We are the bells: Staffer’s composition debuts Tuesday

Long before clocks, phones and the media, bells in towers rang out the hour, sounded warnings, called people to worship and signaled when someone had died. Particularly in Europe, bell towers often were built in a town square, as part of the pulsing heart of a community.

Agnes Szelag, a senior producer at the Berkeley Resource Center for  Online Education, is also a  musician and composer. (UC Berkeley photo by Kevin Ho Nguyen)

Agnes Szelag, a senior producer at the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education, is also a musician and composer. (UC Berkeley photos by Kevin Ho Nguyen)

But today, towers as historic as UC Berkeley’s 100-year-old Campanile no longer are needed for many of tasks of the past and can be “forgotten places,” says Agnes Szelag, a Berkeley staff member who also is a musician and composer. “Here at Berkeley, the Campanile is in front of us every day and is the main iconic symbol on so many websites and posters. But now that it’s a century old, and the bells aren’t used for all the functions they performed in the past, I wonder how many people actually pay attention to them when they ring.”

UC Berkeley’s bells, the first 12 installed as a chime in 1917, mark the hour and are played in daily concerts. But decades ago, they also were communications tools that summoned students to help with the catastrophic Berkeley fire of 1923; awakened Berkeley residents for Easter services; announced, in a two-hour musical marathon, the end of World War II; and tolled after U.S. President Warren Harding’s sudden death in San Francisco.

For the Campanile’s centennial, Szelag, who works on campus as senior producer at the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education (BRCOE), has written a special piece for the carillon called “WE” that is meant to revive the tower’s bells as messengers and to use them to “send a political message to the community.”

University Carillonist Jeff Davis will perform Szelag’s composition at noon on Tuesday, March 10. The music will be simultaneously broadcast by KALX radio.

The piece is meant to inspire listeners to “think about what ‘we’ means to them, about what they want our society to be, and who is in that picture,” says Szelag, who became mesmerized by the Campanile’s bells last year while doing a BRCOE video shoot on the observation deck. In particular, she is concerned about a society where artists, musicians, writers and others in the arts and humanities typically do not receive enough encouragement and reward for their creative contributions, and feel marginalized.

UC Berkeley's carillon is played daily, including on Sundays, when 45-minute concerts begin at 2 p.m.

UC Berkeley’s carillon is played daily, including on Sundays, when 45-minute concerts begin at 2 p.m.

“What is our society going to look like if we keep cutting funding for the humanities?” she asks. “Some of the most intelligent people I know are artists producing these amazing things, but on their own budgets, after their real jobs. What are we teaching our students and our children about their career options? And what role does the university play in protecting the arts and humanities – not only the physical objects and their history, but the worth of discipline, collaboration and genuine craftsmanship?

“We can’t live in a world full of bankers, and if that’s the trend, what are the societal ramifications? The way we reward people and measure success is flawed, and we need to step back and examine if this is the world we want.”

The melodies in the piece represent “archetypes of people,” says Szelag, and “the individual versus the ‘we.’ Passages represent people, and chords represent us, or we, whatever you want we to be. In the end, they mesh together.”

Szelag produces electro-acoustic works. In addition to being a collaborator/composer, she also is a solo performer whose work includes the use of electronics, voice and cello, often accompanied by video projection. She has performed or shown her work internationally, including at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, the Cologne Online Film Festival and San Francisco’s de Young Museum. She says many of the spaces she has performed in are “forgotten” spots that rarely are used or seen.

At Mills College, for example, where she was a graduate student in music, she created a musical piece called “Inhabitants” at an abandoned campus fountain. “I filled the fountain with water, cleaned it up a bit, projected images that I shot of dancers underwater, and created sounds that combined the natural sounds of that space with these fantastical creatures. I brought life to that space by creating what I envisioned was there; what was in my imagination became the space.”

She says she feels privileged to have her piece performed during the Campanile’s centennial, and to give the tower and its “glorious bells” they attention they deserve.