Boomerang Days: It Tolls For Me

A Longhorn does college all over again.

alcalde_bells

I have my UT fantasies. Skinny dipping in the Turtle Pond, tattooing my face on Bevo’s underbelly, trapping and eating a live grackle. And top of the list, ringing the bells of the UT Tower.

Who rings out those midday concerts? A mad maestro living among the gargoyles and bats? A tribe of Danish schoolchildren? An Aggie who mistook the Tower for the Driskill and has continued to ring for room service since 1936?

Actually, it’s a senior music theory major named Austin Ferguson.

I meet Ferguson at the steps of the Tower on a misty Wednesday just minutes before noon. He’s enthusiastic and friendly, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. Did I expect he’d be wearing a bowtie and lederhosen? Yes. Yes, I did.

When I was a student it was easier to get into Kinsolving after midnight than to venture above the 10th floor of the Tower. Even today, Ferguson has to notify the campus police each time he heads to the bells.

We ride an elevator to the 27th floor, then take the stairs, passing the infamous observation deck. The steel stairs wind up through the innards of the Tower clock itself. Soft sunlight filters through the off-white clock faces, the Roman numerals silhouetted in reverse.

I’m geeking out.

Far above the highest administration offices, we arrive at a closet. No amplifiers, no mixing board, no bells. Just what looks like a church organ with oversized keys and hefty foot pedals. This, I discover, is a carillon—the instrument that plays bells.

I’m surprised at the setup. Did I expect a troupe of Swedish women running from bell to bell whacking out melodies with tiny gold hammers? Yes. Yes, I did.

Ferguson introduces me to the Kniker Carillon, named for Hedwig Thusnelda Kniker, BA ’16, MA ’17, a woman who loved the chimes of the Tower so much she bequeathed the funds used to purchase the final 39 of the Tower’s 56 bells. She also owned history’s all-time best name.

A number of musicians have played the Tower bells since their christening in 1936, but none as dedicated as Tom Anderson, BM ’53, MA ’56, Life Member. Beginning as an undergrad, Anderson kept the bells ringing into the new millennium, making him the Mick Jagger of the carillon world. Now in his early 90s, he lets Ferguson and his crew handle most of the music.

Ferguson sits before the carillon, straightens his sheet music, and kicks off his flip-flops. This is going to take some muscle. After all, he’s operating over 50,000 pounds of bells. The largest bell weighs more than an SUV, loaded with refrigerators, stocked with boulders, coated in lead, injected … aw, you get the idea. 

“Stop and listen!” I long to cry. “Art is being made. Fifty thousand pounds of melodic art!”

With a twitch of his fingers and a crack of his toes, he pounds the keys with his fists and stomps his feet like a hobbit working a loom. Wires stretching to the belfry pull and spring. It’s a bit like watching your parents make love. You knew it happened but never pictured what it looked like. And it sounds weird.

As Ferguson plays, I notice an open window leading to a ledge bordered by a four-foot wall. I crawl outside and gaze over the campus. A thrilling view. Below me tiny Longhorns scurry to their classes.

“Stop and listen!” I long to cry. “Art is being made. Fifty thousand pounds of melodic art!” But they rush on, giving more attention to the chimes emanating from their iPhones.

I make my way back inside as Ferguson explodes into “The Eyes of Texas.” He’s particularly careful, as one mistake can lead to a nasty barrage of complaints on the @TexasCarillon Twitter feed.

Ferguson is a wonder—a composer, a teacher, a Carillonneurs Guild member. He’s a passionate musician playing live for an audience of 50,000 three times a week! Beat that, Bob Schneider.

Do I expect him to score a SXSW showcase, sign with a major carillon label, achieve worldwide acclaim only to succumb to the pressures of fame, implode in a hedonistic stewpot, quickly descending into a swamp of obscurity and rage until winning a spot on the final season of Chiming with the Stars, reaching spiritual enlightenment and becoming a sought-after guru of all things bellish? Yes. Yes, I do.

“Austin,” I ask. “What are your plans after UT?”

“Law school,” he says.

Of course.

In a surge of boldness, I ask to play a few notes myself. With his approval, I approach the instrument, nervous, gleeful, ready. With carillonian precision I was unaware I possessed, I play the song I was destined to play—the opening notes of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

I look back at him and grin

“Well,” he says. “That’s a first.”

Illustration by Mario Zucca.

 

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