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Retiring University Carillonist Jeff Davis reflects on ‘the coolest job in the world’

After 30-plus years on campus, the Berkeley Citation awardee is stepping down from UC Berkeley's Campanile, where he built a rare and preeminent carillon instruction program.

Jeff Davis, the retiring university carillonist, sits on the bench of the grand carillon on the observation deck of the Campanile. His body is turned toward the camera and he's wearing eye glasses, a beard, a short-sleeved plaid shirt and a smile.
Jeff Davis, Berkeley's university carillonist since 2000, sits on the bench of the 61-bell grand carillon in the Campanile. The instrument will be played June 29 and 30 at a free carillon festival in honor of Davis, who is retiring on July 1.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

Jeff Davis’ workspace is rare: It’s UC Berkeley’s iconic Campanile, one of the world’s tallest clock-and-bell towers and home to 20 tons of ancient fossils, a famous falcon family and its centerpiece — a 61-bell grand carillon.

But his job as university carillonist and the teaching program he’s built are just as rare. Davis, who is retiring July 1 with the Berkeley Citation, which honors extraordinary service to the campus, is one of only six full-time paid carillonists in North America. And Berkeley’s carillon instruction, part of the Department of Music, is among the most extensive and prominent in the world.

Davis, 80, has spent about half his career in the Campanile. On the sixth floor of the historic granite monolith, just below the clock faces, he has a small live-work studio that includes a practice carillon.

Over the years, he’s taught about 200 students to play the bells, which are suspended above a playing cabin on the tower’s observation deck and connected to clappers, or hammers, controlled from a keyboard. The bells — ranging in weight from 20 pounds to 5.25 tons — can be heard several miles away and are central to daily life on campus.

“The coolest job in the world” is how Davis has described it.

In 2015, the Campanile’s centennial was celebrated, and Davis was interviewed about the bells’ history and his teaching program. (Video by Phil Ebiner and Roxanne Makasdjian)

“My work at Berkeley lets me focus each day on three things: exploring the mind and work of the very greatest composers, working with young musicians in that exploration, and performing the music,” he explained. “What could possibly be cooler?”

A June 29-30 carillon festival at Berkeley — free and open to the public — will celebrate Davis with an hourlong recital each day at noon and 2 p.m. About a dozen carillonists, including Davis, will perform.

Berkeley News recently asked Davis about the program he’s built on campus, how he juggles teaching and composing, what’s it like to work in a bell tower, and what’s ahead at Berkeley for carillon instruction and the historic, and rapidly aging, instrument.

Berkeley News: Since childhood, you’ve learned to play the oboe, trumpet, cello and other instruments. When did you first study the carillon?

I joined Berkeley’s music department in 1983. I had a bunch of skills they needed. If the harp needed to be repaired, for example, I knew exactly what to fix and could find the right vendor. Eventually, I met Ronald Barnes, the university carillonist at the time, and eventually asked if I could study with him.

Jeff Davis, the retiring University Carillonist, peeks out from the door of the playing cabin on the Campanile's observation deck. The carillon's 61 bells hang above him.
It’s been 40 years since the grand carillon was installed in the tower, and the instrument needs a complete overhaul. Raising funds once a capital campaign launches shouldn’t take long, says Davis, “as the bells are central to Berkeley’s identity and life, and the work itself should be done in under three months.”

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

I said, “Do you ever teach carillon?” and he said, “Yes.” And then he turned around and walked away.

A year later, he asked, “Are you still interested in carillon lessons?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “When?” I said, “How about tomorrow?” There’s a hidden tradition in carillon lore than if a someone wants to take lessons, they must wait a year.

I also learned composing for the carillon from Ron. He was the first person who wrote for the carillon based on how it sounds. Before then, carillon music was based on music written for other instruments.

He really didn’t like teaching amateur musicians, so teaching interested Berkeley students kind of fell to me. When Ron was struck with macular degeneration and couldn’t see, and after he retired in 1995, I became acting university carillonist. I didn’t get the full-time job at Berkeley, so I became carillonist at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Nine months later, in 2000, Berkeley enticed me back, and I took my present position.

A view of the carillon bells from underneath them, standing on the Campanile's observation deck.
“Many people listen to the bells on campus and think the music is mechanical,” says Davis. But trained musicians play concerts in the tower daily, and the hour strike is tolled by the Great Bear Bell.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

Your job and teaching program are rare. How did they come to be, and what prestige does it carry for Berkeley?

Many people listen to the bells on campus and think the music is mechanical, not a live performance. But Berkeley is fortunate to have one of the most prominent carillon installations in the world, with 18 recitals played a week when school is in session.

Jeff Davis performs “Fiat Lux,” a piece he composed in 2010, on Berkeley’s carillon.

The multi-million dollar endowment given to Berkeley in 1983 by Jerry and Evelyn Chambers makes this rarity possible. It provided 13 new bells, including the Great Bear Bell, to create our grand carillon, but also a permanent full-time university carillonist position in the Department of Music. It’s rare to find such a position anywhere in the world. Most carillonists, even in the Netherlands, where there are more carillons per capita than elsewhere, cobble together part-time jobs to make a living.

It is possible to study the carillon at most institutions that have an instrument and a practice keyboard, and there is no dearth of students doing just that around the world. What sets Berkeley apart is that the Chambers endowment sustains a fully-developed academic instructional program; an extremely active performance schedule; a large library of carillon-related books and music, including some very rare books; a quinquennial carillon festival and, of utmost importance, centrality to the life of the campus for well over a century.

All of that is important to preserve. 

University Carillonist Jeff Davis sits in the chair next to a practice carillon in the Campanile and listens as one of his students plays music for him as part of her carillon lesson. Davis is wearing headphones and watching as the student presses the carillon's wooden handles with her hands.
Davis auditions students each semester to study the carillon with him until they graduate from Berkeley. Many of the 200 students he’s taught have gone on to perform in recitals around the world.

Phil Ebiner/UC Berkeley

How do you select your students, and how long do they study with you?

I’ve taught about 200 carillon students at Berkeley. It is intended that they remain in the program until they graduate, and the vast majority do. Students are selected by audition. They are required to have a basic working knowledge of music and audition by playing a fast and a slow composition on the instrument of their choice; they also can use their voice. Then, they are asked to critique their performances. It is here that I learn the most about the students’ abilities and how critically they think about their music-making. 

I accept up to four new students each semester. After the initial semester, which is all group lessons, students continue into private lessons, the scope of which is really determined by their interests. If they want to pursue playing only, that’s fine. If they’re interested in arranging or composing, we work that into the lessons. I let their curiosity be my guide.

Many of my students and former students regularly perform in recitals all over the world. Some take the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America exam. Three currently hold professional positions — at UC Santa Barbara, the University of Michigan and in the town of Castelnaudry, France. 

University Carillonist Jeff Davis stands on the observation deck of the Campanile and looks at the camera.
“Working with students guarantees keeping one young,” says Davis, 80. “I will miss working with them more than any other part of my job.”

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

There’s a bench you sit on to evaluate your students’ performances. Where is it, and what’s so great about that location?

I like to listen where there is as little noise as possible. My general location is the bench to the west side of Physics South, although the patio between Philosophy Hall and Stephens Hall is really the optimum place to listen to the carillon, as there is no vehicular traffic, little pedestrian traffic and a direct sightline to the carillon. 

What prompted the DeCal class, Learning to Play the Sather Tower Bells? 

Early in my tenure, the carillon students created the Berkeley Carillon Guild, which is a registered ASUC organization. They had a lot of friends, and those friends were interested in learning to play, but not with the intensity of private study. They came up with the idea of creating a DeCal class to meet that need, and I worked with them to develop that arm of the carillon program. 

It is always a full class, and I think satisfies two needs: First, the students taking the course get the opportunity to learn about and play the bells and, secondly, the students teaching the course get to reinforce what they learn in their private lessons by having to articulate those things to new learners. A win-win situation.

We have a large instructional program. This semester, I had 12 private students and about 22 in the DeCal class.

University Carillonist Jeff Davis wears headphones to prevent hearing loss as he listens to one of his students play the practice carillon in the Campanile.
David wears protective headphones to give carillon lessons in the small practice room in his studio. To prevent hearing loss, he requires his students to wear ear plugs to guard their hearing, as the carillon is loud and percussive.

Phil Ebiner/UC Berkeley

You also are a composer and arranger. How do you find the time?

I wrote my first piece of music when I was six, and it’s still in a scrapbook at home. I was always curious about how music was made, put together. I was always more interested in the making of music, in composing, than in performing on an instrument.

My grade school teacher Evelyn Hermann had a very powerful influence on me, and … later, when I attended Southern Methodist University, she was on the faculty roster … and remembered me. She said I was the one student who had scared her when I said I had all this music in me and didn’t know how to get it out. I heard sounds in my head all the time. I wanted to know how to write them down and couldn’t figure it out. She encouraged me to write.

I get up every day and write. I always try to follow what I’m hearing in my head. If it’s for orchestra, I write for orchestra. If it’s for the carillon, I write for the carillon.

I do it at home, and generally I get up between 1 and 2 a.m. Generally, I’m awakened by what I’m hearing. The music says, “Let’s go. Let’s do that today.” I’ll work three to five hours. This routine started in college because that was the only time the dorm was quiet. I used to compose on paper, but now I use composition software.

In 2015, Davis and other Berkeley scholars and artists kicked off the Campanile’s 100th with a composition of bell music, both recorded and live, and lighting modulated in real time by data from the Berkeley seismometer adjacent to the Hayward Fault. (Video by Phil Ebiner and Roxanne Makasdjian)

I take naps during the day, rarely sleep eight hours at night. This morning, I got up at 1:20 or so. My little dogs wait for me to get up. Today, I went back to sleep at 7 a.m. and slept until 8:30. It’s a routine, and it’s allowed me to produce quite a body of work.

I always felt strongly that the job of a composer is to write music, not to be a PR agent for the compositions, and I’m not good at marketing. Lately, I think I’ve been hiding my light under a bushel. I should have gotten my music out. Hopefully in retirement that’s something I can do. I have a solid body of work in a wide variety of media.

The tower is a unique place to work. Any anecdotes to share?

I like working in the Campanile, as it’s generally quiet in my office — except when the bells strike the hour one floor above my studio. I would like larger windows. Those little slit windows don’t do justice to the magnificent views of the Golden Gate!

The Campanile in the evening, with a pinkish sky and a supermoon in the background, where you can also see the Golden Gate Bridge.
Davis has a live-work studio on the sixth floor of the towering Campanile. It came in handy after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, as he couldn’t return for a few days to San Francisco, where he lived at the time.

Adam Lau/Berkeley Engineering

The tower was, for a long time, a primary target for political and social activism and high jinx. The Mickey Mouse hands [placed on the south side clock in a prank on April 5, 1984] did some damage to the clock hands. There were several tower takeovers [by protesters], as well.

Most memorable for me was following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. I was living in San Francisco and on the road home when the quake happened. By the time I arrived at the toll plaza, the Bay Bridge was closed. I returned to the tower, which still had power and was utterly empty. I went to the observation level as evening came on, and I could see fires in downtown Berkeley and in the Marina district of San Francisco. There were no lights anywhere, except for one bulb near the Ferry Building that stood in stark contrast to everything around it. I was unable to return home for two days, so that little apartment in the tower proved very helpful for a stranded bell-ringer.

Berkeley initially had 12 bells — a chime — that first were played in 1917. More bells created a 48-bell carillon in 1978 and a 61-bell grand carillon in 1982. What condition is the instrument in today?

Carillon mechanisms, excluding the bells, have a useful life of about 25 years. Now, it’s over 40 years since the grand carillon was installed, and the instrument needs a complete overhaul. This spring, we had an emergency where several bells became unplayable because of transmission failure, and rust has worked its way throughout the instrument. Two companies are preparing estimates for a renovation.

A view of the Campanile esplanade, the area beneath the tower with a brick walkway, oversized wooden benches and a war memorial with in the center of them that holds the 4.0 ball, a stone sphere that students touch to bring them good luck on final exams.
On Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m., Davis’ students and other carillonists offer free concerts. Listeners sit on the oversized benches and lawn of the Campanile esplanade to enjoy the music.

UC Berkeley

Essential changes include moving our stunning treble bells to the top of the instrument, where they can be better heard, and relocating some middle-sized bells lower, annealing the clappers and, most important, getting a new radial transmission.

I believe that David Milnes, the current music department chair, is committed to a capital campaign to save the bells. I don’t think it will take long to raise the funds, as the bells are central to Berkeley’s identity and life, and the work itself should be done in under three months.

At some point in the coming academic year, a search will begin for a new University Carillonist. In the interim, who will take your place?

Simone Browne, a graduate of the Royal Carillon School at Mechelen, Belgium, was accepted into Berkeley’s law school last year. She has been working with me this last semester, and the music department has hired her to teach next year. I think she’ll keep things intact and moving along. It is set in stone: She got the contracts before she left for Switzerland last week. 

What’s next for you? Will you keep playing the carillon? Continue teaching, composing and arranging?

My plans are to continue composing, of course. That is a part of my daily routine. I imagine I’ll do some playing, as asked. I can’t imagine not teaching. I’ve already been asked to give master classes. I’m particularly interested in the process of practicing and believe I have something yet to offer in that area of music-making.

University Carillonist Jeff Davis stands in front of the carillon keyboard on the observation deck of the tower. He has his arms folded across his and is wearing a short-sleeved blue plaid shirt.
Also a composer, Davis plans to continue his daily routine of waking up around 1 or 2 a.m. and composing for three to five hours using composition software.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

What have you gained from working with students for so many years?

Working with students guarantees keeping one young. I will miss working with them more than any other part of my job. Berkeley students are generally well-prepared for their lessons, smart and efficient in their use of time, and fun to be with. Of course, each one is quite different, and that just makes it more enjoyable.

Most of my students come into their lessons with interesting takes on how a score can be realized. I encourage them to always experiment with different possibilities of playing the same passage — louder, softer, slower, faster, evenly, unevenly— to get at the mind of the composer and how they understand it. 

I have always felt that, in a learning situation, there isn’t a “teacher” and a “student,” but two learners working together.