In the wind . . .

May 23, 2011

John Bishop is executive director of the Organ Clearing House.


Ruler of the winds. That’s who he was. According to Greek mythology, he was son of King Hippotes and custodian of the four winds, keeping them in the heart of the Lipara Islands near Sicily. At the request of other gods, Aeolus would release gentle breezes or fierce gales, depending on the circumstances. He was something of a vendor to the gods. The Greek hero Odysseus visited Aeolus, who gave him a parting gift of the four winds in a bag to ensure his safe return to Ithaca. During the voyage, Odysseus’s crew was curious about the contents of the bag. When they were finally close enough to actually see Ithaca, Odysseus fell asleep. Members of his crew opened the bag, releasing the winds, and the ship was blown disastrously off course.1
It’s not for nothing that there was an organbuilding company named Aeolian, later merged with the Skinner Organ Company to form the august firm of Aeolian-Skinner, builder of many of America’s greatest pipe organs. The Aeolian myth is the heart of the pipe organ.


I love wind. We live near the ocean where the wind can have the special quality of having moved unobstructed for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. Sometimes it’s gentle and refreshing, sometimes it’s bracing and challenging, and sometimes it’s downright scary—but it’s always blowing and feels like a friend to me. Maybe this is a reaction to having spent thousands of hours in the deep and dark recesses of church buildings, toiling and moiling on recalcitrant machines. Leaving a building at the end of the day, I love that wonderful feeling of air moving around me. I picture the day’s dust and debris wafting from my erstwhile hair, something like Charles Schultz’s creation Pigpen, friend and confidant of Charlie Brown.
I love harnessing the wind to make a small sailboat go. With tiller in one hand and main-sheet in the other, the feeling of owning the wind—of inviting it to draw me where I want to go—is a thrill. I can see the approach of a puff—an extra burst of wind—making tracks on the water coming towards me so I can loosen the pull of the sail at just the right moment to retain control of the boat. I know the marks on the water are a little behind the leading edge of the puff so the puff actually hits my sails before the rougher water hits the hull. If I’m sailing across or into the wind, I’m aware of its power moving past me. If I’m sailing with the wind at my stern and everything’s going right, my boat moves at close to the same speed as the wind, so it seems relatively calm.
When I was kid, I learned about the principles of lift by holding my flat hand out the car window as my parents drove. If I cupped my hand a little so my knuckles were higher than the tips of my fingers, my hand would be pulled upwards. I now know that I was simulating the curved upper surface of an airplane’s wings, causing the air above my hand to move faster than the air under it. The faster moving air created a lower pressure above my hand, causing it to lift. My curved hand gave the same effect as the curve of my boat’s sails. The sails are mounted upright—so the air moving faster across the convex curves of the front of the sail draws the boat forward. The only time the wind actually pushes the boat is if the wind is from behind. Otherwise, the boat is being pulled forward by that pressure differential.
As a student at Oberlin, I was privileged to practice, study, and perform on the school’s wonderful Flentrop organ. It was brand-new for my freshman year, right in the heart of our twentieth-century Renaissance, the revival of classic styles of pipe organ building. While many of us were used to the solid wind of early twentieth-century organs, that instrument had a flexible wind supply, terrific for supporting the motion of Baroque music, but a certain trap for the inattentive organist. Approach a big chord wrong, and the sagging of the wind would remind you of the feeling you get in your stomach going over the top of a roller-coaster hill. If you played with a firm hand on the main-sheet, watching the wind like a hawk, you’d return safely to the dock boosted by your friend the wind.
I don’t do the thing with my hand out the car window any more because I’m almost always the one driving. Judging from my neighbors on many highways, I should keep my hands free for texting, flossing my teeth, or putting on makeup. But I don’t text or brush my teeth while I drive, and I never wear makeup.


Harnessing the wind has been a human endeavor for millennia. There are images of sailing vessels under weigh on coins dating from about 3000 BC, and by 500 BC sailing ships had two masts and could apparently carry 200 tons of freight. The Persians developed windmills for grinding grain around 500 BC. And the earliest form of the pipe organ dated from around 250 BC.
Just as wind draws a sailboat rather than pushes it, the wind itself is usually drawn instead being “blown.” Meteorologists tell us of high- and low-pressure areas. A low-pressure area represents a lighter density of air, and high-pressure air flows toward it. A “sea-breeze” is formed by convection. If a coastal area warms up in the sun around midday, the air above the land rises and cooler air from above the water flows in to take its place. So most winds are “flowing toward” rather than “blowing away.”
The motion of air that we know as wind is one of the greatest forces on earth. If a gentle wind blowing over the table on your porch can send a plate of crackers flying, think of how much aggregate force there is across ten or twenty miles of porches. You could move a lot of crackers. This might not be the place for political or social opinions—but I’d rather see windmills than strip mines. Both are bad for birds and both interrupt the landscape, but one doesn’t lead to smog or acid rain. And let’s not even mention spent nuclear fuel rods. Spent wind is fully recyclable!
Harnessing the wind is the work of the organbuilder. We create machinery that moves air, stores it under pressure, distributes it through our instruments, and lets it blow into our carefully made whistles. The energy of the moving air is transformed into sonic energy. As one mentor said to me years ago, air is the fuel we use to create organ tone. Ever wonder why a wider pipe mouth, open toe, or open windway creates louder tone? Simple—more fuel is getting to the burner.
When I sit in a church listening to a great organ, I imagine thousands of little valves flitting open and closed, and reservoirs and wind regulators absolutely tingling to release the treasure of their stored fuel into the heavens as glorious sound. They may be machines, but when they’re doing their thing during worship, they take on what seems like human urgency.


Wendy and I have been enjoying the use of an apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village that belongs to friends of my parents. Yesterday we went up to Midtown to attend an Easter festival service at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. We chose the early Mass at 8:00 because the church’s website assured us that the music would be the same as at the later version but the crowds would likely be less. Preludes with organ and brass started at 7:30, including music of Pelz, Howells, Gabrieli, Dupré’s Poème Héroïque, and Richard Strauss’s Feierlicher Enzug—a mighty amount of music for that hour of the day. The Mass setting was the premiere of John Scott’s Missa Dies Resurrectionis.
John Scott must be the greatest addition to American church music since electric organ blowers. His superb musicianship, immaculate sense of timing, welcoming leadership of congregational singing, touching rapport with the boys of the choir, concise and unobtrusive conducting, and by the way, marvelous organ playing made our two hours in that beautiful church as meaningful and memorable a musical experience as I can recall. The new Mass setting was gorgeous, moving from recognizable folk tunes to riffs reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen in the Sanctus. (Is it OK to say Messiaenic when describing Easter music?)
I love noticing the way the sound of an organ can change with different players. Dr. Scott was conducting for most of the Mass, and we were treated to the wonderful playing of associate organist Frederick Teardo and assistant organist Kevin Kwan. Dr. Scott slid onto the bench for the postlude, Gigout’s Grand Choeur Dialogué, and off we went. Oopah! It was my impression that Scott’s years at London’s cavernous St. Paul’s Cathedral prepared him to treat the magnificent sanctuary of St. Thomas Church as an intimate space. Such rhythm, such drive, such energy, such clarity. Wonderful.
And speaking of wind . . .
There were six extraordinary brass players (plus percussion), about 30 boys and 20 men in the choir (I didn’t count, so I’m probably not accurate), ten clergy and attendants, and maybe a thousand congregants. Quite a hoopla for eight in the morning. The Great Organ in the chancel has 159 ranks, and there’s a gorgeous Taylor & Boody organ in the gallery with 32 ranks. Add us all up and we were burning a lot of fuel. It’s beautiful to me to stand in the midst of all that sound, thinking of it in terms of wind.
The word inspiration has two distinct meanings: the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially something creative; and the drawing in of breath. These two meanings come together dramatically during festival Masses in our great churches.
When we worship in great churches like St. Thomas in New York, we are surrounded by opulent works of art. The reredos created by sculptor Lee Lawrie is 80 feet tall, 43 feet wide and contains more than 80 figures. (If we say it’s a 159-rank organ, do we say it’s an 80-saint reredos?) The stained-glass windows are spectacular, including a rose window of unusually deep colors that is 25 feet in diameter.
Most churches that own fancy stained-glass windows have to face expensive restoration projects at some point. The effects of air pollution corrode a window’s metal components, and simple weathering compromises a window’s structure and its ability to keep out the elements. I was maintaining the organs at Trinity Church, Copley Square in Boston when the magnificent windows by John LaFarge were removed for restoration. There were more than 2,000 pieces of glass in some of those windows, and it was just as complicated to restore them as to restore a large pipe organ. And while I think there’s less that can go wrong with a reredos than with a window or a pipe organ, I’m sure that at least that great heap of saints has to be cleaned one in a while—a job that would involve the careful choice and use of cleaning solvents and solutions, a big assortment of brushes, a hundred feet of scaffolding, and a fancy insurance policy. Imagine the fiscal implications of dropping a bucket of water from 80 feet up in a place like that.
But seldom, if ever, do we hear of a place like St. Thomas Church replacing their windows or reredos. The original designs are integral with the building, and it would hardly cross our minds to say that styles have changed and we need to overhaul the visual content of our liturgical art every generation or so to keep up with the times. Just imagine the stunned silence in the vestry meeting when the rector proposes the replacement of the reredos. “It’s just too old fashioned . . . ”
We hardly bat an eye before proposing the replacement of a pipe organ. Across the country, thousands of churches originally equipped with perfectly good pipe organs have discarded and replaced them with instruments more in tune with current trends, more in sync with the style and preferences of current musicians, and ostensibly more economically maintained.
Why is this? Simple. Windows and statues are static. They stay still. The sun shines through them and on them, air (and all that comes with it) moves around them, but physically they stay still. A pipe organ is in motion. When you turn on the blower, reservoirs fill, wind conductors are stressed by pressure, leather moves, the fabric of the instrument creaks and groans as it assumes its readiness to play. When you play a note, valves open, springs are tensioned, air flows, flecks of debris move around. When you play a piece of music, all those motions are multiplied by thousands. The Doxology (Old Hundredth) comprises 32 four-part chords. That’s 128 notes. Play it on a single stop and you’ve moved 128 note valves, plus all the attendant primaries, magnet armatures, stop and relay switches. Play the same 32 chords on a big organ using 90 stops (nothing out of the ordinary)—11,520 valves. And that’s just the Doxology. I’ll let you do the math for a big piece by Bach or Widor that has lots of hemi-demi-semi-quavers. I suppose Wendy and I heard the St. Thomas organ play millions of notes yesterday in that 8:00 Mass. There would be another identical Mass at 11:00, an organ recital at 2:30, and Solemn Evensong at 3:00. A wicked workday for the musicians, and a fifty-million-note day for the organ. Just think of all those busy little valves—millions of tiny movements to create a majestic body of sound.
And the organ wears out. Over the decades of service that is the life of a great organ, technicians move around through the instrument tuning, adjusting, and repairing. Musicians practice, tourists receive demonstrations, liturgies come and go. That organ blower gets turned on and off dozens of times each week. The daylight streams through the windows, but the daylights get beaten out of the organ.
I’ve been in and out of St. Thomas Church many times. I’ve heard plenty of brilliant organists play there, and I’ve never been disappointed by what I heard. But I’ve known for years that the chancel organ is in trouble. It has played billions of notes. It’s been rebuilt a number of times. And it’s simply worn out. It’s a rare church musician who would intentionally offer less than the best possible to the congregation—or to God—during worship. And musicians of the caliber one hears at St. Thomas are masters at getting water from stone. As an organbuilder with a trained and experienced ear, I’m aware of the organ’s shortcomings. But as a worshipper, I’m transported.


I single out St. Thomas Church because we worshipped there yesterday. I know those responsible for the organ, so I know something about its real condition. And prominent on the church’s website is an appeal for gifts to support the commissioning of a very expensive new organ. There were even letters from the rector and organist inserted in the Easter service booklet repeating that appeal. An elderly woman, impeccably dressed and obviously of means (she was wearing the value of a fancy car on her fingers), arrived a little after us and joined us in our pew. When the processional hymn started, she let loose a singing voice of unusual power and beauty. I whispered to Wendy, “She’ll give the new organ.” We chuckled, but a piece of me says I could have been right. I hope so.
Our church buildings are designed with expensive architectural elements. Including steeples, towers, stained-glass windows, to say nothing of Gothic arches and carvings in wood and stone, they all add mightily to the cost of building a church. But once it’s all there, we think of it as a whole. It would be hard to look back on the history of St. Thomas Church and say the tower was actually unnecessary. Of course they built a tower.
The organ is right up there on the list of expensive indulgences. How can we say we actually need such a thing? But how can we imagine Easter without it? There’s still plenty of wind available. At least there’s no fuel bill.


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