CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — While the University of Illinois embarks on a massive renovation project for Altgeld Hall, a chimemaster has begun a special project to ensure the sounds of the historic chimes are preserved.

Back in January the university announced that construction would begin on the $100 million investment for the Illini Hall Replacement and Altgeld Hall Renovation Project at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) campus.

As part of the project, the exterior of Altgeld Hall will receive extensive repairs to the stone veneer and bell tower, which will continue to serve as a historical campus landmark, prior to beginning the interior renovations. Altgeld Hall will also receive new accessibility features and a complete restoration of the building’s original murals. 

Unfortunately though, completing all this work will make the campus a little quieter for the next few years. Its chimes, which have rung for over 100 years, have temporarily closed during the construction. In late February, about 100 people gathered at Altgeld for its final concert before the closure.

Knowing that students won’t have access to the bells for much longer as the work in the tower and belfry is completed, a group of players decided to come together for a special project of their own.

Courtesy: Illinois News Bureau

The Illinois News Bureau explained that Chimesmaster Michael Broussard was looking for a project to keep people interested in the bells during the renovation, and he and the other players decided to make a recording of their music.

“It is a preservation project – something for future chimes players and community members to enjoy,” Broussard said.

Broussard, a doctoral student in ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, coordinated the recording session along with sound engineer Graham Duncan. The news bureau was there for the session, which required Duncan and an assistant setting up studio microphones on stands between the Alma Mater statue and the Illini Union to record the chimes.

According to the news bureau, more than a dozen players agreed to play on a Sunday morning to record when fewer extraneous sounds outside, such as traffic or people walking by, might be heard on the recording.

Not surprisingly, there is a lot to consider when trying to capture the music.

“It’s such a large, unique instrument,” Duncan told the news bureau. “We’re listening for a balance of the bell sounds. Once they’re struck, they just keep ringing through the performance. Sometimes the smaller bells can be sort of shadowed acoustically by the larger bells.”

The ambient background noises were also an issue to contend with during the recording.

Duncan asked the players to wait several times while buses or motorcycles pass by or to allow for wind gusts blowing through.

Another interesting fact about the chimes, they have a limited number of bells. The news bureau shared that musical arrangements must adapt to a missing D# in the lower octave, along with the lack of an F-natural throughout the entire instrument.

As for the playlist, each player was able to select his or her own music, allowing for a diverse selection of songs. Broussard played traditional favorite “Hail to the Orange” while also taking part in a duet of a Balinese song, “Tabuh Selisir,” the bureau said.

Liam Flood, a former chimes player, flew from Washington D.C. to play an Irish hornpipe song called “Off to California” – his signature song. The news bureau said that he particularly enjoys this song because it’s very fast and physical for the player.

Flood is the unofficial historian for the chimes, according to the news bureau. He said the only other chimes recording is a 1947 vinyl recording by WILL radio that he found archived online.

The bureau shared that the players hope their new recording will carry on the Illini tradition of the chimes until the building restoration is finished. They also added that the Altgeld Chimes music from the recording session will be made available on CDs and digitally in the summer of 2023.