Wild Air

Stepford Organs

March 23rd, 2011

I recently received a compliment (at least I HOPE it was a compliment) from a fine organist who was visiting some of our instruments. His last comment to me was, “I may not be able to define exactly what a Reynolds organ sounds like, but I know it is always a quality sound.”

All too often in the history of the organ, these instruments have been the victim of a cookie-cutter mentality. A builder would come up with an all-purpose design that, with very minor variations, would define every job. The result was often organs that were boring, monotonous, or completely at odds with their environments. Like the infamous “Stepford Wives,” they were designed to be perfect, or at least predictable.   This practice certainly made it easier for electronic organ companies, the ultimate manufacturers of cookie-cutter organs!

A new pipe organ should be a new creation. Older pipes should be welcomed and embraced in a project, not just because they reduce cost (they usually do), and not just because they represent an enviromentally-sensitive approach to organ building (they CERTAINLY do). They should be embraced because they help to give a new instrument uniqueness.   They bring some of the soul of the old organ into the new, and usually give the new organ some of its most interesting and engaging sounds.  

Some older tonal material is not salvageable, and I’m not suggesting shoveling it all into a new instrument.   In  some cases, the cost of rehabilitating pipes that have been overvoiced or torn up by abuse, or are the wrong scale for the new organ,  is not justified.   But in other cases, that dull, dark, dusty Melodia can become the star of the new instrument.   What to keep, how to use it, and how to integrate the old and new is often the real “art” of the organ designer.   The success of an organ is not in a towering case, nor even in shiny facade pipes.  

Of course, individuality must exist within the context of a solid tonal architecture.   Pipe organs have to fulfill specific functions and play a specific literature.   But this still leaves plenty of room for an instrument to have individuality, character, and “soul.”

The great American organ builder E.M. Skinner was once criticized because the lowest notes of his big 32′ reeds seemed a bit slow. “Ah, yes,” said Mr. Skinner, “but just listen to how long the hold on when you let them go!”

Every pipe organ, from the smallest to the largest, should be a new musical revelation to stir the heart and inspire the mind.

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