Carillonist says working with students ‘exhilarating’


Tiffany Ng’s first year as university carillonist at Burton Tower is nearly done, and she’s excited about her students’ achievements.

“I didn’t realize how exhilarating it is,” says Ng (pronounced “ing”) — particularly when student Isaac Levine earned a carillon composition honor in a Yale University contest.

But Ng, assistant professor of music at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, is making her own mark. She holds a diploma magna cum laude from the Royal Carillon School “Jef Denyn” in Mechelen, Belgium. She also brings a passion for contemporary music to the tower.

“Mozart and Beethoven were able to make a career because they would compose new pieces and people wanted to hear their latest work,” Ng says. She seeks to promote contemporary composers, including Stephen Rush, U-M professor of music, and Paul Coleman, known for his “incredible shimmering clouds of sound,” Ng says.

Tiffany Ng, assistant professor of music, is finishing her first year as university carillonist at Burton Tower. (Photo by Liane Rae Photography)

In her native San Francisco, Ng first connected to music through toys from her parents: a keyboard shaped like Elmo from “Sesame Street,” and a storybook with a color-coded keyboard. Piano lessons followed.

“I never stopped playing. It was just entrancing to translate physical movements into beautiful music,” she says.

Her parents played classical LPs. She was captivated by artists who visited her public school. At age 10, she saw a TV news special about the University of California, Berkeley carillon.

“I took note of that, and then I forgot completely about it. It wasn’t until I came back to UC Berkeley for graduate school in 2008 and joined the carillon staff there that I remembered as I looked around the tower,” she says.

Earlier as a Yale freshman, Ng saw that the most iconic building on campus held the carillon. “I wanted the keys to the tower and the opportunity to play music that blanketed the whole campus,” she says. Ng worked hard and passed the audition for the Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs.

At U-M, Ng’s goal is to present traditional and new works, including electroacoustic music. This involves live computer processing of carillon sound, recorded by microphones as the carillon is played, and amplified through loudspeakers. She also promotes audience interactivity, such as listeners suggesting via smartphone to speed or slow the tempo of “polartide,” a project with Berkeley and Stanford artists and researchers.

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“Data visualization is a big thing. We are looking as artists for people to experience data in a sensory way, through a sonic medium,” she says.

Ng is scheduling a range of carillon performances for Homecoming weekend 2017, in conjunction with U-M’s bicentennial celebration.  

Her fellow performers, she says, share “bell fever” — a love for the grandeur of the carillon, and the idea that their instrument actually is the entire building housing the massive bells.

“As a carillonist, you’re isolated up in the tower and can’t see your audience. They don’t stand up and applaud. But when they meet you randomly, they’ll say they love the carillon — that’s really special,” she says.

Q & A

What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

Our joint concert with John Granzow’s Performing Arts Technology students, who digitally transformed the bells into new sounds in real time. Passersby on Ingalls Mall stopped in their tracks to listen.

What can’t you live without?

Desert hiking. Being humbled by our magnificent planet.

What is your favorite spot on campus?

Fortunately, it’s where I work — the carillons in Burton and Lurie Towers.

What inspires you?

The interdisciplinarity of my collaborators at the Berkeley Center for New Media. I’m bringing that model to the U-M carillons.

What are you currently reading?

Max Gladstone’s “Last First Snow.” Fantasy at its most imaginative, satirical and fun.

Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?

My parents. They fled hardship and poverty in Hong Kong to build a new life in America, and supported every step of my education and career.


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