It’s not you: The carillon sounds odd

Engineer’s office says bell strikers need broken in
Everything’s normal. It may not sound normal... Don Van Gilder


It was a $440,905 dream come true in May when the number of bells hanging from the Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower more than tripled after 50 years.

So why does the new carillon quite often sound like a nightmarish ice cream truck wobbling down the street with Pennywise the clown at the wheel?

Nope, it’s not just you — the tower’s rendition of “It’s a Small World” played on its high bells can get positively creepy in spots.

“They do sound odd,” confirmed retired high school band director Becky Greiner, “which makes me happy to know our community has a good ear.”

There’s nothing to fear, though.

It’s normal — and temporary at that.

“The more it gets played, the more wrong it will sound,” Assistant County Engineer Don Van Gilder said, “but the better it will be.”

The carillon’s electrical strikers are in the process of being broken in, Van Gilder said, a process similar to owning a new car.

The Verdin Co. — the Cincinnati bell company that installed the new bells — will be back on site this year to continue making adjustments, according to Van Gilder.

He said the county engineer’s office knew “going in” there would be a break-in period.

“It’s too bad you have to go through a break-in period,” he said, “because we have such expectations.

“Everything’s normal. It may not sound normal, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary.”

Greiner, who serves on the Bell Tower Foundation’s new music committee, which has been lining up performers to play the carillon daily during the noon hour, wasn’t aware there would be a period of fine tuning.

“We all expected them to be perfect,” she said.

She said it’s a mechanical issue, and there’s nothing wrong with the tower’s 47 cast bronze bells.

This is decidedly new territory for Jefferson and its most distinctive architectural feature, erected back in the fall of 1966.

Never before was the tower able to play music.

It was, in fact, a carillon in name only for the first 50 years.

With only 14 bells, it was classified as a chime. A carillon capable of playing music needs at least 23 bells.

The recent expansion made the Mahanay Tower one of only four carillons in the state of Iowa, not to mention one of just 450 in the world.

The tower is automated throughout the day — its bells being controlled electronically — except from 12:15 to 12:30 p.m. daily, when a guest musician plays live, performing the bells with a 61-note digital keyboard.

In a traditional carillon, such as Iowa State University’s 50-bell Stanton Memorial Carillon, a carillonneur plays the bells with a closed fist by striking wooden levers that in turn activate mechanical clappers. Its larger bells are connected to foot pedals.

Prior to the Mahanay Tower’s expansion, the music that emanated from it for a generation — chiming renditions of everything from hymns to the Beatles’ greatest hits — wasn’t real.

They were recordings of bells, blasted out over town through speakers.

“The more it’s played, the more it will find its groove, so to speak,” Van Gilder said.

Greiner has already played the carillon a half-dozen times since June.

She’s had to try to compensate for the irregularity of the strikers.

“I never play an octave now,” she said. “Now I just avoid them like crazy.”

When the carillon goes into automatic mode, some songs sound great, she said, while others are noticeably out of tune.

Still, there’s no shortage of people wanting to play the new carillon.

“We’re signing up people almost daily,” Greiner said.

In fact, since the daily mini-concerts began in June, there hasn’t been a day yet without a live performer.

“People from other towns want to come (play it),” she said.

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