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Newcastle University music student composes piece for rare carillon

Published on: 9 November 2023

Newcastle Civic Centre’s carillon rings out over the city twice a week.

Ordinary Light

The instrument, comprised of 25 bells, is a familiar city centre sound and this month it will play a brand-new composition by a Newcastle University student.

James Clay’s Ordinary Light will be performed by the City Carillonneur Jonathan (Jon) Bradley on four occasions between the 13 and 18 November. The piece also features a sound installation in Newcastle University’s Arches, installed throughout the week between 13 and 19 November.

“The carillon is one of Newcastle’s hidden gems,” explains James, who is studying for his PhD in the University’s International Centre for Music Studies. “Lots of people have heard it but they’re often never quite sure where the sound is coming from, even though the tower it sits in is a famous part of the city’s skyline.

“You can hear the carillon clearly across the University campus, and I wondered what creative possibilities it might offer. I started thinking about writing music for it a little over a year ago, and got in touch with the City Carillonneur Jon, who has since been very generous with his time as we’ve brought this and other projects to fruition.”

James Clay and Jon Bradley outside the Edith Adamson Carillon

Unique opportunity

Ordinary Light will give listeners a unique opportunity to experience the same piece of music in two different ways:

“The live recitals allow listeners to hear the carillon as part of the rich soundscape of the city,” James explains. “Jon will perform a collection of musical fragments separated by pauses, allowing the resonances of the bells to decay into the ambience of the city’s noise. This presents the carillon within its natural environment – an acoustic instrument which becomes part of the city when it is played.”

The installation in the University Arches allows listeners to hear the carillon in a way unlike it has ever been heard before. “Jon and I recorded each bell individually inside the bell tower, and these were used to create a continuous, resonant soundscape which engulfs the listener in its tapestry,” says James. “It is an experience quite unlike hearing the carillon from the Civic Centre Gardens or across on campus.”

During the one-hour recitals, listeners are invited to walk freely between the Civic Centre Gardens to hear the carillon, and the University Arches to hear the sound installation as they are both played. Ordinary Light allows listeners to decide how they will experience the piece and provides a space for listening to all the sounds the city of Newcastle has to offer.

The Edith Adamson Carillon was completed in 1967 and was bequeathed to the city of Newcastle by James Adamson in memory of his wife, Edith Annie Adamson. It is the heaviest two-octave carillon in the world and one of only 15 in the UK. The bells were cast by J. Taylor & Co in Loughborough, the bellfoundry who are responsible for a countless number of carillons both in the UK and internationally.

“Newcastle Civic Centre is the only local government building in the UK to have a carillon,” James adds. “This makes the carillon and the city more widely a unique site for creative exploration, following in the footsteps of Newcastle’s distinct musical heritage.”

Jon Bradley playing the carillon

Civic musical landscape

City Carillonneur Jon Bradley has been playing the carillon since 2015 and has performed everything from the national anthem, Christmas carols to Abba and even the theme from Shaun the Sheep.

It is wonderful that new music is being written for our carillon,” says Jon. “And indeed it is so fitting that this piece has such a sense of time, place and presence, for this unique belltower is often lost in plain sight. James’ music is not only a pleasure to play, it alludes to the civic musical landscape of the future that is deeply embedded in the culture of the carillon that began some 500 years ago. It is crucial that we preserve our compositional talent for future generations, and it is through projects like this one that has been so skilfully curated by James that we will be able to achieve this.”

James and Jon will be giving a talk about the recitals at 1pm on Monday 13 November at the university, preceding the first recital. This will offer listeners the opportunity to meet those behind the project, hear about some of the work James and Jon have been doing together, and learn more about the history of this unique instrument. Ordinary Light will be performed on the carillon at the following times:

Monday 13 November   14:00–15:00

Tuesday 14 November   19:00–20:00

Friday 17 November       18:00–19:00

Saturday 18 November  15:00–16:00

The Ordinary Light sound installation in the University Arches will play throughout the week between 6am and 10pm as part of the University’s A Space for Sound project which brings together temporary sound pieces from a range of practitioners and researchers working across the University in the Arches.

For more information, please contact

The project is supported by Newcastle University’s Institute for Creative Arts Practice.


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