In the wind...

September 3, 2014

Photos of cats

Read recently on Facebook:

“We each have in our hands an instrument with nearly limitless computing power that gives me instant access to worlds of information, and we use it to publish photos of cats.”

My iPhone is sitting on my desk. It’s seldom more than a few feet away from me. It’s my link to the world. I get nervous when the battery is low. Imagine how awful it would be if the phone went dead while I was on the subway in the middle of a game of solitaire. I’d have to sit there and stare at a carload
of nutcases.

The iPhone (or any so-called “smart phone”) is a fantastic tool. It enables me to stay in touch with co-workers and clients when on the road. The ability to take a photo and send it away instantly is a fantastic aid when sorting out mechanical issues at projects. Need to send the specs of a blower motor to a repair shop? Take a photo of the engraved plate. Poof. I can make and change airplane, train, and hotel reservations. I keep my calendar and contacts organized. I can access bank accounts to transfer funds and pay bills. I can create and send invoices for service calls as I leave the church. You’d think that such a gizmo would have nothing but positive effects.

But there’s a hitch. They’ve turned us into a race of navel gazers. On any street corner you’ll see people standing still, staring into their phones. People stop suddenly while walking to go into their phones. The other day on the street, I was hit in the shoulder by a woman who was gesticulating while arguing with someone on the phone. And another tidbit from Facebook—a friend posted a photo of a woman dressed in yoga togs on the down escalator from New York’s Columbus Circle to the Whole Foods store, balancing a huge stroller laden with toddler with one hand, the other hand holding the phone to her ear. Sounds like child neglect and endangerment to me.

People talk on the phone at restaurant tables with friends, they talk on the phone at the cashier in a grocery store, they talk on the phone in the middle of a business meeting. Do those phones help us get more done, or do they keep us from getting anything done?

And worse, if we let them, our phones will affect the flow of human thought in generations to come. I did perfectly well without a smart phone until I was in my forties, but my kids have pretty much grown up with them. And our grandson Ben, at eighteen months old, is adept at managing touch screens—giggling as he swipes to change photos, touching icons, all the while staring intently at the thing. Thank goodness his parents read to him, and I hope he grows up learning conversational skills that seem to be eroding today. 



The last century has been one of innovation. Many of the most important developments have come with significant downsides. The automobile has given us unlimited mobility, but it has torn up the landscape and poisoned the skies. The technological revolution has given us connectivity that we could not have imagined a generation ago, but it has compromised good old-fashioned face-to-face human contact. Image a guy breaking up with his girlfriend by text message. It happened in our family! Suck it up and face the woman, bucko.

Also, mass production and mass marketing has led to homogeneity. People in Boston and Tucson buy the same candlesticks at Crate and Barrel, as if there were no cultural differences between those regions.

These concepts apply to our world of pipe organs. In that world, the second half of the twentieth century was dominated by a debate about innovation. We argued in favor of the imagined purity of historic instruments and wondered exactly how they sounded when played by the artists of their day, or we argued in favor of the convenience of registration devices, the effect of expression enclosures, and the flexibity of organ placement made possible by electric actions. Both sides made cases about how unmusical were the instruments favored by the other camp. 

The result of the decades-long debate is generally a positive one. It’s true that many wonderful historic organs, especially early twentieth-century electro-pneumatic organs, were displaced and discarded by new tracker organs. But after all, that trend was a simple repeat of one sixty years earlier, when hundreds of grand nineteenth-century instruments were discarded in favor of the newfangled electro-pneumatic organs in the beginning of the twentieth century. 

Described in terms of the history of organbuilding in Boston, we threw out Hook organs in the 1910s and 1920s to install Skinners, and we threw out Skinners in the 1960s and 1970s to install Fisks and Noacks. What goes around, comes around.



Until sometime in the second half of the twentieth century, each organbuilder’s work was unique. Any serious organist, blindfolded, could tell the difference between a Skinner console and an Austin console. The profile of the keycheeks, the weight and balance of the keyboards, the layout of the stop controls, the sound of the combination action, and the feel of the pedalboard were all separate and distinct.

I had a fascinating conversation with a colleague one night in a bar, during which we discussed the evolution in organbuilding toward homogeneity. Supply houses have become increasingly important to us, which means, for example, that our consoles have that “Crate and Barrel” syndrome. For example, there’s one brand of electric drawknob motors widely favored in the industry. They work beautifully and reliably, and they’re easy to install. So many firms building both electric and mechanical action organs use them on their consoles. They’re great, but they smudge the distinguishing lines between organbuilders.

There are several firms that supply keyboards to organbuilders. There is a hierarchy of quality, and builders can make choices about which organs should have what keyboards. If you’re renovating the console of an indistinct fifty-year-old organ, it doesn’t make much sense to install fancy keyboards at ten-thousand a pop, when a thousand-dollar keyboard will work perfectly well. But when comparing organs of high quality, we notice when different builders are using keyboards from the same sources. Again, the lines are smudged.

But here’s the thing. If a basic component of an organ is developed at high quality and reasonable cost by a specialist, the organbuilder can cross that off his list knowing that it will function perfectly and reliably, freeing him to put his effort into another part of the instrument. Ideally then, each hour saved by the purchase of ready-made parts can be put into voicing and tuning.

Ernest Skinner put lots of time and resources into the development of his famous Whiffle Tree expression motor. Today, there are three or four suppliers who manufacture electric expression motors with digital control systems. They use the motors developed for wheelchairs, and the controls allow the organbuilder to program the speed and distance of each stage. When shutters are opening, it’s great when the first step can be a tiny one, with the subsequent stages getting larger and larger. And even Mr. Skinner knew that it was an advantage when closing the shutters, for the last stage to be slower than the others to keep the shutters from slamming. He did it by making the exhaust valve smaller in the last stage so the power pneumatic wouldn’t work as fast. We do it by programming a slower speed.

When organbuilders get together, you hear chat about who uses which drawknobs, which expression motors, which solid-state relays and combination actions. We compare experiences about the performance of the machines, and the customer support of the companies that sell them.


Human resources

A fundamental difference between today’s organbuilding companies and those of a century ago is the size of the firms. Skinner, Möller, Kimball, Hook & Hastings, and others each employed hundreds of workers. The American church was powerful, and as congregations grew, new buildings were commissioned by the thousands. There were decades during which American organbuilders produced more than two thousand organs each year. And because the market was so strong, the price points were relatively higher than they were today. So when Mr. Skinner had a new idea, he could put a team of men on it for research
and development.

Today there are a couple firms with more than fifty employees, but most organ companies have fewer than ten. A shop with twenty people in it is a big deal. In part, this is the result of the ethic of hand-craftsmanship championed during the twentieth-century revival. “Factory-built” organs had a negative stigma that implied that the quality of the artistic content was lower in such an instrument. And there can be little argument that in the mid-twentieth century, thousands of ordinary little work-horse organs were produced.

But the other factor driving the diminishing size and number of independent companies is the decline of the church. Congregations are merging and closing, and other parishes are finding new contemporary forms of musical expression. Electronic instruments now dominate the market of smaller churches. And it’s common to see congregations of fifty or sixty worshipping in sanctuaries that could seat many hundreds. Century-old coal-fired furnaces equipped with after-market oil burners gulp fuel by the truckload. And an organ that would have cost $50,000 in 1925 now costs $1,500,000. That’s a lot of zucchini bread at the bake sale.

I think these are compelling reasons in favor of the common use of basic components provided by central suppliers. Ours is a complicated field, and it’s unusual for a small group of people to combine every skill at the highest level. When I talk with someone who has done nothing but make organ pipes all his life, I marvel at his depth of understanding, the beauty of his drawn solder seams, and his innate sense of π, that mathematical magic that defines circles. He can look at a rectangle of metal and visualize the diameter of the tube it will make when rolled and soldered. The organ will turn out better if he doesn’t also have to make drawknobs.


The comfort of commonality

When Wendy and I travel for fun, we sometimes stay in quaint bed & breakfast inns, enjoying their unique qualities, and chuckling about the quirks and foibles of the innkeepers. But when I’m traveling for business, trying to maximize each day on the road, I prefer to stay in brand-name places. I want to check in, open my luggage, and know that the plumbing, the television, the WiFi, and the heating and air-conditioning will work properly. I want to find a functioning ice machine, and I expect a certain level of cleanliness. Besides, I like amassing rewards points.

Likewise, I’ve come to understand that traveling organists benefit from finding the same few brands of console equipment wherever they go. If you’re on a concert tour, taking a program of demanding music from church to church, you get a big head start when you come upon an organ with a solid-state combination system you’re familiar with. 

Peter Conte, Grand Court Organist of the Wanamaker Store in Philadelphia, played the dedicatory recital on the Casavant we installed at Church of the Resurrection in New York, and I took him to the church to introduce him to the organ. Seconds after he sat on the bench, he was delving through the depths of the menus of the Peterson combination system, setting things the way he wanted them. He knew much more than I about the capabilities and programmability of the organ.

Recently I was talking with a colleague who was telling me about the installation of a new console for the organ he has been playing for nearly forty years. He told me how he had to relearn the entire organ because while it had much the same tonal resources as before, he was able to access them in a completely new way. It was a succinct reminder of how sophisticated these systems have become, and how they broaden the possibilities for the imaginative organist.

So it turns out that for many, the homogeneity of finding the same combination systems on multiple organs allows organists a level of familiarity with how things work. It takes less time to prepare complex registrations, which is ultimately to the benefit and delight of the listener.


The top of the world

Many of us were privileged to hear Stephen Tharp play the massive and magical Aeolian-Skinner organ of The First Church of Christ, Scientist (The Mother Church) in Boston as the closing event of this year’s national convention of the American Guild of Organists. The majestic building was crammed with thousands of organists and enthusiasts. I suppose it’s the most important regularly recurring concert of the American pipe organ scene. And what a night it was. The apex, the apogee, the zenith —the best part—was his performance of his transcription of Igor Stravinski’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). It’s a wildly complex score, but luckily, Stephen is a complex and wild performer! He didn’t play as though it were a transcription, he played as though it were an orchestra. He made 243 registration changes in the course of about thirty-three minutes. That’s roughly 7.4 changes a minute, which means thumping a piston every 8.1 seconds. Try that with two stop-pullers on a big tracker-action organ! For that matter, try that on a fancy electric console with all the bells and whistles. If there ever was an example of how a modern organist is liberated by the possibility of setting thousands of combinations for a single concert, we heard it that night.


Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty…

Last May, Daniel Roth, organist at the legendary church of St. Sulpice in Paris, played a recital on our Casavant organ in New York. Besides the thrill of hearing such a great artist play our instrument, a very deep part of that experience for me was a conversation with Mr. Roth about his research into the life and work of his predecessor, Charles-Marie Widor. It’s a lovely and oft-repeated bit of pipe organ trivia that Widor was appointed as temporary organist there in 1870, and retired in 1937 having never been given a permanent appointment. I don’t know when the first electric organ blower was installed there, but let’s assume it was sometime around 1900, thirty years into his tenure.

There are 1,560 Sundays in thirty years. So Widor played that organ for thousands of Masses, hundreds of recitals, and countless hours of practice and composition while relying on people to pump the organ’s bellows. I’ve seen many photographs of the august Widor, and I don’t think he shows a glimmer of a smile in any of them. He must have been a pretty serious dude. But I bet he smiled like a Cheshire Cat the first time he turned on that blower and sat down for an evening of practice by himself. ν