The Sound Of Denver’s City & County Building Is More Than Chimes. It’s Art Too

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<p>Corey Jones/CPR News</p>
<p>Denver&#039;s Public Art Program commissioned Colorado composer Kevin Padworski to write a new piece of music, titled “Ascent,” for the bell tower at the City and County Building.</p>
Photo: Denver City And County Chimes | Kevin Padworski - CJones
Denver's Public Art Program commissioned Colorado composer Kevin Padworski to write a new piece of music, titled "Ascent," for the bell tower at the City and County Building.

This probably won't come as a surprise, but Denver is booming.

"Anywhere around us, look how many cranes there are," says composer Kevin Padworski. "Look how much is being built and all that new energy of new people. There's a buzz about being here, and people are excited."

That fervor is channeled into Padworski's latest piece of music, called "Ascent." And no, you won't have to buy a ticket or crowd a concert hall to hear it. You'll just have to look to the very top of the Denver City and County Building.

In the same way that "Westminster Chimes" rings out over Civic Center Park every 15 minutes to note the time, those same bells will toll out "Ascent."


Cities have traditionally used bell towers to let people know about significant times and events like curfews, marriages and wars. Padworski hopes his new composition reminds people of that old tradition.

"That's what they've been used for for eons, saying that there's a message that needs to be rung out, and this is the best way we can do that," he says. "So I think it is timeless."

Denver's public art administrator, Rudi Cerri, sees that timelessness too. "Whatever important event that we feel people need to know, it'll be a way to express that."

Most people think of public art as a sculpture or a mural, though Denver isn't a stranger to creative sonic work. Think "Sound Walk" or every time you get on the DIA tram. So why commission bell tower music? To answer that, it helps to know how the city pays for public art. Like the inspiration for "Ascent," it's all tied to construction.

Say the city renovates a park or builds a rec center. If the project costs more than $1 million, 1 percent of the construction budget goes toward art for that site.

When the City and County Building got a new roof a few years ago, that helped pay for new murals and other paintings inside. But then the city had some money leftover, Cerri says. Add in some extra dollars from the nearby Denver Crime Lab, and those funds helped pay for Padowski's musical work.

It was a modest amount, only $5,000, so Cerri says they had to think outside of the box for the project.

Hence the decision to use a signature part of the City and County Building: It's bells. They've been a fixture there for about 85 years.

The city also wanted something uplifting and catchy that people could easily remember, Cerri says. More than 50 Colorado musicians applied for the commission. Finalists ranged from indie rockers to jazz players. In the end, Kevin Padworksi's understanding of how bells work (a study called "campanology") helped give him an edge.

"Regardless of the size and whether you can ring them by hand or they're hanging in a building, the science is the same," the musician says. "So I know a bit about that and how our ears perceive bell sounds."

Padworksi serves as artistic director of the Colorado Chorale. While he plays a range of instruments, most of his commissions up to this point have been choral works, composed for groups like the University of Denver's Women's Chorus and the Cincinnati Children's Choir. He will also premiere his first full-length work, titled "Reflections on a Mexican Garden," at Carnegie Hall in April.

In developing his public art commission, Padworksi would sit near Denver's Civic Center Park and listen to the ambient noise — to get a sense for how Denverites will experience "Ascent." He'd write out melodies and sometimes even bring a keyboard to work on the music.

Whether for special events, sports victories or conferences, the City and County Building now has a new tune for the Mile High City.

The city of Denver will unveil its new chime music Thursday, Aug. 24. The celebration includes interpretations of the composition performed by the Perry Weissman 3, Greg Tanner Harris, and Kuxaan-Sum. "Ascent" will also play downtown at the Daniels & Fisher Clock Tower and at the University of Denver that same day at 5:45 p.m.