Uncommon Interview: Wylie Crawford

By Nicholas Nardini

In his 32 years ringing the bells of Rockefeller Chapel, Wylie Crawford has risen from self-taught hobbyist to chief carilloneur of the University, vice president of the American Guild of Carilloneurs, and, as of July, president of the World Carillon Federation—only the second North American in history to hold that title.

The Maroon made the 234-step ascent up the Chapel tower after a Sunday performance to interview Crawford at the keyboard of his beloved instrument, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon.

Chicago Maroon: So what exactly is a carillon?

Wylie Crawford: The carillon is an instrument, usually designed to be built into a bell tower, that originated about 500 years ago in the Low Countries of Europe… the Netherlands, Belgium, northern France. It consists of fixed bells that are struck by clappers, mechanically connected to keys which you strike with loosely closed fists—you don’t want to clench—and pedals which you stomp on. Since it’s all mechanical—there’s no electricity involved—you can vary the tone by varying the force you apply to the keys. There are around 600 carillons worldwide, and about 170 in North America. Because of the concentration of carillons here, Chicago is the carillon capital of the western hemisphere.

CM: Now tell us about our own carillon.

WC: Our carillon was donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in honor of his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, on Thanksgiving day 1932. So Thanksgiving next year will be its 75th anniversary. Our carillon is unique because it’s so huge: It weighs over 100 tons, including one 18.5-ton bell, making it the second-largest instrument in the world. The largest was donated by the same man and is also named the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon. It’s at the Riverside Church in New York City. A carillon must have at least 23 bells to distinguish itself from a chime. Ours has 72, which puts it fourth worldwide in that category. […]

CM: What’s the average carilloneur like?

WC: Most begin as organists or choir masters, who suddenly realize there’s this thing in their bell tower. We’re really fortunate in America in that there’s no established carillon culture. In Europe it’s usually played for pleasant background music on market days as a kind of civic duty of the church. It’s a lot like elevator music. Europeans are always shocked at the musicianship of American carilloneurs.

CM: How does one become a carilloneur? How did you become a carilloneur?

WC: Well there are very few full-time carillon positions in this country, and no schools for the carillon. No, that’s not true—some colleges are just beginning to allow students to major in carillon performance. Otherwise, you have to learn from another carilloneur.

In the 1960s I was working on an M.A.T. [Master of Arts in Teaching degree] in Physics Education here. I happened to be walking past Rockefeller Chapel one night, when I heard the strangest noises. It turns out that then-University Carilloneur Daniel Robins was quite fond of putting on these over-the-top spectacles. In this instance, I found the bell tower playing along with a mobile carillon that was mounted on a truck, a compressed-air calliope and rows of tubas that were blasting Wagner. I ran home to get my tape recorder and afterwards I was determined to meet the man responsible. I knew I wanted to learn as soon as I first saw him play, but he wasn’t particularly interested in taking on students. He gave me some sheet music and a key to the practice carillon in the basement, though, and I began to teach myself.

CM: Had you had previous musical experience?

WC: I had had piano lessons and I sang in chorus. Also, as an undergraduate I had been manager of my college radio station.

CM: How did you get from the basement to the bell tower?

WC: Apparently [Robins] had heard me practicing. He called me late one Saturday and said, “I’ve had one heck of a great night, but I’m not gonna be able to play for services tomorrow morning.” Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night!

CM: Now that you’re a seasoned Chief Carilloneur of 22 years, what are some highlights of your repertoire?

WC: The Gymnopédies of Erik Satie, the Alma Mater, something called the University of Chicago Suite, Auprès de ma Blonde, Greensleeves, the Godfather Theme, Simple Gifts, the Beatles’ Yesterday, the Teddy Bears’ Picnic, Send in the Clowns.

CM: Do you transpose your own music? Do you write your own music?

WC: As a carilloneur, you kind of have to transpose for yourself, since so little is written for it. Actually, being a musician is only a small part of being a carilloneur. You need to be a PR person, an educator and a fundraiser as well. As for writing music, I don’t know what to say. It’s a fantasy. But I don’t have the confidence.

CM: So did you ever get that M.A.T. in Physics Education?

WC: Yes, although I don’t actually use it. Just as I discovered the carillon, I discovered an early computer in the basement of a building on campus, and I was similarly transfixed. I ended up founding a computing company that was among the first to develop networking capabilities for PCs, something few others were looking at back then.

In 1989 I was named one of the 25 most influential people in the computer industry, along with Bill Gates. (I still have that plaque on my wall at home.) I ended up with about 100 employees, but I recently sold that company and now run a much smaller computer consulting operation.

CM: Do you see a common theme between the carillon and the computer?

WC: Sure. People are always pointing out that musicians and mathematicians are alike.

CM: Now the obligatory: What do you do when you’re not working?

WC: Well, I actually met my wife at the Evanston International Dance Group. I find that folk music, especially Balkan, has extremely exciting rhythms and harmonies. So I go to folk dances. I’ve recently gotten into politics. I used to avoid that, but it’s hard to now that things are so bad. I canvass for people like Tammy Duckworth and Barack Obama.

CM: What would you say if I asked you to play “Freebird” right now?

WC: What’s “Freebird?”

—Nicholas Nardini