In the Wind. . . .

June 30, 2018

When it’s time, it’s time.

Old friends from New Haven came to New York for an overnight visit on Friday, April 13. We heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra play at Carnegie Hall that night, and spent Saturday morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They were taking the train home in the afternoon and had luggage with them, so we took my car to the museum, and I found a lucky parking space on East 79th Street. After lunch, we returned to the car to learn that I had misread the signs and had been treated to a bright orange envelope tucked under my windshield wiper. Oh well. It was in the mid-seventies that day, so I turned on the air conditioning. Nothing. We drove down Lexington Avenue to Grand Central Terminal with the windows open.

New York is a great place to live, but as we have the luxury of a house in Maine, there are a few things we try to do only in Maine to avoid the city surcharge. Among others, our dentist, veterinarian, and dog groomers are in Maine. (Besides the exorbitant cost, you should see some of the fru-fru rainbow jobs that come out of Greenwich Village Doggie Spas!) Groceries and staples like paper products and cleaning supplies are far cheaper in Maine, with many items at half the city price. And car repairs. Sitting in the waiting room of a Manhattan garage, you just know that creepy stuff is going on behind the scenes. I waited until I got back to Maine to have the air conditioning checked.

I drive a 2008 Chevy Suburban, that big black job used by the Secret Service, FBI, and Tony Soprano. It has three rows of seats, so there are two air conditioners. Can you tell where this is going? The service manager came to the waiting room with bad news. It would cost $2,500 to fix the AC, and the check engine light was on, which meant another $850 for a pressure sensor in the fuel tank.

Traveling back and forth between New York and Maine, and thousands of miles visiting churches, organ shops, and job sites, I surpass the mileage limits of any auto lease, and a lot of that driving happens with heavy loads in the car, sometimes towing trailers. I use cars very hard. I have long figured that it is best for me to buy a car a year or two old with low mileage, letting someone else use up the high retail value of a brand new car, then drive it until it will not go any further. Since about 1980, I have driven six cars over 225,000 miles, two of those over 275,000. About halfway through that list, I experimented with a Dodge Grand Caravan—a mistake because although with seats out I could carry loaded eight-foot pipe trays, it was not a truck, and the transmission left at around 189,000. That is a lifetime total of over 1,500,000 miles, or an average of 43,000 miles a year.

The Suburban had just 225,000 miles on it, but I could not see spending over $3,300 on repairs, so I went shopping. Now I am in a 2017 Suburban, silver this time, so people will not think I am the limo they ordered and climb into the back seat. Gotta love New York.


Parts is parts.

As I went in and out of car dealerships over the last couple weeks, I was thinking about the business of car repair and replaceable parts. Henry Ford really had something there, figuring that any item that you might sell a lot of could be made of carefully designed and manufactured parts, identical in every separate unit. Every dealership I visited had a little van with “Parts Shuttle” written on the sides. I do not know how many different models of cars Chevrolet makes and could hardly guess how many parts there are in each one, but I imagine that each dealership needs access to hundreds of thousands of different parts. Some things are closer to universal. Maybe they only need to stock six different oil filters, and the 5.3 liter V8 engine in my Suburban is used in pickup trucks and vans as well as SUVs, so hundreds of engine parts overlap ten or twelve models. But it’s still a lot of parts.

There are plenty of differences between a Chevrolet, a Ford, and a Toyota, but if you saw a piston from an engine by each maker, you would have to be an expert to tell them apart. Windshield wipers are pretty close to universal, with their overall length being the biggest difference. In fact, as the designers of vehicles seek the perfect aerodynamic shape, cars built by many different companies look more and more alike.

Recently, a colleague posted a photo of a broken organ part, asking if anyone knew how to replace it. I recognized it immediately. It was a Bakelite lever used in the console combination actions of Casavant organs in the 1950s and 1960s, about six inches long, with an axle hole in the middle, and forks at each end that “click” into place. They transfer the motion of the drawknobs between levels of the combination action, moving the traces that carry the toggles that allow the stops to be set on pistons. (I know an old lady who swallowed a fly . . .) When one breaks, the stop cannot be set on or off any piston, and the stop action won’t turn on.

I recognized it because in about 1980, my mentor Jan Leek and I faced just such a repair in an organ in Rocky River, Ohio. It was an organ technician’s nightmare. The console was tightly surrounded by carpenter-built choir risers that had to be substantially dismantled to reach the access panels, and once we were inside, it took a couple days to wrestle the broken part out. The axle was common to about fifteen of the levers, and it was less than an inch from the framework of the console side. We happened to have some Bakelite in the workshop, and even knew where it was, so we were able to make a half dozen replacements. That repair must have taken sixty or seventy hours.

Early in the twentieth century, the Austin Organ Company developed a distinctive style of “modern” organ console. They are easily recognizable with two rows of stop keys above the top keyboard, unique piston buttons on stems like lollipops, curved maple expression pedals, and shallow-dip keyboards whose keys are about twelve inches long and pivoted in the center. The combination action is in a tray at the top of the console, with a horizontal trace for each piston that carries toggles that click up or down when you move the stop keys to create settings. When you press a piston, a double contact system activates a pick-magnet that pulls up a little pivoted lever at the end of the trace and fires a huge solenoid that moves a bar that engages the lever and pulls the trace. The toggles on the trace move the stop tabs according to the setting. (. . . that wiggled and jiggled and tickled inside her . . .) The action of that solenoid provides the signature “ka-thump” sound of a piston firing in an Austin console.

The general construction of these Austin consoles is also unique. There is a simple steel frame that supports the table on which the keyboards sit. The side case panels, which include the track for the rolltop, screw to those frames, the back-panel screws to cleats on the side frames, and the top sits on top of it all. Voila! The traces, toggles, pick magnets, and springs of the combination action are all interchangeable. It is a very simple system. I wish that Casavant console in Rocky River had removable side panels.

But there is something funny about Austin consoles. A Massachusetts organ technician, William Laws, thought that design was just about perfect, and he waited until the original Austin patents expired, and immediately started producing “Austin Clones.” I learned this innocently enough thirty years ago, calling the Austin factory to order a new solenoid. In spite of the Laws nameplate, I assumed it was an Austin console. It was Gordon Auchincloss who took my call, and asked, “Is it an Austin or a Laws?”

Ernest Skinner was famous for his beautiful consoles. He worked incessantly developing the geometry of his consoles, striving for complete comfort for the musician. He used elegant materials, and machined controls were all specifically intended to have a signature feel to them. The half-inch travel of a stop knob, the quarter-inch motion of a piston button, and the superb action of the keyboards were all part of the experience of playing a Skinner organ. A Skinner combination action produces a unique “Phhht” at the press of a button, nothing like the Austin ka-thump. Harris Precision Products in California has developed two sizes of electro-magnetic drawknob motors that duplicate the feel of the Skinner drawknob, but gone is the pneumatic Phhht of the piston action. Even when a hundred knobs are moving at once, there is a minimal bump at the touch of a piston.

The funny thing about Harris drawknobs is that they are so well made, so easy to install, so reliable, and so quiet that many organbuilding companies use them. That is great for the organists because the knobs work perfectly, but gone is the individuality of different companies. Any experienced organist could tell the difference between a Skinner and an Austin console blindfolded, but Harris drawknobs are everywhere.

It’s the pipes.

The musical heart of any pipe organ is its pipes. That may seem a simple thing to say, but while it is easy to focus on knobs and keyboards, music rack lights, and blower switches, an organ is there to produce musical tone, and it does that by blowing air through pipes. We all know that an organ voice comprises a set of pipes, one for each note on the keyboard. Each pipe is unique with different length and diameter. It is possible to make identical sets of pipes. In fact, though I was never in the Möller factory while it was in operation, I am pretty sure they had identical “stock” ranks. I have worked on enough Möller Artistes to conclude that.

But when you make a rank of pipes, you cut sixty-one rectangles to make the cylindrical resonators, sixty-one pie-shaped pieces to make the conical feet, and sixty-one discs to make the languids. Each successive piece is a different size, the dimensions calculated using elegant mathematics. Three ratios make up the math of an organ pipe: the ratio between diameter and length (scale), the ratio between mouth width and circumference, and the ratio between mouth width and mouth height (cut-up). Even at its most mechanized, pipe making is a personal thing. I know of no robotic substitute for the pipe maker’s soldering iron. The quality of the pipe and ultimately its tone are the result of the mathematics and the skill of the pipe maker. The saying, if it looks good it will work properly, is nowhere truer than in the making of organ pipes. If the languid is loose inside the pipe, the speech will be poor. Because of all that, two ranks of pipes built to identical dimensions can never sound exactly alike.

There are many other factors that determine the sound of an organ pipe besides those three ratios. The composition of the metal is critical. Most metal pipes are made of a mixture of tin and lead. The most common spotted metal pipes are in roughly the range of 40%/60% to 60%/40% tin and lead. Go to 70%/30% or 30%/70% and you will have a different sound. The thickness of the metal is important to the quality of speech. A pipe made of thick metal will speak more reliably and more profoundly than one made of foil.

While the pistons from a Chevy or Ford look very much alike, the pipes from an Austin or a Holtkamp organ look nothing alike. And the pipes in organs by “handcraft firms” like Fritts, Richards-Fowkes, Fisk, or Noack look very different. I admit that I say that with over forty years of experience tuning organs by every builder you can think of, my eyes are as experienced as my ears. But the individual ethic, habits, tools, and philosophy of each pipe maker are different enough that no two craftspeople can make identical pipes.

What’s the difference?

Any good organ is a teacher, guiding a musician’s expression, inviting each musician to explore sounds and effects. Most organists participate in the choice of a new organ only rarely, if ever. And some organists only ever play on one instrument, whatever organ is owned by the church where they work. I get to play on many different organs in the course of any working month. It is one of the fun things about my work. I love experiencing and comparing different organs, gleaning what each organbuilder had in mind, mining the instrument for the richest sounds, the brightest colors, the most mystical effects.

I often refer to my tenure as curator of the organs at Trinity Church in Boston, the venerable pair of Skinner/Aeolian-Skinners matched with the magical LaFarge interior of the H. H. Richardson building. An important feature of the music program of that church continues to be weekly organ recitals, and as curator, I suppose I heard eighty or a hundred different people play that organ. For each player, the organ was different. Sometimes, the organ was victor and the experience was not so great. People could get eaten alive by the big unwieldy antiphonal beast. But the difference in the sound of the instrument as different masters played it was remarkable. Understanding how different organists could draw different things from a single instrument was one of the more important experiences of my organ education.

Likewise, I have heard single organists playing on many different instruments. That allows a glimpse into the musical personality and philosophy of the musician. Some seem to do the same thing with each instrument they play, while others bend their style and approach toward the instrument of the day.

I do not drive anywhere near as many different cars as I do organs. I drive Wendy’s car once in a while, and I drive rental cars when traveling on business, but almost all the driving I do is in that Chevy Suburban. Unlike the organ, I am not looking for means of expression when driving a car whether it is mine or not. When I mentioned to my colleague Amory that I was shopping for a car, he said, “Buy a Ford.” He drives a snazzy and beefy Ford pickup truck that’s perfect for his work. But I really liked my black Suburban. It was comfortable, quiet, and sturdy, all important for someone who has driven one-and-a-half-million miles. It is great for carrying tools and organ components, and for the boating side of my life, our eight-foot rowing dingy fits inside with the doors closed. Like a Skinner console, the geometry of the driving position fits me beautifully. (I know, I know, that’s a little romantic.) If all goes well, I will be driving the new one for 250,000 miles over eight or ten years. Come to think of it, it may be the last work car I buy.