windows, so whilst there, you can also look out and enjoy the views to the lake and city below. On this level, we were shown how the white cables coming up from the floor, were connected to the clavier below. For performances played on the clavier, the bells are rung on the inside of the bells, however for the Westminster chime, the automatic chime that sounds every 15 minutes, the bells are struck from the outside.
After learning about the bells, we then went up to yet another level to a function room called "Chimes" to experience the view. Over a decade ago it was used for wedding receptions and functions, with the best views in the city. There is a kitchen up there and a practice clavier that is used for recital preparation. This function space isn't used anymore, however it is easy to see that it would have made a beautifully scenic end to a wedding on Aspen Island below.
Views and small function room at the top of the spire
Our 45 minute tour of the National Carillon finished too soon, as we were all enthralled with the stories and inner workings of this unique building and musical instrument. Our guide joked that its architecture had been compared to three Toblerone chocolates standing on one end - and when you have a closer look, it looks exactly just that. The architects "Cameron, Chisholm & Nicol" had to create a building with a small footprint at the base, due to limited space on the island and yet still be able to have a central area to lift up the 6 tonne bells up to the tower. This unique triangular design allowed this to happen and still look spectacular from all around the city.
And spectacular it is...
The National Carillon, with its melodic tunes rolling over Lake Burley Griffin