Master of the Bells

The Music of University Carillonist Geert D'hollander Is Ringing Across Campus

by Julia Sommer

"My music hasn't arrived yet, so I'm playing from memory," says a blithe Geert D'hollander, new university carillonist, as he heads up to the top of Sather Tower for his daily 10-minute noon concert.

Completely relaxed in T-shirt, jeans and Don Johnson stubble, D'hollander is simultaneously giving an interview and trying to decide what to play in just five minutes. He says playing from memory produces better music, anyway.

Taking his seat on the long, high carillon bench, D'hollander quickly adjusts the clapper of each bell so it will resonate in just the right way. A carillon student asks if he can stay and watch the mini-performance. "Of course" is the answer.

Suddenly the Great Bear Bell-the biggest of all-starts to ring out a booming 12 strokes. D'hollander composes himself at the keyboard of wooden levers, or manuals, his feet brushing the pedals below.

As the 12th stroke dies away, he launches into "Andante" by Fiocco. Appearing to hit the manuals with the sides of his fists, D'hollander rings as much musicality from the array of 61 bells as anyone could. "Don't say hit," he adds. "I am always very gentle with my keys."

Visitors who have just taken the elevator to the top of Sather Tower press their noses against the window of the carillon booth to watch him. D'hollander is not perturbed.

After a brief pause he plays a second Flemish Baroque piece: "Prelude No. 2" by Van den Gheyn.

At precisely 12:10 p.m., he jumps up to return to his office a floor below.

D'hollander-officially an assistant adjunct professor of music-succeeds University Carillonist Ron Barnes, who retired in 1995.

A Flemish-speaking native of Belgium, D'hollander arrived in the United States Sept. 15. Three days later, he was playing Berkeley's carillon-"one of the best in the world," he says. He will teach campanology (bell-making and bell theory), carillon history and give private carillon lessons.

Sounding almost American, D'hollander doesn't think he'll miss Belgium.

"I'm a nature freak," he says. "I love all the national parks in this country. My favorite so far is Big Bend in Texas." Last year he managed to combine a concert tour of Texas with a tour of the state's parks.

D'hollander started following his father-a carillonist in Ghent, Belgium-up carillon towers "when I could barely walk. I learned a lot of music that way."

At age 13, he entered the Royal Carillon School in Mechin, Belgium, where his father taught. He graduated at age 17. At 19 he was appointed carillonist at the cathedral in Antwerp, the highest tower and "the best carillon job in the Low Countries," he says. Built in 1655, the Antwerp carillon is one of the "most beautiful and interesting in the world."

Four CDs of D'hollander's carillon music-one featuring duets with his father-have been released in Belgium.

After 11 years, D'hollander left that job, and three other carillon gigs in Belgium, to come to Berkeley. "This is also a lifetime opportunity," he says. Berkeley's carillon has more bells, a greater range, is in perfect shape and well maintained. I can play anything here."

D'hollander is also enthusiastic about the Sather Tower elevator. At Antwerp Cathedral, he had to climb 500 steps to the carillon. "It took me 15 minutes," he exclaims.

The older European carillons are tuned to a mean-tone scale, instead of the more modern well-tempered scale, and thus are confined to playing Baroque music.

"Now I must learn American carillon music," says D'hollander.

"I have a lot of catch-up work to do, a lot of beautiful compositions to learn."

He has composed for choir, piano, chamber groups and carillon.

The carillon at Berkeley is always played by a human being, never by an automatic "drum," as is common elsewhere. Monday through Saturday, 10-minute concerts start at 7:50 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. (the early morning chimes are omitted on Saturday).

A 45-minute recital begins every Sunday at 2 p.m.

To do all this, D'hollander is ably assisted by students and four professional carillonists: Jeff Davis, administrative specialist and carillon teacher at the music department and current president of the Guild of Carilloneurs in North America; David Hunsberger, lawyer, secretary to the dean of the law school, and organist/choir director at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley; John Agraz, a medical technologist who is in charge of carillon maintenance; and Richard Strauss, "one of the finest carillon engineers in the world," says D'hollander. "It's a unique team."

Strauss built keyboards for the carillon and practice carillon when the bells were expanded from 48 to 61 in 1983. (The bells, ranging from about 20 to 10,500 pounds, span five chromatic octaves.)

The practice carillon and a piano are in D'hollander's aerie, which also includes a bathroom with shower, kitchenette and dynamite views of the Bay. Two more practice carillons-similar in sound to a xylophone-are on the first floor of Sather Tower, along with a carillon library.

One of those who practices is D'hollander's fiancee, who accompanied him from Belgium to Berkeley. They plan on performing duets.



Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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