Tucked between the newly renovated Hill Auditorium and the expanse of the Modern Languages Building, the Burton Memorial Tower remains one of the defining characters of the University landscape.
Though few have explored its narrow hallways and music-filled classrooms, most students know it as a staple of their years on campus, announcing their tardiness as they rush to class. For University Musical Society fans and musicology buffs, the offices within may bear a certain sense of familiarity.
But housed high up on the ninth floor, Joseph Daniel has a deeper connection with the tower’s history at the University. As the main carillon player, Daniel has learned all the intricacies of this lesser-known space.
Daniel originally came to the University because it is currently the only university to offer a graduate degree in carillon, but he soon found himself enjoying another unique opportunity here.
In addition to battling the stress of being a doctoral student, organizing class material as a graduate student instructor and learning the harpsichord (his fourth musical instrument), he is now the University’s carillon player and coordinator for both Burton Tower and the Lurie Tower on North Campus.
The position, which Margo Halsted, associate professor of Campanology, held until her recent retirement, allows Daniel to work with two of only about 165 such instruments in North America.
“Margo’s position, which she held for 17 years, is unquestionably the number one position in the country as far as carillon goes,” Daniel said.
Adjacent to Daniel’s office, a small room remains home to replacement bells, and more importantly, to the 1930s technology that runs the show in Daniel’s absence. Like a music box, large gears turn to pull back the hammers, which release every 15 minutes to announce the time.
Outside at the very top of the tower, Burton seems somewhat reminiscent of the Sears Tower (though nowhere near its height) with its protective fencing to keep visitors from falling and its spectacular view of the cityscape below.
Yet, unlike Chicago’s famous tourist trap, Burton’s observation deck offers a constant reminder that it is, above all, a musical haven: the bells. Daniel stands underneath the largest of the collection, the 12-ton hour bell inscribed with its patron’s dedication, and chuckles as he explains that the quietest place to be during a recital would be inside the bell because its design pushes all the sound out toward the public.
As the snow caked to the rim of the bells reminds him of the weather, Daniel retreats inside to the small room that houses the famed Charles Baird carillon. Its shape leaves room for a thin strip of walking space on all sides of the instrument and a radiator on one wall to counteract the effect of the breezes outside. Daniel raises his bench to just the right height, then proceeds to play a piece by his favorite composer, Matthias VanDen Gheyn.
Like many skilled performers, he seems almost oblivious to the presence of his audience and plays without fear of scrutiny. His fists push the large bronze keys for the treble clefs, and his feet move simultaneously on the long row of foot pedals for the bass.
“It’s a meaty instrument,” he says, as he demonstrates the force it takes to push the keys linked to the bigger bells and the relative ease of those linked to the lighter bells. He adds that he often offers his students protective padding for their pinkies to reduce the pressure on their hands and holds up his own hand to illustrate the kind of calluses the instrument can cause.
Despite this small drawback, Daniel notes that enrollment in his carillon studio at the School of Music has almost doubled since last year. During her time with the University, Halsted built the reputation of the class to a point where the course had a waiting list of eager students each semester.
After her retirement almost two years ago, enrollment dipped slightly as students adjusted to the scary prospect of a new instructor. This marks the first semester since that time that the course has reached full capacity.
Daniel credits this rapid increase to his students for, as he says, “going out and doing the grunt work by telling their friends, ‘this is what I’m doing. It’s really neat. You should try it.’”
But, the University’s reputation with the carillon also contributes to its popularity with students. Music majors and nonmajors alike are attracted to the course.
When Daniel asks his students why they chose to take the carillon studio, he says the most common answer is “because I’m at the University of Michigan, and that’s just what you do.”
Because the carillon’s sound is so inherently public, it is often considered to invite a strong sense of community. In his class, Daniel understands that not all his students will want to perform publicly as he does.
His hope is “that they’ll develop an appreciation and knowledge (so they can) go and talk about it.”
Along with Daniel, 10 other advanced students and community members play recitals on the Baird and Lurie carillons five days a week while class is in session, and they invite the public to attend their performances.
For more information on the carillon or open recitals, contact email@example.com.