University carillon chimes above campus

Virginia Lozano/Daily

By Danielle Raykhinshteyn, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 14, 2015

The bucket list of a typical University student reads something like this: go to Rick’s, paint the Rock, sneak into a dining hall, blackout at Rick’s, spin the Cube, swing on the swing in front of UMMA, go to Skeeps after Rick’s, go see if Shady is really all that shady, attend at least 14 football Saturdays ...

And, finally, see a carillon being played.

The carillons — the technical name for the multiple-bell instruments that sit atop Burton Memorial Tower on Central Campus and the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Tower on North Campus — are played every weekday from 12:00 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 1:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Central and North, respectively. At those times, they are open to the public.

“When people do come up here and see it and realize where this music is coming from, their jaws just hit the floor,” said University carillonneur Kipp Cortez.

As University carillonneur, Cortez plays the bells, teaches others how to play them and organizes other carillon necessities such as the recital schedule, keeping up the Facebook page and making sure the instruments undergo regular maintenance.

The bells themselves never need to be retuned, but every year, the same bell foundry that built the Burton Carillon, John Taylor & Co., will check other parts of the instrument such as the wooden levers used to play it, for loose or worn-out parts.

The Burton Tower Carillon, built in 1936, is the third-heaviest carillon in the world, measuring in at 43 tons, the lightest of which weighs 15 pounds and the heaviest of which weighs 12 tons. Yes, tons.

The carillon is situated at the very top of the Burton Tower, two floors above where the elevator stops. On the ninth floor is Cortez’s office, and at the top of a rather narrow set of stairs beginning in the hallway outside of his office sits the instrument.

The Ann and Robert H. Carillon was built in 1996 and has 60 bells, but they are much smaller than those housed in the Burton Memorial Tower.

“We have two carillons on this campus, which is so unusual. It’s totally not the norm,” Cortez said.

Cortez began his musical career in eighth grade, when he began taking organ lessons, which he became intrigued by after seeing one at church. After attending Valparaiso University for his bachelor’s degree in organ performance and church music and the University for his master’s degree in organ performance, he began pursuing his doctorate in musical performance at the University as well. It was during this time, in April 2013, that he became a carillon Graduate Student Instructor and was put in charge of all carillon matters.

“I’m an organist, and I like big instruments,” Cortez said. “One day I decided that the organ was no longer big enough or loud enough, and I thought to myself, ‘Wicked cool to have a big-ass carillon.’ ”

While Cortez said that he is the one person who plays the instrument most often, he also had six carillon students during the Fall 2014 semester who also played.

“When the instrument was built, the dean of the music school said that it would become the voice of the University,” Cortez said. “What I take that to mean is that these are the musical expressions and stylings of the students of the University. They’re able to express themselves on this instrument for the whole campus to hear.”

Cortez added that only one of these six students is in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and he would never deter anyone who wanted to learn to play the instrument.

“Most people just go blindly searching for ‘Michigan bells,’ and it turns out, ‘Oh, this is a musical instrument! Oh, I can learn to play this! Oh, this is awesome!’ ”

The carillon resembles a piano in the sense that it has foot pedals and keys spanning several octaves. Instead of the white and black keys of a piano, the carillon is composed of wooden levers that, when pushed down using a soft fist, move a lever that rings the corresponding bell. The foot pedals on the carillon are linked to the larger bells, as more force is required to ring them.

“The sound of the bells is marvelous,” Cortez said. “The instruments we have here are just world class instruments. It’s such a privilege to come up here and make music and to share it with other students, with the community and with the rest of the campus.”

Cortez said he has an arsenal of songs that he generally repeats, but he likes to add in at least one new song every week, and there is a large amount of music available for the carillon. He also said there is a responsibility as a carillonneur to be cognizant of world events and to play songs accordingly.

“What we carillonneurs try to do is to be sensitive to happenings around campus, things that happen in the state and around the world,” he said. “On Veterans Day or on the Fourth of July, we’ll do a program of patriotic music."

“The day after (the Ottawa shooting) I played the Canadian national anthem, as part of standing in solidarity with them to the north.”

Cortez said he ultimately sees this instrument as something for the students, as it reaches most students’ ears every single day. While the bells that ring every 15 minutes are mechanized, the carillon is an instrument he encourages everyone to learn or at least come see.

“When you hear real music coming out of the tower, it is actually a human being,” Cortez said.

If you would like to learn to play the carillon, you may apply for the class through the SMTD website or contact Kipp Cortez directly at