Thursday, August 13, 2015

Easter at St. Thomas Church, Rest in Peace, John Scott

In the wind…

June 2011

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’ 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 organ building 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’ 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 two hundred 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 pulls 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, Dupre’s Poem Heroique, and Richard Strauss’ Feierlicher Enzug -  a mighty amount of music for that hour of the day.  The Mass setting was the premier of John Scott’s Missa Dies Resurrectionis. 

John Scott must be the greatest addition to American church music since electric organ blowers.  His immense 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 Dialogue, 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 thirty boys and twenty 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 2000 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 eighty 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.  The country across, 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 thirty-two 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 thirty-two chords on a big organ using ninety 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 which 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 adds 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 as 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.


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.