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The Man Behind the Carillon

Ioana Patringenaru | June 18, 2007

Next time you hear the sound of chimes coming from the top of the Geisel Library, stop and look up. If they’re tolling the hour, you’re hearing a machine. But if you’re hearing a pop song, an aria from an opera or a modern piece, you’re listening to Scott Paulson, the man behind the chimes’ music.

Scott Paulson (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Scott Paulson at the carillon's keyboard.

Paulson has been playing the chimes for more than a decade and became the campus’ official carillonneur in 1994. When he’s not playing the carillon or assisting patrons in the music library, he plays the oboe in the San Diego Chamber Orchestra. He also plays toy pianos for the university’s annual Toy Piano Festival in September. Next year, he will host a silent film series on campus, unleashing his talents as a sound-effects artist. The Los Angeles Times called Paulson’s work “a sort of modern day morphing of Captain Kangaroo and Spike Jones.” UCSD rewarded him for his efforts with an Exemplary Staff Employee of the Year award in May.

“He’s so talented, he is always coming up with new, fun ideas,” said Paulson’s boss Peter Mueller, head of public services for the campus’ music, film and video library.

Paulson’s ideas aren’t just fun, Mueller said. They also attract new visitors to the library, who wouldn’t come otherwise. Paulson performs a wide repertoire on the carillon, ranging from songs of the heavy-metal band Iron Maiden to arias from Puccini operas. Many are requests from the campus community. The most popular, by far, is Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” he said. He’s not sure why, he added, but it works well on the chimes. Often, undergraduate students will request songs for their sweethearts. “It’s our song,” they explain. Paulson also likes medleys. He puts on an all heavy-metal program every year on April 1. When some of the Geisel Library’s walls were painted purple, he played an all-purple program. 

Music student Tom Ferguson and Scott Paulson (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Paulson with undergraduate music student Tom Ferguson, who composed a piece for the instrument.

Paulson, who is a UCSD alumnus, also commissions works from music students, which he performs around noon the first day of classes every quarter and on the birthday of Joe Rubinger, the donor who funded the carillon. On a recent Thursday morning, standing by the chimes, Paulson went through scores for some of the pieces he commissioned and performed over the years. Paulson’s supervisor, Mueller, trained as a composer and wrote a piece for the instrument, premiered in 1996. Writing “Resounding Memories” wasn’t difficult, Mueller said. Knowing it would be heard throughout campus was exciting, he added.

Then there’s “Five Rivers,” a piece for orchestra and carillon written for the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus by UCSD graduate student Steve Hoey. On May 5 and 6, the doors of Mandeville Auditorium were left open so the audience could hear Paulson perform with the symphony. He has played with stranger ensembles. In 1999, for a piece titled “Carillon and Junk,” musicians played instruments made out of trashcans on Library Walk while Paulson worked the carillon on the roof.

Catch Scott Paulson performing:
On campus:
Until July: Short Attention Span Chamber Music Series on the lower level, West wing of Geisel Library. Free.

12:30 p.m. Sept. 5: annual Toy Piano Festival on the lower level, West wing of Geisel Library. Free.

February to May 2008: silent film series with live music at the expanded student center.

In town:
6 p.m. June 21: silent movie show with live music at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.

Dec. 2 to 24: live radio drama version of the holiday classic "It's A Wonderful Life" at Cygnet Theatre. Paulson portrays a radio sound-effects artist.

October 2007 to April 2008: San Diego Chamber Orchestra season, St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown San Diego, Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla and Del Mar Country Club
Click here to listen to a carillon piece composed by Kathy Offerding

Getting to the roof involves an elevator, a couple of stairways and a fair amount of locked doors. That trek leads to a small concrete shack, surrounded by pipes and ducts. In the shack stands a keyboard with several electronic controls and an amplifier, with yet more controls. Three metal cabinets are bolted to the wall, housing the carillon’s metal rods. “How embarrassing,” Paulson jokes when showing off the instrument.

Carillon (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
The carillon's chimes are made up of metal rods.

In earthquake country, putting bells that weigh several tons on top of a building is not really an option, he explains. So UCSD’s carillon is made up of several sets of metal rods, amplified and broadcast through speakers on the Geisel Library’s roof. The carillon, made by an Escondido-based company, has its advantages, Paulson pointed out. The amplification can be turned off at the push of a button, allowing performers to rehearse, without sharing their efforts with the whole campus.

The carillon came to UCSD in 1989, as a gift from Rubinger, who founded the Institute for Continued Learning at UCSD Extension. At first, the chimes only rang out a brief warning song before ringing the hour. But in the early 1990s, Paulson suggested that the carillon could be used during public events too.

He first got to play the instrument in 1993, when the library was rededicated as the University Library Building after undergoing extensive renovations. Then he started performing for Rubinger’s birthday. He became the university’s official carilloneur when the donor turned 100 in 1994. Rubinger passed away before his 103rd birthday. That year, Paulson performed a memorial concert. The next day, the carillon refused to work, for the first time in its history.

Carillon (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Ferguson and Paulson played together June 1 for the birthday of Joe Rubinger, the donor who funded the carillon.

“That was spooky,” Paulson said.

Paulson has always been a musician. As a high school student, he said he had enjoyed a successful musical career in his native Maine. But when he came to UCSD, he decided to study linguistics. He also started working on campus. He had been a big fish in a small pond back home, he said, and he didn’t believe he could do as well in Southern California. Also, he wanted to try his hand at something else.

“I probably should have stuck to music,” he said. “But I got my second chance.”

That second chance came with Susan Barrett, an oboe instructor at UCSD. The two met during a recital at The Athenaeum, a private library in La Jolla. Paulson started taking lessons from her. During their second session, she told him she would get him a job with the La Jolla Symphony. Later, she encouraged him to audition for the San Diego Chamber Orchestra. Barrett and Olson now play together in the ensemble. “You don’t often get mentors like that,” Paulson remarked. “I owe my whole professional career to her.” Olson now is an established musician. “I can pay rent,” he said, smiling, “with oboe money.”

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