As anyone who has studied in Uris Library can tell you, Cornell’s chimes are housed in McGraw Tower, which is attached to the library. Every fifteen minutes, bells mark the passing of time, and two or three times a day, the campus is treated to a bell concert that features such time-honored and memorable tunes as (of course) the Alma Mater, the Evening Song, the Jennie McGraw Rag, “If I Only Had a Brain,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and “Here Comes the Sun.”
Trek up the tower’s 161 steps during one of those concerts and you can watch chimesmasters in action, working solo or in teams with both hands and at least one foot working levers and pedals to play the 21 bells that comprise the renowned Cornell chimes. The original nine bells rang for the university’s opening ceremonies in 1868. Hung from a temporary wooden framework, and given by Jennie McGraw (later Jennie McGraw Fiske), the bells have been an important part of campus life ever since. McGraw Hall, one of Cornell’s first buildings, included a bell tower so that those nine bells could have a permanent home. When the library opened in 1891, the bells were installed in an even larger tower built for no other reason than to house them. As a distinctive Cornell landmark, McGraw Tower is frequently used to represent the university. Its iconic presence on campus has been felt, heard and seen by generations of Cornell students, and remembered by alumni around the world.
The Cornell Chimes is a student-run organization, and the chimesmasters themselves are student and alumni musicians who bring music to the campus every day. Two Cornell chimesmasters, SiYi Wang and Scott Silverstein, both class of 2008, took time out to discuss what it has been like to participate in one of Cornell”s most cherished, most enduring traditions. Listen to the interview and find out why chimesmasters will “always have the tower.”
Music by the Cornell Chimesmasters, © 2007 Photographs by Samantha Bosshart and Jacki Dickert