In the wind . . .

November 1, 2010

John Bishop is executive director of the Organ Clearing House

Appreciating depreciation
When a business owner purchases a machine, it becomes an asset of the company, and its value is spread out over a period of years of tax returns. In some cases, the value of a machine is spread out across the cost of doing business. For example, most pipe organ builders own a table saw. A table saw is a piece of stationary equipment with a circular saw blade that’s ten, twelve, fourteen, or maybe sixteen inches in diameter, depending on the size of the machine. There are saws with bigger diameter blades, but they are not so common, and they can be pretty scary.
The blade is mounted on an arbor (shaft) turned by an electric motor. The name of the machine is derived from the milled iron table through which the saw blade emerges. The accuracy of the machine depends on the exact relationship of the blade to the table. Most of the time the blade is set at 90º to the table, so the cut edge of a board is perfectly square to the face that was against the table. The angle of the blade is adjustable in most table saws, so when you want the edge of the board to be 30º off square, you turn a crank that swivels the internal works—motor, arbor, and blade all move together.
There’s a sliding fence that is square to the table and parallel to the blade. The woodworker sets the distance between the blade and the fence to set the width of the board he’s cutting.
The table saw is running a lot in a busy organ shop. Nearly every piece of wood in the organ—from the tallest supports of pedal towers to the tiniest trackers—goes across that machine.
The cost of the machine is depreciated on the company’s tax returns, but the use of the table saw is not usually billed directly against the cost of the organ. It’s part of the cost of doing business. The other basic machines are the cut-off saw (which cuts boards to length), jointer (with a drum-shaped blade that planes one surface smooth and then another smooth face that’s square to the first one), and thickness planer (that works off the jointed face of a board to bring the opposite face parallel and flat). A piece of wood is typically jointed first so an edge and a face are both flat and square to each other, run through the thickness planer so the two faces are parallel and the board is the correct thickness, and passed through the table saw so the two edges are parallel and square to the faces and the board is the correct width. With all that done, the true and square board is cut to length. It takes four machines to cut one board.
A workshop adage is measure twice, cut once. The first person to invent a machine that will lengthen a board is going to be rich and famous, just like the inventor of the magnet that will pick up a brass screw.

$400 an hour for man and machine
You need to put a bell in a church tower, so you hire a rigging company. They show up with the bell strapped on the back of flatbed truck and a big mobile crane. Sometimes you see these cranes on the highway heading to a job. They’re huge and have ten or twelve wheels. They’re very heavy to provide a stable platform for heavy lifting. The steering gears are fascinating—maybe the front three axles are involved in steering. You might think that turning the steering wheel would move all the wheels the same, but if that were the case the machine would hop around corners and eventually break itself apart because the paths of the different axles actually need to be concentric circles. In fact, each axle turns a different amount to allow those concentric circles. Once you know that you can see it easily. It takes some pretty fancy figuring at the drawing board to get it right.
I don’t know actual figures, but I’ll take a stab at the cost of such a machine. Let’s say the machine cost $600,000. The tires are worth $3,000 each. The company bills the customer $400 an hour. Maybe $100 of that is the cost of the operator and the operation—fuel, insurance, excise taxes, maintenance. So $300 an hour is applied to the cost of the machine. At that rate, the machine is paid for in 2,000 hours. There are 2,000 hours in a working year. But the owner of the machine probably can’t keep the machine busy with billable hours all the time. Maybe it takes three or four years to make 2,000 billable hours. After that, every hour billed for the use of the machine is clear money for the owner.
When I was in high school, my home church commissioned a new organ from one of the premiere builders of mechanical-action instruments. It had twelve stops with preparation for six more. The preparation meant that toeboards and rackboards were in place with center holes marked, there was space on all the stop-action rails for additional actions, and there were plugged holes on the console for additional knobs. The original cost of the organ was $36,000. The additional stops were added about ten years later—they cost nearly as much as the original organ. Today, the same organ with eighteen stops would cost $500,000 or more. And this is a relatively small organ.
After looking at those figures, it’s easy to see that a three-manual organ with 50 stops is going to cost more than a million dollars. A million dollars for a pipe organ—the organbuilder must be making a killing. But when the contract is signed, the organbuilder buys ten tons of exotic hardwoods and fancy metals, and commits 10,000 person-hours to the project. He’s paying income tax, payroll taxes, liability insurance, worker’s compensation insurance. He’s spending a lot of time researching, planning, designing, and drawing. And he’s operating a workshop with all those machines and enough (heated) space to handle the instrument. It’s not easy to make ends meet.
So the organ is installed. It cost a million dollars. I wonder if we can pay for it with a concert series. Let’s say there are 500 seats in the church, and let’s charge $20 a seat. That’s box office revenue of $10,000 for each concert. It only takes 100 concerts to pay for the organ. But wait. How often have you seen a 500-seat church filled to capacity for an organ recital? And who’s going to pay $20?
Say $10 then, and 100 people at each recital. Now it takes 1,000 recitals to pay for the organ. And we haven’t heated the building, tuned the organ, paid for electricity to run the blower and light the church, paid the recitalists, or even bought the cider and doughnuts for intermission. And if we’re doing ten concerts a year we’re talking about 100 years. We’ll have to releather the organ at least once—and 60 years from now that will probably cost close to the organ’s original price.
It’s a terrible business plan. You’ll never get your money back out of it. You’re better off buying a crane.

What’s missing?
Meeting with the vestry or board of trustees of a church to discuss an organ project, I have often heard a question that sounds like this: “We’ve got a furnace to replace, a parking lot to pave, a roof to repair, and the city says we have to put in an elevator and bunch of ramps. What’s this unit going to cost?”
I don’t like to think of a pipe organ as a unit. And I don’t think the organ belongs on the list with the potholes in the parking lot or shingles on the roof. It goes on the list with communion silver and stained glass windows. It’s an expression of our faith. It enhances our worship. It raises our spirits. It facilitates our communal singing. Where else in our society do we sing together so regularly and with such purpose?
Our music has evolved from natural laws. On a sunny afternoon in 540 BC on the island of Samos in the Ionian Sea, 30-year-old Pythagoras was walking past a blacksmith shop. There were several smithies at work inside, and our friend Thagos noticed that the hammer blows were producing different pitches. He went inside and watched for a while. At first he thought that a heavier hammer made a lower pitch and a lighter hammer made a higher pitch, but after a little while he noticed that the pitch was determined by the anvil, not the hammer. An anvil would produce the same pitch whether struck with a heavy or a light hammer.
The bell in the temple works the same way—it produces the same pitch when hit with a sledge hammer or a soda can.
With this information in mind, Thagos noticed that there were secondary pitches audible in the tone of an anvil or bell. He set up a cord under adjustable tension that would produce a variety of tones and duplicated the various sounds he was hearing in a single tone. He realized that each different “overtone” represented a ratio to the original pitch: 2:1 (octave) was the first one, 3:2 (fifth) was the second, 4:3 was the third (fourth), etc. And he realized that a series of 13 consecutive fifths would take him back to the original pitch displaced by octaves. These formulas are easy enough to understand, but the original discovery was amazing.
Here’s another example of an extraordinary mathematical observation. A perfect cone is one in which the height of the cone and diameter of its base are equal. The cool fact is that a perfect cone is half the volume of the sphere with the same diameter.
All through his life, Pythagoras worked on these theories, developing systems of altering, or tempering, the intervals to increase the consonance. In simple words, he messed with the math to make it sound better.
The concept of the interval came from the physical world. Next, musicians thought it would sound great to sing in two or more parallel parts using a given interval, and using the scale of notes that had been derived from the natural overtones. It’s easy to imagine the moment when a couple singers, either by design or by error, sang in opposite directions rather than parallel motion. (I think it was by mistake!) They started with a fifth. One went up a note while the other went down a note and they were singing a third. It reminds me of a television ad campaign featuring a collision between a truck carrying peanut butter and one carrying chocolate.
Did it take 1,000 years to get from Thagos’s blacksmith shop to a couple monks messing up while singing in parallel motion? If so it took another 1,500 years to evolve the rules of four-part harmony through Bach’s 371 Chorales, Mozart’s symphonies, Mendelssohn’s oratorios, and Saint-Saëns’ piano concertos. Enter Debussy, Stravinsky, and Alban Berg.
With all that development of the theory of music came the development of the panoply of musical instruments. The physics of each instrument represents another exploitation of the overtone series. Change a pitch by doubling or halving the number of cycles-per-second and you jump an octave. Change by a factor of 3:2 and you jump a fifth. Hit a string and you get one tone. Stroke a string and you get another. Blow into a tube, blow through a reed, etc., etc. It all started with the hammer and anvil.
By the way, thinking about the evolution of music, I think that Debussy discovered the whole-tone scale in church. The interiors of most pipe organs are arranged in whole tones. The proof of that is the symmetry of most organ cases. Low C is on one side of the case, C# on the other, D is next to C, D# is next to C#, and so on. Among other things, this distributes the weight of the organ evenly from side to side. The organ tuner goes up one side first, then the other side—otherwise he’d be jumping back and forth across the organ for each new note.
It sounds like this: C-next, D-next, E-next, F#-next, G#-next, A#-next, etc. Claude D. walked along the river bank, got a good impression noticing Claude M. painting pictures of the same cathedral day after day, went into the cathedral to hear the organ playing scales in whole tones—another good impression. Bet it was Aristide Cavaillé-Coll tuning the organ. Did you know he was the inventor of the circular saw blade?
In the fourteenth century AD, the organ was among the most complicated devices built by mankind. In the early twentieth century, organbuilders were creating the first user-programmable binary computers. They were bulky, made of wood, leather, and metal, ran on electro-pneumatic power, and had memories of about .001KB. But the user could program them. Amazing. Push a button with your thumb and you have the registration for verse three. The organ is the most mechanical of all musical instruments—an oxymoron, a conundrum.
Organbuilder Charles Fisk talked about the magic of all that air being turned into musical sound. Think of the air as fuel. Burn some air and you get a toccata. Or burn some air and you play a hymn. Share the air around the room, and the organ and the congregation can do the same hymn.
All of that Samian observation, all of that math, all of that experimentation brought us to that million-dollar organ. It all comes from natural laws interpreted by a healthy dose of human reason, wonder, trial, and error. The organ may be the most mechanical of all musical instruments, but it’s not a machine. It’s not a unit. It’s a gift. It’s the gift that keeps on giving until it needs to be releathered. You can’t pay for it by selling its use by the hour. You can’t justify it as a business expense. It’s not practical, it’s not even necessary. But it feeds the soul. It’s just that simple.

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