Wild Air

Voicing a pipe organ is the process by which each pipe is taught to sing together as a stop, each stop is taught to sing together as a division, and each division taught to sing as an organ. The Rube-Goldberg mechanics of an organ are interesting and impressive, but the “black magic” happens in the voicing room.

This is why you must LISTEN to a builder’s work. Two organs can have identical stoplists, and sound completely different.

Voicing pipes is a bit like raising children in my view. You want to train them to get along with each other, but also to keep that individual spark that makes them unique. There was a trend during the Organ Reform Movement (roughly from the end of WWII to about 1990 – with a few builders and organists that yet survive today) to make the different stops of the organ uniform in sound. Nothing stuck out. To my mind, there was no character. Harmonic stops, especially mutations and mixtures, were used to provide color, much like adding salt and pepper to mashed potatoes. Actually, this was the same approach that the Hammond organ company used, with basically colorless tones combined in different intensities at different levels in the harmonic series to create a timbre, instead of combining different stops of interesting timbre, as happens in an orchestra. Incidentally, the electronic organ companies LOVE the reform sound. It’s a simple sound, and one that is fairly easy for them to fake. Recreating the sound of a Skinner French Horn or a Kimball Gross Flute is much more difficult than mimicing a flute from a 1970s reform organ.

I must here assert that I’m not wild about what I call the Stepford approach to voicing. I believe that each stop in an organ, like each child on the playground, should be allowed to develop its own rich voice, within the acceptable limits necessary for them to function together. Interestingly, the assertion among the reformers was that pipes should be left au naturel, because that would give them more relaxed speech. The toes would be left open, no nicking used, with very low wind pressures. The result is that many (not all) of these organs have scratchy principals (diapasons); weak, tepid flutes; strings that are really just soft principals with no string edge; and reeds that are thin and ugly.

Fortunately, the pendulum has swung back toward the middle. We recognize the importance of the ensemble backbone in an organ, but we also recognize the importance and beauty of individual voices of character. As I guess you can tell, I’m really not a huge fan of the Organ Reform Movement because, I guess, it seeks to strip out the wonder of the pipe organ, along with its subtlety.

So, LISTEN to an organ. Form your own opinions. Does it MOVE YOU? Does it make you want to sing out? Does it affect your heart and soul, as well as your brain? DOES IT HAVE A SOUL OF ITS OWN? (I’m really not kidding here. A great violinist will tell you that a great violin has its own soul.) If so, it’s probably a good organ. Sure, there are other technical issues, like how the voices balance, and what kind of ensemble architecture it has, and whether or not the solo flute is treble-ascendant enough. We’ll discuss those in a later post.

My point here is that you should not be convinced to like an organ because some expert tells you you should.

I once had a conversation with a parishoner in a large church with a new organ. So, I asked, “How do you like the new organ?”

“It’s a very GOOD organ,” was the reply.

“Do you like it?”

“It was very expensive.”

“Do you like it?”

“The music professor at the local college loves it.”

“Do YOU like it?”

“I don’t know anything about organs.”


“Well, no.”

Point made.

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