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Real Heavy Metal: meet the university’s carillonneur Auke de Boer

Auke de Boer
Auke de Boer

Quite a spectacular interview location it is: all the way up the tower of the University of Groningen Academy Building. Climbing the stairways, we hear the bells ringing and the pedals of the carillon being pressed. The weather is lovely and the view from the tower is astonishing. ‘You should be here when it storms and the whole tower swings back and forth, that can be really frightening’, says carillonneur Auke de Boer, when we finally arrive at his ‘office’, the university’s carillon.

Music for the University

You cannot walk around the centre of Groningen without hearing the carillon. Every half hour a short melody is played automatically, and on Tuesday mornings you can listen to Auke de Boer playing live. ‘I like to adjust my music to special occasions such as visits of international delegations, or the time of the year. Now that the sun has started to shine again, I prefer cheerful music. But more importantly, I always keep in mind that university staff and students are my main audience. If they have special requests, I always try to comply with them. During the farewell of Rector Frans Zwarts for example, I played a Beatles’ song at his request.'

Real Heavy Metal

bells

The room in which the university carillonneur works is very compact and has barely space for himself alone. Auke explains that the university carillon itself consists of 25 bells, designed at Eindhoven University of Technology, the largest of which weighs 300 kilos. ‘In comparison, the carillon of the nearby Martini tower, where I also play, has bells of 8000 kilos. I always call it “the real heavy metal”, when I give lectures about the subject.’  

A tradition from the Middle Ages

Auke feels privileged to be able to continue a centuries-old tradition. ‘The profession of carillonneur comes from the Middle Ages, when the carillon was one of the few means for people to listen to music. The other option was to visit a concert or listen to small music boxes people had at the time. So on Sunday afternoons people would stroll along the city walls, enjoying the music from the carillon.'

Academy tower
Academy tower

A young carillon

'In Groningen, the city carillonneur would also be the organist of the Martini Church. The Martini carillon is quite a bit older than the university carillon, the former dating from the 17th century, the latter only from 1996. Professor Hendrik de Waard, who was president of the so called Representatiefonds (Representation Fund), together with his brother Romke de Waard took the initiative to offer the University of Groningen a carillon on the occasion of the fund’s 100th anniversary. Graduated from conservatory and having finished the special training programme for carillonneurs, I was then appointed as the first university carillonneur.'

No fear of height

Auke invites us to overcome any fear of height or claustrophobia we might have and climb another set of ladders ending up on the beams of the tower, right below the bells. He doesn’t seem to be bothered by the lack of space, the awkward position we have to manoeuvre ourselves in, or the tons of metal hanging directly above our heads. He points at the bells and explains how the carillon actually works: ‘The clappers of the bells are each connected to a wire, which is again connected to the keyboard and the pedals of the carillon. This way I can play the bells. On the outside of the bells you can see electromagnetic hammers. These are driven by a computer that I programmed with melodies, and this is how the automatic carillon works. The difference is quite clear, though: when I play it you can hear the human touch, a computer cannot create such nuances. You couldn’t listen to an automatic carillon for an hour, it would drive you mad.’

Unique in the Netherlands

So how rare is the fact that the University of Groningen has its own carillon? ‘Well, the universities of Amsterdam, Twente and Rotterdam also have carillons, but Groningen is the only university with an actual carillon tower, which does make it unique. On the other hand, in the United States it is very common that universities have their own carillon. They use it for graduation ceremonies and a large number of other occasions, a lot more than we do. I visit the U.S. often to give concerts. I have played at Yale University, the University of Chicago, and this summer I will go to Michigan for a concert.’

Then Auke resumes his play, while we start descending the tower, back to solid ground.

Inside the Academy tower
Inside the Academy tower
Laatst gewijzigd:03 augustus 2018 12:53