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Bronze-on-bronze sound of UT Austin’s carillon rings through Hill Country

Tom Anderson is the official University carilloneur, soloing most Mondays and Wednesdays, performing with Humphrey on Fridays.

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Tom Anderson is the official University carilloneur, soloing most Mondays and Wednesdays, performing with Humphrey on Fridays.

“It’s a kind of a unifying thing,” Anderson said. “Hearing the carillon is something that all the students do. I’ve had former UT students contact me after they’ve been somewhere else and (for example) heard Big Ben chimes play. The sound of a carillon just brings back the University to you.”

The carillon is the “Big Bertha” of music. It is the largest, heaviest and undoubtedly the loudest of the keyboard instruments — a musical family that includes everything from pianos to accordions and xylophones. Carillons originated in the church towers of Western Europe in the 1400s.

The UT Austin carillon is the largest carillon in Texas, and one of only 160 carillons in the United States. A set of chimes must number 23 or more to be considered a carillon.

The UT Austin carillon is a fascinating, complex, Rube Goldberg contraption consisting of a keyboard, console, pedals, wooden frame, boomerang-shaped levers, pulleys, counterweights, a system of vertical and horizontal wires, and a cascade of bronze bells that hang in the 20-foot-high Tower belfry. The carillon is so big, it’s actually located on two separate floors at the top of the Main Building’s famous Tower, four flights up from the Tower observation deck. The observation deck is being reopened for public tours on Sept. 15.

“From a playing standpoint and from a listening standpoint, the Tower has the perfect acoustics for that type of instrument,” said Jim Verdin, president of the I.T. Verdin Co. of Cincinnati. Verdin’s company added 39 bells to the instrument in 1987.

“The best listening is 100 yards from the base of the Tower,” Verdin said. “But we have had people report they can hear it a couple of miles away.”

The console and keyboard segment of the instrument are located in a small room below the belfry, connected to the bells by stainless steel wires running through the belfry floor. Verdin said some wires are 30 feet in length.

The challenge for musicians is that none of the bells can be seen — and few can be heard — from inside the room where the players are actually located. Anderson, UT Austin carillonneur since 1967, explained that there’s a microphone system among the bells and a speaker installed beside the console in the lower room to broadcast the sounds of the bells back to the musicians.

“The problem is all the big bells are right over head, and they’re the loudest. When I play two or three of them, I can’t hear the little bells,” said Anderson, who also played the Tower bells when he was a UT Austin music student in the 1950s. “The microphone is up where the little bells are.”

Like a baby banging on a high chair tray, a carillonneur uses both fists to strike a series of wooden pegs called batons. The longest batons are about 26 inches in length. The batons are the carillon’s equivalent of piano or organ keys, but the ends that the players press resemble small versions of old fashioned potato mashers. Foot pedals activate lower notes, corresponding to bigger bells.

The 56 vertical wires run from the batons through the belfry floor and stretch straight up like threads on a loom beside the bells. The largest bell in the carillon is a B flat, nine steps below middle C. It weighs 7,350 pounds and is big enough to take a bath in. The smallest bell, a high G, weighs about 20 pounds, more the size of a knight’s helmet.

The bells sit motionless, their iron, bronze-coated clappers poised within inches of their sides, held in place by horizontal wires.

Verdin said that the carillon’s bronze bells are made from a combination of about 80 percent copper and 20 percent tin. He said the ratio “varies slightly à going up in range to around 78 percent copper, 22 percent tin for the smaller bells. That brings a brighter sound to the higher pitched bells.”

Verdin explained that the horizontal wires are attached to the ends of metal devices shaped like boomerangs that are the central feature of the carillon’s “transmission system.” The other ends of these wide, V-like pieces of metal are attached to vertical wires running to batons.

A motion caused by a hand strokes on a baton pulls each wire downward, tips the “boomerang” sideways, and the vertical motion is translated into a horizontal one, pulling the clapper against the bell.

Humphrey, an administrative associate in the biomedical engineering program, has played duets with Anderson on Fridays since 1987. She has been an organist and a choir director, and has played both the clarinet and the bassoon. She jokes that she also knows “one song on the accordion.”

Despite its complex appearance, Humphrey said the carillon “is a lot simpler than an organ. But, it’s harder to play the low notes fast because the clappers are bigger and heavier, and they’re slow to respond.

“You can’t play as many notes because you are limited on how many batons you can press at the same time,” she explained. “With an organ, all the keyboard action is in your fingers. With a carillon, you use your whole upper body.”

Although Humphrey and Anderson agree that a humorous attitude is necessary to play the instrument, the good news is, unlike accordions, there is no vast literature of carillon jokes compiled by rival musicians for teasing purposes.

Humphrey said the carillon is such a rare instrument that people “don’t know what it is, or they say ïthat’s cool!’ when they find out it’s a manually operated instrument. They think it’s a recording, or that it’s computer-operated.”

Among carillonneurs, the UT Austin instrument is admired. Anderson explained that a system of counterweights gives this carillon a uniquely smooth action.

“Visiting carillonneurs, nearly all of them, say this is so much easier to play,” Anderson said.

Verdin, whose company tunes and maintains the carillon, said: “It ranks among the top10 instruments in the country for playability and tonal quality.”

UT Austin’s set of chimes did not officially become a carillon until 1987. That’s when the original 17 bells placed in the Tower in 1937 were expanded to today’s 56 bells. The expansion was made possible by a bequest from Hedwig Thusnelda Kniker, a pioneer in the field of micropaleontology, who earned her bachelor’s degree from The University of Texas in 1916 and a master’s degree in 1917. She died in 1985. The instrument has been named the Knicker Carillon in her honor.