Thousands of students walk in its shadows, passing from history to math to science. They scurry below like ants or, I imagine, mice in some grand experiment. Caught in the rigors of academic study, they hardly turn an eye toward the belfry – toward the sky – to consider the din cleaving the autumn air, the chimes sending them from one point to the next.
The University of Montana campus bustles between classes, but the belfry at Main Hall remains quiet in its lofty isolation. Up here, a century of dust coats bolts and bricks and heavy wooden timbers. Cans of lubricating oil and greasers sit stacked in a corner, not neatly, but rather as if someone placed them here in haste 30 years ago and never returned to claim them.
It’s in this antiquated setting that Nancy Cooper climbs the wooden ladder, placing her feet carefully upon each rickety rung while making her ascension into the belfry, where pigeons sometimes come to die. She raises an arm and pushes open a trap door, the portal to the next level. She then waves me up, warning me to watch my head.
“We want a very cautious kind of cowering up here,” she suggests. “I can’t tell you how many people have hit their head on the bells after I’ve said that.”
Her advice is well taken, given how several bells suspended in the carillon above weigh nearly two tons. At 20 pounds, even the smallest bells can be formidable head-crackers. The entire carillon of 47 bells – the only carillon in Montana – weighs in at 10 tons, equal to the weight of two adult elephants.
The apex of the tower is too small to accommodate elephants, and moving around the bells requires a slender girth. Cooper navigates the carillon with agility, noting the bells’ condition, their inscriptions.
“Dedicated to all those former students of the university who have given their lives in defense of their country,” reads one bell, the largest in the tower. “To the devotion of those whose efforts for conservation protect the birthright of all,” says another.
Each bell has a story to tell, and these stories are dedicated to memories and sacrifices, most of them relating to the nation’s efforts during World War II and the Korean War. It makes sense, given that the bells were installed in 1953, about when the Korean War came to an end and the U.S., sour from so many lost American lives, retired as a nation from the craft of waging war, at least for another 12 years until Vietnam demanded U.S. intervention.
“The deepest bell chimes the hour and half hour,” Cooper explains, circling the massive carillon. She points to a rod that drops through the floor, linking the striker with a timepiece below. “It’s connected to the clock. You can see where the striker here has worn down the outside of the bell. You can’t tune them. Once they’re cast, they’re tuned and that’s it.”
I try to imagine the crane that hoisted the bells into this tower 60 years ago, passing them through spaces where the clocks now usher students from class to class. I imagine the crowd gathered around Main Hall, men in drab suits and pastel hats, women in near-Victorian bodices and fitted half-belts, clearly aware that shape and sheen were the day’s hip styles.
The bells have their own aged style. They were forged and cast in Europe, where churches and cathedrals have employed the melodic power of the carillon for more than 500 years. It takes no less than 22 bells to be considered a carillon – and carillons are rare because of it. Cooper notes proudly that only 160 of them exist in the U.S., including this one, which she was hired to play back in 1992 – two full years before I arrived at UM after serving in the Marines.
“Oh heaven’s yes,” she says, looking at me between the bells with an expression of disbelief. “I play it every day. You have to play with your hands and feet at the same time. I’m an organist, but it’s a different technique, because you play with your fists. It’s a scale, just like playing a piano.”
Back in my own student days, I gave little thought to the belfry’s history or the music that rained across the Oval on crisp fall mornings and dreary winter afternoons. I never wondered who played the carillon.
But there were times when I did lend an ear, when the chime sounded vaguely familiar, as happens on occasion with the elevator music at the dentist’s office. It was Cooper all along, perched alone in this tower in a coat and hat and gloves, using wood and wire and steel to create songs both familiar and vague, at least to a student not musically inclined.
Depending on the time of year, I may play something that’s seasonal,” Cooper says. “If it’s raining, I might play something slow in a minor key, or perky in a major key. I’ve played everything from Bach to the Grateful Dead. I love playing holiday music, because it feels very festive, and I have some minor-key folk songs I like to play in the fall.”
Perhaps sensing my musical inadequacies, Cooper names the tunes I’d be familiar with. Easy songs like “Scarborough Fair,” and “Over the River and Through the Woods.” She names “Turkey in the Straw,” calling it good Thanksgiving music, and the theme song to the “Addams Family,” saying it’s equally good Halloween music.
I appreciate this gesture, her dumbing down the musical references. I’m still eager to watch her play, to hear her play – to feel the power of the carillon, the weight of steel vibrating in precision. To see something I never saw or thought about seeing while I was in college.
We make the precarious climb back through the trap door to the floor below, as if we’re starring in some macabre Vincent Price movie. Below the carillon sits an instrument somewhat similar to a wooden piano. Cooper scrambles for a sheet of music, crisp old copies of a jig written by a Baroque composer named Robert de Visée in 1686. De Visée, I will soon learn, was likely of Portuguese descent and served as a chamber musician to King Louis XIV.
Cooper is at home in the tower, seated before her instrument. She sits at the keyboard with her back straight, facing the keys. The instrument looks both beautiful and dastardly in its design – crafted wooden pegs connected to slender wires rising up through the floorboards to the carillon above.
I’ve seen the grace of pianists in concert and organists in church. This is neither. Cooper strikes the wooden levers with clenched fists and stomping feet, as if she’s a 2-year-old having a tantrum. To play the carillon requires an act of violence, but it results in beautiful music. I can’t help but think of Geppetto working Pinocchio’s strings when he was a puppet made of wood – before he began telling lies and ended up in the stomach of a whale.
The bells thunder and chime from the tower and my imagination runs wild with the music. I picture weddings and dungeons, the plague, schoolwork and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The bells conjure stories with their sounds and pigeons scatter with the crows. Cooper is an artist at work.
From the windows, the campus views sweep around in four directions. Many have been here before, up in the tower, their names remembered on the brickwork, etched into the mortar by past visitors. Legend says a local fraternity once required new members to make this trip to the belfry and leave their name as part of initiation. Did they have a musician to welcome them up?
Clock towers and belfries have always been a place of stories. It was from the steeple of the Old North Church in 1775 that Paul Revere hung his lanterns, warning of the arriving British army. And it was from the clock tower at the University of Texas where Charles Whitman sat perched in 1966 with a rifle and methodically shot to death 14 people and injured 32.
The clock tower at UM has its own legends, albeit less gruesome and historically profound. There’s one story of a pumpkin, which, nearly every Halloween, becomes impaled on the belfry’s 107-year-old pinnacle. The perpetrator has never been named and his – or her – technique has never been revealed.
“There’s no other instrument you play with your fists,” Cooper tells me, completing her de Visée masterpiece. “You can’t practice up here because everyone would hear you practicing, and we wouldn’t want that.“
For that, Cooper assures, they have a simulator at the music department. But I’ve never seen that, either.