In the wind...

November 3, 2014

For the home that has everything

Many organists dream of having a pipe organ at home. It’s a great alternative to schlepping off to church to practice, especially if the church is far away, if it’s a busy building in which it’s hard to find quiet and privacy, or if the church is not heated during midweek and it’s simply too cold to sit in there for any length of time. Having worked with many clients as they purchase pipe organs for their homes, I’ve picked up some insight into what you might consider as you plan a purchase.

Pretty much every day I speak with someone about the cost of pipe organ projects, and I’ve found that the prices of new pianos can be a helpful comparison. I’ve downloaded an “Investment Brochure” from the website of Steinway & Sons that publishes the 2012 price of a new “Model B” (that’s the seven-footer) as $87,500, and the 2012 price of a new “Model D” (the nine-foot “concert grand”) as $137,400. If we round up a little to account for a couple additional years, we might say they’re at $90K and $140K. Not all of us can shell out that kind of money for a piano, but I think this is a good point of reference.

There are two basic and common types of residence pipe organs, two-manual tracker action “practice machines” with at least one voice for each keyboard, and two or three-manual electric or electro-pneumatic “unit” organs with a small number of ranks spread through switching to create a larger number of stops. The latter is typically less expensive, as engineering, construction, and materials are simpler and less expensive. But for the price of that Steinway “B” you can order a brand-new tracker-action practice organ with at least four independent stops. That’s enough organ for serious practice, and for “real” performances of organ music to add to your dinner parties.

I’m well aware of colleagues who have scored real bargains—hearing through the grapevine about an available instrument, and racing off in a rented truck to get it themselves. If you have basic mechanical skills, and if the organ is a good playable condition, you can be successful moving an organ yourself. There are even simple and inexpensive apps available that will help you tune your organ by watching a needle on the screen of your smart phone.

When planning to purchase a used car, many people arrange to take the car to their mechanic and ask him to assess it. You pay the usual hourly rate and receive a professional opinion as to whether it’s a good deal or not. Just because that gorgeous eighteen-year-old Jaguar looks like the car you’ve always dreamed of, you’ll be sorry if you find out the hard way that it has a fatal rust condition, or is running on only eleven cylinders.

In the same way, you can engage a professional organbuilder to give you advice about a purchase, to make suggestions about how to move it, to help you with the assembly at your home, and, I would add, ideally doing the tonal finishing and tuning for you. After all, those are specialized tasks and if you’ve never tuned an organ yourself, you’ll probably not achieve a really musical result.


What does it take?

Just this afternoon I received what I would call the most common type of inquiry regarding a residence organ: “I’ve always wanted to have an organ at home. Do you have anything that doesn’t need much work and doesn’t cost very much?”

I understand that personal budgets might be more limited than those of churches or other larger institutions. But if the price is your principal consideration, I doubt you have much chance for success. A fine pipe organ is a work of art, not a utilitarian machine. You should ask yourself what you hope to achieve. If you simply want two keyboards and pedal with sound coming from each key, you’ll be fine buying the cheapest thing out there. But consider these criteria:

1. If you’re serious about practicing, you should care about the “touch” of the keyboards. Some keyboards have simple spring actions that return the note just fine when you release, but have a dull, insensitive, mushy feel. That would hinder the development of the fine control of your technique. Your keyboards should have a precise clean feel, and if you’re going to develop your control, they must be regulated accurately, both in weight and contact point.

2. The response of windchest actions is just as important as that of the keyboards. Some electro-pneumatic and all-electric actions are sluggish, and while you might perceive that to be slow attack, it’s more common that it’s caused by slow release. A sluggish release hinders the repetition rate and produces a “gummy” feel. Also, some all-electric actions have a characteristic “bounce” on release that leads to actual repetition of a note on release. That will surely mess up your trills!

3. The stability of the wind supply is important to even playing. You may prefer winding that has some motion in it, but in tiny organs, this can be a real nuisance. If the original builder has squeezed a miniature wedge-bellows into the case, there might not be enough air to support the larger pipes. Also, in compact tracker organs, the scale of the windchest might be too small. If key channels and pallets are not adequate, the larger pipes in a stop will not get adequate wind, and you’ll be stuck waiting for them to speak. 


My colleague Amory Atkins and I are just back from a trip to Oregon and Idaho during which we finished the installation of two residence organs. The trip was quite an adventure for a couple of lifelong easterners, and while both locations were remote to the extreme, the two projects were very different. One of the organs is a two-manual tracker-action instrument built by Casavant in 1979, the other was built in 1964 by M. P. Möller—the nearly ubiquitous “Double Artiste.” Both organs came from churches for which they were too small, and both are now nicely ensconced in their new homes. And both clients are accomplished attorneys who elected to leave the big cities of California to live quietly in remote locations.


Chillin’ in Coolin

Robert Delsman recently completed building a beautifully appointed Craftsman-style house in Coolin, Idaho, located in the north-pointing “pan-handle” of the state, close to the border with Canada. We shipped the organ from New England in a rented truck. Roughly, the directions are to drive 2,800 miles west on Interstate 90 to Coeur d’Alene (Koor-dah-lane), Idaho, take a right, and drive north 150 miles. Once the organ was delivered, we flew back and forth from Spokane, Washington, which is less than two hours from Coolin by car. The town of Newport, Idaho, is between Spokane and Coolin, so it’s less than an hour’s drive to a real grocery store and the amenities of a mid-size town, but for real shopping, medical care, and other conveniences, Spokane is the nearest place. 

Wikipedia says that Coolin has about 210 residents. When I mentioned that to the proprietor of the Coolin Motel, he said, “Oh no, there aren’t that many people here.” Once you’re in the village, you drive twenty miles further north to get to Robert’s house. The twisting and pitching road is a nice drive in the summer time with plenty of sunlight and fragrant forest and mountain air, but when we were there last winter for the physical setup of the organ, there were two or three inches of hard ice on the road, giving us a difficult white-knuckle drive back and forth to town. Add to that excitement the large population of deer and elk, and you have a lot of chances to get in trouble. The local guys in the Moose Knuckle Bar and Grill told us that the spooky place with treacherous curves high above the surface of Priest Lake is actually the deepest place in the lake.

Robert’s house is on the shore of Priest Lake, with stunning views of forested mountains. It’s beautifully appointed inside with black walnut doors and alder paneling that would be the pride of any organbuilder, all held up by an internal timber frame complete with mortise-and-tenon joints, graceful curves, dovetails, and bow-tie shaped “keys” holding joints together. The organ is in the Great Room, with the console on a balcony facing the two-and-a-half story window overlooking the lake, and the two organ cabinets on nice perches on either side of the console. The blower, static reservoir, and power supply are located about twenty feet away in a lovely hardwood cabinet in the closet of Robert’s bedroom, with windlines laid down and cast into the cement slab that forms the second floor. It’s a beautiful installation, made classy by the skill of the architect and contractor.

The scheme of the Double Artiste is just what the name implies—two independent Möller Artistes, one for each keyboard, played from a two-manual console. Unlike most two-manual unit organs, the two divisions are discrete from each other, with the exception in this case that the Gemshorn of the Swell is also playable on the Great. The Great comprises a Diapason, Rohrflute, and a two-rank Mixture. The Gedeckt is extended to sixteen-foot pitch playable on both Great and Pedal, and each rank is playable at several pitches. The Swell comprises Gedeckt, Viola, Spitzflute, Gemshorn, and Trumpet. The Trumpet extends to 16-foot pitch playable on both Swell and Pedal and again, each rank is playable at several pitches.

Those organists toiling in the vineyards of symphonic music will benefit greatly from having two independent expression enclosures in their home practice organ.


Entering Enterprise

Stephen Adams lives in Enterprise, Oregon, the seat of Wallowa County. With over 1,900 residents, Enterprise is a much larger community than Coolin, but it’s more remote. It’s about a four-hour drive across prairie and ranch land from Spokane, and just as far from Boise, Idaho. Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington (get it, Lewis and Clark?) are on the Snake River just about halfway from Spokane to Enterprise, but that’s it. Leaving Lewiston on our way to Stephen’s house, we followed a nearly empty school bus on a forty-five minute route across that rugged terrain.

Stephen’s home is less than ten minutes outside town, but since the town is so remote, the place is in the middle of nowhere. It’s an old established farm/ranch with a Music House right by the gravel road, and the main house isolated by trees and landscape, up on a hillside remote from the road. The Casavant organ, with eleven stops and fourteen ranks, came from a closed Roman Catholic Church in Wyoming, Pennsylvania (near Scranton and Wilkes-Barre). It endured its own long ride on Route 90, and the ride from Lewiston to Enterprise includes a particularly challenging road from high elevations to river valleys including dramatic switchback curves and steep grades. Organ Clearing House drivers had a special challenge to “keep the shiny side up” that time.

The Music House was already home to two Steinway pianos. The Casavant organ replaces a unit organ by Balcom & Vaughan, completing the fleet for Stephen, who is, later in life, a very serious student of keyboard playing. He travels to the east coast for “binge” sessions of organ lessons, and practices many hours a day, working to satisfy a lifelong goal. He has a strong interest in the music of the Baroque era and earlier, and this fine tracker-action organ with precise, sensitive key action and sprightly voicing is just the ticket.


Be your own boss.

In 1987, I was working for Angerstein & Associates in Stoughton, Massachusetts. It was a nice place to work—a large, airy space with wood floors in an old mill building with lots of equipment. While I was there, we had a deep pit dug through the concrete floor of the large lower room, which increased the available height for erecting organs by about eight feet. It was an unusual setup in that you had to climb down to work on keydesk and ground-level action, but it was fun to “walk the plank” across from the main floor to the impost level of the organ. Loading pipes into an organ was a breeze.

We completed several fun projects in my three years there, and I have lasting friendships with co-workers, but the fun ended in 1987 when Daniel Angerstein accepted the appointment as tonal director for M. P. Möller, Inc., and decided to close the workshop. As I had been doing much of the organ maintenance work for the company, Daniel and I made a deal allowing me to continue that work as an independent organ builder. The service work continued without interruption for the clients, and I was off on my own.


Loyal readers of The Diapason will remember that I’m a fan of the genre of historical fiction involving the exploits of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. My favorites are the epic tales by Patrick O’Brien known as the Aubrey/Maturin series comprising nineteen novels, and the eleven book series by C. S. Forrester known as the Hornblower novels. I love the accurate description of the techniques of handling and equipping those ships, and am fascinated by the deep character development possible in such extended stories.

I have all of them as audio books, and just as some people listen to the same recording of music repeatedly, I enjoy listening again, sometimes to a particular passage, sometimes through a whole series from beginning to end.

Forrester’s Captain Horatio Hornblower seems to be modeled after Lord Viscount Admiral Horatio Nelson, the heroic real-life officer responsible for Britain’s great naval victory at Trafalgar. Throughout the series, Hornblower struggles against his personal weaknesses, from seasickness (which affected Nelson horribly in real life) to fear and trepidation—all characteristics unbecoming a naval officer. As my relationship with Captain Hornblower has developed, I’ve singled out two contradictory quotations that define the responsibilities of authority, and by extension resonate deeply with me as a self-employed worker.

In one installment, Hornblower is in a French prison after his ship, The Sutherland, was defeated in a battle in which it had been outnumbered four-to-one by ships of the French navy. He imagined that he would be executed by Napoleon, and in the agony of this confinement he relives an earlier period of imprisonment that had occurred before he reached the rank of Captain: 

“In those days, too, he had never known the freedom of his own quarterdeck, and never tasted the unbounded liberty—the widest freedom on earth—of being a captain of a ship.”

At another moment in his career, he is thinking about his coxswain Brown (we never learn Brown’s first name). Hornblower admires and envies Brown for his powerful physique, his natural cheerfulness, and his unbridled courage—all attributes that Hornblower lacks. He reflects on the relative ease of the life of an ordinary sailor (tar, swab), who is subject to the absolute authority of his superiors, and “never knows the indignity of indecision.”

I’m amused and perhaps informed by the idea that serving as a naval captain, or being the owner of a business, is either an incredible freedom, or the road to ignominy. Truth is, it’s a mixture of the two, see-sawing from day to day and from project to project. What a ride.