Inside the Tower with the UT Guild of Carillonneurs

We begin on a nondescript upper Tower floor. Custodians shuttle heavy gray trash tubs back and forth to the elevator as a student named Amy Rester plonks away on her practice instrument. This is not the real carillon. Essentially a modified vibraphone with wooden hand and feet pedals mimicking the action of the carillon, its utility is in “allowing us to practice without annoying the entire city of Austin,” Rester says.

But it pales in comparison to the main attraction. To get up to the Kniker Carillon, the largest carillon in the state, you need inside information, special keys, and some endurance. After the elevator spits us out on the 27th floor, Rester informs us that we’re not nearly there yet. Winding upward, floor after floor, we eventually end up in Quasimodo territory. Up by the clock face, the Tower interior is industrial-looking and perhaps should require a hardhat. (I bumped my head more than once on the low-hanging concrete ceilings.)

We circle upward still, above the clock face into rarefied air, and a few minutes (and some gasps for air) later, we are inside the minuscule carillon room, a short, narrow rectangle that just barely fits the instrument. This carillon wasn’t always so monstrous; it was modified to add 39 additional bells in 1986 at the bequest of Hedwig Kniker, BA 1916, MA 1917. The players face the beast. Behind them, the best view in Austin, jam-packed I-35 notwithstanding on this Tuesday evening. And despite the grandiosity of the carillon, one of medieval, low-country origin, its weathered wooden mallets striking clanging bells that ring out across the city, the musician at the helm is completely anonymous.

“The carillon is such a public instrument and everyone around campus can hear what we’re playing … and even our mistakes,” Molei Zhang says. “When we do make mistakes, nobody knows who it is because they can’t see it.” Rester ponders the size of the student body, and the notion that she is, invisibly, providing a musical score to their daily lives. “It’s kind of overwhelming to think about, really.”

As members of the UT Guild of Carillonneurs, Zhang and Rester are part of a rotating group of musicians who find the carillon—through word of mouth or otherwise—cycle in as full-time musicians, and pass the artform down to the next crop of students.

For many years, the carillon perched above the clock face inside the UT Tower was played by one man: Tom Anderson, BM ’53, MM ’55, Life Member, a UT student who came to campus in 1939 as a freshman, but left before graduation to join the Navy during World War II. In 1950, Anderson returned to finish his studies. Before graduating, he took over carillon duties from his brother, David. For four years he played the bells, leaving and then returning again in 1967 at Harry Ransom’s request. Anderson held his post on the carillon bench until 2013, when complications from Parkinson’s disease made it difficult to climb the Tower steps and play as he had for the previous 56 years.

During those six decades, Anderson was an institution. He played “Texas Fight” on Fridays before football games, “Happy Birthday” by student request, and Christmas carols on April Fool’s Day. “Funeral March” often rang out during the first day of finals each year, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” spread alongside cumulonimbus clouds, and, on the day of the Kent State shooting in 1970, Anderson slowly made his way high above campus and solemnly played “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” He was, in many ways, the beating heart of the Forty Acres, the cultural soundtrack for multiple generations of Longhorns.

The student guild was constructed to keep that dream alive. “This sort of organization is rather rare,” Zhang says, mentioning that there are only two or three other similar guilds in the nation. “The idea of the student-led guild is to pass down the knowledge, the way to play the instrument, from one generation of students to the next.” The guild even has a teacher, Alex Johnson, who learned to play the instrument as a student at the University of Rochester, to help guide them on their carillon journeys. He is the most recent winner of the prestigious international Queen Fabiola Carillon Competition.

Composed of seven UT students—none of whom had ever touched a carillon in their lives—they meet twice a week for what they call “Tower Time.” It’s an informal concert on Tuesday and Friday evenings after class in which three or more carillonneurs take turns playing classical and pop arrangements, and take requests from students, which can be anything from a Beatles song to “Flight of the Bumblebee,” a frenetic orchestral interlude.

“I was like … no,” Rester laughs, recalling the time she got a request for the latter. “Mostly because I can’t, but also because it probably wouldn’t sound very good on this instrument. Sometimes really fast pieces don’t sound very good on the bells.”

Most requests come from Twitter, but, Rester says, “If you like the old-fashioned way, there is a phone number you can call that rings at the very top of the Tower.” Indeed, in keeping with the old-timey spirit of the carillon, a faded beige telephone is affixed to a wall in the carillon room. Brandon Zupan, a senior who is double majoring in electrical engineering and astronomy, likes to have some fun during his turn on the bells.

“We ‘Rickroll’ the whole campus,” he says, smiling. He’s referring to the enduring musical bait-and-switch that started popping up on the internet around 2007. The concept is simple and wholesome, as pranks go: Listeners think they’re getting one thing, but what’s really in store is Rick Astley’s 1987 single “Never Gonna Give You Up.” He says the carillonneurs also like to stay topical; recently he’s been playing the eerie “Red Light, Green Light” song from the recent Netflix smash hit Squid Game. “I think I confused some people,” he beams.

Students like Zupan, Rester, and Zhang seem to come to the carillon almost by accident. For many, the bells seem automatic, as if it’s just a computer controlling the chiming regularly throughout the day. In a sense, those people are right; in the practice room is a control system that instructs the carillon to play “Texas, Our Texas” at 8 a.m. each morning, “The Eyes of Texas” at 9 every night, and the clock chimes every 15 minutes.

“Every time you hear anything different,” Rester says, “those are actual people. And it’s usually one of the members of the UT Guild of Carillonneurs.”

Zupan, who spent his first three years at UT hearing the bells and wondering how he could play them himself, heard from a friend about auditioning. Rester, a lifelong violinist, found a UT carillon video on YouTube as a senior in high school while searching for ways to get involved in music at UT. Zhang’s story is more fate-filled.

“I found out about the carillon by accepting the mantra of asking for forgiveness instead of permission,” Zhang says. She explains that one day during freshman year, she was exploring campus, entering every single open floor on the Tower and its surrounding buildings. She came across the carillon practice room and entered it. “The director of the guild at the time, James, walked in and explained to me that I’m not supposed to be here,” she says. “So, I asked them how I could make it so that I was supposed to be here.”

Zhang is now the co-director of the guild and the founder of The Carillon Project. Created in May 2021, it’s a collaborative venture connecting composers with carillonneurs and allowing them to share original compositions to be played in the Tower, in a building at the Mayo Clinic, at the University of Rochester, and in a Presbyterian church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania—and, Zhang hopes, beyond. Three years after that happenstance meeting, the carillon has become integral to her life, part of her mission beyond her time at UT.

Before I descend the stairs back into the gray guts of the Tower, Zhang breaks into Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major. As she chimes away, feet and hands moving gracefully across the instrument, Rester starts to move her arm in unison. Holding a baby blue copy of Yale Carillon Method in one hand, she cradles it closer to her body, simultaneously bowing an invisible instrument of her own. Without realizing it, she’s playing air violin alongside Zhang.

I catch her, but she’s not embarrassed. “I had to,” she smiles.

As the bells ring out, the music moves through Rester’s mind; it’s a symphony for two. As it echoes across campus, it’s a symphony for this city within a city. And none of its listeners know who makes the music, those who sound the bells. They just expect that they’ll always ring.

CREDIT: Matt Wright-Steel

A previous version of this story referred to the Kniker Carillon as the Knicker Carillon.

 
 
 

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