Ringing True

Young entrepreneur Gianni Iona ’20 gives a new voice to a Furman icon

by  M. Linda Lee

Gianni Iona ’20 loves a challenge. That fact, coupled with his natural curiosity and technical skills, led him to take on Furman’s carillon as a passion project. A double major in business administration and social entrepreneurship (a major of his own creation), Iona has no formal music background, but that didn’t deter him from tackling the university’s most iconic musical instrument.

Dating from the 1960s, the bell tower’s original carillon consisted of mechanical keyboards that a person could play in real time. There was also an electronic system that controlled the automatic playback of the bells. When the bell tower was renovated in the early 2000s, it was found that the mechanical keyboards were completely worn out and the university decided to remove them. At the same time, they discovered that the original electronic system was also ailing, and it was replaced with a newer version. “Then, a couple of years ago, we began to have persistent problems with the bells playing,” reports Furman’s organist Charles Tompkins, who oversees what’s going on with the carillon. “And it was discovered that the [newer] electronic controls had worn out.”

That’s where Iona came in. The young entrepreneur runs a small business to help residents of retirement communities solve their computer problems. The Woodlands, the residential senior living community behind Furman, is one of the places he serves. One day, Iona was at the home of longtime client Harry van Bergen, the bell foundry owner who installed the nearly 20-year-old electronic system in Furman’s Bell Tower. “I noticed he had all this equipment in his apartment for bell towers and carillon systems,” the student recalls. “I was genuinely interested in the technical side of it, so Harry showed me how it works.”

The aging system van Bergen had installed consisted of a small keyboard and a computer that was kept in the old college building near the Bell Tower. Iona thought perhaps he could get it working again. “How hard could it be to get this thing linked up [to a network] so the music department could play it for events again?” he remembers thinking. When van Bergen told him that it would be impossible to get the old system to work on a modern network, it was tantamount to throwing down the gauntlet. “For me it was a challenge,” Iona says. “Here’s a 20-year-old computer; can I figure out how to play this thing from my laptop?”

So Iona began to dig into the subject and went to see Music Department Chair Mark Britt and organist Charles Tompkins to present his proposal for fixing the carillon, with the idea that a different student could potentially program it every week, perhaps even with a top-40 playlist. They then assembled a team of faculty and administrators, which also included Howard Thompson ’68, Furman’s original carillonneur, and Iona started researching how to update the carillon’s electronic system.

“Gianni took ownership of a problem, brought people together and helped develop a solution,” observes Jeff Redderson, the associate vice president of facilities, who is responsible for maintaining the carillon. “He contacted vendors, and got proposals for updating and replacing the old controller.” The goal was to have an automated system that could be controlled on a laptop, and one that wouldn’t preclude the reintroduction of the mechanical keyboards down the road.

Tompkins referred the student to Michael Vick, the Instructional Technologist for Fine Arts. A musician and audio engineer, Vick’s expertise is in the instrument itself and the technology of getting it to work. Together, he and Gianni created the digital MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) files, which tell the system which notes to play on the bells.

“Now there’s a tablet in the bell tower that works the software,” Iona explains. “The software has the songs in it – it’s basically an advanced calendar that tells the carillon when to play what songs. That computer connects to a little control box, which takes the information from the computer and sends signals to little magnetic clappers that ring the bells by activating a magnet that pulls a clapper to the bell.”

“Essentially any music you can get in the right format can be played in the bell tower with this new system,” notes Redderson. “All you need is connection to the internet and you can download songs and do a music selection. Before, you always had to be physically present at the controller.”

“I can hardly overstate the amount of work Gianni did getting [the carillon] back into prime electronic playing condition,” Tompkins chimes in. “We owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Eventually I should be able to make the carillon play from my office.”

The next step, according to Tompkins, is to raise awareness of the Furman carillon, which is one of the largest in North America. “We have this magnificent musical instrument here that really should be played mechanically by a real player in real time. I would love it if the mechanical keyboards were reinstalled and we could have an adjunct carillonneur who would actually play. In the meantime, it’s important that the carillon be ringing.”

And that’s what the group has accomplished. As the person maintaining the digital carillon at the moment, Iona has loaded different files on it so he can set up his own playlists. “There’s constantly music playing from the carillon now,” says Vick.

“Without Gianni, we might still be scratching our heads as to what needs to be done,” Redderson declares. “I don’t even want to think of how many hours he saved me,” adds Tompkins. “It’s really gratifying to see a student get so involved in something they’ve had no contact with ever. It’s a new idea he was exposed to and he became fascinated with. Talk about engaged learning!”

For his part, Iona is glad that he accepted the challenge to ring in a new era for Furman’s carillon. “The carillon is a huge piece of Furman and it’s an icon, and the fact that I was able to have a part in restoring it really means a lot to me.”