Saturday, June 13, 2015

Inch Sixty-Seven: What the Tower Held

When I posted last week, Warren and I were in Rochester, Minnesota, while I underwent a consult at the Mayo Clinic. I had just arranged a tour of the Mayo carillon. I wrote:

Mayo is unique in that it has its own carillon atop the Plummer Building, a 1926 structure with fantastic terra cotta ornamentation. For the unaware, a carillon is a musical instrument (percussion, of course) that has at least 23 tuned bronze bells. It is played by a clavier (keyboard) and clappers, not by swinging like the typical church bell.) While the building was being constructed, William Mayo (one of the two Mayo brothers) went to Belgium and become enraptured of carillons. When he returned to Rochester, he had the architect revise the building plans and add a carillon tower on top. Until 2001, the Plummer Building with its carillon tower was the tallest structure in Rochester. The carillon currently has 56 bells in it.

I have always, always wanted to be up inside a carillon tower. Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago has one, but I have never managed a tour. The Mayo allows tours of its carillon. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

To arrange one, you call the carillonneur (the bell master) directly on his cell phone. What a great small town touch! Jeff was delighted to arrange a tour; he will be playing Thursday morning at 8:30 for the downtown market, and we are meeting at 8:20 in the lobby of the Plummer to climb up into the tower with him. I can't wait.

The carillon tour did not disappoint.

Warren and I arrived early and took a seat in the ornate lobby of the Plummer Building. We had not yet met Jeff, but I was confident we'd know him right away. Sure enough,  a tall, thin man rushed in, broke into a grin, and headed straight towards us. We made some quick introductions and headed up.

To reach the carillon tower, you take the elevator as far up as it will go, then start climbing a tight spiral staircase, identical to ones in lighthouses. As we labored up the spiral stairs, Jeff, who talks rapidly and has a nervous laugh, asked us where we were from.

"Delaware, Ohio," I said and started to add that Delaware was in central Ohio when Jeff broke in and said he knew exactly where it was because he attended his first two years of college at Ohio Wesleyan, our local college. Well! That lead to an exchange between Jeff and Warren of who they knew in common and although Jeff has about a decade of age on me, Warren knew many of the music faculty from the years Jeff attended OWU.

When you get to the top of the spiral staircases, you are in a large room with a work area, a desk areas, and a thing—a generator, perhaps?—that plays the bells on the hours (and, when it is working properly, the quarter hours). Jeff grabbed his organ shoes and we climbed up one final short flight of steps to the top of the world.

A carillon is played by the carillonneur in two ways. The carillonneur plays the pedal board with his feet (think of an organ) and large oak keys called batons with his hands. Playing the batons requires striking them forcefully, not tapping gently. In fact, as I watched Jeff play, I realized that but for my total inability to ever play a keyboard instrument, I would love to play a carillon because you essentially beat on the instrument to get it to sound.

I do mean "beat." Jeff told us that he had taken a long layoff from the carillon while it underwent structural repairs. During that time, his playing calluses softened. When he was once again sat down and started playing, he felt something on the batons. He looked down. There was blood on the batons from his hands breaking open.

Jeff had a 25 minute performance that morning, and we had the run of the carillon tower and the ramparts all around the tower while he played. Here is the view of the rampart and the parapet wall, which wrapped all around the tower.

Except for the lack of Winkies and a bucket of water, I immediately was reminded of Oz and the Wicked Witch's castle. 

Jeff played a wide selection, including "Puttin' on the Ritz." You have not lived until you are high in the sky on the outside of a carillon tower while the carillonneur plays "Puttin' on the Ritz."  (Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: this is not a quality video!):

Of course, what that brought to mind was this:


It was a wild and wonderful time up in the carillon tower. 

Meeting Jeff and spending time hanging out with him in the carillon tower was treat enough for the day. But as it turned out, there was a bonus for me. I've created a character, Cecil Deavers,  in my nascent youth novel.  Mr. Deavers is tall and thin and animated and moves and talks quickly. In exclamation points, for that matter. It is not at all unusual for the writer to create a character based on real people, but I certainly was not expecting to meet one of my characters alive and playing the carillon in Rochester. I did not tell Warren until later, but I found myself watching Jeff extremely closely, storing up impressions of his movements and his personality. 

What did the tower hold? A stunning carillon, a bell master who knew our hometown, and one of my book characters. You can't make up results like that! 


Cynthia Walsh said...

I love your blog, I smile at your adventures!

Laurie said...

How wonderful you have created a character for your novel. The fact that he talks in exclamation points reminds me of Owen in A Prayer for Owen Meany. It sounds like the carillon tour was meant to happen. I enjoyed reading about your visit and the video bits.

see you there! said...

What an amazing visit you must have had. The sort of thing you and Warren would appreciate fully. I do hope to your published novel one day.