Jessi Grieser

At the University of Michigan, the tolling of bells is a regular rhythm in the soundtrack of campus life. Students, faculty, and visitors are charmed daily by the sounds emanating from the iconic bell tower – a steadfast presence that punctuates the sky in Ann Arbor. One of the musicians is not someone you might expect; Associate Professor of Linguistics Jessi Grieser, who amidst her academic duties, finds the time to hold concerts on the Charles Baird Carillon, the university's grandest and most public musical instrument.

The Charles Baird Carillon stands as the third heaviest in the world, a monumental tribute to musical tradition at U-M. With 53 bronze bells that were artfully cast by John Taylor & Co. in Loughborough, England, this impressive instrument can be heard over a significant radius, sending musical notes floating over the university grounds and beyond. But this isn't just an instrument of leisure for Professor Grieser; it’s an extension of her academic life and a testament to the interdisciplinary nature of her education and career.

Professor Grieser's journey with the carillon began in an unexpected manner. As an undergraduate student at U-M looking for a course that fulfilled a Quantitative Reasoning requirement, she enrolled in PHYSICS 288, the Physics of Music. Little did she know, this class would profoundly impact her future as a phonetician.

The connection between the physics of music and the study of phonetics may not seem apparent at first, but for Grieser, it was revelatory. "It turns out that the vocal tract is acoustically just a closed tube, and we create resonant frequencies in it just as does any wind instrument player. Essentially, we're just walking meat clarinets (or, as many wind player linguists will point out--we're technically meat oboes since there are two vocal folds which vibrate against each other)," she explained. This knowledge not only enriched her understanding of linguistics but also deepened her appreciation of the carillon she plays.

Her performances on the bell tower during this year's Human Sentence Processing (HSP) conference hosted in Ann Arbor highlighted the fusion of her talents and interests. Attendees not only delved into academic discussions but were also treated to the rich tones of the carillon, an experience that could only be described as quintessentially U-M.

The University of Michigan proudly houses the Charles Baird Carillon in the Burton Memorial Tower, a location that is as much a part of the university’s identity as its academia. Those interested in learning more about this historical instrument, its contributions to campus culture, or wishing to schedule a visit can find more information through the university’s website.

As for Professor Jessi Grieser, her dual roles as a linguist and a musician embody the spirit of diversity and interconnection that the University of Michigan champions. Be it through her linguistic research or her concerts, she continues to demonstrate that at the intersection of science and art lies an extraordinary capacity for learning and expression.