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November 1, 2021Stephen Laifer -
Judging from the logistics alone, it seems unlikely that someone could make a long-term successful career touring with an instrument that weighs over four tons. But that is exactly what carillonneur (i.e., one who plays the carillon) Charlie St. Cyr-Paul of Local 389 (Orlando, FL) has been doing—and to great acclaim—for years.
It’s fitting that he landed an uncommon instrument like the carillon somewhat randomly. “Twenty-two years ago, there was a carillonneur playing a show at Disney World’s Epcot theme park,” says St. Cyr-Paul. “I auditioned as his drummer and got the gig on the spot. At Disney, you get used to doing gigs with unusual instruments, so I just thought okay, here’s another odd one.”
St. Cyr-Paul ultimately wound up performing on most of the carillonneur’s records and co-producing some of the recordings. “Then, 20 years later, he called to ask if I was interested in playing the carillon. I said no way in hell,” he laughs. “But he told me the carillon had actually chosen me. And suddenly, it just felt like a perfect fit.”
To call the carillon a rarity is an understatement as big as the instrument itself. The first carillon dates from around 1510 in Flanders, Belgium, where the carillonneur performed music on the bells of Qudenaarde Town Hall. “Prior to its appearance at Disney, the only way you might have seen one played is by climbing several hundred steps up a church tower,” says St. Cyr-Paul.
The carillon is the largest instrument in the percussion family. St. Cyr-Paul’s touring version encompasses 35 bells, is nine feet tall, and sits on its own 16-foot-long custom trailer. The bells themselves were made in a foundry in the Netherlands in the 1950s for a church tower in Philadelphia. He says there are 183 carillons in the US, but around a third are silent due to lack of players. “Most carillon jobs are part-time positions. I believe I’m the only one who plays and tours full time,” he says.
Originally from the Boston area, St. Cyr-Paul says his grandfather was a pianist and his mother was a singer and actress, while his brother is a guitarist who taught at the Berklee College of Music.
“I grew up with a lot of Broadway tunes, jazz, and funk,” he recalls. He embraced musical life early, playing professionally at 14. By 18, he was touring with Up with People. “Seven countries, 123 cities.” That experience gave him a taste for the touring life. But between that and his current tours came a two-decade career working and producing with Disney, Universal, and DreamWorks. “Through it all, I never stopped being an entertainer,” he says. His live performances now number over 25,000 worldwide.
St. Cyr-Paul doesn’t take this success lightly. “I believe this opportunity was gifted to me as a responsibility,” he says. “I’m always working on new music, and I feel a responsibility to share what I am convinced is the best-kept musical secret. The sound of the carillon moves people. It’s like nothing else, and it’s an addiction for me. My goal is to make people wonder why they don’t know about this instrument, and to get it more widely accepted.”
The ultimate tool to acceptance, he feels, is accessibility. “I approach carillon concerts and recordings with contemporary music and tunes that people know and want to hear,” he says. “Think more Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, as opposed to Brahms. Music for the masses.” St. Cyr-Paul writes most of his own carillon parts, and several of the charts on his latest album Chapter 2 are a collaboration featuring new music and arrangements by composer and orchestrator Kryzsztof Srebrakowski (also of Local 389).
St. Cyr-Paul says he is always learning, and reports that he is the 2021 scholarship recipient at the North American Carillon School. It’s a three-year program (largely online) studying theory, harmony, arranging, and history and performance practice with carillon teachers in Europe. Other classes involve marketing strategies for his shows. “The program is still developing,” he says. It’s a scholarship but also a partnership, giving me weekly access to the best carillonneurs in the world.”
AFM membership has always played a vital role in his music. “I’ve been involved in the union since I started at Disney,” he recalls. “At first it was for networking opportunities. Then I got involved in collective bargaining. The music business education you get through the union is something every musician needs to be even remotely successful in this industry, regardless of the level. I’ve learned how to generate life-long relationships and formalize contracts with musicians I’m collaborating with. I can share what I’ve learned, and also find other AFM musicians through my local and get names to pass on to colleagues.”
When not studying to be a more proficient carillonneur and for his performance exams, St. Cyr-Paul is busy with the Cast In Bronze Legacy Tour and promoting Chapter 2, which also features his abilities as a drummer and vocalist. His latest recording project is Phat Santa: an EDM Christmas, which he characterizes as “the very first album ever to combine EDM (electronic dance music) and the four-ton medieval instrument of bronze bells.” The album is slated to be released for streaming beginning this month. Future projects in the works include The Gothic Tales, which St. Cyr-Paul says is a full touring production covering gothic rock and metal, along with some original music—and, as always, more collaborations.
“I’m on a mission to change the music industry as we know it,” he enthuses. “I welcome collaboration, and my aim is to bring the beauty of the carillon into the mainstream.”