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Rediscovering the bells that delight Amherst’s downtown

Besides being programmable, the bells First Baptist Church is familiar with entertaining the public is also playable from insider the church – in the right hands, Rev. Byron Corkum says.
Besides being programmable, the bells First Baptist Church is familiar with entertaining the public is also playable from insider the church – in the right hands, Rev. Byron Corkum says.

In between the walls of the First Baptist Church is a secret song forgotten by the people of Amherst.

It’s hidden in a hallway between the ground floor and basement of the downtown church. Inside this hallway is a closet, and inside the closet is a secret doorway built into the wall. Behind that rests a large, gray metal box covered in dust with songs trapped inside, unheard since the 1960s.

Who knows if and when these songs will ever be heard again, but as this musical archive slumbers, one of its more modern cousins entertains the community and carries on its legacy.

 “In 1947 the congregation decided they wanted to honour the veterans who came back from the war, so what they did, they contacted Schulmerich Carillons in the states and they bought a Carillon system to play bells,” Rev. Byron Corkum says. “This is the original 1947 system. It’s all tubes. It’s a monster.”

Inside the walls of First Baptist Church in Amherst rests the remains of a tube-driven, pre-micro processor computer once used to play music for the townfolk. The machine and the songs stored inside have not been heard since the 1960s when new technology made the much-needed-tubes obsolete.

The problem with the original carillon – an automated device that plays bells or bell-like tones – would be obvious to most electric guitar players. Covered in dust, resting on top of the gray box is a vacuum tube – a mysterious piece of glass where magic happens… or science (depending on which guitarist you ask). Electricity and atoms by the gazillions interact with metal plates inside the tubes, amplifying sound.

This tube, however, is dead.

“As tubes became obsolete they couldn’t get parts for it.”

There were some generous attempts to get the old carillon running again, even up to the 1980s, but this old gray box has kept its secrets.

“If you could get the tubes it would play exactly like it did in 1947. It would play music the way it was done then, but no one can get the tubes.”

 

Back from the brink

After more than a few relatively quiet decades, a new carillon came to town in 2003.

The brains behind the bells that serenades Amherst's downtown three times a day is the digital electronic carillon made by famed Pennsylvanian bell manufacturer Schulmerich Bells. The unit is programmable, offering a selection of both sacred and secular songs, says Rev. Byron Corkum.

Purchased by a generous donation from Dr. Hugh Christie before his passing in 2010, the First Baptist Church installed a new $50,000 digital system made by the very company the church’s original system.

Inside the First Baptist Church, Amherst, NS.

Wires from the old carillon still run through the walls of the church and across a narrow walkway in the ceiling three-stories above the congregation to the bell tower. They new system is not as complicated, but there’s also a keyboard control at the church organ in front of the pulpit and a number of switches and remotes that can switch the sound from indoors to outdoors or cue a tune during funerals, weddings or a number of other reasons.

But here is a secret: like its predecessors, the newer Schulmerich NovaBell 4 does not have any actual bells.

“The old system was horns and played themes built into the system during certain times of the day. Up there today is four big acoustic horns and they face in all four directions, except they’re wireless,” Rev. Corkum said.

A close up of the digital auto-bell interface.

A carillon is traditionally a set of stationary bells stored in a bellower rung by a series of ropes and hammers connected to a keyboard but the Schulmerich systems revolutionized the carillon world and the art of bell making.
More than 80 years ago, George J. Schulmerich concluded he could recreate the sounds of bells with smaller bronze rods struck with miniature hammers using vacuum tube driven amplifiers. In a not so small way, it was the beginning of digital music.

 

Something for everyone

The First Baptist Church in Amherst entertains the public three times a day with its bell music, and a rendition of Oh Canada everyday at 11:55 a.m. for Canada's 150th anniversary.

The First Baptist Church plays a selection of songs at 10 a.m., 3 p.m. and again a 7 p.m., mixing hymns in the morning with contemporary in the afternoon before an evening finale. Churchgoers will recognize many of the songs, but it’s the afternoon that usually catches visitors to the community by surprise.

“When we ordered it we wanted to not just have religious music, because not everyone is religious,” Rev. Corkum said. “It’s amazing the number of tourists that come through and they hear Nowhere Man by the Beatles or Bridge over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel and they [do a double take].”

As the seasons change, so do the selections. The closer to Christmas, the more familiar the 3 p.m. songs are. This year in particular visitors to the downtown have enjoyed a fourth selection, a rendition of O’ Canada in celebration of the nation’s 150th anniversary.

The church’s new carillon can be told what songs to play from an already extensive library, and even more songs can be uploaded using a unique disk format specifically for the Schulmerich-made processor.

 

Charms to soothe

After 14 years, hearing the bells play in downtown Amherst is pretty common. Trinity-St. Stephen's United Church plays its system at noon, and the two have added to the character of this small town in a way it’s almost overlooked. And yet magic still happens.

As Rev. Corkum cues up George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun and the first notes ring out, walkers slow their pace. Car windows roll down at the intersection of Church and Victoria Streets while motorists wait for the lights to change. A motorcyclist sits patiently on his ride, waiting for the last notes to ring out before kicking over his motor and rumbling off.

As the last note hangs in the air as life goes back to normal and everyone wakes from their trance.

Returning to his own office, Rev. Corkum shares a final thought on the power of music and character the church adds to the community.

“It really is pretty amazing.”

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