Tales of a Traveling Carillonneur

Isabelle Chen ’17

Portrait of Isabelle Chen ’17

Photo by Richard Howard

The carillon career of Isabelle Chen ’17 may have started with the music of the Beatles, but it hit a new height when she played ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” in the south of France last year.

“Coming into Wellesley, I had no idea what a carillon was,” Chen says. “I didn’t know that the bells in the tower were attached to any sort of instrument.” But she enjoyed listening to them around campus, and then one weekend, there was a unique performance. “I was sitting by the lake with friends, and we heard a concert that was exclusively Beatles music,” she says. “I think that was the moment.” After that, she joined the Guild of Carillonneurs and has been playing the instrument ever since.

An English and French double major, Chen spent a semester abroad with the Wellesley-in-Aix program last year. “The carillon is originally a European instrument,” Chen says, “so I thought it would be great to be able to study the carillon and this instrument’s music in the general region where it originated.” With the help of guild alumna Madeleine Smith ’16, Chen got in touch with several carillonneurs in France to see if they would be interested in having her come and play. “That’s how I ended up traveling around the south of France to play different carillons,” Chen says.

‘That was one of my favorite memories from the whole traveling carillonneur experience, being able to play a famous old song that I had written for Wellesley and take it on the road internationally.’

And although she thought her visits would be more like “glorified practice sessions” than formal concerts, her presence did not go unnoticed. “My first performance, the carillonneur who welcomed me at the train station met me with a newspaper,” Chen says. “At first, I thought it was just a welcome token, but he opened it, and there was this picture of me in the local paper with an article about how an American carillonneur was coming to give two performances. So you can imagine how nervous I was.”

Nonetheless, she persevered, and her final performance was a memorable one. Her host carillonneur was looking through Chen’s music and found an arrangement of “Dancing Queen” that Chen had written. “She said, ‘Oh, you have to play this,’” Chen says. “That was one of my favorite memories from the whole traveling carillonneur experience, being able to play a famous old song that I had written for Wellesley and take it on the road internationally.”

It’s hard to imagine topping playing ABBA in the south of France, but when Chen returned to Wellesley, she received one of the College’s Jerome A. Schiff Fellowships to support the research for her senior thesis, a creative writing project. Chen completed a middle-grade novel for 8- to 14-year-olds, which ran to 55,000 words.

“It’s basically the retelling of the story of the Salem witch trials in a modern setting,” she says. With the help from the fellowship, she’s visited Salem several times to do research and make on-site observations. “When I started researching [the trials], I realized what a fascinating story they are,” Chen says. “History tends to repeat itself, and the idea of mass hysteria against a certain group of people might not be as unthinkable today as we might assume.” Ultimately, she envisions splitting the novel into a trilogy. “My goal is this summer to start taking steps to getting it published,” Chen says.

That is, if she’s not too busy preparing to return to France. Chen won a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Award, and this fall, she will be working in Perpignan—a city where she just happened to play the carillon last year. “I am overjoyed to be going back,” she says, “and hopefully continuing with my carillon adventures abroad.”

So don’t be surprised if ABBA once again rings out over the south of France.

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