Babel Clarion
The Westminster chimes
Digital Illustration by Candy Kuehn
(c) 2013

Babel Clarion is a composition created for the Westminster chimes, commissioned by the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association. The Westminster chimes (carillon bells) of the First Congregational Church are a familiar sound in the Marcy–Holmes neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota. They mark the hours throughout the year, and during holidays they play carols and occasional hymns. Residents of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood wanted to explore how the carillon might become an even more enduring and unifying community symbol, and that launched the Marcy-Holmes Community Carillon Project. Babel Clarion premiered at the River Bells Music Festival in Minneapolis on May 4, 2013, and the music emanated from the Westminster Chimes speakers in the tower at First Congregational Church throughout the Marcy Holmes Neighborhood of Minneapolis.

As a recipient of one of the composition commissions made possible through a grant from the University of Minnesota Good Neighbor Fund, and as a Marcy-Holmes resident living less than a block away from the carillon tower, I was intrigued and excited to explore how I might ignite new interest and special meaning for this neighborhood’s iconic aural symbol, and to explore its function in a contemporary neighborhood. The intention is that the compositions created will become part of a body of work that is presented throughout the year, along with the regular ringing that marks the passage of time, and music that celebrates special community moments. Ideally this also launches future commissions and festivals, inspiring deeper community connections.

The history of the carillon as an instrument is all about communication and community, whether used as a way to alert people, to call people to come together to the central gathering place, or to celebrate key events. It is a call to come, to engage, to join forces in common purpose, and to celebrate community.

As I considered what I might create, I wondered what the real impact would be of creating a piece that simply projects a few more minutes of carillon bell music out into the neighborhood, as different or personal as it might be.

What role could a community carillon play in today’s neighborhoods, where we exist largely in isolation, and yet often crave a personal connection with our neighbors?

Why should anyone care?

What could possibly cause people to stop and take notice during the course of their fast-paced contemporary lives?

Could anything that I do actually make a difference?

To answer these questions I choose to focus on that which makes this carillon unique. What the neighborhood experiences when it hears the hourly carillon call or occasional music compositions appears to be the ringing of large carillon bells. This is not a regular physical carillon, though, with large bells and a cumbersome fist and foot controlled mechanism. People are actually hearing sound amplified through speakers positioned in the bell tower, mainly played on a CD. The fact that this is a device made possible only through contemporary technology provides an opportunity to redefine the carillon’s communal role, or to reposition our perspective and apply it to the contemporary world. The ability to integrate the sounds of carillon bells with other instruments and sounds makes it possible to establish a different connection between this “instrument” and the surrounding community – to make it more relevant and meaningful in today’s neighborhood. A different sonic universe can permeate the neighborhood, inspiring the community with a different sensibility.

My composition Babel Clarion, for Carillon and Chorus, serves this purpose on many levels. Sonically the merging of carillon sounds and voices infuses the neighborhood with something different than what is expected. We hear a fire truck siren, a car horn, a dog barking, and the periodic carillon ringing, and unless there is some personal connection with the sound, it is easy for our brains to filter it out and pay no attention. Hearing voices with the bells causes an interruption in the flow. People are more likely to stop what they’re doing, to divert their attention to the carillon and to the tower, to listen more carefully – to listen to the words, to reflect upon this community and on our sense of community – to perhaps have a conversation or exchange with a neighbor that may not otherwise have taken place – to re-establish and even re-define one’s sense of place, and one’s connection with others inhabiting the same physical and aural space.

The text is derived from the Tower of Babel story, a tale that appears in various forms in the history of several cultures. This interpretation is a call to join forces in unity to build something together. The story provides a context to reflect upon our history – our past attempts to unify with common purpose to accomplish something for the community – and to consider the implications of ignoring the call, or of failing in the effort. The layers of the text tell the story:

  • Come. Build a city, a tower in the sky.
  • Make a name, or scatter over the earth.
  • One language. One purpose. Nothing out of their reach.
  • One language. One purpose. Nothing out of our reach.
  • Limit their reach. Confound their speech. Scatter over the earth.
  • Limit our reach. Confound our speech. Scatter over the earth.

The chorus was recorded by The First Readings Project –  J. David Moore, conductor. Here is a link to an audio recording of Babel Clarion.

The following is a link to view a video version that includes a glimpse into the festival. It contains the full audio track, with some digital illustrations by artist Candy Kuehn, and a few photographs from the street during the festival as participants listened to the carillon.

This composition is about coming together, moving beyond our differences, and setting on a unified path towards the common good. It is about the balance between pursuing our individual interests, and serving broad community goals. It is also about hubris, and allowing our differences to define us – our different languages, cultures, interests and purposes.

Babel Clarion provides an opportunity to step outside of our normal linear path and our divergent individual states of being, and serves as a catalyst to re-engage with our sense of community – our mutual well-being, and our sense of communal purpose.

This project was made possible through a grant from the University of Minnesota Good Neighbor Fund and the Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Association.

Rimon logo with tagline

This project was made possible in part with the support of
Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council,
an initiative of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.


This project was made possible with support from the

Howard B. and Ruth F. Brin Jewish Arts Endowment Fund,

a designated fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.