Altgeld Chimes still a campus tradition, 96 years later

Editor’s Note: This article about the Altgeld Chimes was originally published in July 2014.

Altgeld Hall chimes.

The Altgeld Hall chimes.

By Meaghan Downs

Thousands of students attend Sue Wood’s daily concerts simply by walking to class.
Many of them have never seen her.

Six stories up in the Altgeld Hall tower – where chimesmaster Sue Wood has played the bells for the last 43 years – the day’s chimes performance resembles a finely tuned ballet.

Poised in front of what looks like a seven-foot-long marimba, Wood grabs a wooden “pump handle.” She pushes down and releases the lever quickly, the attached cable vibrating through the ceiling to wake up the bell above. The handle is still clattering as Wood moves on to the next lever and the next note, her eyes focused on the sheet music.

Weaving hand over hand, Wood rings out the Illinois State Song with fluid ease before five automated hammers toll the Westminster Chime and the hour.

Because concerts are performed during the traditional class “passing times,” Wood has about 10 minutes to play as many songs as she can before the clock chime automatically strikes 1 p.m.
But she isn’t worried about getting cut off in the middle of “Hedwig’s Theme” from the “Harry Potter” film soundtrack or the Illinois anthem “Hail to the Orange.”

Mistakes do happen, Wood said, but no one knows who’s made them.

That’s one perk of being the anonymous conductor of a 15-bell choir.

Decades ago, Wood said she even helped provide chime cacophony to accompany the university band’s performance of the “1812 Overture” on the steps of Foellinger Auditorium. When Wood got a telephone call in the tower, she’d ring the chimes “lickety-split” on cue so that concert goers in the Main Quad would hear chimes behind them at Altgeld Hall and in front of them at Foellinger.

The Altgeld Hall tower was built specifically to hold the bells, not students. The Classes of 1914 through 1921 managed to raise enough money for 13 bells, but not the 15 total required to perform “Illinois Loyalty,” the main school song.

Following the end of World War I, the U.S. School of Military Aeronautics – which held exercises during wartime and was preparing to leave campus – gave $2,000 in a memorial fund to add the necessary two bells.

The rest is a rich history that includes more than 2,000 different arrangements transposed for the Altgeld Hall chimes since the bells’ dedication at Homecoming in October 1920.

Even after four decades with the bells, Wood said she doesn’t know any chimes music by heart yet. Well, except for “Hail to the Orange,” a change ringing fragment and the Illinois State Song.
Wood grew up playing the piano, but ultimately became an analytical chemist, receiving her Ph.D. in plant pathology from Illinois and retiring early from the Illinois Natural History Survey.
Being a chemist and playing the chimes aren’t so different from each other, Wood said.

“Math and music always connect,” she said.

Her first introduction to bells was as a graduate student and the former carillon – a bell system with 23 or more bells – located at University Lutheran Church near campus.

She soon found Albert Marien, Illinois chimesmaster from 1958 until 1995, and learned the technique of playing the Altgeld Hall chimes from him.

Altgeld Hall chimes.

The Altgeld Chimes are played with hammers in the third floor of Altgeld Hall.

Wood said Marien took great pains to promote a regular chimes program at Altgeld Hall. She’ll continue to do the same, as long as she’s still ringing the bells and has student volunteers willing to learn.

“To learn from Sue has been wonderful because she’s such a master of the art, and also just a very lovely person,” junior and chimes student Amy Liu said of Wood.

Like Wood, Liu enjoys the anonymity that comes from playing the chimes, too.

“To me, it’s really romantic to be able to play music for so many people and to be anonymous,” Liu, an urban planning major, said.

Sometimes romance seeps into what Liu performs.  If you catch strains of “Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder” coming from Altgeld Hall, that’s Liu playing “The U.S. Air Force Song” as a nod to her boyfriend, a former Illinois student planning to join the United States Air Force.

When Liu comes to play at Altgeld Hall – about every other week depending on her schedule — she mixes it up with a song from “Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” or “Fireflies” by Owl City. A maintenance worker has also requested a chimes cover of Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin.” She’s still working on that one, as well as “Bold As Love” by Jimi Hendrix.

In Liu’s hands, the bells often sing George Gershwin.

“People probably hear that often,” Liu, a classic jazz lover and banjo-playing member of the Folks and Roots club on campus, said with a laugh.

Altgeld Hall chime closeup.

An Altgeld Hall chime.

The chimes are not chromatically complete, Wood said, because the eight classes arranged to have only enough bells to play “Illinois Loyalty”; the chimes are missing a lower D sharp and both F naturals, so music has to be transposed into the keys of G, D, or A major.

Her students come up with “all the contemporary tunes,” Wood said.  Students have introduced chimes arrangements of modern tunes such as Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

New music is still being created, however. One of Wood’s chimes students, Jonathan Smith, arranged a version of “Alleluia! Let Praises Ring” as an Easter duet for him and Wood to perform.
Like her predecessor Albert Marien, Wood continues to mentor Illinois students interested in learning the chimes and allows visiting children to test their chimes skills by tickling the keys of the practice keyboard with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

If you hear music coming from Altgeld Hall, Wood said, that means someone is always up in the tower, playing. Wood said the building has survived to become home to the Department of Mathematics with a tower full of bells that continue the tradition of the chimes concerts.
“And I guess it’s going to survive a little longer,” Wood said.

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