Alex Chambers: Soprano Anne Slovin was on stage recently in a new role, Anne Frank. The first opera based on Anne Frank's diary, premiered at the Indiana University Opera Theater in early March and Anne Slovin says the production wasn't just about the tragedy of Anne Frank's life.
Anne Slovin: Something that is important to me as a Jewish artist is to present not only the times when we suffered, but also the times that are really joyful and the times that we celebrate because we celebrate a lot. We have a lot of holidays. We have a lot of drinking holidays. So I think Jewish culture has the potential to be incredibly joyful.
Alex Chambers: This week in a special pledge drive edition of Inner States, we talk with the opera's composer, the conductor and Soprano, Anne Slovin, about how the production came to be and what it means today. That's coming up right after this.
Alex Chambers: Hey there, it's Alex. This is Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. It's fund drive week. Time to reflect on what public media means to you. First, I want to let you know what we've got coming up on this week's episode. It's all about music this week. One history, one mystery and one eccentricity? It's a new album by a Bloomington musicianist. Let's hear what it took to create an opera about Anne Frank. Here's Violet Baron with the story.
Violet Baron: Back in May of 2019, the opera singer, Anne Slovin, was kind of between gigs and a friend reached out to her basically out of the blue to say that IU's Jacob School of Music was looking for a singer to workshop this totally new project on the diary of Anne Frank.
Violet Baron: It would actually become the world's first main stage opera based on the diary. At the time when Anne signed on, she really wasn't expecting the project to become as big as it did. Called Anne Frank, the work premiered at IU's musical art center on March 3rd, 2023.
Anne Slovin: It was kind of fortuitous because I was in between things. I hadn't come back to start my doctorate yet. I was house sitting for a friend with her cats and this opportunity kind of fell into my lap. Maestro Fagen reached out to me, the opera office reached out to me to ask if I would be a part of this.
Violet Baron: For anyone who wasn't assigned the book in high school, it started out as a diary gifted to a Jewish girl living in Amsterdam, just somewhere to record her private thoughts, her crushes, her fights with her mom. It ended up as a document of her life in hiding as her family tried to wait out the Nazi occupation. Anne didn't survive World War II but her diary did. For the opera's Pulitzer prize-winning composer, Shulamit Ran, the project had actually been building for even longer.
Shulamit Ran: I was actually approached about writing an Anne Frank opera by a gentleman whose name is Dennis Hanthorn and he had this dream of commissioning a work based on the diary of Anne Frank. He approached me having heard my first opera, Between Two Worlds: The Dybbuk, and Maestro Fagen conducted that work. We have that really very strong, powerful connection since then, and Dennis Hanthorn of the Atlanta Opera came to this performance. It was quite a while later that he suddenly called me up one evening and introduced himself, and talked to me about this idea. There were two things that I said to him at that moment.
Shulamit Ran: But I would want to talk to Charles Kondek, whom I consider my librettist so to speak. He's the librettist who also wrote the libretto for my first opera. I felt that if anyone could take the diary, and I don't want to say translate it because it's not translation, it's transformation into an opera libretto, a script so to speak, and work with the kind of themes that I was interested in, it would be Charles Kondek. The second question was, do you have the rights?
Shulamit Ran: Because as a composer, I have encountered numerous situations where the issue for rights is a major concern and, indeed, it turned out to be that way. We were on a hunt for well over a decade to simply secure the rights.
Arthur Fagen: There was a special project. In 2011 the former director of the Atlanta Opera and I went to Baselto meet Anne Frank's first cousin. His name was Buddy Elias. He grew up with Anne as a child in Frankfurt and when the war started the family split up. His family moved to Switzerland and, therefore, survived the war. Whereas as Otto Frank moved his family to Amsterdam. He was pretty much making decisions and he had not yet granted permission for a main stage opera to anybody.
Violet Baron: That's the opera's conductor, Arthur Fagen, or Maestro Fagen as he's known to the Jacob's community. He took on the task of obtaining the rights during a day spent with the holders of the Anne Frank estate, relatives of hers in Basel, Switzerland.
Arthur Fagen: My mother and father were Holocaust survivors, my grandparents as well. They were on Schindler's list. But many of my great grandparents and great aunts, great uncles, I mean, they all perished during the Holocaust. I feel, especially in the present time when we had a surge in antisemitism, that it is very important to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, and this has been a theme throughout my entire career, wherever I have worked. I recounted my family history, that I was a Holocaust survivor and that Shulamit Ran was a composer whose first opera I conducted in Chicago in 1997, and that we are really committed to doing an opera based on the diary, and we sort of convinced him.
Arthur Fagen: We had to go through a lot of hoops afterwards to get the American permission to do it, because there's an Anne Frank Foundation in Basel and there is also an Anne Frank's Foundation here in the United States.
Arthur Fagen: At first he was hesitant because he said that there was a European company interested in doing it. I don't know what made him finally decide to give it to us, but he did.
Violet Baron: Getting permission was actually just the beginning.
Arthur Fagen: Well it's a huge challenge. It's a very difficult opera for the singers as well as for the orchestra, and contemporary opera has a completely different set of challenges. As I mentioned, for those who know music, this is a piece that has constant changing meters, constantly changing orchestration and constantly changing [PHONETIC: tempe]. There's an incredible great amount of material to rehearse compared to doing a normal standard opera. It's brilliantly orchestrated but it is quite difficult, and it's very transparent so we hear everything that's going on.
Arthur Fagen: In a piece like this, I mean, we're talking about two different levels. One is the basic level of getting all the notes, the rhythms, just a basic skeleton right and that in itself is a huge challenge. Then we have to bring it up a step and we have to be able to communicate the artistic message.
Violet Baron: And also there's not already a consciousness of what this opera is, right? If you do something like Carmen, everyone knows Carmen already.
Arthur Fagen: Right.
Violet Baron: No-one's been exposed yet to this.
Arthur Fagen: That's right.
Violet Baron: Anne Slovin, the singer, agrees that the work has its challenges.
Anne Slovin: I will say for me vocally, just from a singer standpoint, because the role has such a large range, meaning that we sing at the bottom of our possible vocal range and at the top. Often we do that very quickly so you're going from low to high and high to low in a very short period of time. That's been something that I have had to navigate and figure out how to do. Thankfully, the first time I sang this was three years ago, four years ago almost, and I've matured a lot and grown a lot, so this has really grown with me. The other challenges, I'm a singer in my 30s and Anne Frank is 13 to 15 years old during this show. Finding that childlike quality about her without sacrificing the sort of adult voice that we all have.
Anne Slovin: We're all, well some of us are younger than our characters, but for those of us playing children or teenagers, there's a way to play a child onstage in an opera. It's big, loud, adult singing, it's not meant to be performed by a child, but you still have to exude a kind of very youthfulness. So that's been an interesting challenge for me getting that into my body.
Violet Baron: Part of the reason it's so challenging to learn and sing is the nature of Shulamit Ran's work. Among other things she uses atypical tonality and directions to performers like get wilder or scream.
Shulamit Ran: Each composition you start from a blank slate. You start from point zero and something in you feels as though you've never composed a thing in your life and what are you going to do next?
Shulamit Ran: On the one hand a composer has to keep a certain sense of being removed from what you're doing, removed enough to be able to view it objectively to know how you're actually proceeding. I suppose in some sense it would be like a surgeon who is doing the surgery and cannot be involved with a patient but, rather, involved with the work that would make it the most successful for the patient. There is a way to equate it what I mean when I say that sense of objectivity, but there's no way to be objective when you are tackling something like Anne Frank. I found myself in many different moments moved to tears as I was composing.
Shulamit Ran: It was a very meaningful, powerful and truly challenging in the deepest sense of the word. Writing an opera about Anne Frank, who is such an iconic figure, and was the most extraordinary thing, a diary written by a girl between her 13th and 15th birthdays. That it should become in a way the work that has brought their Holocaust to the knowledge of people from all over the world. You hear people of many different backgrounds and coming from many different countries, how they react to this book and finding that it speaks to them in such powerful ways. I think few people made that kind of an impact as far as telling the story of the Holocaust in her own particular way.
Shulamit Ran: Of course, she did not know that she was going toward her death eventually. So the diary is written by a young girl, a vivacious, strong headed. A young girl who could sometimes be prickly, many times could be funny, who had conflicts with her parents, sometimes her sister, the people surrounding her. But at the same time also had such a sense of hope about the world.
Shulamit Ran: Through the opera, we try to make it clear, her growing sense of self as a writer and as somebody who would tell the stories but people will know what happened and tackling that kind of writing is such an extraordinarily strong responsibility.
Violet Baron: After all those years of work getting the rights and putting the project together, they watched the project come to life during intensive weeks of rehearsal.
Shulamit Ran: For me to see how things are coming together. There is for example one particularly difficult and I think powerful scene toward the end of the first act. The families, the annex members are making a celebration of sorts of Hanukkah and [UNSURE OF WORD] to them the chorus, which is what signifies the prisoners here, the people for whom we see the outside being brought in. They, too, are attempting to celebrate their own Hanukkah and then there is also at the same time a group of drunk, vulgar, it's really been extraordinarily moving and very special to see all of these three elements coming to life, taking off from the written page and becoming reality.
Shulamit Ran: You know this is the way in which Charles Kondek brought to life the idea of bringing the outside into the inside of the annex. There would have been a variety of ways and all I knew when we first talked is that I wanted these two parallel realities to in some way intertwine and be shown. I didn't know whether it would be through projections, through flashbacks and flash forwards and flash outsides or whatever. One other thing that I knew was that I really wanted to have a strong presence of a chorus.
Shulamit Ran: The chorus here does a number of things, but their primary goal is really that of portraying the prisoners in different ways. Right at the start of the opera, they have a piece that I'm calling the presedous chorus where they are saying, we ask why? Are we different?
Shulamit Ran: And this is in a way the key question.
Violet Baron: Anne Slovin says one valuable aspect to being part of a world premiere is the influence the cast can have on the production.
Anne Slovin: And it really is the most incredible process. We have a lot of input actually into how the roles are played and how the music sounds. We're the first people to get to sing it and the composer has very strong ideas obviously, but we get to inform a lot of how this opera is shaped for the future. Which is very exciting and now we are staging it. We finally get to put it up on its feet, attempt to memorize it and I've found that that has been really rewarding. It's a challenging process and it's a lot of hard work, but it really comes alive.
Violet Baron: Now this is hardly the first work about the Holocaust or about Anne Frank, but the people who brought the opera to life say that it is important to reinterpret and re-imagine the diary for new audiences and new generations. Each of them has their own reasons.
Shulamit Ran: Perhaps it is that sense that it is up to us, the living, to make sure that the memory is kept alive and the sense that, yes, people are gradually passing away, there are fewer and fewer remaining Holocaust survivors. It is up to us. Yes, it is extraordinarily unbelievable and frightening. First of all that there seems to be a resurgence of antisemitism in various forms, in various places. Who would have thought that today this would be happening in 202? I hear about people who swathes of population, of younger people, who really don't know what the Holocaust was, have just a very vague understanding of it if at all, or who think that the whole thing was vastly exaggerated.
Arthur Fagen: My mother by the way is still alive.
Violet Baron: Oh, that's great.
Arthur Fagen: She's 97, and there aren't so many left. There aren't too many eye witnesses and because of that it's even more important to keep this memory alive.
Violet Baron: Yes. Why?
Arthur Fagen: Why? Well I would say, there have been numerous cases of genocides in the past 100 years, but the scope of this genocide in which 12 billion people were murdered. That's a reason to keep reminding people what can happen if the government adopts a policy of either racism, antisemitism or xenophobia against a particular group of people.
Anne Slovin: Something that's been interesting about this process, and I mentioned this a little bit earlier, is how much fun we're having actually. We laugh a lot in rehearsals. A lot of times the characters are laughing. There's a lot of Jewish joy built into this opera even though the circumstances are such that it is a really tragic and hopeless kind of story. I think it's really important to focus on Jewish joy, as well as our traumatic history and our traumatic present. There's still things going on, but, for example, Jews are really famous for comedy. We're funny. Jews are funny and we're famous for music. We have klezmer, we have cantorial music. There is so much spirituality about Judaism and so much living, breathing, hopefulness about it that I think can get lost.
Anne Slovin: Something that is important to me as a Jewish artist is to present not only the times when we suffered, but also the times that are really joyful and the times we celebrate because we celebrate a lot. We have a lot of holidays. We have a lot of drinking holidays. I think Jewish culture has the potential to be incredibly joyful, and I think we do it a disservice if we only focus on the times when Jews were suffering. If we only look at the past when horrific things were happening and we don't connect it to where we are now, then I think we miss a big part of what makes Judaism special.
Violet Baron: The fact that a whole new opera about Anne Frank can happen in 2023, one that includes Jewish joy and Jewish suffering, and one that takes up themes for more than half a century ago and interprets them in a unique way shows that this part of history is not receding into the past, it's part of us.
Alex Chambers: WFIU's Violet Baron. Let's take a quick break and maybe we can think about what this show means to you.
Alex Chambers: This is local public media. I mean that in a couple of ways. It's made locally, handcrafted in the studios of WFIU Bloomington and we also use local ingredients. Nate Powellmay be a nationally known artist, but he's also local, as our Joyce Jeffries from the episode Joyce Jeffries and the Cutters, Sam Schoff from becoming a participant in the landscape, and so many more. So much of our media these days is national. You can't get an in-depth understanding of your own community that way. We need to keep supporting local news like what's produced just down the hall in our newsroom and we also need media that pays attention to local culture. What's going on in Bloomington, Columbus, Paoli or across the state and region. That's what we're doing here on Inner States and that's what I hope you will support right now. Call 1-800-662-3311 or go to wfiu.org/donate and thanks.
Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States from WFIU Public Media for Southern Indiana. Next up, Adriane Pontecorvo talks with Kyle Fulford about the new album from Witness Protection.
Adriane Pontecorvo: Witness Protection is a project based in Bloomington, Indiana, and fronted by local artist, Kyle Fulford. In 2022 the group gave us the album, College Ruled, and they're already back with more. On March 31st, Witness Protection returns with new release, Second Thoughts. I'm here with Kyle now to talk about what we can look forward to next.
Adriane Pontecorvo: Kyle, thank you so much for being here.
Kyle Fulford: Thank you, Adriane.
Adriane Pontecorvo: Can you give us an overview of the new album?
Kyle Fulford: Second Thoughts is a conceptual rock album designed to be listened to as a program. The seven tracks each represents a specific day in the life of the protagonist. Musically it's just sort of all over the place. I mean, there's progressive metal, there's ukulele folk pop, synth pop, but there's also more conventional just sort of pop rock songs, prog influences.
Adriane Pontecorvo: Prog influences.
Kyle Fulford: We should probably clarify first for the listeners what prog means.
Adriane Pontecorvo: Let's do it.
Kyle Fulford: Okay. Prog is short for progressive rock, which is a sort of retro-grade term that sort of describes a style of music that came about in the late 1960s, early 1970s. It's associated with acts such as Emerson Lake and Palmer, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, and that's sort of the pool of musical legacy that I'm pulling from.
Adriane Pontecorvo: I would love to talk more about how this fits into that Witness Protection body of work.
Kyle Fulford: In late 2019 I was still an undergraduate at Indiana University and there was a student song writing contest and in February 2020 I was notified that I was one of the three finalists. That was a very exciting time for me until the next week when the world literally shut down. That project and the ability to record the song were all put on hold.
Kyle Fulford: I started to flesh out some other songs that I had written and decided to record them at home. After not much time, maybe a few weeks, a month, I had written a body of work that I was pretty happy with and that is what became that first Witness Protection album. Second Thoughts is sort of the sequel to that. I did finally have the opportunity to record, [UNSURE OF WORD], a Russian recording, and that was a life affirming experience working with Mike Berdowski and Damien at the studio. I tend to perform most of the parts myself. The experience at Russian recording was much more collaborative.
Adriane Pontecorvo: I'd love to hear also a little bit about the personnel for Second Thoughts specifically.
Kyle Fulford: With Second Thoughts, which is in a lot of odd meter, has a lot of polyrhythm and a lot of really complex tempo changes, I knew that I would need someone else to perform the parts. At that point I had also started translating the lyrics to the album to Italian. That was a sort of nod or an homage to my love of Italian progressive rock music from the early 1970s. I thought, wouldn't it be cool to have a real Italian scenester play drums on the record and that's how I found [PHONETIC: Chezari]. He would send me a take and every time the first take was absolutely perfect. Another one of the songs is a duet between two characters on the album and I knew that I needed a vocalist who could perform the vocals in English and Italian as well. I was able to find [UNSURE OF NAME] Santini, who did perform the duet in both English and Italian on the song Shadow of Time.
Kyle Fulford: I was able to convince a couple of friends and colleagues to perform on the album. Tadhg Ó Meachair is an Irish finger pianist, accordianist, in One For the Foxes. He's a consummate professional, he's able to make his own signature mark on the song and I think Do it Again just wouldn't be the same without Tadgh's performance.
Kyle Fulford: Happy Endings, the first song on the album. It's a bit of a pocket symphony. My friend, Kurt [UNSURE OF NAME], performs also in the local group, [PHONETIC: Modo Sodo]. I sent him the demo of the song and I was like "hey, do you think you can improv over this, because I want to have this noisy, vampy, freak out section in the middle of the song." He came into Air Time Studios north of Bloomington and David Webber, the engineer and mixer master for the album, hung up a microphone and we just let Kurt run with it, he did his thing and Kurt is biting on the reed and squanking and honking the horn. It was really fun.
Kyle Fulford: The album will be released simultaneously in English and Italian. The album title being [FOREIGN DIALOGUE]. To convey the meaning idiomatically in a language that is not my own, I reached out to another graduate student here at IU, Leonardo Cabrini, and sent him the lyrics. You never really have that opportunity as a language learner to explore the creative power of language. You don't really get the opportunity to play with the language and that's what this was.
Adriane Pontecorvo: I do want to make sure that we get kind of who you are as a Bloomingtonian because I think you occupy a very unique sort of space.
Kyle Fulford: What makes my positionality unique and unusual as a Ph.D student in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology is that I'm a townie. I'm from Bloomington, Indiana, I went to school here. As I started to hone my craft, not only as a songwriter and as a guitar player, but as an engineer, as a sonic artist I guess you would say, it occurred to me that the things I was reading about in school and the sort of very highly theoretical ways in which we think about how music is mediated but also what purposes live performance and music serves more generally culturally. It sort of hit me that it was all part of the same body of work, that the work that I'm doing in Witness Protection and my scholarly work as a Ph.D student, those lines started to become more and more increasingly blurred.
Kyle Fulford: The Department of French and Italian at Indiana University has a graduate student conference on March 31st. The album will be released simultaneously with the conference presentation. The way I'm sort of situating the work that is Second Thoughts is within a larger discussion of what progressive rock means to the larger sort of not only body of rock music generally, but also popular music. It's very much a research creation project.
Adriane Pontecorvo: I've been talking with Kyle Fulford of Witness Protection, also a Ph.D student at Indiana University's Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. New Witness Protection album, Second Thoughts, comes out in both English and Italian on March 31st. For WFIU, I'm Adriane Pontecorvo.
Alex Chambers: You can find more information on our website, wfiu.org. We'll be right back.
Alex Chambers: As you consider making a pledge in support of Inner States and all the other great programming you get through WFIU, a couple more words in what we do for you. One thing I try to do on Inner States is what you might call, better living through arts. There are a lot of ways you can make your life better. Art is one of them. Something I've learned since I started this show is that making art isn't just about the creation. So many people I've talked with said the process was the most important thing to them. It brings a kind of calm and energy at the same time. I hope Inner States and public media in general does that for you. If so, now is your chance to step up and support us. Call 800-662-3311 or go to wfiu.org/donate and thanks.
Alex Chambers: Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. For this special pledge drive edition of Inner States, I'm going to end with a musical mystery we ran into here at the station last year. You'll hear from a couple of my colleagues, voices you know and love if you're a regular radio listener, and you'll learn a little bit more about what it's like to work at this particular station. Here we go.
Alex Chambers: We've been hearing music here at the WFIU offices and we don't fully understand how it's getting here. You'd think we would control all the music, we're the radio station, but ever since we've come back to the office, there's been this other music. Like a radio but one we can't turn off. Like a radio but from on high. Maybe more like the voice of God.
Alex Chambers: These bells have been the soundtrack to our work day and while it's nice to be important enough to have a soundtrack, like most kinds of fame and fortune it does come with some complications.
Kayte Young: Something that I think happens because you're hearing it in the background, it's part of your every day existence but you're trying not to listen to it, but then...
Alex Chambers: This is my colleague, host of Earth Eats, Kayte Young.
Kayte Young: ...you start kind of picking up a melody. "Is that that? Is it this?", and that's what makes it so distracting is because the arrangements for the Carillonare so different than they would be on guitar or something. You're just struggling to figure out what it is that you're hearing and that takes your mind away from your work.
Mark Chilla: And another thing is just, if I can go all acoustic and music theory nerdy on you.
Alex Chambers: Mark Chilla, host of After Glow and Morning Edition in Bloomington.
Mark Chilla: It has to with the bells themselves because bells don't produce the same kind of tone as like a piano or a guitar would. You hear a lot of overtones with a bell and a lot of those overtones ring very strongly. When you hear a note, you're hearing a lot of overtones with that note, so the note itself is not always clear what pitch it is. Which can get really confusing because you're trying to follow this melody, but you're hearing all these ringing overtones over it and you're like, "where is the melody exactly?". Then all of a sudden you're not working anymore, you are focusing on the acoustics of bells in the middle of your work day, which is a nice distraction sometimes.
Alex Chambers: So I said there was a bit of a mystery here. It's not about where the bells are coming from. There's a tower about 350 ft from our windows. It's the Wells Metz Carillon. It was moved here from across campus in 2019 and unveiled at the beginning of 2020. That's what we do know. What we don't know is who's playing it or how it's played. How do they keep it going for hours and hours every weekday afternoon? We developed some theories.
Mark Chilla: One, that I thought up until today was that it was all pre-recorded, kind of like player piano kind of thing where there was some sort of pre-programmed music that was going through the carillon because we were hearing the same songs over and over again, each and every day. I thought, maybe it's not a real live person, maybe it's kind of like a player piano, but it's a player carillon instead.
Alex Chambers: That's what I thought, too. I mean, honestly, that's what I still think. My vote is still that it's a player piano and there's a set number of songs and they're programmed. That's what I think.
Alex Chambers: Kayte had a little more faith in musical humanity.
Kayte Young: I think that it's a real person and I think they're playing live, but what I don't know is are they in the structure of the carillon with some mallets or something, which is what I want to think but I don't actually believe that. I think that they're somewhere else. I think they're in some room in Jacobs and they're playing.
Alex Chambers: That's the Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music just across campus.
Kayte Young: But I think that they're students and that they're practicing. I think that because I often hear the same song more than once in a session and it feels like they're kind of working on it. We were just listening to America the Beautiful and we heard quite a bit of hesitation between notes at times. They're practicing. It's not pre-programmed.
Alex Chambers: Okay but so here's why I don't think it's someone practicing. Unless it's just one person practicing all the time, I feel like there would be more repertoire.
Mark Chilla: Is there a book? When you go inside the structure of the carillon and sit at the keyboard, grab the mallets, grab the ropes or however you play it, is there a certain set of songs that you can only play? Which includes Under the Boardwalk, Summertime, Here Comes the Sun, Vincent by Dom McLean and all the other songs that we've heard hundreds of times it seems at this point.
Alex Chambers: Another colleague of ours heard something even more radio worthy.
Kayte Young: Violet said she heard some Britney Spear songs. It's a pretty wide range.
Alex Chambers: Yes, it's a pretty wide range, which put a hole in my pre-programmed theory and there was still more questions.
Mark Chilla: I don't quite know how a carillon works. Is it like a keyword that you play or is someone with mallet? Is it bell free where they're pulling on big ropes to play bells or something like that? I don't actually know. I wish I did know, especially because the carillon has become such an important or at least integral part of my life each and every day as I'm in the office. I've so many questions about it and I really want to learn more about who programs it, who's playing it, how is it played, where is played. These are all really good questions.
Alex Chambers: Alright, well, it's a mystery I am going to try and dig into it and get you some answers.
Kayte Young: Please.
Alex Chambers: Dig into it I did. The dark corners of the Internet have a lot to say about Carillons. Here's what I was able to find out, but let's just keep this between us.
Alex Chambers: Carillons evolved from single belled instruments. I guess those would just be called bells. They evolved from bells. In the middle ages the bell on a tower told the time of day and it could also send messages like "fire", "we're being attacked" or "there is a plague upon us. Everyone stay inside and wait for zoom meetings to be invented." The time of day thing is continued. If you live near a big church or a university, you might be used to hearing the bells ring out the hour. At first it was just that, they'd ring once for one o'clock, twice for two and so on. But pretty early on people realized a head's up would be nice, so you'd know to start counting. They established what's called the four strike, and they added more bells so that four strike could be a melody. Now we get four strikes every quarter hour building up to four four strikes on the hour and then the count.
Alex Chambers: This was all happening in a very particular part of the world. In the 16th century the Netherlands and Belgium were like Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. Money was flowing in and everyone wanted a carillon bigger than then next town's, and then the tables turned. After the French Revolution there was a copper shortage and the sound of the bells was no longer their most appealing quality. People dismantled carillons all over the place and then grandfather clocks and pocket watches undercut carillons monopoly on the time. At this point the mid-19th century, things weren't looking so good for the blue whale of musical instruments. But things changed again in the 1880s because by then bell makers had developed ways to tune the bells more precisely and that made people want to have carillon concerts.
Alex Chambers: The first was in 1892 and it put the instrument on the map as a soloist rather than just background sound. Although, I don't know, that distinction still seems a little fuzzy.
Lynnli Wang: I often like to think of it that the carillon is part of the sound scape of a city. Here at the Metz we're part of IU soundscape along with the sirens and the birds and people walking around outside and that's a really unique honor I think that carillon performers have.
Alex Chambers: The carillon is a very public instrument. If you're in the vicinity and it's playing, you're going to hear it. At the same time, carillon performers are pretty anonymous. It took me some work to find one. I had to try multiple search terms. But I did eventually track down the person I needed, Lynnli Wang.
Lynnli Wang: I am the current Carillon Associate Instructor and also University Carillonist here at Indiana University and I have the joy of ringing the Metz carillon.
Alex Chambers: We met up at the base at the carillon and before anything else I had to get some answers to Kayte and Mark.
Mark Chilla: I'm very curious.
Alex Chambers: Well, here you go.
Alex Chambers: Is there a person inside always or is it a player piano kind of thing where it's somehow programmed?
Lynnli Wang: Usually it's going to be a person, but we also have an automatic mechanism.
Alex Chambers: When it's a real person are they actually in the carillon or is it somehow controlled remotely?
Lynnli Wang: You have to be up there, everything is mechanical.
Alex Chambers: Is it a keyboard? Is it mallets? Are you pulling ropes?
Lynnli Wang: We actually sit at a playing console that has both a manual keyboard for your hands and also a pedal compass.
Alex Chambers: Who's generally playing? Is it students? Is it always you?
Lynnli Wang: Not always me. I do have minions and they're the students of the IU Carillon Studio.
Alex Chambers: For a long time we're hearing things like Under the Boardwalk, Here Comes the Sun, Don McLean's, Vincent, as well as seasonly themed things. But I would think if it was students they would be playing a wider variety and there wouldn't be quite as much repetition.
Lynnli Wang: You're probably hearing the same student come back and again at the same time practicing their set of repertoire, which is why you hear repeated music. Every student has their own little niche of music that they tend to like best.
Alex Chambers: Who decides what gets played?
Lynnli Wang: Well, at first, I assign some music just so that they can nail down the technique, but after that, the world is your oyster.
Mark Chilla: Gotcha.
Kayte Young: I'm amazed to hear that they're actually up in the tower.
Mark Chilla: Yes.
Alex Chambers: They are actually up in the tower, yes. It's a pretty cool space actually. I got to go up there, she took me up and the console looks like a piano and an organ got together and had Pinocchio as a baby.
Kayte Young: I have to say that it does make me feel better. It makes me feel better knowing that someone, a human being who's interested in carillon is learning to play this somewhat rare instrument or something and that's who's choosing the music and they're choosing it for their own exploration.
Alex Chambers: But also for enjoyment as well because it's such a public instrument. There's something nice about that rather than just, "oh, we'll put on something on in the background. Let's press play on an automated thing." There's something nice about that.
Kayte Young: Yes, it's kind of like radio, except with the radio you can turn it off and on at your leisure.
Alex Chambers: And that, of course, is the crux of the situation. That was the thing I had really called Lynnli to talk about and it was also the thing that I was most nervous about asking. So I put it off and signed up for the tour instead.
Lynnli Wang: I love doing tours. I love bringing people up into the tour.
Alex Chambers: There's a door at the base of the carillon. Lynnli unlocked it and led me up a flight of stairs.
Lynnli Wang: In we go.
Lynnli Wang: Just a little bit more.
Lynnli Wang: Before I let you in, I'm going to have you look up because you can actually see our bells. If you step carefully over here, so you don't go down our steps, you'll see our baby bells are actually right above the playing cabin. If you look straight up, you'll actually see one of our largest bells.
Alex Chambers: Wow.
Lynnli Wang: And then I'll let you know into our playing cabin.
Alex Chambers: Okay.
Alex Chambers: We were in a small climate controlled room with a bench and a playing console. Instead of keys, there were two rows of what looked like the ends of broomsticks. You play them by pushing down with your fists. There are also pedals for your feet. Each of the broomsticks and pedals uses metal rods and levers to connect to a clapper way up in the bell. You press down on a broomstick, it's actually called a baton, and that makes the clapper hit the bell.
Alex Chambers: Remember how Mark said bells have a lot of overtones. They ring a main there but lots of other notes come floating through too. That also explains why a lot of the music sounds just a little off. It's not just that it's weird to hear a Britney Spears song from a bell tower, it's also about those overtones.
Lynnli Wang: For classically trained musicians they often are very distracted sometimes by the music of the carillon, like confused. It's because the carillon has a very strong Minor third overtone, whereas in western classical music tradition, it's usually Major third overtone. For example, if I play something Major sounding, it almost feels like you've bitten into a lemon, it's got a little bit of a twinge. But if I play a Minor third, it feels very comfortable, like you could slide right into the water and stay there for a little bit, it feels really nice.
Alex Chambers: Lynnli played some music for me. I'm going to play you a sample and I want you to pay attention to all the extra noise. I was recording in the playing cabin, so you hear all the mechanics. The carillon's made to be listened to outside. Also, you won't be able to hear this but Lynnli was getting a workout.
Alex Chambers: It's so physical.
Lynnli Wang: It is definitely very physical, and it's because you're moving literally tons of heavy metal. It's not like a little violin we're playing up here, it's a really big instrument.
Alex Chambers: Yes. It's got 65 bells. Four of those were added in the renovation and they have quotes from famous women poets inscribed on them. The biggest bell is 6 ft wide, over 6 tons and, just to be clear, those batons and pedals move clappers that hit the bells, the bells themselves are stationary. Okay, so I'd gotten a sense of the situation but I still hadn't gotten an answer to the crucial question. It had been almost an hour, if I was going to do it, now was the time.
Alex Chambers: It can be a little challenging.
Lynnli Wang: The listening or the playing?
Alex Chambers: The listening. This was lovely and it would have been nice to hear it outside where the bells were more clear and stuff. But, when you're working, do you listen to music when you're working?
Lynnli Wang: I don't, but I know my brother is probably Spotify's best customer and so he listens a lot and I know people have differing opinions on listening to music while they work, and it is tricky, I know what you're kind of getting at. It's like, how do we balance making music versus possibly making noise and it's a really tricky question. All carillons navigate this question differently. Here at IU, since the tower is so new and we started during Covid, I think we were given a lot of freedom in terms of ringing the bells. No-one was really on campus, we also wanted to raise awareness, so more was better at the beginning.
Alex Chambers: Lynnli loves the carillon. She even wrote a children's book about all the bells on campus. It's about a squirrel looking for the Wells Metz carillon. It's called, Is This my Home? Clearly, Lynnli wants the rest of us to love the carillon too, and she recognizes that too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing.
Lynnli Wang: I think as the carillon enters into a new stage of life where people know more about it and we want the carillon to continue to be a thing of joy for the campus, I think the next step is probably instilling weekly or daily ring times where the carillon only rings for a couple of hours and most of the practice is being done elsewhere.
Alex Chambers: Lynnli left Indiana University the week after we talked. I don't think it had to do with me. She said something about finishing grad school. Anyway, since the carillon's been much quieter. Her students must be taking a break, too. I imagine they'll start playing again once the new semester starts. I'm feeling more okay with that. Lynnli's enthusiasm rubbed off a bit and, look, I understand, even if your job doesn't involve adjusting sound all day like ours do in the radio station, you also might not want to listen to music as you work. That's legit. But I don't know, it was hard staying home for a year and a half. It's kind of nice to know there's a real person up there ringing out the bells to say "hey, the pandemic's still on but you can come outside, be around other people again."
Alex Chambers: That's it for today's show and I just want to say, you are still listening so this must matter to you. As you know, WFIU is made possible through the contributions of listeners like you and, look, we both know it's not going to go away tomorrow if you don't contribute, it's part of why public media is so important. It's free for everyone, whether they can afford to pay for it or not. Keeping it free for everyone depends on the listeners who are able to give, whether it's ten or $20 a month, even more. If you haven't supported us yet or you feel like now is a good time to increase your support, you can do it by calling 800-662-3311 or going to wfiu.org/donate, and while you're at it, give us a rating on Spotify or Apple Podcasts and you can follow us on Facebook or Instagram.
Alex Chambers: Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, Luanne Johnstone, Jack Lindner, Yané Sanchez Lopez, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Special thanks this week to Anne Slovin, Shulamit Ran, Arthur Fagen, Kyle Fulford and Adriane Pontecorvo.
Alex Chambers: Right, time for some found sound.
Alex Chambers: That was onions sizzling in butter. Alright, that's it for this week. I'm Alex Chambers, thanks for listening.