Frank, I know that you have been interviewed countless times. I would guess the questions, however pertinent to the reporter, must get a little redundant for you. I have heard you say also, with a bit of irritation, that you have been misquoted. For the benefit of your fans, I am going to try asking some things that they would be interested in, a little off of the beaten path. I assume that your many fans have already learned why you wear the mask, the origin of the bells, and other things like it. Also, to avoid misquoting, I am asking you to write the answers. Then you will have only yourself to blame. (Or me, if I edit your responses, which I promise not to.)
To me, the carillon is a beautiful, and interesting instrument. I know that you would agree. But it is not a “popular” instrument. Why is that? Is it an instrument of another time?
The carillon has been in existence for over 500 years. During this entire history government agencies, foundations, institutions, or endowment funds, funded them all. Cast in Bronze is the only carillon in history that has ever been solely supported by listeners. It is always interesting for me to reflect on why the carillon was first invented. It was created as a folk instrument for the sole purpose of making life more enjoyable for those that would hear it. I guess you could say that about all instruments, but unlike other instruments that were owned by people individually, carillons became the property of cities, churches, parks, and universities. Because of the size and weight of these instruments, they had to be placed in large towers. In olden days, the bells were actually cast at the base of the tower. People would contribute their personal icons made of copper and tin and throw them in the pot to be smelt down into the proper percentage that would make bell bronze. Once the molten bronze was poured into the mold, it would take days for it to cool. They were hoisted into the tower with block and tackle and the whole town would man the ropes that would hoist the bells into their permanent home. So, it is no wonder that people felt a pride of ownership with these instruments.
In France the carillon is known as the “soul of the city.” Towers that housed carillons in Belgium and Holland were fondly referred to as “Singing Towers.” They would mark important events of the city: weddings, funerals, holidays, market days, and all national and international events of merit. The carillon was originally created as a folk instrument. However, as time went on, the instruments became better, the tuning of the bells improved, and the musical range of the instruments were augmented. Folk tunes were replaced by transcriptions of classical music and original compositions written for carillon. Three carillon schools were created in Europe to train musicians to be carillon players. A whole new repertoire of music was now available and being played by virtuosi carillonneurs. Unlike other instruments, carillonneurs are high in the tower, close to the bells and disconnected from their audience. They alone set the standards of what should be played on the carillon for people to hear. Soon, carillonneurs would form Guilds in their respective countries to discuss the music that should be played, would hold conventions, and have guest recitals. They became an elite group, and would enjoy each other’s company since so few carillons and carillon players existed. It was only a short leap to understand that by all congregating together, they formed their own ideas and philosophies of how and what should be played on the carillon. Soon carillonneurs would all be playing for each other’s approval with little thought or concern about the masses that listened to them on a regular basis. It is ironic to consider that the carillon, which began as a folk instrument for the people, evolved into a concert instrument for the esoteric listener. Carillonneurs have, in essence, driven people away from the carillon. The number of carillons being installed started to decline and with that, the price of the bells naturally rose. Many carillons became silent because of lack of funding or interest. Carillonneurs would band together to write scalding letters to an institution, scolding them unmercifully for eliminating the carillon program. And of course, this tactic never once helped restore a carillon program. All it did was make carillonneurs look like a bunch of pompous asses, very good at criticizing, and not very good at finding solutions to the problem.
Sometimes the institution would become so annoyed that they would silence the instrument for years, or purposely hire someone completely unqualified to play the instrument at a fraction of the original salary, just to spite the organization writing the letters. So, whether carillonneurs of the world will admit to it or not, the carillon is in serious trouble, and most of it is because of the attitudes of the carillonneurs. It has lost the old world charm, mystery, and magic it once held. The fate of the carillon therefore lies in the carillonneur’s ability to make people aware of the instrument. It is not enough to be a good player, it is not enough to win performance competitions, to be a member of a carillon Guild, or to simply dream of people flocking to hear a carillon recital. To make people actually want to hear the carillon requires work, imagination, and innovation and most of all it requires that you love the instrument so much that you wish to share your love of it with others. People will support you if they feel your emotion. They will also feel your contempt, if you are not playing specifically for them. You cannot fool people with words of reason about why the carillon should be preserved as an art form. You have to make them feel like their lives would be unfulfilled, without music that speaks to their souls.
Playing the carillon is a skill that can be learned. However, playing the carillon that will bring your listeners to tears is something that can never be taught. I perform my show as a silent and masked performer. They don’t have to listen, they don’t have to stay, and I never ask them for contributions. They have no idea who, or what, I am. Yet, I hope they leave the performance knowing that they have experienced something they cannot find anywhere else on the planet. I owe the listener that much, and I owe the carillon the best I can give it, since it may have saved my life. We understand each other and our missions are the same. I pour my heart and soul into the instrument and it sings in a voice that touches people on another level. I cannot do this without the bells and they cannot do this without me. We are one. Only if I have conveyed my love of the instrument correctly to my audience will they respond. Only if I have communicated something magical to them will they feel compelled to leave with one of my CD’s. It is an honest form of sharing my energy and hoping they will feel it enough to help me continue to share the music with others. I am the only carillonneur in the world that has no boss that pays me to perform. What I have is far better. I have faith in the people for whom the carillon was created…the listener. For a carillonneur, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
I know that you have played for Popes, and rock stars. Certainly, these are important engagements. What has been your single favorite performance, and why?
I have played thousands of shows. I’ve played for a Pope, for Disney World, and for rock stars. I’ve played for music, art, and renaissance festivals throughout the United States and everywhere I go, it is the same. The bells play and magic happens. The magic is in the people who discover something they didn’t know existed. Something new, something different, played by a silent and masked performer. They get to see and hear something that they can experience nowhere else on the planet. Interestingly enough, when I first began Cast in Bronze, the fact that the show and music was new, and different, and completely original, were the very things that prevented me from getting booked on a regular basis. Being stubborn, I refused to change my act and persevered. When I did get booked and people supported me, the bookings became somewhat easier. But still, after more than ten years, and thousands of shows, it is still a struggle to get booked into a new venue. Sometimes, people are afraid to take a chance on the unknown. My favorite performances are when someone gives me a chance in a completely new venue, and I get to introduce the magic of Cast in Bronze for the first time to a new audience. It is my mission to educate and inspire people with the carillon and I can’t do that, if I don’t bring the carillon to them.
You are taking the carillon, and your music into new areas. Tell us about “The Bells.”
Cast in Bronze is more than a musical act to me; it is a symbol of life itself. I was willing to risk everything on an idea. What’s worse, an idea that no one in history had ever managed to do with the carillon. People during my whole life, told me what I couldn’t do and I finally started asking myself, why not? I had a piano professor in college that told me I would never make it as a musician, and probably never graduate. Well, I did graduate, and I do make my living as a musician. People can be wrong, and it is so much fun to prove that they are. So, for several years, I have been playing my show at various venues, and have accumulated a loyal fan base, and they are anxious to see where Cast in Bronze might go in the future. I feel it is time for me to take the next step, and see if I can propel Cast in Bronze to a new level, and to see if the fans will support me. So, I imagined a special musical production that would not only include the music of Cast in Bronze, but would tell a story that needed to be told, that would include the history of the instrument.
“The Bells” was written to for this purpose. It is a story not so much about the carillon, but about how the carillon affects people. It takes place in Douai, France in the year 1799. It is a story of one courageous woman’s quest to bring the bells back, after they have disappeared for thirty years. Her quest brings her more than she ever imagined. It is a story about life, love, and overcoming adversity. It is the story of everyone’s life. We all have obstacles to overcome, and along the way, people become teachers and mentors pushing us in certain directions. This story is not just to entertain people, but also to inspire them to be what they can be. The last line of the final song of the production is: “I never knew that I could be, so much more than me.” It is a story of hope for the future, and the story is made better by the music being sung by the singers, and played by the carillon and other musicians. I know in my heart that there is no way that people won’t accept this, there is no way that people won’t like the music and there is no way that people won’t come to this. There is only one way it can fail… and that is, if people simply don’t know about it. I am as sure about this as I was about knowing that people would like and support “Cast in Bronze.” I am also sure that people in the theatre world will tell me exactly what I heard when I started Cast in Bronze. But, like I said, people can be wrong, and they usually are when they think with their minds, instead of their hearts.
In the evenings, when you want to relax and listen to your favorite music, what do you choose?
I listen to everything but rap. Classical is my favorite, especially the French impressionists. I particularly like Debussy, and Ravel.
If you had a wish for the carillon, what would it be?
I wish that everyone knew the carillon existed. If they don’t know, it is my fault. I have devoted my life to the carillon because we are one. The carillon may very well have saved my life many years ago, and as a result, I decided to devote my life to the carillon. Once I accepted that I was placed upon this earth to speak to people through the carillon, my life became meaningful. I speak to them through the bells, and often they hear the message of my soul. It is an honest exchange of my energy to my listeners. Sometimes they hear my message of hope and sometimes they don’t. I cannot help everyone. I am but one solitary man, trying to make a difference.
To keep apprised of the progress of the musical presentation, The Bells, be sure to visit www.castinbronze.com , often.