Saturday, June 13, 2015

"The Floor Squeaks"

In the wind…
May, 2015

What a winter.
Our son Andy writes for a daily news service at the State House in Boston and gets to see his prose on line and in print the next day.  Writing for a monthly journal is a little different.  You’re reading in May, and I can only hope that the giant gears that drive the universe continued to function properly and the weather is warm. 

I’m writing in March on the first day of spring.  I’m in my office at our place in Newcastle, Maine, looking across the Damariscotta River, a dramatic and beautiful tidal river.  We’re eight miles up from the Gulf of Maine and the Atlantic Ocean, and the tide chart says that we’ll have an eleven-foot high tide just before 11:00 this morning, a couple hours from now, so the ice floes are drifting north toward town with the tide.  I can barely see the sea ice on the river, because my usual view is all but obscured by the piles of snow outside.

A couple weeks ago, the weatherman predicted a heavy snowfall to be followed by rain.  There were already several feet of snow on the roof, so we hired some local guys to shovel the roof, fearing that the added weight would be too much.  Those piles added to the drifts already in place to leave six feet on the ground outside my windows.

We’ve spent a lot of time outside this week in eight-degree weather because we have a new puppy, and in spite of the cold, we’ve heard the calls of Eastern Phoebes and Cardinals right on schedule.  The wicked weather must be unsettling for these denizens of springtime in coastal Maine.  Think of the poor Ovenbirds, who get their name from the oven-shaped nests they build on the forest floor.

We’ve had about 90-inches of snow here this winter, which is plenty, but it’s a foot-and-a-half short of the all-time record of 108-inches set in Boston this year.  Last weekend, friends and family there were rooting for the predicted snowfall to exceed the two inches needed to break the record – “if we’ve been through all this…” I trust they’re happy with their bitter reward. 

Subways stopped running, roofs collapsed, and houses burned down because fire hydrants were buried deep beneath the snow.  Local school officials are debating whether to bypass legislated minimum numbers of school days, because it’s simply not possible to make up all the days lost to cancellations through the winter.  And the New York Times quoted the city’s guide to street defects which defines a pothole as “a hole in the street with a circular or oval-like shape and a definable bottom.”  An actionable pothole is one that’s at least a foot in diameter and three inches deep.  I wonder what they call a hole that doesn’t have a definable bottom.

But baby, it’s cold outside.
It’s been a terrible season for pipe organs.  Long stretches of unusually cold weather have caused furnaces to run overtime, wringing the last traces of moisture out of the air inside church buildings.  Concerts have been postponed, and blizzards have sent furious drafts of cold air through old stained-glass windows, causing carefully regulated and maintained pitches to go haywire.  One Saturday night, a colleague posted on Facebook that the Pastor of his church called saying there would be “no church” tomorrow.  The sewers had frozen and the town closed public buildings.

One organ we care for outside of Boston developed a sharp screech lasting a few seconds when the organ was turned on or off.  After spending a half-hour tracking it down, it was easy to correct by tightening a couple screws and eliminating a wind leak, but it had been a startling disruption on a Sunday morning. 

A church in New York City that is vacant because it merged with a neighboring congregation suffered terrible damage when an electric motor overheated, tripping a circuit breaker for the entire (poorly designed) hot-water heating system.  Pipes froze and ruptured, the nave floor flooded ankle deep, and the building filled with opaque steam.  A week later, when heat was restored, steam vented, and water drained and mopped up, the white-oak floorboards started expanding, buckling into eight-inch high mounds, throwing pews on their backs, and threatening to topple the marble baptismal font.

My phone line and email inbox have been crackling with calls about ciphers and dead notes, swell boxes sticking and squeaking, and sticking keys – all things that routinely happen to pipe organs during periods of unusual dryness.  And I can predict the reverse later in the season – maybe just when you’re finally reading this – as weather moderates, humidity increases, heating systems are turned off, and organs swell up to their normal selves.

The floor squeaks, the door creaks…
So sings the hapless Jud Fry in a dark moment in the classic Broadway musical, Oklahoma.  He’s lamenting his lot, pining after the girl, and asserting to himself that the smart-aleck cowhand who has her attention is not any better than he.  The lyrics pop into my head as I notice the winter’s affects on the woodwork that surrounds me.  We have a rock maple cutting board inserted in the tile countertop next to the kitchen sink.  The grout lines around it are all broken because the wood has shrunk.  The hardwood boards of the landings in our stairwells are laid so they’re free to expand and contract.  Right now, there are 5/16” gaps between them – by the time you read this, the gaps will be closed tight.  I need to time it right to vacuum the dust out of the cracks before they close.  And the seasonal gaps between the ash floorboards of the living and dining rooms are wider than ever.

The teenager trying to sneak up the front stairs after curfew is stymied in winter, because the stair treads and risers have shrunk due to dryness, and the stairs squeak as the feet of the culprit cause the separate boards to move against each other.

The other day, working in my home office in New York, I heard a startling snap from my piano, as if someone had struck it with a hammer.  I ran up the keyboard and found the note that had lost string tension.  Plate tectonics.  Good thing the tuner is coming next week. 

As I move around in quiet church buildings, I hear the constant cracking and popping of woodwork changing size.  Ceiling beams, floorboards, and pews are all susceptible.  But it’s inside the organ where things are most critical.  The primary rail of a Pitman chest shrinks a little, opening a gap in the gasketed joint, and three adjacent notes go dead in the bass octave of the C-sharp side because the exhaust channels can no longer hold pressure.  And there’s a chronic weather thing in Aeolian-Skinner organs:  The ground connections to the chest magnets are only about a quarter-inch long, and near the screws that hold the magnet rails to the chest frames, where the wood moves with weather changes, the ground wires yank themselves free of their solder and cause dead notes.

Let’s talk about pitch.
Fact: temperature affects the pitch of organ pipes.  You might think this is because the metal of the pipes expands and contracts as temperature changes, and while that is technically true, the amount of motion is so slight as to have minimal affect.  The real cause is changes in the density of the air surrounding and contained by the organ’s pipes.  Warmer air is less dense.  If a pipe is tuned at 70°, it will only be in tune at that temperature.  If that pipe is played at 60°, the pitch will be lower; if it’s played at 80°, the pitch will be higher.

While it’s true that all the pipes involved in a temperature change will change pitch together (except the reeds), it’s almost never true that a temperature change will affect an entire organ in the same way.  In a classic organ of Werkprinzip design, with Divisions stacked one above another, a cold winter day might mean that the pipes at the top of the organ are super-heated (because warm air rises), while the pipes near floor level are cold. 

There are all kinds of problems inherent in the classic layout of a chancel organ with chambers on each side.  If the walls of one chamber are outside walls of the building, while the walls of the other back up against classrooms and offices, a storm with cold winds will split the tuning of the organ.  I know several organs like this where access is by trap doors in the chamber floor.  Leaving the trap doors open allows cold air to “dump” into the stairwells, drawing warmer air in through the façade from the Chancel.  This helps balance temperature between two organ chambers.

One organ I care for has Swell and Great in the rear Gallery on either side of a large leaky window.  The pipes of the Swell are comfortably nestled inside a heavy expression enclosure, while the Great is out in the open, bared to the tempest.  A windy storm was all it took to wreck the tuning of the organ as cold air tore through the window to freeze the Great.  It only stayed that way for a few days, until the storm was over, the heating system got caught up, and the temperatures around the building returned to usual.  Trouble was, the organ scholar played his graduate recital on one of those days, and there was precious little to do about it.

One of the most difficult times I’ve had as an organ tuner was more than twenty years ago, caring for a huge complicated organ in a big city.  The church’s choir and organists were doing a series of recording sessions in July, preparing what turned out to be a blockbuster bestselling CD of Christmas music, on a schedule for release in time for the holiday shopping season.  It was hot as the furnaces of hell outside, hotter still in the lofty reaches of the organ chambers, and the organ’s flue pipes went so high in pitch that the reeds could not be tuned to match.  It was tempting to try, and goodness knows the organists were pressing for it, but I knew I was liable to cause permanent damage to the pipes if I did.  It was a surreal experience, lying on a pew in the wee hours of the morning, wearing shorts and a tee-shirt, sweating to the strains of those famous arrangements by David Willcocks and John Rutter rendered on summertime tuning.

§

Mise en place.
I started doing service calls maintaining pipe organs in 1975, when I was apprenticing with Jan Leek in Oberlin, Ohio.  Jan was the organ and harpsichord technician for the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, and had an active maintenance business on the side.  I worked with him three days a week when I was a student, and loved driving around the countryside and rolling from church to church.  (Many of my peers were trapped on that rural campus by a college that didn’t allow students to own cars.)  I suppose in those days we did fifty or sixty service calls each year, and as my career expanded, there were some periods during which I was caring for well over a hundred organs, visiting each at least twice a year.  I suppose the annual average has been around sixty a year, or 2400 since those naïve days in Ohio. 

Each organ has peculiarities, and each has its own environment of climate and acoustics.  The tuner-technician has to learn about each organ and how it relates to the building, as well as learning the ropes of the building itself.  Over the years you learn where to find a stepladder, how to get the keys to the blower room, and most important, where is the best lunch in town.1 

And speaking of peculiarities, organists crown ‘em all.  A professional chef has his mise en place – his personal layout of ingredients, seasonings, and implements that he needs to suit his particular style of work and the dishes he’s preparing.  It includes his set of knives (don’t even think of asking to borrow them!), quick-read meat thermometer, whisk, along with an array of seasonings, freshly chopped or minced garlic, parsley, basil, ground black and white peppercorns, sea salt, and several different cooking oils.

Likewise, the organist, both professional and amateur, sets up his own mise en place – cluttering the organ console with hairbrushes, nail clippers, sticky-notes, paper clips, cough drops, bottled water, even boxes of cookies.  Sometimes the scenes are surprisingly messy, and these are not limited to those consoles that only the organist can see.  Next time you’re at the church, take a look at your mise en place.  Does it look like the workplace of a professional?  If you were a chef, would anyone seeing your workspace want to eat your food? 

Care for the space around the organ console.  Ask your organ technician to use some furniture polish, and to vacuum under the pedalboard.2 Keep your piles of music neat and orderly, or better yet, store them somewhere else.  Remember that what you might consider to be your desk or workbench – the equivalent of the chef’s eight-burner Vulcan – is part of everyone’s worship space.

Everywhere you go, there you are.
There’s another aspect of visiting many different churches that troubles me more and more.  As a profession, we worry about the decline of the church, and the parallel reduction in the number or percentage of active churches that include the pipe organ and what we might generally call “traditional” music.  But as I travel from one organ loft to another, peruse Sunday bulletins and Parish Hall Bulletin Boards, I’m struck but how much sameness there is.  What if suddenly you were forbidden to play these pieces:
·      Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (you know the composer)
·      Toccata and Fugue in D minor (ibid)
·      Nun danket alle Gott … (which of the two?)
·      Sheep may safely graze…
·      Canon in D
·      Hornpipe
·      Etc., etc.

Each of these is a beautiful piece.  There are good reasons why we all play all of them, and congregations love them.  The same applies to choral music.  We could get the sense that if we took away “ten greatest hits,” no organist could play for another wedding.  Take away a different “ten greatest hits,” and no organist could play another ordinary Sunday worship service.

I know very well that when you’re planning wedding music, it’s difficult to get the bride (or especially, the bride’s mother) to consider interesting alternatives.  And I know very well that when you play that famous Toccata, the faithful line up after the service to share the excitement.  It would be a mistake to delete those pieces from your repertoire.

But if we seem content to play the same stuff over and over, why should we expect our thousands of churches to spend millions of dollars acquiring and maintaining the tools of our trade?  Many people think that the organ is yesterday’s news, and I think it’s important for us to advocate that it’s the good news of today and tomorrow.

The grill cooks in any corner diner can sustain a business using the same menu year after year, but if the menu in the “chef restaurant” with white tablecloths and stemware never comes up with anything new, their days are numbered.

This summer, when many church activities go on vacation, learn a few new pieces to play on the organ.  Find a couple new anthems to share with the choir in the fall.  You might read the reviews of new music found each month in the journals, or make a point of attending reading sessions for new music hosted by a chapter of the American Guild of Organists.  Here’s a real challenge for you – work out a program of preludes and postludes for the coming year without repeating any pieces.  Can you rustle up a hundred different titles?  You never know – you might find a new classic.  Remember – every chestnut you play was once new music!

1.     In the days when I was doing hundreds of tunings a year, I made a point to schedule tunings so as to ensure a property variety of lunches.  As much as you may like it, one doesn’t want sushi four days in a row!  It was tempting to schedule extra tunings for some of the churches – there was this Mexican place next to First Lutheran… Wendy would say I have a lot to show for it. 

2.     It’s traditional for the organ technician to keep all the pencils found under the pedalboard.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Loft Apartments

In the wind…
January 2013

Loft apartments.
“Built on the Rock the church doth stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
Bells are still chiming and calling;
Calling the young and old to rest,
But above all the soul distressed,
Longing for rest everlasting.”1

Choir loft, that is.
Elizabeth Bolton, a Caldwell Banker residential real estate broker in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has launched a website called Centers and Squares.  On the home page, under the headline Condos in Renovated Churches, she writes:
“Churches and synagogues converted to condos often result in dramatic spaces with soaring ceilings, beautiful oversized windows, and preserved architectural details.  A number of former churches have been turned in condos in Cambridge, Somerville, and Watertown.  Loft buyers will appreciate the wide open spaces in these reused buildings.”

Scroll down the page and you find photos of eight different former church buildings, with accompanying listings:
“The church at 101 Third Street in East Cambridge is one of the oldest church buildings in Cambridge.  Built in 1827 as a Unitarian Church it became the Holy Cross Church in 1940.  In 2000 it was converted to four luxury condos.  The condos range in size from 1300 to 3160 sq.ft. and sold for $585,000 to $1,300,000.

I worked on the organ in that church in the early 1980’s, and remember watching a favorite off-set Yankee™ ratchet screwdriver fall through a hole in the floor, and then waiting a long time to hear it hit bottom.  I wonder if a worker found it when they were demolishing the building’s interior.  If so, I hope he appreciated it – it’s a classic and useful tool that’s impossible to replace.

Other features noted in Ms. Bolton’s listings include “heated indoor garage,” and “ceiling heights soar to 60ft.” in one of the units.  The trouble with ceilings that high is that the Christmas tree costs five grand.  But what a great place for a radio-operated helipcopter – the ideal Christmas gift for a kid (or daddy) living in a converted organ loft.  One of the properties is called “Bell Tower Place,” another is “The Sanctuary Lofts.”

In my work with the Organ Clearing House, I’ve been in and out of countless buildings destined to become loft apartments.  I can picture the story the instant a developer introduces himself on the phone.  (You’ll accuse me of profiling, but real estate people and church people have different telephone voices.)  “I bought an old church and I need to sell the organ.”  My first question is, “what’s the schedule?”  “Demo starts on Wednesday.”  Recently we closed a deal in which a large Möller organ in Buffalo, New York is being given to a church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, because the developer that purchased the property allowed enough time before demolition.

Having seen quite a few of these completed projects, I can tell you that it takes a really skillful architect to make usable comfortable living spaces from old church buildings.  I’ve seen the top four feet of a large gothic stained-glass window rising from a dining room floor – The Ascension of Christ from the navel up.  I’ve seen a ten-by-ten foot home office with a wood ceiling sloping from twenty feet on one side to twenty-four on the other.  Changing the battery in the smoke alarm is an ordeal.  And I’ve seen a bathtub in a fourth-floor bathroom, placed in what was the top eight feet of an apse.  Picture yourself showering against a liturgical backdrop.

A grand stone church building in Meriden, Connecticut was purchased by a comedian who planned to create a comedy club.  The belly-gripping name of this inspirational venue, “God, That’s Funny!”  (I’m not kidding.)  The magnificent three-manual 1893 Johnson Organ (Opus 788) has been on the OCH website for years.  In response to a recent inquiry, I tried to track down the owner, who was of course long gone.  (I guess God didn’t think it was funny.)  A few calls around town revealed that two different worshipping communities had subsequently purchased the building.  I drove through town yesterday hoping to track down the present owners to see if the organ is still intact.  There was a fancy electronic sign out front, flashing information about weather, time and date, bible study, and Sunday “Praise!”, but no phone number.  A Google™ search revealed a phone number that rang endlessly with no chance to leave a message.  I guess I should go by on a Sunday morning.

§

Yet another committee.
We’re all familiar with the traditional list of church committee: Memorials, Flower, Property, Finance, Education, and Music.  Lots of church members think that the Nominating Committee is the worst assignment because you spend your three-year stint listening to people explaining why they have to say “NO.”  I remember chiming in once along those lines when I was asked to be on the Nominating Committee.  But I think the worst assignment for a church member is the Dispersement Committee.  (Spellcheck says there’s no such word – but I’ve worked with several of them, so I know it’s true.)  These are typically the last members standing, the most loyal, diehard people in the pews.  By the time the Dispersement Committee gets down to work, the work of the Dissolution Committee is finished.  The corporation has been closed, the denominational leaders have followed the rules of deconsecrating the property, the last service has been held, the building has been put on the market, the congregation has found new spiritual homes (or not), and all that’s left to do is empty the building.

Anyone who’s been involved with the life of a church can picture the list:
·      533 hymnals
·      346 pew bibles
·      7 rolling coat racks with Christmas Pageant costumes
·      217 metal folding chairs, some with broken legs
·      22 folding banquet tables
·      26 adult choir robes, 33 child choir robes
·      433 monogrammed teacups with saucers
·      275 ten-inch dinner plates (ivory with green edge stripe)
·      grand piano
·      4 upright pianos (one blue, one black, two white)
·      58 small bottles Elmer’s™ glue
·      6 framed 8x10 “Smiling Jesus”
·      7 boxes elbow macaroni, 2 cans gold spray paint
·      3 step ladders (6-foot, 8-foot, 12-foot), poor condition
·      1 Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, 49 ranks, 1937 (G. Donald Harrison)

When a church has reached this stage, about the best thing that can happen is a crew arriving to dismantle the organ.  When the organ has been sold and renovation has been planned, the members of the Dispersement Committee take solace in knowing that some last breath of their beloved church will blow its inspiration across another congregation. Committee members arrive early in the morning with family photos they’ve taken off the walls in their homes – photos of their parents’ weddings and funeral, their children’s baptisms and confirmations, or the sanctuary decked out in Christmas finery.  In each photo, that organ is standing proudly in the background, a monument to a century or more of parish life – celebrations, tragedies, triumphs, and disappointments.

As we thunder through the nearly abandoned building setting up scaffolding, building pipe trays, and unpacking tools, taking down the first façade pipes, we see people sitting quietly in the rear pews with tears streaming down their cheeks.

§

A movable feast.
Through the disappointment and sadness of the loss of a church, the organ lives on, and it’s fun to be able to share a couple stories in which the relocation of an organ brought a little light to a story. 

In the middle of 2011, Christ Episcopal Church in South Barre, Massachusetts closed its doors, and most of the remaining parishioners transferred their memberships to St. Francis’ Church in nearby Holden.  The Diocese of Western Massachusetts contacted us to place the organ in a new home, and after only a few brief conversations, someone had a bright idea.  (As my colleague Amory often quips, “Light dawned over Marblehead!”)  The outdated and malfunctioning electronic instrument in the Chancel at St. Francis’ Church needed only a little push to make way for the quick installation of the lovely 1910 Hook & Hastings organ (Opus 2344).  How lovely for the members of Christ Church to be welcomed into a new congregation with the opportunity to bring a beautiful and living piece of their church with them.  It took a little over three weeks to make the move, and as I write, the relocated organ is to be dedicated in a recital by Robert Barney the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Some twenty years earlier, the First Unitarian Church in Woburn, Massachusetts closed.  The three-manual 1870 E. & G.G. Hook organ (Opus 553) was sold to a church in Berlin, Germany.  The money from that sale was entrusted to church member Charley Smith, who salted it away confident that a good use for the funds would come up someday.  And in 1995, the Stoneham (Massachusetts, two miles from Woburn) Unitarian Church closed. The two manual 1868 E. & G.G. Hook organ (Opus 466) was placed in storage, and advertised in a U.U.A. District Newsletter as available, “free to a good home.”

The Follen Community Church (UUA) in Lexington, Massachusetts (five miles in the other direction from Woburn) was studying the home-built instrument in its historic sanctuary when their Minister noticed the bit about the Hook organ and handed it off to the chair of the committee.  It didn’t take long for the arrangements to be made and the Bishop Organ Company was engaged to renovate and install the organ in Lexington.  Charley Smith got wind of all this, and presented the Follen Church with the funds from the sale of the Woburn organ to support the organ’s maintenance and to assist in the presentation of annual organ recitals.  Charley passed away before the project was complete, but his widow and several past members of the Woburn church were in attendance when the Stoneham organ was dedicated in its new home.  Two organs, three Massachusetts towns, one European city, and a lot of good will in the face of disappointment.

§

The Sistine Condos
The New Yorker magazine is an intelligent literary periodical, packed chock-full of commentary, fiction, poetry, reviews, and in-depth feature stories.  It’s published weekly so it’s difficult to keep up.  I’ve subscribed online which means I have a year of issues archived on my iPad.  I think that combination of content and format is the ideal companion for long flights.  I often fly long round trips over a single weekend for consultation engagements, and love to spend that time catching up.  The New Yorker is definitely a product of the American Northeast, and it’s possible that some of you may disagree with the editorial content.  But anyone who follows the arts in this country would do well to read the opening ten pages or so each week.  “Goings On About Town” is a regular feature that announces events in popular and classical music, museum exhibitions, dance, opera, recitals, theater, and cinema.  Each week’s issue gives a succinct overview of what’s happening in the forefront of American culture. 

Along with the serious, thoughtful, and often humorous prose, each issue’s cover is an original artwork that comments on some timely issue, and each issue is bestrewn with delightful, often provocative cartoons.  Anyone who has walked the sidewalks of New York City is familiar with the ubiquitous double-decker tour bus.  The upper deck is typically open, and they careen around the city giving tourists a neck-snapping, neck-craning view of the city.  One New Yorker cover showed two of those behemoths from recognizable rival firms, dressed up as nineteeth-century two-level frigates under full sail, fire broadsides at each other as they passed through Times Square.  Another showed Aesop’s Hare hailing a taxi while the Tortoise descended the steps into the subway.  Perfect.

When this cartoon appeared in the September 10, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, it caught my eye.  In fact, it caught more than my eye – it struck a nerve, and took my breath away.  I’ve seen decorated Victorian organ cases that were spray-painted over (sky blue) because a long-deceased rector thought the organ detracted from his preaching.  I’ve seen historic organs wrecked because alarm company employees tramped across the windchests as they stapled wires in place.  (I hope all those nasty pipes cut their ankles.)  I’ve visited Diocesan warehouses and seen the Procession of Saints, orphaned by demolished buildings and bedecked in bubble-wrap, waiting for another church to offer them a home.  And I’ve seen frescos concealed by new plaster and paint because there wasn’t enough money to do it right.

It’s unthinkable that the Sistine Chapel would ever be subdivided into condominium residences, and Michelangelo’s masterpiece ceiling painted over.  We’ve seen otherwise mild-mannered and rational people crashing across the waves of the open ocean in rubber boats, chasing after Russian and Japanese whaling ships.  Imagine the phalanx of art historians and preservationists who would circle their wagons around the Vatican if word got out!

But every day, in many countries, beautiful church buildings and their decorations are falling.  Aging congregations can no longer support the grand buildings left for them by previous generations.  A typical church sanctuary (60’ x 40’ x 40’) encloses about a  hundred thousand cubic feet.  If the congregation dwindles to a hundred people, that’s a thousand cubic feet to heat for each congregant.



What are you doing here?  We love our organ!

1.     Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, in Sang-Vaerk til den Danske Kirk, 1837 (Kirk­en Den Er Gam­melt Hus); trans­lat­ed from Da­nish to Eng­lish by Carl Døving, 1909, and Fred C. M. Han­sen, 1958



Hook & Hastings #2344 (1910) in South Barre, MA, before relocation by the Organ Clearing House.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

In the wind…
September, 2013

The Start of a Century
At 10:24 am on October 15, 1947, Air Force Test Pilot Chuck Yaeger flew the X-1 experimental aircraft faster than the speed of sound.  That’s 761.2 miles per hour at 59-degrees Fahrenheit.  It was quite a technological achievement.  You have to generate a lot of power to move a machine that fast.  But there was a spiritual and metaphysical aspect to that feat.  Engineers were confident that they could produce sufficient power, but they were not sure that a machine would survive the shock wave generated by a machine outrunning its own noise.  They supposed that the plane would vaporize, or at least shatter, scattering Yaeger-dust across the landscape.

In his swaggering ghost-written autobiography, Yaeger, he casually mentions that he had broken ribs (probably garnered in a barroom brawl) and had to rig a broomstick to close the cockpit hatch.  He took off, flew the daylights out of the thing, and landed, pretty much just like any other flight.  By the noise, and by the cockpit instruments, he knew he had broken the sound barrier, but to Yaeger’s undoubted pleasure and later comfort, the worries of the skeptics proved untrue.

Invisible barriers.
Remember Y2K?  As the final weeks of 1999 ticked by, residents of the world wondered if we would survive the magical mystical moment between December 31, 1999, and January 1, 2000.  Of course, the world has survived some twenty-five changes of millennia since we started to count time, but this would be the first time with computers.  The myth that computers would not be able to count to 2000 had us hyperventilating as we ran to ATM to grab as much cash as we could.  People refused to make plans that would have them aloft in airplanes at that horrible moment, supposing that cockpit computers would fail and planes would fall from the sky.  The collapse of the world’s economy was predicted.  Public utilities would cease to function.  Nuclear power plants would overheat, and soufflés would fall.

As the clock ticked closer to midnight on New Year’s Eve, we waited breathlessly.  Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen…sometimes it causes me to tremble…eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven…all good children go to heaven…four, three, two one…

Humpf.

I have no idea how the venerable astronomers settled on how to organize the calendar and define our concept of time.  I imagine a committee of bearded and wizened wise men gathered in a pub, throwing darts at a drawing of a clock.  However they did it, they didn’t fool us.  Cell phones, ATMs, airplanes, power plants, railroads, and thank goodness, icemakers just kept on running.  However accurately that moment was defined, it was meaningless – a randomly identified milestone amongst the multitude.

Then we worried about what we call those years.  The oughts?  The Ohs?  Shifting from ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine to oh-one, oh-two, oh-three seemed impossible.  I managed, and so did you.

Centennials.
The twentieth century started without the computer induced hoopla, but I suppose that our heroes Widor, Puccini, Saint-Saens, Dvorak, and Thomas Edison watched in suspense as the clock ticked past the witching hour.  The real upheaval happened over thirteen years later.  On May 29, 1913, Ballets Russe danced the premier of Igor Stravinski’s Rite of Spring at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.  Stravinski had used traditional and familiar instruments and all the same notes that people were used to, but the way he arranged the tonalities, the maniacal organization of rhythms, the angular melodies, and the radical orchestration set the place in an uproar.  The bassoon that played those haunting melismatic opening solos could have been used to play continuo in a Bach Cantata the same day.  Legend has it that the audience couldn’t contain itself and there was wild disturbance.  How wonderful for a serious musical composition to stir people up like that.  I haven’t seen people so worked up since the Boston Bruins failed to win the Stanley Cup.

Everything’s up to date in Kansas City.
About five weeks before Stravinsky tried to ruin the theater in Paris, the Woolworth Building designed by Cass Gilbert was opened on Lower Broadway in New York, April 24, 1913.  Like Stravinsky, Cass Gilbert used a traditional vocabulary – the prickles and arches given us by the Gothic Cathedrals.  But Rogers & Hammerstein’s “gone and built a skyscraper seven stories high” was not as high as a building ought to go.  Cass Gilbert went fifty-seven stories – 792 feet – the building remained the tallest in the world until 1930.  Gilbert hung those classic Gothic features on a high-tech structure and startled the world of architecture and commerce.

Besides the technical achievement of supporting a massive structure that tall, the building had thirty-four new-fangled elevators.  The engineers executing Gilbert’s design had to figure out to get water more than seven hundred feet up.  Just think of that, pulling up to the curb in a shiny new 1913 Chalmers Touring Car, and stepping in an elevator to go up fifty-seven stories.  Those folks in Kansas City would have flipped their wigs.

The Woolworth building is still there a hundred years later.  Like Rite of Spring, it’s a staple in our lives, and it seems a little less radical than it did a century ago.  After all, a few blocks away at 8 Spruce Street, by the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, the new tallest residential building in the Americas (seventy-six stories and 876 feet), designed by Frank Gehry, towers like a maniacal grove of polished corkscrews.  Gehry took the functional aesthetic of the glass-and-steel Seagram Building (375 Park Avenue, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, built in 1958), and gave it a cubist ethic by twisting the surfaces to create the signature rippling effects.

How poetic that the Woolworth Building and 8 Spruce Street, opened almost exactly a century apart, stand just a few blocks apart, trying to out-loom each other.  I took these photos of them standing in the same spot on City Hall Plaza.

Frank Woolworth made a fortune in retail, the Sam Walton of his day.  F.W. Woolworth stores dotted the country, making goods of reasonable quality available to residents of small towns.  However, I doubt that anything sold in his stores would have been found in his houses.  His principal residence, also designed by Cass Gilbert, was at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 80th Street in Manhattan, across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Among dozens of priceless artifacts was a large three-manual Aeolian Organ.  Woolworth was one of Aeolian’s prime customers, and rare among that heady clientele, he could play the organ. 

His estate Winfield (the “W” of F. W. Woolworth) on Long Island boasted the first full-length thirty-two-foot Double Open Diapason to be built for a residence organ.  Now that would shake your champagne glasses.

Woolworth’s funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  Frank Taft, artistic director of the Aeolian Company, was on the organ bench.

The Twenty-First Century Pipe Organ
There’s a lot going on here in lower Manhattan.  South of Union Square at 14th Street, Broadway stops its disruptive diagonal path across the city, and assumes a more reliable north-south orientation, forming the border between Greenwich East Village and Greenwich West Village.  On the corner of 10th and Broadway stands Grace Church (Episcopal).  Three blocks west on the corner of 10th and Fifth Avenue stands Church of the Ascension (Episcopal).  Both are “Gothicky” buildings – Grace is whitish with a tall pointed spire while Ascension is brownish with a stolid square tower with finials.  Both have pretty urban gardens.  Both are prosperous active places.  And both have radical new twenty-first century organs.

Taylor & Boody of Staunton, Virginia are coming toward completion of the installation of their Opus 65 at Grace Church where Patrick Allen is the Organist and Master of the Choristers.  Pascal Quoirin of Saint-Didier, Provence, France has completed installation of a marvelous instrument at Church of the Ascension where Dennis Keene is Organist and Choirmaster.

Both of these organs have as their cores large tracker-action organs based on historic principles – and Principals.  And both have large romantic divisions inspired by nineteenth and twentieth-century ideals.  Both are exquisite pieces of architecture and furniture, and both have been built by blending the highest levels of traditional craftsmanship with modern materials and methods.

At Church of the Ascension you can play the core organ from a three-manual mechanical keydesk and the entire instrument from a separate four-manual electric console.  At Grace Church, the whole organ plays from a four-manual detached mechanical console, and contacts under the keyboards allow access to electric couplers and the few high-pressure windchests that operate on electric action.

A more detailed account of the organ at Church of the Ascension has been published, and no doubt, we can expect one about the Grace Church organ – so I’ll limit myself to general observations, and let the organbuilders and musicians involved speak for themselves.  I admire the courage and inventiveness exhibited in the creation of these two remarkable instruments.

I expect that purists from both ends of the spectrum will be critical, or at least skeptical of these efforts to bridge the abyss.  But I raise the question of whether purism, or conservative attitudes are the best things for the future of our instrument.  We study history, measure pipes, analyze metal compositions, and study the relationships between ancient instruments and the music written for them.  We have to do that, and we must do that. 

After finishing the restoration and relocation of a beautiful organ built by E. & G.G. Hook (Opus 466, 1868) for the Follen Community Church in Lexington, Massachusetts, I wrote an essay in the dedication book under the title, The Past Becomes the Future.  In it I wrote about the experience of working on such a fine instrument, marveling at the precision of the workers’ pencil lines, and the vision of conceiving an instrument that would be vital and exciting a hundred-forty years later.  I saw that project as a metaphor for a combination of eras.  And I intended the double meaning for the word becomes.  The past not only transfers to the future, but it enhances the future.  I could carry the play on words further by misquoting the title of a popular movie, Prada Becomes the Devil!

Another tense of that use of the word become is familiar to us from Duprés Fifteen Antiphons, I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.  We don’t typically use the word that way in conversation, but if you read in a Victorian poem, “she of comely leg,” you’d know exactly what it meant!

Speaking of the Ballet…
Recently, renowned organist Diane Belcher mentioned on Facebook that the recording she made in ­­­­­­1999 (JAV 115) on the Rosales/Glatter-Götz organ in the Claremont United Church of Christ, Claremont, California has been released on iTunes.  Buy it.  This is a smashing recording of wonderful playing on a really thrilling organ.  It’s a big three-manual instrument with mechanical action and a wide variety of tone color.  The recording has long been a favorite of mine – I transferred it from the original CD to my iPhone and listen to it in the car frequently.

The first piece on the recording is Tiento de Batalla sobre la Balletto del Granduca by Timothy Tikker, was commissioned by the organbuilder to showcase the organ’s extraordinary collection of reed voices.  The piece opens with a statement of a measured dance, familiar to organists who grew up listening to the recording of E. Power Biggs, and proceeds in a dignified fashion from verse to verse.  I picture a large stone hall lit by torches, with heavily costumed people in parade.  But about three minutes in, things start to go wrong.  It’s as though someone threw funky mushrooms into one of the torches.  An odd note pokes through the stately procession – you can forgive it because you hardly notice it.  But oops, there’s another – and another – and pretty soon the thing has morphed into a series of maniacal leaps and swoops as the reeds get more and more bawdy.  Tikker established a traditional frame on which he hung a thrilling, sometimes terrifying essay on the power of those Rosales reeds.

New threads on old bones.
·      Igor Stravinski used an ancient vocabulary of notes and sounds to create revolutionary sounds.  The same old sharps and flats, rhythmic symbols, and every-good-boy-deserves-fudge were rejigged to start a revolution.
·      Cass Gilbert used five-hundred year old iconography to decorate a technological wonder.
·      Frank Gehry gave the familiar skyscraper a new twist.
·      Taylor & Boody and Pascal Quoirin have morphed seventeenth and eighteenth languages into twenty-first century marvels.
·      Timothy Tikker painted for us a portrait of the march of time.

Organists are very good at lamenting the passage of the old ways.  Each new translation of the bible or the Book of Common Prayer is cause for mourning.  I won’t mention the introduction of new hymnals.  (Oops!)

We recite stoplists as if they were the essence of the pipe organ.  We draw the same five stops every time we play the same piece on a different organ.  And we criticize our colleagues for starting a trill on the wrong note. 

I don’t think Igor Stravinski cared a whit about which note should start a trill.

The end of the world as we know it.
Together we have witnessed many doomsday predictions.  I’ve not paid close attention to the science of it, but it seems to me that the Mayan Calendar has come and gone in the news several times in the last few years.  A predicted doomsday passes quietly and someone takes another look at the calendar and announces a miscalculation.  Maybe the world will end.  If it does, I suppose it will end for all of us so the playing field will remain equal.

But we can apply this phrase, the end of the world as we know it, to positive developments in our art and craft as the twenty-first century matures.  Your denomination introduces a new hymnal – the end of the world as you know it.  So, learn the new hymnal, decide for yourself what are the strong and weak points, and get on with it.

Chuck Yaeger broke the sound barrier, and kept flying faster and faster.  On October 15, 2012, at the age of 89, Chuck Yaeger reenacted the feat, flying in a brand new F-15 accompanied by a Navy Captain.  But imagine this, it was the same day that Austrian Felix Baumgartner became the first person to break the sound barrier without at airplane!  He jumped from a helium balloon at an altitude of twenty-four miles, and achieved a speed of 843.6 miles per hour as he fell before deploying his parachute.  Both men lived to see another day.

A Taylor & Boody organ with multiple pressures and expressions, powerful voices on electric actions, and seething symphonic strings – the end of the world as we know it.  Embrace the thoughtfulness and creativity that begat it.  And for goodness sake, stop using archaic words like comely and begat.


Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building



Frank Gehry's 8 Spruce Street

Woolworth Building, street level detail.