At the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, up a few flights of steps and onto a small metal platform, you will find a keyboard unlike most, made of wooden keys and a set of wooden pedals. The instrument itself is not located behind the keys, like in a piano. Instead, metal wires go straight up to a set of 56 carillon bells, each playing their own note to create the instrument’s unique sound that resonates far across campus.
The bells sit at the top of the aptly-named Carillon Tower, located just across from UW-Madison’s Sewell Social Sciences building. The tower was built with funds from senior gifts from the classes of 1917 through 1926, who originally donated funds to rebuild the Bascom Hall dome, where the carillon bells were initially meant to be housed. It eventually became evident the dome would never be rebuilt, and instead, the money was put in use to construct the tower, according to UW-Madison’s Department of Facilities Planning and Management.
The bells are played by UW-Madison Carillonneur Lyle Anderson, who has held the title since the mid 1980s. The title of carillonneur at UW-Madison is historically handed to the main player of the instrument.
Though officially retired, Anderson still performs at 3 p.m. on the second and fourth Sunday of every month. With classic hits such as “On, Wisconsin,” but also different genres of music, music from the bells have also found their place on the internet, notably garnering over 700,000 views on YouTube for his performance of the “Main Title”, the “Game of Thrones” theme song, on the instrument.
A carillon is an instrument made up of at least 23 carillon bells, each emanating their own note. They are played by hand and foot with a set of keys and pedals. The performer can insert their own expression in the instrument through varied pressure on their keys, much like on a piano. UW-Madison’s carillon is on the larger side — made up of 56 bells — and makes up one of over 180 carillons in North America, and more than 450 elsewhere, according to The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America.
Yet, learning to play the carillon wasn’t all that extraordinary, at least not to Anderson.
“Well, it wasn't any flash of lightning, inspiration or anything, but I was studying organ as an undergrad. My organ teacher was also the carillonneur,” Anderson recalled in a conversation with The Daily Cardinal. “I knew he played on Sunday afternoon. So I came by.”
Eventually, Anderson’s teacher would go on to study at the Carillon School in Holland, where he would encourage Anderson to join — and he did, without expectations of coming back to Madison to be the carillonneur.
“But that eventually happened,” Anderson said. “It was something that was here [in Madison], and I liked it. Carillon is my favorite instrument of the keyboard instruments. I also play organ and piano, but I don't feel like [I] do as well on those two instruments, so this is the instrument I feel most comfortable on.”
Apart from the addition of new bells, the carillon has undergone some changes over time. This includes a move away from the original keyboard to the carillon by only containing keys for three octaves an, which currently sits at the bottom of the tower as what Anderson called “just an interesting curiosity of history”. Eventually, adding more bells to the carillon would require a new four-and-a-half octave keyboard, which rests in a rather odd spot in the tower.
“[The keyboard is] on a platform in the middle of the room because I think the architect initially thought it to be located on the floor we're standing on. And then, before the bells were cast — the head of the Foundry was from an English firm, and when he visited Madison in May of 1935, he came up here and said, ‘Well, you don't want that because then you have all these long wires going up,’” Anderson said.
About halfway up the tower, which Anderson is proud to call a “completely masonry building”, rests a practice keyboard. Here, carillonneurs can practice playing the instrument without disrupting classes or the community at large. It’s not the same feel as playing the real instrument, but Anderson said it’s a good tool for getting hand and feet placement in order.
“With difficult pieces, you know that you have forgotten that same little passage over and over again, and you practice until you get it right,” Anderson said. “People don't want to hear that.”
Those nearby might hear much more of the carillon bells in the coming month, as a new clockwork system means the bells should sound every hour — and eventually, even more often than that.
“From here on out, the bells should be ringing every hour, and eventually, it will ring every 15 minutes,” Anderson said. “But we don't want people to be, you know, annoyed [by the bells]. But if you just get used to them ringing once an hour, then eventually we’ll hit the half hour.”
The hourly tones come automatically from “hammers” on the outside of bells, but Anderson emphasized that all the music you hear from the tower is hand played, coming from the keyboard playing the “clappers” located inside the bells.
Throughout his career, Anderson has had some humorous interactions with tower visitors who didn’t quite understand the instrument's various mechanics, he said.
“There was a young couple — a young man and young woman who came here — they stood [right next to me] and watched me play,” Anderson said. “But I remember they went upstairs, they watched the bells play, and then came back down. And the guy said, ‘So, uh, do computers do this?’ and I was like, ‘What part of watching me sit here, play[ing] and watch[ing] the wires moving, going upstairs and seeing the bells?’ Where do you think computers have anything to do with this?”
To those who worry the carillon isn’t being practiced anymore, Anderson reassured the future of the bells at the university is safe.
“In my years of playing here, at any one time, I have known about capable carillon nerds who are here,” Anderson said. “So, after me, someone will play it. People are always worried about that. There's always gonna be somebody around.”
Ian Wilder is a current features writer and former state politics reporter for The Daily Cardinal. Follow him on Twitter at @IanWWilder.