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He tolls for you

September 24, 2002 By John Lucas

Yes, there’s a live musician in the Memorial Carillon Tower

The key to playing a carillon, says Lyle Anderson, is all in selecting the right mix of music.

Choose too much music expressly composed for the instrument—or pieces that are inaccessible or unfamiliar to audiences—and listening can be an “exhausting” experience.

But a gigantic tower of ringing bells shouldn’t be confused with a marching band. Pick Led Zeppelin or the Beatles and risk sounding downright ridiculous.

Too many UW–Madison fight songs? “Too rah-rah,” he says. The balance is somewhere in the middle.

“It’s an outdoor instrument for the people, so a good program will include some familiar and even a little popular music,” he says. “But you can’t just be noodling around up there playing fanciful little things.”

Photo of Lyle Anderson

For students, faculty and staff, there’s a good chance that Anderson’s programs have a familiar, well, ring. He’s served as the campus’s official carillonneur for 16 years, playing in the Memorial Carillon Tower on Observatory Drive several times each week.

It’s rewarding work, but not exactly the kind of job that one starts dreaming about as a teenager, Anderson says. Carillons are fairly rare, with only several hundred around the world. Jobs in them are tough to come by, and duties are often only parttime.

“I just thought it would be interesting to try,” he says. “I really never planned to do any of this. It’s all a bit of a lucky coincidence.”

A native of northern Wisconsin, Anderson was an undergraduate student in linguistics in the late-1960s. After taking organ classes with music professor and carillonneur emeritus John Wright Harvey, he began to study the carillon, which, despite its configuration, plays somewhat like a piano.

Carillonneurs play melodies through a console of wooden batons and pedals connected mechanically to clappers inside the stationary bells. Although a wrist action is used, playing doesn’t require too much exertion.

Following a year’s study at the Netherlands Carillon School in Amersfoort, Anderson earned a diploma in 1980. Returning to Madison, he was appointed carillonneur in 1986.

Designed by Arthur Peabody, the UW–Madison carillon was originally dedicated in 1936 with 25 bells. Additions and replacements resulted in the current configuration of 56 bells ranging in size from 15 to 6,823 pounds.

The UW–Madison carillon is one of three in Wisconsin, the others being at Marquette University in Milwaukee and First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Green Bay.

And, no, sitting aside 56 ringing bells really isn’t that loud, Anderson says.

“I think that’s the carillon equivalent of “Nice weather we’re having,'” he says of the noise. “That’s one of the most frequently asked questions. But it’s not any louder than the kind of decibels kids are putting in their ears these days.”

Anderson typically performs 40 weeks each year, with a current schedule of Wednesday, Friday and Sunday afternoons. The programs are all played by hand. “All of the time, people tell me, “I always thought it was run by a computer,'” he says.

Although he gives tours, and spectators are invited to watch his Sunday performances from inside the carillon tower, the separation from the audience makes playing the carillon one of the more solitary, insular experiences a musician can have, he says.

“It doesn’t really bother me though,” he says. “I’m not one of those people that needs to hear the roar of the crowd. Anyone who plays a carillon certainly can’t have that as a goal.”

In addition to regular performances, bells on campus are used on special occasions such as celebrations or somber reminders.

Anderson played numerous programs in celebration of the university’s 1998 sesquicentennial. More recently, on Sept. 11, he rang the Music Hall bell at four points during the morning to honor the victims of last year’s terrorist attacks. Afterward, from the carillon, he played a remembrance program made up of Bach, “Simple Gifts” and “Amazing Grace,” among other pieces.

Because his carillon duties only take up a few hours each week, Anderson wears several other hats on and off campus.

During weekday afternoons, he’s manager for the Office of the Wisconsin State Climatologist, helping archive weather data and answering climate questions from the public.

In addition, he works as a production assistant on the crew of public radio’s “Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know?” On Sundays, he plays plays organ for services at a pair of local churches.

It can be difficult trying to schedule four part-times jobs, Anderson says. But he’s glad they all involve work that allows him to be his own boss.

“It’s a nice mix, and it pays the rent,” he says. “I don’t have any horrible clients, I don’t have to work as part of a team of 50. The hardest part is readjusting my thinking from one job to the next.”