Wild Air

Thad Reynolds


Today, I want to share some random thoughts about a process that isn’t at all random – designing, or in the case of the Shelbyville organ, re-designing the sound of a pipe organ. It continues to amaze me how many people, even including some otherwise competent musicians, don’t understand the basics of this most structural of instruments. Many think of a pipe organ as a sort of acoustic synthesizer, with a bunch of pretty voices that imitate different instruments. Some organ stops are named for orchestral instruments they vaguely resemble, but in fact the tonal concept of an organ is much different from that of an orchestra.

The tonal design of a well-appointed pipe organ is a combination of timbre and pitch. Pipes of different timbres (diapason, flute, string, reed) occur at various pitches (sub-unison, unison, octave, etc.), creating ensembles of sound. These ensembles form a sort of tonal architecture for the organ. How this architecture is designed, and just as importantly, how it is implemented, is the key factor in the success of a particular instrument.

I like to cook, and I LOVE to eat. So, I guess it’s inevitable that I sometimes think of the design for a new organ as being like a recipe for a really good soup.

There is no one right way to design an organ. The sound may be thin and transparent, like a strained chicken broth, or thick and rich like chicken velvet soup. However, before you start to combine indgredients for a new organ – in this case stops – you need to know what kind of soup you want to make.

Let’s stay with the cooking comparison for a moment.

In the early years of the FoodTV channel, we enjoyed watching a show called “Doorknock Dinners.” The host, the camera crew, and a professional chef would show up unannounced at somebody’s home, and, while the host chatted up the family, the chef would prepare a gourmet dinner using the random items he found in their kitchen.

This is very much what we do when we redesign an organ like the 1912 Moller at St. Joseph’s. We begin by analyzing the existing organ carefully, listening to each voice and combination, looking in the fridge to see what ingredients we have. The old Moller had a number of beautiful and useful stops to contribute to the new organ. There were excellent flute and string stops, as well as a fine Oboe. The organ had a wonderful foundation of big pedal voices as well- the sorts of sounds you feel as much as hear.

Broken and shattered: The trumpet pipes at St. Joseph's

Even the poor vandalized Trumpet stop, broken in pieces on the floor of the organ chamber was a fine set of pipes that could probably be restored. These pipes, by the way, were a later addition to the organ, replacing the original Moller Trumpet. Unfortunately, they were too large to fit on the windchest properly, which may explain how they became twisted and broken.

The next step in the process was analytical. What elements did the old organ lack? What should the new organ do better than the old? While we wanted to retain much of the flavor of the 1912 organ, the new design needed to account for modern liturgy, modern music, and modern ears. As we developed the “recipe” for the new organ, we decided to repurpose some of the existing voices and to replace a few others. Some of the existing voices, while lovely in themselves, needed a “dash of salt,” to perfect them, which will happen when we revoice them in the shop.Shelbyville Interior

In the end, our ideal design for the new organ retained about 80% of the original pipes, and increased the size of the organ by about 40%. Many of the diapason stops (often characterized as “pure organ tone”) were to be replaced, especially in the main Great division. We broadened the string ensemble, and also added several reed stops. In such a glorious room, we particularly felt that the new organ needed an abundance of trumpets. After the obvious fiasco with the replacement trumpet, the old organ ended up with no trumpets at all.  This is like an orchestra with no brass – nothing to make the little hairs stand up on the back of your neck!  In the new organ, we planned for trumpet-like stops in all divisions, plus a commanding “Liturgical Trumpet,” in the front of the church.

Sounds good, right? We have designed a wonderful organ. We have figured out how to reuse most of the existing organ, taking advantage of its lovely vintage sound, and found ways to make this early twentieth-century organ into a fine instrument for the twenty-first century. We have adapted it for modern tastes and modern liturgy.

Two questions remained before we could confidently present our plans to the parish organ committee. How much will it cost? Will it fit in the church?

Stay tuned…

Leave a Reply

Proudly powered by WordPress. Theme developed with WordPress Theme Generator.
Copyright © Wild Air. All rights reserved.