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Roving in vacant rooms



School of Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies




Postgraduate Student of Fine Art

In the 50th Anniversary Year of the Chimes’ Inauguration

Presented with a Sound Installation

To Christopher A Taylor, Emma Rushton, Simon Lewandowski and Alison J Rowley

Lecturers in Fine Art

In the Council Chamber, Parkinson Building

At 12 noon on Wednesday, 22nd January 2003


1936. Dr Frank Parkinson donates £200,000 to pay for the erection of the central block and tower indicating that the Central Building ‘should include an entrance and entrance hall which would leave an indelible impression in the mind of the student which he would remember in after years with affection.’

1949 (October). The tower is completed, the occasion being marked by the embedding of a copper casket filled with nitrogen, and various items of memorabilia, under the roofing stones. The building is faced in Portland stone. It is six stories in height with the two uppermost stories set back, and culminates with a fine tower with four clock faces. The bells are fabricated by John Taylor of Loughborough and installed by Gent & Co of London.

1951 (Friday 9th November, 2.45pm). Opening of the Parkinson Building. The Architect presents to the Chancellor a Ceremonial Key, and the Chancellor unlocks the Great Door of the building, a Fanfare being sounded by Trumpeters of the Royal Corps of Signals.

1952 (24th April). Professor James Runciman Denny composes ‘The Leeds Quarters’ for the chimes of Parkinson Tower.

1953 (14th May, 12:00 noon). Inauguration of ‘The Leeds Quarters’ by Her Royal Highness The Chancellor of the University.


1974 (5th February). I am born, Leeds General Infirmary.

1975. My parents buy part of a house in Leeds being sold by The University. When they move in it doesn’t have any plumbing or electricity and the Living Room is full of boxes of small plastic polygons and papers, stored by a retired University Maths Professor. He had previously stored them in Parkinson Tower until the University needed the space.

1977. I go to the Children’s Centre playgroup opposite Parkinson Building. My mum meets me at lunchtime for sandwiches from Ainsleys. They make the sandwich specially for you, there and then.

1972-1997. My mum is a Laboratory Technician at the University. I spend days in her lab when I am ill off school. Her work has:

  • Oversized, heavy black doors with a surface of rubberized dots and squarish aluminium handles
  • White perspex signs, awkwardly printed or embossed with black ‘typewriter’ letters
  • Strange smells: animal feed, chemicals
  • Old exercise bike in lab, booths, ovens, apparatus, felt tips, crossword
  • Corks, bungs, test-tubes, labels, small self-seal bag
1982. (8yrs old) When I grow up I want to have an Ainsleys sandwich everyday.

1994 (11th March ). The chimes in Parkinson Tower are playing the wrong tune. A fax is sent to the contractors: ‘the clock has been chiming incorrectly for some time... as things are, the first 5 notes of the 11-note phrase appear before the hour bell; the last 6 are struck at the last quarter!'

1997. I do a summer job at Leeds University: Social Assistant for International pre-BA Students and for Military Personnel from Ex-Soviet Countries. Both groups are attending English Language Courses in The Language Centre, Second Floor, Parkinson Building. One of my duties is to provide tea and coffee for the students from a large urn, mid-morning in Parkinson Court. I also take them out to pubs and night clubs, to the cinema and on day trips to Fountains Abbey, Saltaire, Whitby and York.

2002 (20th September). I enrol on a Fine Art MA at the University of Leeds.


2002 (25th September). Notebook: ‘9:50am. I am on the 16a bus on my way to visit  Parkinson Tower. Next to me on the top deck front right seat is an abandoned sandwich, neatly presented on white -sliced bread in a self-seal bag. I can see the tower on the horizon. I’m in Armley, just passing Moorfield Rd on Town St. The tower is accessed by a long corridor on the 4th floor of Parkinson building. A locked door bears a plaque, ‘Tower’. I have arranged for the Porter, Peter, to let me in to the tower. I will have to time the visit carefully, as the bells  chime every fifteen minutes and I might get deafened. How far does the sound travel? I go part-way up the tower but don’t have the right key to get into the room with the bells.

2002 (7th October, 10:00am). Second visit to Parkinson Tower. This time with all the keys, and my friend Liz. I record the visit on my minidisc. We dutifully wear the navy blue hard-hats provided by Estate Services and carry a walkie-talkie, on channel one. We traverse the polished parquet floor of Parkinson Court to meet Peter, who accompanies us in the lift to the fourth floor corridor and opens the door marked ‘Tower’. We climb the pierced metal staircase and pause to step out of a door halfway-up. Here we tilt back our heads to see the gleaming white face of the tower and the clock hands suspended against blue sky and gliding clouds which make the tower seem to fall. Back inside, and up through the previously locked door, I stand next to the bells, fingers in ears, as they chime the hour. After taking some photos with a box brownie we ascend a ladder to the room above the bells. Here is a dusty, empty room save for a cctv camera patrolling the cityscape and a dead black-bird. Looking up, the ceiling forms a pyramid and there are stairs to a small platform. On this platform is a hatch. I try one of the keys and it opens. The door sticks a bit against a TV aerial, but opens with a shove.  At first it seems too risky, it looks very exposed. We consider it for a while. The only danger is if we lose our nerve. It feels OK. We climb through the hatch onto a ledge roughly 2 feet wide. We can hear planes, they seem close.

Notebook: ‘Studio. been up Parky Tower. When I looked for info about the tower, the only thing that showed up on the library system was an original manuscript, written in pencil by the composer, of the music played every 15 mins by the bells’


2003 (16th January). I visit Gary Smith at Estate Services to arrange to visit the tower again. I ask a few questions about the bells: ‘Who services them?’, ‘Can they be turned on and off?’ I am introduced to the Electrical Safety Officer, Darryl Calvert, who tells me some stories, about when the bells were playing the wrong tune for a couple of years, and about how the four clock faces are driven by an ingenious rack and lever system contained in a wooden box at the centre of the Clock Room. I go to investigate. The Clock Room is very quiet and the ticking seems to contribute to a tranquillity which pervades the space. On top of this varnished wooden  box containing the clock mechanism is a green beize cloth and a discarded fax dated 11th March 1994. There are also technical drawings relating to the mechanism of the clock and bells.

Notebook: ‘2.55pm. The soundscape is amazing, with the walkie-talkie volume quite low: passing traffic, a constant hum - like a ferry, the wind bustling, distant brakes squeak, a high pitched whistle. The walkie-talkie acts to punctuate this sound and add narrative.

  • Echoey, claps resonate, approx 4 seconds, churchlike
  • Bells 1 & 2 could be easily swapped over by unfastening the wire connectors

4:30pm. I visit Special Collections in the Parkinson Building, to look again at the manuscript for ‘The Leeds Quarters’. I copy it out, in pencil. (No pens allowed, and I am not allowed to photocopy it because of copyright.) This is the second time I have copied it, as I lost my original notebook. I have been meaning to do this for a while as I have a suspicion that I want to check on. Back home I sort through my minidiscs from visits to Cookridge Tower, the Town Hall Crypt, a car head-rest factory in Harrogate... I eventually find my recording from Parkinson Tower made in October. I compare it with my pencilled score. I had set the recording level too high and the bells’ signal was overloaded and distorted, but I had all four quarters recorded. I had suspected that they might be slightly wrong, perhaps a significant pause was missing, or one of the phrases had a note missing. But it was far more serious. All four phrases were wrong, but in a different way to how the 1994 fax had described. The first quarter started five notes too early and then also went over for five notes too long. The second quarter did not chime at all. The third quarter started five notes too early. The hour chime started six notes too early. I wonder if it matters? Has anyone noticed, and how would the composer react to hearing the bells chime this way?

2003 (20th January). I visit Parkinson Tower, the Clock Room and the Council Chamber recording walkie-talkie messages at all locations. I record the bell chimes again from different parts of the tower. I find a ‘hearing induction loop’ system in the Council Chamber and decide to use this to amplify a selection of sound recordings for a presentation of my MA work this Wednesday. I also find a copy of the minutes from a meeting of The Senate on 22nd March 1994, which influence the design of this pamphlet. Today the bells are chiming in perfect accordance with the original composition ‘The Leeds Quarters’.

May 14th, 2003, will be the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of ‘The Leeds Quarters’, composed by Professor James Runciman Denny.

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