Paths Crossed: The largest musical instrument in the entire universe

I wrote this some years ago. This week, when I read the Times obit for a remarkable man, Dionisio Lind, the singular musician of the largest musical instrument in the entire universe, I felt it was a good time to publish it, as a way of further memorializing him.

The first pair of ears to recognize the difference in the instrument belonged to Paul Espinosa, the elevator operator at Riverside Church in upper Manhattan. Paul was no musician; yet, coming in to work one day some years ago, he heard the bells and got excited.

“Wow, that is so beautiful,” Paul raved to Peter Hurd, the meticulous, obsessive Bell Meister, a/k/a carillon architect, responsible for the 2004 restoration of the church’s Rockefeller Memorial Carillon. “The old bells,” Paul said, “just went ‘clunk!’”

Peter, who is a musician (oboe, English horn, recorder, Heckelphone) shuttled for four years from his home in Port Townsend, Washington to New York City to rebuild the carillon. No, sorry; not “rebuild.” “This is not a renovation,” proclaimed Peter. “It’s a transformation.”

“You have to see the carillon,” said Mark Perchanok, a musician friend, “to understand Peter’s particular genius.” Which was why, just before the carillon was rededicated, I was among a small group of Peter’s friends and fans gathered around him in the twentieth floor meeting room of the Riverside Church tower.

The remnants of one of the seasonal hurricanes had lowered the sky and its winds pounded away at the leaded windows. Peter, a blue-jeaned, be-spectacled man with graying hair and a tufty mustache, gave his visitors an emphatic narrative that could be the basis for an epic film called, “Even More Agony and Ecstasy,” William Macy as Peter.

Peter speaks intensely and fluently, using a dense mix of professional terminology and philosophical references he presumes you understand. When talking, he often turns his ahead away from his audience and closes his eyes.

“This was the most difficult job I’ve ever done. After this, I am retired,” said Peter, although somebody might make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “This was the Mount Everest of carillon projects,” the equivalent of “cleaning out the Augean stables and painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”

How did Peter wind up here, transforming a harsh and unyielding instrument into the Stradivarius of carillons? His life route has covered Schenectady, Cleveland, Indiana University, a commune in the New Hampshire woods (when his hair was down to wherever – “I’m a hippy at heart”), Big Sur, the Antipodes.

His gigs have been, to say the least, eclectic: factory machining, welding, carpentry, housing construction, playing improvisational recorder for The Big Sur Belly Dance Troupe, five years as purser-agent for the Washington State ferry authority (a whole story in itself) and carillon work up and down the East Coast of America and Australia and New Zealand.

For the Riverside Church carillon Peter and his crew first had to demolish and remove masonry, frames, bells, beams – 47 tons of stuff – from the belfry. Then there was the drama of just figuring things out. There were days that Peter and compatriot Bill Campbell, a master industrial engineer, would slump into utter despair, thinking the job was impossible. Impossible. And then Bill, “the catalyst,” would come up with an idea and they’d go on.

If your mother complained about how long you spent tuning your guitar before playing a folk song, imagine what Peter’s mater would think about the endless times he had to ring each old bell, analyzing whether it could be used or had to be dumped in favor of a newly cast one. In the end, Peter shipped 58 “unpleasant” bells back to Holland – whence they were made in 1955, subsequently rendering the carillon out of tune and virtually out of commission – as scrap to be melted down.

It was at Whitechapel, a four-hundred year old bell foundry in London, possibly “the oldest company in the world,” where the new bells were cast. Whitechapel’s technique of pouring molten metal into bell molds buried in the earth allows the molten bell to cool and harden evenly. (In contrast, the Dutch keep their molds above-ground; areas of the bell harden at different times. Good for costs, bad for bell.

“And you know what they do when they find a weak area?!” Peter communicated his indignation. “They just punch it out, mix up cement and some bronze dust and just plaster over the hole!!!” His audience reacted as if watching an autopsy on “C.S.I.”)

You think you have problems getting a Subzero fridge into your walk-up apartment? Imagine getting 450-pound 12-foot steel beams up onto the top of the elevator one by one, tilting and hauling them off on the twentieth floor and raising them into the belfry via a 105-foot maze of ventilation shafts. Consider finagling the biggest new bell, weighing a ton, into the church’s small elevator (it cleared by less than 1/8 of an inch) and then hoisting it through the vent ducts up into the bell tower.

Peter continued his dissertation as he led the way into the small hallway next to the elevator. A sign in front of the roped-off staircase read “Closed to public.” “As we go up, you have to hold onto the stair rails at all times,” Peter said. “It’s really dangerous.”

A few stories up the old wooden staircase, a stair rail – ominously new, gleaming stainless steel – appeared.

The group followed Peter up the stairs, zigging and zagging for three stories. Suddenly the protective walls disappeared, the wind blasted in and the air was freezing. Anyone previously too macho to hold onto the railings gave it up and gripped tightly.

Not entirely patiently, Peter was waiting for gasping stragglers on a shaky plywood platform. The yawning Gothic arches of the 392-foot tower offered spectacular, if scarily open, glimpses of the Upper West Side. You couldn’t blame any of us for imagining that, quite suddenly, we’d been flung high into a Victor Hugo novel and were either Quasimodo or (my choice) Esmeralda, hanging on for dear life.

Once his shivering flock had clustered, Peter pointed out that they were standing a few feet from a gigantic, dark bronze bell decorated in bas relief with four archangels. Its deep low note is C∘ (concert C) and at 11 feet in diameter and 13 feet high, “It is the largest bell in the world,” Peter said. “More than twenty tons.”

Peter then glanced upward; all eyes followed his. That was when any fuzzy idea about what a carillon was exactly solidified into steel-and-bronze, jaw-dropping actuality.

A carillon is a set of bells and a keyboard by which they are played. The number of bells in any carillon varies, although the current acceptable minimum is 23. The earliest carillons of the 14th century had four bells. Riverside Church’s carillon consists of seventy-four bells hung in ranks above each other the height of a five-story building – a musical leviathan ranging in tone from the low C up six octaves, from the bass bell at the bottom to the smallest and highest tone up at the top of the tower.

It is the largest carillon in the world. Which makes it the largest musical instrument in the entire universe.

What keeps the bells hanging up there is a feat of engineering that Peter called “A Rube Goldberg invention.” He was being self-deprecating: his new carillon frames, elegant structures of marine-grade stainless steel beams, aircraft cables and exquisite loops hooking onto each bell clapper, look more like Calatrava than Goldberg.

Peter was again on the move, turning right and right again, walking around the great bell onto what felt like a rickety catwalk. Everyone gripped those reassuring steel rails, climbed more stairs and crowded into a small room that appeared out of nowhere, a spanking new aerie that seemed to float in space. This was the clavier cabin, the keyboard room. It was to be climate controlled at 70 degrees to protect the instrument (and, presumably, Dionisio Lind, the church carilloneur, who’d otherwise freeze to death in winter).

The keyboard resembles an antique voting booth, or maybe a miraculous grand piano stripped of its case and upended, a fairy child of a piano mom and an organ dad. It was invented in the head and built by the hands of William Peter, an architectural joiner and master carpenter, out of padauk, a Cameroon hardwood that resembles redwood.

Its keys, called batons, are not human-being-finger-sized black and whites but Goliath-sized carved levers. The exposed section of each “white” key is 7-1/2 inches, the “black,” 4-1/2 inches. Its two ranks of thick foot pedals are organ-like. Each baton is attached by wire loops to a cable; the cables run up out of the cabin to a roller-pulley system that directs each cable to its designated clapper. Complicated, no?

Peter demonstrated how the instrument is played. The keys are pressed not with the fingers but with the side of the hand closed into a loose fist. Some of his guests reached out gingerly to press a lever; somewhere above or below, a bell sounded, and another.

Awesome. Nobody ventured into Bach, but nobody tried chopsticks, either.

Peter talked about how much emotional resonance an “elite school” carillon musician can get “making love to the instrument.” Although it’s hard to imagine, a fine carilloneur can actually be virtuosic in speed. Carilloneurs who are of the French school of playing (a/k/a “The Pound, Stomp & Grunt School”), though, whack the keys hard with the sides of their hands and can actually break the keyboard.

We descended out of this romantic adventure, made more romantic because we can never again make the journey. Riverside Church says on their website that “Safety and security concerns dictate the public no longer has access to the tower and the Carillon.” It had been a privilege.

But everyone can experience the carillon’s raison d’etre – the music. Dionisio Lind, the aforementioned carilloneur – who FYI does not pound, stomp and grunt – makes love to the transformed carillon, once before and twice after each Sunday service and on special days such as Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.

So, on a perfect day of blue sky and fat, floating clouds, I went up to Riverside Church for the 3 pm Sunday recital.

Peter Hurd had told me the best place to listen was outside the church, around Riverside Park and Grant’s Tomb. I moved around the area, testing different locations and thus can report with authority that the best seat was a comfortable park bench just south of the tower, at 120th Street, Reinhold Niebuhr Place.

Absolutely free. Bring nibbles, watch the life around you – large, rustling trees, kids calling in Spanish and tossing a football, an industrious squirrel hauling what looked to be half a pizza.

Promptly at 3 the concert began; it lasted for almost an hour. Having been among the bells and dwarfed by their size, I was at first surprised at the delicacy of the carillon sound. It is exquisite, rather than powerful.

After a while, the urban music that is traffic noise no longer competed for primacy in my ears. I leaned back against the bench and into the ethereal sense that the wonderful bells had decided by themselves to play.

Up there in the majestic tower, they were dancing in the wind.

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