An aptitude for music is like a rare gem. While many can bang out a rendition of “Chopsticks” with the best of them on the family piano; it takes years of study, dedication to practice, and great passion to achieve dreams made from the harmonies and melodies of sweet sound. Choosing an instrument with which to create can make all the difference in the outcome as well. When the stars align, you get to meet Geert D’hollander, the internationally acclaimed composer, performer, teacher and carillonneur at the Singing Tower at Bok Tower Gardens.
Since this past October, only the fourth musician to hold this esteemed post in the 84-year history of this National Historic Landmark; D’hollander, 47, is the man responsible for the beautiful music that carries across the landscape of the gardens in Lake Wales. Born in 1965 in Sint Niklaas, Belgium, he is the son of a carillonneur himself. “I have been climbing towers since I was five years old,” said D’hollander with a smile. “It was an adventure back then to climb a 14th- or 15th-century tower with no elevator.” While the adventure started with the tower as he visited his father at work, D’hollander’s passion changed to encompass the bells instead. At 13, he decided to try it for himself and began music study in Belgium, graduating in 1982 at the age of 17.
His father thought to expose his son to the international beauty of the carillon and brought him to experience some of the towers in the United States. By chance, their very first stop was Bok Tower. Rising to less than half of the height and less than a fifth of the age of the tower he would play in Antwerp, Belgium for the next 25 years, Bok tower was formidable. Entering through the Great Brass Door and with an elevator that dates to the 1920s, D’hollander remembers his first experience at Bok well. “I was thrilled,” he said. “It was like comparing a harpsichord with a Steinway; they look similar but are very different.”
Indeed, carillons are a rare instrument, and each is one-of-a-kind. Bok Tower’s carillon works through the playing of a set of bells by means of a keyboard, very similar in style to a piano, with the equivalent black and white keys for standard notes, sharps and flats. The carillon is played with the fists to control the expression of the notes through a variation of touch. The keys are wired up through the back of the keyboard to each of 60 bells that range in weight from 16 pounds to nearly 12 tons. As the keys, called batons, are struck on the keyboard; the corresponding clapper, which can weigh up to 500 pounds, strikes the stationary brass bell in relative strength to create the sound. To strike the largest of the bells requires the use of a pedal due to the sheer weight.
Take the rarity of the instrument and pair it with the few carillonneurs around the world and you can’t help but feel lucky to have D’hollander in Polk County. There are about 600 carillons in the world, being played by fewer than 300 carillonneurs at this time. After his early tour of the instruments in the US, D’hollander returned to Belgium to play for over two decades, but had the opportunity to play at “The Singing Tower” and simply couldn’t refuse. The tower has a nearly perfect resonance chamber,” said D’hollander. “The keyboard sits just below the bells and the sound is beautiful.”
Being a carillonneur means much more than just playing. “I spend time composing and arranging music,” said D’hollander. His office may be considered one of the most attractive and is greatly designed for his occupation. An area is dedicated for recording and composition; his computer sits on a modern desk flanked by an electronic keyboard. Special software allows for the computer to write the music he plays on the keyboard electronically to help him work through a composition. Behind the desk is a nook filled with electronics for playing the vast library of historical recordings that covers the last several decades. In one corner sits a traditional upright piano with the pages of blank sheet music being filled in pencil as D’hollander works on a composition. Around the office are a handful of doors leading to the balconies facing the exterior on three sides with views of nearby Mountain Lake and acres of orange groves. “The view, the environment… it’s very inspirational to create,” said D’hollander.
Off to the side is an unassuming spiral staircase; and 21 steps later, one finds themselves standing in the music cabinet, which is home to the carillon keyboard. D’hollander gives a recital at 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. on Thurs. – Sun. each week, but has been known to play at other times. “Sometimes I need to compose on the carillon,” said D’hollander, “but of course guests in the gardens could hear me. I may do this after closing; there’s very few people that might hear the music at that hour.”
Having the experience and talent of D’hollander at The Singing Tower is a rare gift. Bok Tower’s website states that he has studied, among others, piano, chamber music, choral- and orchestral direction, fugue and composition at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp (Belgium), and carillon at the Royal Carillon School in Mechelen (Belgium). He was first prize winner in about 30 international competitions for carillon and/or composition. In 1997, he succeeded Ronald Barnes as University Carillonist and Professor of Carillon at the Department of Music at UC Berkeley. In 2008, he was awarded the “Berkeley Medal of Honor” for “Distinguished Service to the Carillon.” The list goes on.
D’hollander has found that living and working in Lake Wales is an enjoyable experience. “There are some great restaurants here that I enjoy and I’ve made many friends in the short time I have been here,” he said. “There’s much I want to accomplish, including being able to create a digital library of the thousands of recordings on file since the early part of the 20th century. I also enjoy teaching, and hope to create a program for exceptional music students to be a part of master classes on the carillon.”
So if you see Geert in the Bok Tower Gardens cafeteria or having dinner at a local establishment, and ask him what he can tell you about the tower that has become such a rich part of his life, he may tell you what he told me: “There is a rich treasure right here in your backyard.”