The oldest bells in the neo-Gothic tower of House of Hope Presbyterian Church turned 100 this year, and naturally David Johnson was there to celebrate. Ever since 1992, apart from the time he broke his hip, he’s been climbing the 106 steps to the top of the tower to mount the carillon bench. His long limbs firmly, nimbly push the wooden levered keyboard and that rings the 49 bells that surround him.
If you’ve traversed the corner of St. Paul’s Summit Avenue and Avon Street in the last 30 years, you’ve likely heard Johnson’s artistry whether you wanted to or not. At the young age of 83, he’s officially retiring, but seems overjoyed to leave his beloved bells with a new generation of carillonneurs (the French term for bell-chiming practitioners). This Sunday, there’ll be a special 20-minute concert to honor their centennial, and David’s three decades of devoting both his Sundays and his knees to their care.
‘I’ve played in Cons for 30 years’
David Johnson looks exactly like the kind of person you’d expect to find in a bell tower. When I met him, he was dressed all in black, the hood of a sleeveless sweatshirt pulled over his shaved head. Jocular, thin, and 6’4” tall, he is a striking companion, ever-ready to talk carillons.
The way he tells it, he was in the right place at the right time. Back in 1992, he’d recently quit a church organist job at another St. Paul church, and had joined the House of Hope choir two blocks from his house. Then, a rare vacancy opened, as the previous carillonneur quit for health reasons. Most House of Hope carillonneurs have long careers — Theophil Rusterholz holds the record at 46 years — so these opportunities do not open up frequently.
“When I began, I really paid no attention to [them],” Johnson said. “I wasn’t really conscious of these bells, [and] the keyboard that preceded this one was heavy and just arduous to play.”
Johnson gushes about the keyboard — the term to describe the various array of wooden levers and metal wires — which might be the best in the state, a genius design. Compared to the old days, the instrument is far more graceful. Back then, you played with your fist, because of the weight required to make the bell ring. Now, the keyboard is beautifully balanced, so you can use a light touch or a mere finger, opening up a world of musical possibility.
Below the levered keyboard sit the pedals, and to watch a carillonneur work is to appreciate flexibility. The pedals are widely spaced, though Johnson’s long limbs allow his black Converse sneakers to span the entire breadth of the octaves, and require a musician to adjust their body from time to time.
“I’ve played in Cons for 30 years,” Johnson admitted. “I can play in engineer boots if I have to, but they’re a little wide.”
Johnson learned on the job during the early 1990s, thereby inheriting an amazing legacy dating back to the first bells in 1923. (Most of the bells were added in the mid-1950s; the last, a C#, in 1992.)
He took to it naturally, and within a few years had trained at the University of Michigan largely via correspondence. He passed his official carillon exams in Cohasset, Massachusetts, in ’96, becoming a full-fledged member of the Guild of Carillonneurs North America, the then-small group of belfry dwellers.
I’ve been intrigued with the idea of carillon bells for years, and can’t stop wondering how differently they were experienced in an era before recorded sound was commonplace. I imagine that church towers created a territory around them, through monumental acoustics, so that to live within audible distance of a church bell was to be included in the community, even if only in a vague, sonorous way. The carillonneur was like a preacher using sound waves instead of language, broadcasting harmony as the wind blew.
“You can hear best on a cold cold dry December night,” Johnson told me. “It drops off quickly.”
There’s something timeless and grounded about carillon bells, and their appeal grows as our lives become more digitized, and earbuds proliferate. Bells still bring people together, perhaps thanks to their visceral mechanics. The largest bell — the low ‘C’ that David Johnson let me blissfully play — rings deep for almost two whole minutes. The materiality gives carillon music a temporality different from other ancient instruments. There’s a dissonance stemming from the fact that the bells’ sound doesn’t abruptly cease, but ever so slowly diminishes.
In all kinds of weather
When I asked Johnson about weather at the top of the exposed tower, he demurred. In all his time, the carillon has only fully failed him once, though a few of the larger bells got stuck last Christmas Eve.
“Because of the engineering, for the most part things don’t freeze up in the winter,” David Johnson said. “In 30 years I’ve only had one Sunday morning when I literally could not play. This was iced up all over and I could tell that everything was evenly terrible.”
In the summer, it gets hot in the little room, but David Johnson turns the loud air conditioner off anyway, cracking the windows to better hear his instrument. (At 83, he’s as hard of hearing as you’d expect from someone who’s spent three decades surrounded by bells the size of Volkswagen Beetles.) There’s one comfy armchair in the corner, and compared to how cramped the instrument was in the old days, before the early ’90s remodel, the tower is a relatively luxurious place to enjoy the view.
‘A movement toward lightness and freedom’
As Johnson describes it, he keeps his music “closer to the present,” which in Carillon terms means the last century or so. Because of the recent cancellation, this year was the first time in decades he didn’t get to play the theme from “Chariots of Fire” for the Twin Cities marathoners running down Summit Avenue. I sensed his disappointment in missing a favorite musical joke.
But much of the music that pours down from the tower is contemporary, written especially for the unique four-octave, fully chromatic instrument. Watching Johnson work on a song like “Starlight,” composed by Joey Brink, is transfixing, simultaneously artistic and mechanical.
“There’s a movement toward lightness and freedom in how we play,” explaining the musical particularity of a carillon. “You want to keep it pretty free, and leave a little space for when the bell strikes, that somehow it has an opportunity to send out its message.”
David Johnson is stepping down, literally and figuratively, from his weekly gigs and practice sessions. He lives two blocks away, and I had the sense he was relieved to be putting his keyboard and 49 bells into good, artistic and much younger hands (and feet). It’s not easy climbing 106 steep steps multiple times a week for 30 years.
“Tim or Kieran are taking over [and it’s] the first time in the history of this instrument and this place that we’ve had things ready for the next round,” Johnson laughed. “It’s wonderful. It’s a great job. I’m also happy that I can just back away a bit, but I’ve still got my door key.”