Wild Air

Most electronic organs sound like the taste of yesterday’s bath water.

While you’re wrapping your mind around this incongruous observation, I will plunge ahead.

Electronic  voice generation (let’s call it EVG, to save me some extra typing), whether for individual deep pedal notes, or for entire stops, or for entire organs, is here to stay.   The artistic use of this technology, however, is a very sometime thing.  

Perhaps the worst instance of the misuse of EVG is unfortunately the most common.   The big electronic organ companies (you know their names) build stock organs with awful voices coming through poor speakers, and regulated (if at all) improperly.    I have known the rare dealer to  make the effort, but it is difficult to make a fine wine out of the aforementioned bathwater.   Churches, and even concert halls buy these particleboard wonders because they are cheap, and they have more buttons per buck.   They stick them up in the chancel and congratulate themselves that what they have sounds “just like a real pipe organ.”   Besides, most folks “can’t tell the difference.”

Sadly, I have seen a few pipe organ consoles shoved into  some corner, and replaced with these musical Dixie cups.   Unfortunately, this is often because  the pipe organ was not well-built in the first place, and gave much costly trouble (shame on the builder!) or because the church was simply too cheap to do the right thing by preserving an otherwise fine instrument in need of its twice-a-century renovation  (shame on them!).   We recently took on a new customer who had been told by an   “organ man” who was shilling for a dealer that their organ had bad leather, and needed to be replaced.   Did I mention the buttons?   This organ did NOT have bad leather.   It had some loose screws, (most specifically their  now-former organ man)  which we tightened while tuning it up for the church.   We were able to have an honest conversation about what sorts of work the instrument will eventually need, and now the congregation is able to plan for the future.

Then, there are the electronic organs that have a significant pipe component.   Depending on the quality of the pipes and the knowledge and ability of the voicer, at least some of the ensemble is real.   Sadly, when these organs are installed, real pedal pipes and even real manual basses are often left off because these pipes are too expensive.   These are still particleboard wonders, with the same poor audio, foam edged speaker cones.   Did I mention the buttons?   (I actually have nothing against buttons per se, if they do anything meaningful).   One advantage to these organs, IF the pipe component is properly built, is that they can be expanded to become full pipe instruments when the digital stuff wears out, or the next time lightning strikes nearby.

What the first two examples do have is marketing.   They have slick  fancy ads, and are able to hire the occasional big-name, starving artist  to endorse them.   Most of the advertising says, in essence, “most folks can’t tell the difference.”

Did I mention the buttons?   Some can even, at the simple turn of a knob, move from Schnitger to Silbermann to Cavaille-Coll, without leaving the bench for a European tour.   And, they can play in any arcane temperament, even it it doesn’t suit the music or modern tastes.   Get out!!!

Custom digital organs do exist, although they are extremely uncommon.   Most of the so-called custom organs made by the big names use stock voices that are selected like dinner at a Chinese restaurant (one from column A, one from column B, etc.)   Those EVG organs that are truly custom are designed much like pipe organs and approach pipes in cost.   Since electronic components degrade with time, and since the technology has only been around for a little more than a decade, it is difficult to see the advantage to these instruments.     And, even at their best, they still have that artificial, tinny sound, especially when you play them full-organ.   These organs don’t sound big; they sound loud.   The whole is always less than the sum of the parts in these organs.

The we have pipe organs – full pipe organs – that use EVG to enhance their capabilities.   For instance, EVG can provide a bass extension for a principal or a string, so a smaller organ has more than just “loud flute/soft flute” in the pedal.   A celeste or even additional strings can be added that will make the instrument more acceptable for communion.   Since EVG usually does a terrible job with ensembles (the whole is less than the sum of the parts), it doesn’t work well for mixtures.   The key to the choices and the basis for all success is for the organ builder to know how to use the EVG resources that are available, AND NOT OVERUSE THEM.  

To me, this is a sensible design alternative for some instruments.

Finally, there are many pipe organs – a great many – that should never rub noses with EVG.   In these instruments, EVG is intrusive and ugly.   What’s the rule for this?   I frankly admit that it is a case-by-case decision made by the builder and the organist.   A pipe organ with no EVG sounds will never blow a speaker cone.   All the pipes will have pretty much the same life span (forever, if they are well-made and not abused), so the digital half of  the organ won’t need to be replaced in 15 or 20 years.   The control system will be standard pipe organ equipment and  the console built of real wood (not sawdust glued together, and formed like chicken nuggets at a fast-food restaurant).

An organist once told me that at least the electronic organ offered consistency – something that many pipe organs do not.   Sorry, but I can’t agree with this sentiment.   I have personally found the soul in enough really  bad pipe organs to know what can be accomplished with perceptive and creative design.   In nearly 40 years in the pipe organ business, I have only seen one or two organs that had nothing to offer, usually because they had been vandalized in one way or another.   If you’re ever in Central Indiana, drop me a note, and I’ll show you some terrible organs that are now (I blush to admit) wonderful.

I don’t pretend that my thoughts on this complicated matter are completely in order, nor, like the electronic organ, that they are completely consistent.  

I carry an image in my mind that I may have shared before.   As my grandmother used to say, “stop me if I’ve told you this…”

The  King is in my village, and it is my duty and privilege to serve the wine at His High Feast.   I can serve the wine in the finest Waterford goblet, or in a Dixie cup.   Both are available to me.   If the Dixie cup is the best I have to offer, He will bless my offering.  Of course, I can also serve the wine in the Dixie cup to make the proper politically-correct statement to the High King.   But if I withhold my best…    If I don’t offer  my crystal goblet, which was lovingly crafted by artisans instead of pressed in a paper mill,  as a sign of my deepest  love and respect, what will the High King think?

Robert Fripp, the English guitarist who for all I know doesn’t even like organ music, said it well:

“Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence.”

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