Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


For whom the bell tolls

Walking across campus near Lake Mendota on a sunny Sunday afternoon, it's hard to ignore the thunderous cacophony reverberating from the tower standing in front of the Social Sciences building on Observatory Drive.

If lucky enough to be on time, listeners have the unique opportunity of experiencing firsthand the source of the weekly music. After climbing several flights of steep winding stairways, those adventurous enough encounter not a modern computerized music machine, but a white-haired man perched at the top of the tower.

Since 1986, Lyle Anderson has been the carillonneur who has made the hike up to the top of the carillon tower and performed a weekly program from 3 to 4 p.m.


"It's my favorite instrument," Anderson said while sitting below the gigantic bells suspended above. "It's the one I feel musically best to express myself."

Anderson is currently preparing for his annual Christmas music program he'll be performing this Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m.

"Many carillons in this country are in churches so lots of Christian music is composed for it, so there is a good body of Christmas music," Anderson said.

Anderson said he became interested in the organ-like instrument while studying linguistics at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s. He then pursued further training at the Netherlands Carillon School in Amersfoort in 1980.

As a part-time academic staff member of UW, Anderson is compensated for his weekly performances by the School of Music.

"He's the only one, so he pretty much does what he wants," School of Music Director John Schaffer said. "The fact that it gets used is a treasure."

Anderson said unlike his Dutch colleagues who play the centuries-old machine, he doesn't have a practice instrument and doesn't make a full career out of playing.

"In Holland you would assemble three or four different places together, and you'd commute to each one," Anderson said. "Here I have two other musician jobs and work in the state climatology office on campus."

Making the magic happen

Anderson said he is continually astounded when people visit the tower and witness how he is producing the music and still ask him where the computer system is making the sound.

"People are always surprised there's a guy up here," he said.

Sitting on a bench in front of a keyboard-like machine, Anderson uses the bottoms of his fists to depress wooden handles attached to steel lines that cause a round "clapper" to ring the 56 bells ranging from 15 to nearly 7,000 pounds.

"It's smaller than a piano, and the keys are further apart because you play with a closed fist," Anderson said. "The fists are a very powerful symbol on the human body, but you don't just pound on the thing, there is a lot of soft playing and touch."

David Johnson, carilloneur at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minn., said he has known Anderson for more than 10 years and said it takes a special person to develop the skills to play accurately and creatively.

"The piano skills and often skills as an organist come into play," Johnson said. "It takes a willingness to learn how to deal with the particular nature and particular complexities, and the physical ability to climb lots of steps."

Unlike a piano keyboard, however, Anderson said most carillon keyboards are one of a kind and players need to adapt to the feel of each setup differently.

UW freshman Bob Manier made the ascent Sunday afternoon to marvel at the production of the music.

"The setup is so easy to understand, and then you see him playing and it looks so complicated," Manier shouted as he stood at the breezy belfry of the tower. "It's also so interesting because it's been here for so long."

Despite there being only handfuls of carillon towers around the nation and only three in Wisconsin, Anderson said there is a multitude of music composed for the instrument and even more can be transcribed from other instruments.

"Some repertoires like organ, harpsichord and piano actually don't transcribe very well to it but others like 19th century guitar do," Anderson said. "There are some that just work better than others — like I have a whole Bach Cello suite that I can play without transcribing."

Anderson said he used to take time to select an organized program for his 3 to 4 p.m. performance but realized his audience was mainly composed of passers-by who wouldn't notice, and he now "just picks a bunch of pieces" and plays them.

The mechanics

Since the instrument is subjected to all types of Wisconsin weather, Anderson said the carillon is unique that it is in no way fragile but is made to be very expressive with a wide range of pitches and volumes.

Anderson makes small adjustments by hand on the steel wires connecting the keyboard with the clappers to ensure it is striking the bell at the bottom of his key stroke.

"I need to make sure it hits on a place that gives it the best sound," Anderson said. "The adjustments are more for soft playing, where with loud playing, you can hit them, and it will sound OK."

Main tunings are done at the bell factory, according to Anderson, who said it is a marvel that engineers 300 years ago needed to determine how to bring the bell in tune with itself as well as with the other bells by trial and error.

"Some of the historical instruments we have are from the mid-1600s," Anderson said. "Nobody really knows how they arrived at casting the bells in the correct tune."

Anderson said when the bell is cast, it is out of tune, and then metal is extracted from the inside of the bell to make it the correct weight.

"When you look at the inside you will see striations from being put on a lathe and having metal taken out," Anderson said. "The bell is very complex vibrating thing."

A storied past

Early in the 20th century university officials decided to add chime bells to the dome then atop Bascom Hall. The dome burned in a 1916 fire, destroying the bells. Alumni from 1917 to 1926 set out to reconstruct the dome and its music, but changed their plans in 1932 to construct the free-standing tower that stands today.

The tower was initially equipped with 36 bells from an English foundry, costing approximately $30,000 or nearly half a million dollars today.

By the late 1950s, most music was being written for four octaves instead of the three the tower was equipped for, so in 1963 the carillon was expanded with 15 French-made bells to 51.

In 1973, the carillon was overhauled and a nearly 7,000-pound "anchor" bell was added, replacing the 3,000-pound anchor that was moved to become a swinging bell rung by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson on the stairs of the Capitol as part of the Sesquicentennial celebration in 1998.

"Everything was renewed about 20 years ago, but the basic design is 150 years older than the piano," Anderson said. "It's a very ancient design, particularly in materials."

UW sophomore Laura Egli said her second trip to the belfry last Sunday was still impressive, as the sound echoes through the Lakeshore neighborhood.

"I think it's really cool that he keeps playing because it's such an old tradition," Egli said. "We'd be missing out if we didn't have someone playing. I think more people should go up and see what's going on."

Johnson said there is a common misconception that carillon performances are dwindling and noted the several new towers that have been constructed in recent years throughout the world.

"It is by no means a dying art or something that is dying away," Johnson said. "It is as vigorous an enterprise as it has ever been."

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