Richard Watson is the only bell tuner in the country, and, as far as he knows, one of the few in the world. He co-owns the only bell foundry in the United States, located on a 100-acre property in Georgetown, Ohio. The soon-to-be 58-year-old has been a member of the North American Guild of Carillonneurs – a group of 500 professional bell players, composers and designers – since he was a 20-year-old music major at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s. He first learned how to play the carillon in high school.
Except for a noon tolling, the 61-bell five-octave carillon in UCSB’s Storke Tower fell silent Monday to undergo extensive maintenance at Watson’s experienced hands. Through Thursday, the bells will be shut off while Watson lubricates every ball bearing, straightens every clapper rod and tightens every S-clip to ensure the carillon mechanism is free from friction, which can cause bell tone quality and carillon performance to degenerate.
“It’s a very simple mechanism, but the problem is, it’s exposed to the weather at all times,” Watson said. “Dirt gets in the bearings.”
His hands greasy from replacing the bent rod connecting Storke Tower’s biggest 4,000 pound bell to the carillon, Watson points out three other rods he suspects were bent by workers accidentally grabbing them while installing cellular telephone equipment.
He traces the rods from the springs that connect them to the bell clappers – the heavy brass pendulums that make each bell ring at ten before and on every hour. The rods connect back to the carillon, which is laid out like a piano. Instead of keys, thin wooden batons make up each note. The heavier bells are controlled by a series of foot pedals.
“The length of the rods can change over the course of a day because of the temperature,” Watson said. “The hotter it is, the longer the rods; the colder it is, the shorter the rods. Each key has to be adjusted for tension before it’s played.”
Watson said he spends a lot of time traveling the country to repair and maintain carillons at universities and churches. He will be driving to UC Riverside to perform maintenance on their carillon after he finishes at UCSB.
“We have to go where the bells are,” Watson said. “It’s hard to find people, especially when they have families, who really enjoy going out of town.”
Finding people with the technical know-how to build, design and maintain carillons is even more difficult. Most of the time, Watson said, it is impossible.
“We have to train them,” he said. “It’s something you have to teach someone about. There are very few of us in the world.”
His bell foundry and carillon maintenance company, Meeks, Watson and Company, specializes in servicing manual carillons like UCSB’s and the carillons at UC Berkeley and UC Riverside. The company employs only three workers in addition to Watson and his co-founder. There are fewer than a dozen companies in the world that forge bells, most of which are located in Western Europe. Storke Tower’s bells were forged in Holland.
Meeks, Watson and Company is the only firm capable of tuning bells in the U.S. – a “touchy business,” Watson said, because precision in the bell-carving process is painstaking. Once a bell is cast, it can be tuned by decreasing a shell’s thickness from the inside by carving it away on a lathe. Watson said thinning the bell’s shell makes it more flexible, thus decreasing its pitch – just like loosening a guitar string. The only way to increase a bell’s pitch is to cut the bell’s height.
“You’re doing a balancing act,” Watson said. “If you cut too much, the only thing to do it to break it down and cast it anew.”
On average, big bells cost $8-10 per pound to forge, and little bells cost $15-20 per pound. The average set of carillon bells weighs a total of 32,000 pounds, Watson said.
“If you want to build a carillon, the price gets up there, but you have to weigh that against the fact that the bells will last forever,” Watson said. “It’s kind of fun to make a bell knowing it’s going to outlast you by hundreds of years.”