In the wind . . .

June 19, 2013

User interface

In 1975 and 1976 I had summer jobs in the workshops of Bozeman-Gibson & Company. I use the plural because the shop was in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1975, and during the summer of 1976 the company was moving to new digs in Deerfield, New Hampshire. These were my first forays into the craft, and those few months were full of adventure. In 1975 the company was installing an organ in Castleton, Vermont, and I thought it was great fun to be working on site. They were also starting the restoration of the very old Stevens organ in First Church in Belfast, Maine.

During the transitional summer of 1976, we worked hard moving truckloads of machines, tools, stock, and supplies to Deerfield. As I arrived in the shop at the end of the semester, a one-manual organ for the Chapel on Squirrel Island, Maine was being completed. We installed it in the crossing of Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston for use in a concert by the Handel & Haydn Society during the national convention of the American Guild of Organists. When the convention was over, we took the organ to Maine, carrying it to the island on the small private ferry. It was all very exotic.

The new workshop in Deerfield was an old barn, and we split our days between organ building and barn building, making all sorts of repairs to the place. One night there was a wicked thunderstorm, the remnants of a hurricane that worked its way up the coast, and we stayed up late moving things away from the unfinished windows.

George Bozeman and David Gibson were the partner-principals, and David and his family moved into the farmhouse that accompanied the barn. Several of us rented rooms in the house. We had a beer kitty (25 cents a bottle) on top of the refrigerator and we had communal meals. The whole thing was a great experience for a 20-year-old organ nut.

Today, the Organ Clearing House rents the workshop from George in his retirement. The plywood outfeed table I built for the table saw is still there, along with remnants of lots of other little handyman things I did. The roof above the table saw is the place where I put a hammer through the wood into a hornet’s nest while replacing shingles, and escaped by sliding off the roof into the bushes—a stunt that would kill me today! Since we occupied the shop several years ago, we’ve done lots of great work there, and it’s nice to have that connection with my past. George still lives in the little house out back, and it’s great fun to see him regularly.

Today, our house in Maine is about twelve miles from Squirrel Island, as the crow flies. I visited the organ there last summer. And First Church in Belfast is about fifty miles away. Wendy and I attended a concert there a couple years ago. It’s fun revisiting those places and those instruments that were part of my introduction to organbuilding, nearly forty (gulp) years ago.


A work in progress

As I look back across the intervening years, I realize how much has changed in the trade, and in my outlook and perception. In the seventies, I was a tracker-action firebrand. I’ve since come to appreciate and love the sounds of the expressive electro-pneumatic organ. Thirty-five years ago I scoffed at the gaudy consoles of big organs with electric actions. Those were the days when the phrase cockpit syndrome was born, and it was not meant to be complimentary. I wondered why an organist needed all those gizmos and indicator lights to make music. It seemed that the intimacy of the pure relationship between musician and instrument was compromised.

But even I had to admit that it was tricky to get your fingers between the huge ebony sharp-keys on the keyboards of a Hook organ. And speaking of that big 1860 three-manual Hook organ that I loved so much, draw two or three couplers, especially the Choir to Great sub-octave, and to repeat a common phrase, it was like driving a Mack truck. How intimate is that? And by the way, that would be a Mack truck from 1950 with a steel dashboard, twelve-speed manual transmission (without synchronized gears), a two-speed axle, and a cracked mirror—not a modern dreamboat of a truck with power steering, hydrostatic transmission, ergonomic seats, air conditioning, stereo, and GPS.

What was Ernest Skinner thinking when the only Trumpet in the organ was in the Swell box, not on the Great where God meant Trumpets to be? And forget about Trumpets, what about the Mixture? One Mixture in an organ and he put it in the Swell? Ridiculous.

Oh, wait a minute, I get it—when the most powerful voices are under expression, you maximize the range of expression. So when that full Swell is coupled to the Great with the box closed, you can “crack” it for the start of the second line, and by the end of the verse the organ is roaring, and your hands never left the keyboards. Marvelous.



Until I joined the Organ Clearing House, I led the double life common among organ folk, that of organist and organbuilder. I recognize this as the source of my love for working on consoles. Whenever one of our projects includes rebuilding a console, I try to organize bringing it to my personal workshop at our house in Maine, where I can revel in the puzzle of how best to make the console as functional and accessible as possible.

I’ve come to realize that the well-appointed console of an expressive electro-pneumatic organ is the vehicle for the intimacy between the organist and the instrument. Longtime violinist of the Guarneri Quartet, Arnold Steinhardt, has written eloquently of the intimacy between the player and the instrument: “When I hold the violin, my left hand stretches lovingly around its neck, my right hand draws the bow across the strings like a caress, and the violin itself is tucked under my chin, a place halfway between my brain and my beating heart.” (Violin Dreams, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, page 5.)

Steinhardt goes on to compare all this with instruments that are played “at arm’s length.” He implies that the violinist has more intimacy with the music he makes than the pianist. He overlooks the oboe, clarinet, and bassoon—those guys take the intimacy thing a step further. But I don’t think organists need to be left out of the fun. Playing a large organ in a vast acoustic is a heroic, monumental experience. Many of us know the thrill of taking our hands off the keys and reveling in that last chord as it reverberates. But the modern console allows the organist real intimacy in the control of that gigantic beast.

Think of the players of orchestral instruments as they achieve fortissimo. The trumpet player’s face becomes a roadmap of veins and muscles, the violinist sends horsehair and rosin flying, the pianist conjures power from the base of his spine and his shoulders, not unlike the major league pitcher turning his arm into a whip to hurl a ball at superhuman speeds.

Sit at the console of a large organ and draw a full registration, then quietly touch a single key. With a miniscule twitch of a muscle you emit a roar. If you saw that motion on a soundless video, it might resemble touching a lover’s hand or flicking away a mosquito. Combine hundreds of those flicks, and a cavernous space is alive with sound energy. There are 82 notes in the first measure of the Toccata from Widor’s Fifth Symphony. Play that on a hundred stops, that’s 8,200 individual notes in about four seconds, unless you’re playing too fast. Take that, Mr. Steinhardt!

What that organ’s console allows you to do is fling those notes into space by the thousand without breaking a sweat. The flick of the organist’s finger is magnified exponentially.

I think of this as a magical intimacy. The ergonomic seats and power steering in that modern Mack truck allow the driver to manage the huge machine effortlessly and tirelessly. The ergonomic organ console allows the organist to command many tons of organ components with flicks of the fingers.


Gizmos and gadgets

I love to think of a console as a magnifier, expanding the motions of the fingers into monumental sounds. I also love to think of an organ console as a manipulator, even a conjurer, fooling the organ into doing things it didn’t know were possible. The clever use of Unison Off and related couplers make possible the redistribution of the keyboards so a solo sound might be made available on a neighboring keyboard for the “thumbing” of a few solo notes, or a lengthy melody. This is one place where “thumbs down” is a positive thing. 

And when we get into a complicated situation like that, it’s handy to have indicators that tell you where you are and remind you what you’re doing. Now, if only we could add a “rerouting” feature like that in Google Maps, which realizes when you’re gone astray, takes a moment to catch its breath, and then displays a new route home.

The organ console is our “user interface.” When we play, we have the notes in our minds, whether we’re reading a score or drawing on our memory. The organ console allows us to translate those thoughts, which are the intellectual versions of audible music into a stream of information—a data-stream. The data-stream leaves the console and enters the organ, where the data is converted to audible music at the speed of light.

Ideally, the console is configured to allow maximum flexible control over the machinery that is the organ. There’s a philosophical beauty present as we think of how thoughts are translated into sound.

The intimacy is magnified when we add the composer to the mix. The creation of music comes from the mystical skill of hearing melody and harmony before they have jelled into a musical phrase or composition. Our system of notation is precise enough to allow the intentions of a composer to be delivered to the brain of the musician, and it is the relationship between the musician and the instrument that allows the contemporary immediate translation and interpretation. The organ console is that relationship between musician and instrument. It’s a physical appliance that performs a metaphysical function. How cool is that?


White with blue

Most organbuilders have adopted and adapted the use of color-coded cables that were developed by telephone companies to simplify the wiring of multiple circuits. The cables come in various sizes—12 pairs, 25 pairs, 50 pairs, and the special 32-pair cables created for organbuilders that allow the 61 notes of the keyboard plus three spares.

The conductors are arranged in reversing pairs, with primary and secondary colors. The first two conductors of a standard cable have a white wire with blue stripe, and a blue wire with white stripe. Keeping white as a common, you go through a series of five colors—blue, orange, green, brown, slate. So we rattle off the sequence as white-with-blue, blue-with-white, white-with-orange, orange-with-white. When we finish the first five pairs at white-with-slate, slate-with-white, the common color shifts to red: red-with-blue, blue-with-red, etc. Sounds complicated, but after you’ve wired a hundred keyboards, stops, windchests, etc., it becomes second nature. Everyone knows that black-with-green is note 25, which is middle C. The point is that you can accurately wire both ends of a lengthy cable by yourself.

As I separate the individual conductors in a cable, and sort them into the correct order, I think of the relationship between colors and notes. Green-with-white is low F. That wire will fire the low note of the last chords of grand pieces by Widor, Bach, or Mozart. Slate-with-white is number ten—the low note of the first chord (after the fanfare) of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. How many times will that piece be played on this organ? And have you ever stopped to think of the ironic symbolism that the first note of that melody is supported by a chord that demands resolution, ‘til death do us part? Think of all those brides and grooms trembling with the increased tension of the diminished chord. It’s the second note of the melody that allows a sigh of relief. And by the way, that high C which starts the melody? Violet-with-slate.

Years ago my company installed a solid-state switching system in the grand Skinner/Aeolian-Skinner organ at Boston’s Trinity Church. One woman working for me at the time had trouble seeing the difference between the slates and violets in the color code. More than half of the high-B/C pairs were reversed!

The console is up on my workbench so I can work on the stuff below the keyboards. Those expression pedals—I’m manipulating them with my hands. Is that enough tension for operation by foot? (If you manipulate with your hands, do you pedipulate with your feet?) How long after the organ is finished before the organist hears the first squeak? What can I do to lengthen that period? Some axle grease, lithium grease, graphite paste?  

Will the light over the pedalboard shine up through the keyboards to distract the organist? It’s a movable console. When the console is placed in front of an audience, will that light distract them? If the light is shaded so it doesn’t distract the audience, can the organist see the pedal keys?

Recently we completed an organ with a complex and sophisticated console. I’m counting the indicator lights with my memory’s eye—I think there are about ten. I came up with LED (light emitting diode) bulbs with various and rich colors that are about an eighth of an inch in diameter. I drilled perfectly sized holes in the stop jambs and coupler rail and inserted the bulbs from behind so they stuck out the tiniest bit. Man, were they bright. I pushed them back in the holes, which made the light more remote to the organist, but they shone on the wall behind the console like a circus wagon, and when the console was moved to the chancel steps for a recital, those pesky lights were like laser beams in the eyes of the audience. So I used a leather punch to make little discs of black translucent plastic that I stuck in the holes in front of the LEDs. Perfect. The colors are still vivid, but not so gaudy. Where did I get the black plastic? A report cover from Staples.


The pitter-patter of little feet

When I was a student at Oberlin, I was fortunate to participate in a month-long workshop in Eurhythmics. It was organized by my organ teacher Haskell Thomson, and led by the recently retired professor of Eurhythmics and Music Theory, Inda Howland, who had studied with Emile Jaques-Dalcroze in Geneva. The longer I played music after my graduation, the more I realized the value of that month—what the exposure to that discipline added to my musicianship. I was studying Bach’s Toccata in F at the time (remember that green-with-white wire), and during one of the sessions I played the piece for the class in a Robertson Hall practice room. Professor Howland’s first comment was a question: “What is my first impression?” I had the right answer—the noise on the pedalboard. “Play it again without making noise.” Hmm. Good point.

And today, I try to make the pedalboard help the player to meet Professor Howland’s standards. Here’s a pedalboard that doesn’t make much noise when I play the keys, but makes a heck of a thump when I release a note. It’s a little like playing the pedal solo on steel drums. What can I use as a bumper or cushion that won’t compress too much with use, changing the travel of the pedal key and the “pluck point” of the contacts?

All this happens in that workshop that’s so close to some of the first organs I worked on. If I had been given a 50-pair color-coded cable in the summer of 1975 I wouldn’t have understood. But those thousands of little wires have everything to do with great music-making.

I can name that tune in three colors! 

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