URBANA – Something is missing from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus this fall: the sound of the Altgeld Chimes.
The new way is a recording. It was made early one Sunday morning in February 2023 when 15 University of Illinois students gathered to record themselves playing the Altgeld Chimes.
“The idea of it really emerged as a final project to do before the chimes shut down,” said University of Illinois musicology doctoral student Michael Broussard. “But the meaning of it really didn’t come until later.”
Broussard is chimes master for the Altgeld Chimes, a paid position at the University of Illinois. And he says he sees the recording project as a way to keep the Altgeld Chimes in peoples’ minds during Altgeld’s renovation.
Broussard’s main musical instrument was the trombone. But since coming to the U of I, he’s taken on the 15-bell chimes, installed in the 132-foot tower of the castle-like Altgeld Hall. The building’s namesake is 19th century Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld. The building has sister Altgeld Halls on the campuses of Northern Illinois University at DeKalb and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Other castle-like buildings initiated or inspired by Altgeld are at Illinois State University and Eastern Illinois University.
Broussard also leads the other students who play the chimes. An automatic clock mechanism marked the time on the Altgeld Chimes, until it was closed for renovations. But when passers-by on the Main Quad heard other melodies on the chimes, they were being played by these students.
One selection recorded on the chimes by Broussard is an unusual choice: an example of Balinese gamelan music from Indonesia. The melody for “Tabuh Salesir” is usually played on the gangsa, an instrument using tuned metal bars that is integral to Balinese music. But Broussard and former chimes master Tina Horton recorded an arrangement on the chimes, each of them playing one half of an interlocking melody.
“When you hear one part of the melody being played, it doesn’t sound like anything,” said Broussard. “But then, when you put them together, it creates a really complex melody.”
The chimes were recorded with microphones set up outside the Altgeld Hall bell tower. The recording was made early on a Sunday morning, to minimize the sound of passersby. Broussard says you may still hear occasional sounds of birds, passing traffic, even the sound of a passerby singing along with the chimes’ rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
The Altgeld Chimes are played by pushing down on levers lined up at the base of the bell tower. Each one pulls a cable and, in turn, a clapper on one of the bells. It takes your whole arm to work the levers for the chimes. U of I alumnus Liam Flood says he had never found a musical instrument that suited him — until he discovered the Altgeld Chimes.
“It fit everything that I needed,” said Flood. “I didn’t blow into it. There were no strings. There wasn’t too much finger work, which I didn’t like about the piano. And I liked the anonymity of it. Because everyone gets to hear you, but not everyone gets to see you play. So, it was the perfect fit for me.”
Flood works in Washington D.C. as a data scientist. But he jumped at the chance to come back to the University of Illinois campus for the recording session.
“I recorded my signature song, the one that I play the most, which is an Irish folk song called ‘Off to California’,” said Flood, who also recorded “Amazing Grace” and “Aloha ‘Oe” on the chimes.
Flood says the chimes were a gift to the university from the graduating classes of 1914 through 1921. They raised money to install 13 bells. The university’s Dean of Men, Thomas Arkle Clark, found additional money to add two more bells, so the chimes would have all the notes needed to play the school song “Illinois Loyalty.” That song, played by the Marching Illini at Illinois football and basketball games, is included in the Altgeld Chimes recording session.
In all, the chimes players of Altgeld Hall recorded 34 selections on that spring Sunday morning. Many test the limits of the chimes, both in the small number of available notes, and the difficulty in playing at fast tempos. The selections include melodies from classical music, such as the “Jupiter” section of “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, and “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet. There are traditional melodies such as Japan’s “Sakura Sakura”, hymns such as “Jerusalem” and the “Doxology”, and “Life Every Voice and Sing” the anthem to Black liberation composed by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamund Johnson. And in addition to “Illinois Loyalty”, other University of Illinois school songs are played on the Altgeld Chimes, including “Oskee Wow-Wow” and “Hail to the Orange”.
Because the bells cannot be played for at least a couple of years, Michael Broussard says they’re making CDs of the 34 songs that were recorded. He says the first copies of the CD, titled “Songs for our Dear Old Illinois”, will go to chimes players and their friends, while future copies will be made available, free of charge, to the public. The music will also be posted this fall for anybody to hear without charge on a university website. Updates on the project will be posted on the chimes players’ Facebook page, “Altgeld Chime Tower at the University of Illinois”.
For now, the tower that houses the Altgeld Chimes is surrounded by scaffolding for Altgeld Hall’s renovation. Until the chimes can ring out again, another set of mostly automated chimes can be heard on the U of I campus. These are the much newer 48-bell McFarland Carillon, located on a 185-foot tower on the South Quad.
(UPDATE: This article has been revised, to update details about the recording project, and correct details about Mr. Broussard’s music studies and Balinese gamelan music — JM 9/17/23, 10/5/23)