In the Wind. . . .

May 4, 2018

Give it your life

For many people, a job is just a job. I’ve seen film clips of people working in industrial-scale meat packing facilities, flailing away at a relentless marching army of animal carcasses, videos that often accompany news stories about occupational injuries. Near where we live in Maine, there is a long tradition of monotonous food processing in the seafood business. If it was your job to shuck clams in a busy cannery, you were likely to put a knife through your palm at least once in your career.

Forty years ago, I had a landlord in Ohio who worked in the nearby Ford factory. Paul was an ebullient, fun-loving guy whose job was a means to an end. His skilled position came with a high hourly wage that enabled his muscle-car hobby. He played an aggressive game of poker and approached his fun at full throttle. He seemed proud to be the only one in his circle of friends who had flipped a car end-over-end in his driveway. His son had paid a high price for that lifestyle, confined to a wheelchair as the result of a teen-age sledding accident that involved adult beverages used childishly. That Ford factory was not the pride of Paul’s life. He did not consider his work there as his life’s mission. It simply allowed him to support his family and have fun.

My father was an Episcopal priest. Because of his service on Guam in World War II, he was not ordained until he was nearly thirty, but he was a priest every day of his life until his death a few weeks short of his eighty-ninth birthday. That was his calling, and he was faithful to it through his last breath.

My wife Wendy is a literary agent who helps writers prepare their manuscripts and sell them to publishing companies. Her work brings richness to my life as I am exposed to her clients, sharing meals with them, and learning about their passions. A university professor who is passionate about Civil War history is just as devoted to his trade as any musician or instrument builder I have known. He puts down his fork, and with arms waving, describes a slavery document he has discovered, demonstrating its significance to concurrent events. When two or more are gathered, it is comparable to the table full of organbuilders talking earnestly into the night about mixture compositions or the best brass for reed tongues.

Some of the writers I have met are not devoted for life to a particular study but to the art of storytelling, whether fiction or non-fiction. One of Wendy’s clients, environmental journalist Katherine Miles, has written books about an Irish famine ship, celebrated because not a single immigrant died on board in ten years of constant voyages; about Super Storm Sandy and the inadequacies of weather forecasting in the United States; and about earthquakes. Did you know there is a nuclear power plant, built on a geological fault line, twenty-four miles north of Manhattan? What could happen? Google “Explosion at Indian Point Power Plant” and you will find newspaper stories with headlines like, “Explosion closes Indian Point nuclear power plant near New York City; no danger of radiation leak.” (New York Post, November 8, 2010). Kate’s next book is in the mill right now. Bet you’re interested to know what it is about.

 

A modern Renaissance

I am thinking today about people who are passionate about their work because two colleagues, seniors in the field of organbuilding, are traveling together in Morocco, posting photos on Facebook as they go. Gene Bedient and John Brombaugh, two berets in a land of fezzes, are seen at an olive market, in the Medinah of Marrakech, at the Grand Mosque in Casablanca, and returning from an evening at Rick’s Café. One photo shows John Brombaugh with a monkey on his back. I commented, “I’ve had jobs like that.”

John apprenticed with Charles Fisk and Fritz Noack and worked as a journeyman for Rudolf von Beckerath. In 1971, he received a grant from the Ford Foundation to study historic European organs. He founded his fabled firm, John Brombaugh & Company, in 1968 in Germantown, Ohio. In 1977, the firm was reorganized as John Brombaugh & Associates, Inc., and moved to Eugene, Oregon, where he continued building trend-setting instruments until his retirement in 2005.

Gene Bedient founded the Bedient Organ Company in 1969. When he retired in 2010, it was reorganized as the Bedient Pipe Organ Company of Lincoln, Nebraska, LLC, and continues to produce fine instruments with some of Gene’s former employees at the helm.

The Noack Organ Company, founded in 1960, and C. B. Fisk, Inc., founded in 1961, were among the first of a wave of new firms founded by young men passionate about the pipe organ, especially as it was built in Northern Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Along with Brombaugh and Bedient, other firms that followed included Hellmuth Wolff (1968), Karl Wilhelm (1966), and Bozeman-Gibson (1971).

Some of the earliest work on tracker-action organs in the United States was accomplished by the Andover Organ Company, founded in 1948 at the very cusp of “The Movement,” operated and owned for several years by Charles Fisk, and continuing seventy years later as prominent builders and restorers of pipe organs. Fisk founded his eponymous firm in nearby Gloucester, Massachusetts, close to his family’s summer home, and Noack came from Germany to work with Fisk, so the early location of the Andover Organ Company can be traced as a principal reason why so much mid-twentieth-century activity in the pipe organ world was centered in Boston. The proximity of the New England Conservatory of Music added to the excitement with its vibrant community of young organists arriving in town every year.

Here are a few more regional tidbits. E. Power Biggs lived on Highland Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he became organist of Christ Church (Episcopal) in Harvard Square in 1932. He was famously fired from that position because the rector felt that his concert career was detracting from his work at the church. On January 2, 1935, Charles Fisk, a boy chorister there at the time, noted in his diary “I went to choir practice, Mr. Bigs [sic] wasn’t there.”1 As an apprentice with Walter Holtkamp, Fisk worked on the 1956 installation of the organ at St. John’s Chapel of the Episcopal Theological School (my father’s alma mater and the site of my first organ lessons). Melville Smith, the director of the neighboring Longy School of Music and organist for the seminary, was an early proponent of the resurgence of tracker organs.  

There must have been a moment when Smith, Biggs, Holtkamp, and Fisk were together in that cramped loft, discussing one of the first modern Rückpositiv divisions. It would have been around that time when Biggs commissioned the now-revered organ by Flentrop for installation at the Busch-Reisinger Museum (now Busch Hall), as the organ was installed in 1957. C. B. Fisk was founded just four years later.

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If you made a list of every American organbuilding firm founded in the United States between 1960 and 1975, and a list of all the people who worked for them and tried to draw lines to connect all the relationships, it would look like the Etch A Sketch® you got for Christmas in 1966 after you tried to color in the whole screen. Take it back a step: Charles Fisk apprenticed with Walter Holtkamp in the mid 1950s, John Brombaugh worked with both Noack and Fisk before starting his firm, George Bozeman worked with Otto Hoffman in Texas, then with Noack. Fritz Noack once said he figured that most organ guys in the United States whose first name is John worked for him at one time. That list would include Brombaugh, Boody, Dower, and Farmer (but not me!).

A new wave of firms emerged during the 1970s, including Taylor & Boody (who both worked with Brombaugh) and Richards-Fowkes (who both worked with Brombaugh), you get the picture.

Because of a few posts on Facebook, I am painting a picture of a dramatic movement within the worlds of arts and humanities. While it is hard to pin down exactly who started it, E. Power Biggs is a good guess. Between 1942 and 1958, Biggs hosted a weekly radio program on the CBS Radio Network, using the experimental, trendsetting Aeolian-Skinner organ at Busch Hall, the organ replaced by the new Flentrop in 1958. The radio broadcasts were abruptly cancelled shortly after the installation of the Flentop organ. His revered recording, Bach: Organ Favorites was released in 1961, the same year as the founding of C. B. Fisk.

Unlike the chairperson of the fund-raising dinner whose life is ruined for leaving someone off the list of people to thank, I know very well that I am unable to name everyone who has been important to this movement. But as I look at the photo of John Brombaugh with a monkey on his back, I reflect on how that grand generation of inquisitive masters has passed the baton to their successors.

Charles Fisk died of cancer in 1983 at the age of fifty-eight. As someone who is just turning sixty-two, I admire Charlie’s profound contribution to the world of the organ, and the wider world in general. His company’s website (www.cbfisk.com) includes a beautifully written biography of Charlie and of his philosophies. The bottom of that page bears a quote from him: “The organ is a machine, whose machine-made sounds will always be without interest unless they can appear to be coming from a living organism. The organ has to seem to be alive.” That philosophy stands as mantra for that generation of organbuilders and all who follow them. One might say, a mantra for a Montre.

John Brombaugh, Karl Wilhelm, Fritz Noack, and George Bozeman are in their eighties. Gene Bedient, John Boody, George Taylor, and Manuel Rosales are in their seventies. Collectively, these masters and their peers are responsible for the creation of hundreds of individual instruments. But there is so much more. Along with luminary performers like Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolas Harnoncourt, Ton Koopman, and John Eliot Gardiner, they changed the world of music. Through their intensive studies of instruments built by earlier masters, they brought a new vitality to our instrument, and inspired generations of musicians to explore the symbiotic relationships between historic repertory, the people who played it, and the instruments they played it on.

I do not intend this to be read as though the classically inspired tracker-action organ is the way, the truth, and the life. I like to think that the “organ wars” of the 1970s and 1980s are over. I am often asked which type of organ I prefer, and I always answer that I prefer good organs. My favorite organ is the best organ I have heard today. An important result of the narrowly named “tracker organ revival” is that the emphasis on excellent craftsmanship inspired new understanding of the work of geniuses like Ernest Skinner, who built organs in a comparatively huge factory with hundreds of workers but maintained a level of quality and history of innovation that allow his century-old organs to sing like Fisk’s ideal as a living organism. It has been nearly forty years since the Organ Clearing House first added a Skinner organ to the list of available instruments, joining the seemingly endless list of organs by Hook & Hastings, Hutchings, and Jardine.

That revived awareness has led to the heritage of firms like Schoenstein, Lively-Fulcher, and Nichols & Simpson who specialize in building high-quality electro-pneumatic organs with deep artistic content. Likewise, we are blessed with a generation of young organists who are comfortable playing on any style of instrument, placing the beauty of the music above bias regarding the medium. If an artist can revel in playing the music of Bach on an organ by Silbermann or Paul Fritts, so can an artist revel in playing her own transcription of a Wagner overture on an organ by Skinner or Schoenstein. The Skinner organ informs the performance of the transcription as fully as the Silbermann informs Bach.

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There is a historic building in our little village in Maine that has been home to a fine fresh seafood market on the left side of the ground floor. The symmetrical right side housed a leather shop until recently—the two businesses share a set of three central steps up from the sidewalk. A couple years ago, August Avantaggio, a local young man who is the son of the beloved, now deceased area surgeon, fulfilled his lifelong ambition of opening a butcher shop in the space next to the fish market. He was joined right away by two thirty-something guys who are as passionate about their work as any lifelong organbuilder is about our instrument. They source the meat they sell from local organic and free-range farmers, and they cut and package it expertly. I was in the store one afternoon (those who know me can easily guess that I am in there frequently) looking for something good for supper, and spent a few extra minutes watching Ryan take apart a side of beef. I asked him to narrate for me, and when he started with the Latin names of the various muscles, I knew I was talking with someone who cares about his work.

The Riverside Butcher Company is the antithesis of the punishing and cruel industrial meat packers I mentioned at the outset. They offer the finest products using the finest materials, and the apex of craftsmanship. You could almost be describing an organbuilding shop. Of course, things are a little a more expensive there. But one bite of that $7 per pound whole chicken, perfectly roasted, provides a symphony of sensations. It just is that much better. Last fall, Wendy and I hosted a reunion of her father’s extended family. They are all of German heritage and we thought a sausage cookout with a tub of sauerkraut would be a big hit. August pointed me to a website with hundreds of recipes for sausages, and I conferred with Ross to choose just the right ones. What fun it was to pick up fifty pounds of custom-made sausages and run the grill that evening.

There are lots of ways to criticize the impact Facebook has had on our culture, but when I see a photo of John Brombaugh with a monkey on his back, and another of Gene Bedient standing in a picturesque Moroccan square, I felt a fun connection to the band of people who are my colleagues in this unique compelling field. My work with the Organ Clearing House is special to me because it brings me into direct contact with so many of you—you who have elevated the art through life-long dedication.  

Building a single pipe organ is an expression of ambition and joy mixed with moments of confusion, questioning, anxiety, and uncertainty. Building a hundred pipe organs expands all that exponentially. Working together with a band of like-minded people, all working in parallel, produces more than just a lot of organs, more than a trade, more than a movement. It is an expression of the best of the humanities. And it comes at a time in our history when celebrating the best of humanity is heartwarming, reassuring, and necessary.  

Good work, friends. Keep it up, pass it on, and feed the monkey.

Notes

1. Craig Whitney, All the Stops, Public-Affairs, 2003, p. 86.