An Interview With Simon – The Rohlf Report

He completed his Arts degree in 1982 and then started an apprenticeship with J.W. Walker Australia, a branch of the English company in Sydney. Walker tried to establish another branch in Brisbane where Pierce was transferred to. However this didn’t work out and in 1985 they finally closed down the whole Australian branch. Pierce decided to stay and work for Brisbane organbuilder Bert Jarrott. Joining the Humber Car Club, his second great passion, he met his wife and later on his first employee.

David Hudd, one of Pierce’s colleagues from Walker had begun his own business in Brisbane and decided to sell it after only 18 months. Pierce took this opportunity to buy the business and take over the last contract. This was a restoration and installing of a Driver and Lupton organ from 1897 which had just been sold to Australia.

At the same time the Klais company was installing an organ in the Brisbane Concert Hall and asked Pierce to help and to maintain the instrument in the future. Ten years later Pierce contacted the company again to ask for advice because he wanted to work in the USA. Instead he got the offer to work on a team building the new organ for the Cologne Cathedral. An offer which he could not resist. For half a year he moved to Germany with his family and he is thinking of repeating this kind of traineeship in future.

After having experienced the English style of organbuilding in Australia, Pierce got to know the French style of voicing with Klais as their voicer had been trained in France. Upon his return to Brisbane, he applied his new skills during the restoration of an old Whitehouse organ. After the opening concert the organist said to him that he had never heard such a French sound coming out of a Whitehouse organ!

Today Simon Pierce employs two people, Richard Fenney who started his apprenticeship with him in 1987, and Derek Smart who has been employed since 1994. Smart was the last apprentice of the Whitehouse Brothers Compnay, which had been founded in 1898, had about 50 employees in the 1930s and had to close down in 1980. Pierce got to know Smart with Bert Jarrott, who also had worked for Whitehouse. Smart originally founded his own shop of furniture restoration and helped Pierce in building cases, before he finally returned to organbuilding.

About 50% of the work consists of maintenance within the whole state of Queensland, which means spending a lot of time on the road. A major part of the work is maintaining the Willlis organ in the Brisbane City Hall. The other half is repairing or whole restorations of mainly English organs from the turn of the century. This way Simon Pierce gathers experience with organs of builders such as Moeller (American, Bundaberg), Whitehouse (Maryborough, 1910; Ipswich), Norman and Beard (Toowoomba, 1907) or Benson (Surfers Hill, 1888).

v This is how you can learn through other people’s good work, but also through their mistakes, says Pierce. You get to know much about the functioning of the action in the subtropical climate of this region. Pierce applies this knowledge when building new organs. The main problem of the subtropics is not necessarily the high humidity as generally the temperature remains the same, which is very good for the action, but and extreme change in humidity ranging from between 70% and 5%. An action has to be able to cope with these changes in the Queensland climate. Pierce is using balanced action, aluminium pallets and treats the wooden trackers with shellac. For the cases he uses Tasmanian Oak, but for the windchests he prefers plywood for safety reasons and pertinax for the sliders.

So far he has built only three new instruments, but they are already working of the next one, a house organ with 22 stops on two manuals.

List of new organs:

1993 St. George’s Anglican Church, Tamborine Mountain 9/I, 2/P
1996 Chamber organ for Peter Roennfeldt 4/I
1999 Chapel of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane 4/I

For new instruments, but also for restorations one of the most important factors for Pierce is that the organ adapts to the room, not only the outside concerning the style of the case but mainly the sound. The acoustics of churches and concert halls in Australia rarely is of advantage for organs. I think this is a worldwide problem, especially in new buildings, if you don’t have a very musical architect.

Pierce feels an echo of more than two seconds already means an exception in this country. In any case the acoustically ideal position for an instrument has to be found for each room. For that you also have to consider the material of the walls and the ceiling. At the best you then develop the stop list of the instrument and then set up the scalings for the chorus, the mixtures and the reeds. In rooms which are poor of acoustics Pierce tends to use wider scaling with lower cutups. So the sound can develop within the pipe and then spread into the room. His scalings are developed from the William Hill scalings from around 1880. He likes to voice at the pipe’s foot and at the mouth and he is pro nickings.

The Australian organbuilder also has to cope with the special wishes of the organists. Simon Pierce takes his customers to different instruments, plays them and talks about their needs and wishes. Pierce: “We don’t live in a perfect world, we all have limitations, and naturally musical instruments have limitations. The organists then get to understand where the particular limitations are and within these boundaries you expand the organ, develop it and make it as musical as possible.”

“When I am doing the tonal voicing, I like to have the consultant and the organist there. We work together on it. It helps them to be a part of the process. And it is good to have a couple of people there to try out the instrument various times a day, various ways of approaching, with various music. In fact I never had any problem doing this because in the end we always agree. And you do some teaching as well as you learn. Because they can show you what they want to be able to do with the instrument and it is making you realise the possibilities what it should be able to do. And also as you work together doing it, it’s not only one person’s approach to it. It becomes more universal.”

In my eyes this is a good way of teaching organists and consultants, but for sure takes more time. Wouldn’t it be worth a thought of training offers like this for organists, consultants and architects within the ISO? For sure also organbuilders should know a little more about organ literature than some of them do.

Simon Pierce so far has only built small instruments, be he says: “I am quite happy to say that we build small organs!” That should be viewed as a positive thing, because small instruments can become very intimate, and he draws the popular comparison to wine. On only one stop, he says, you can make music all day. If you put the instrument in the right spot of the building, if you have the right scaling you do not need a lot of stops to accompany music and to be a worthwhile instrument.

A pipe organ does not necessarily need two manuals and pedals, you can make music on one manual without pedals. “In Queensland we have plenty of big electric action organs of very round tone, which are basically hymn machines. They are not musical instruments. They do their job in church. But I’m not sure that you can call them beautiful.”

Small instruments do offer different possibilities than big concert organs, which most organists don’t seem to realise, says Pierce. There are different organs for different situations, which again is comparable to wine. Organists of big organs miss out on the feeling of the complete control as the finger on the string and the bow coming together or like the voice, says Pierce. That’s where it should get back to.

Pierce has also undertaken a week of training with the Australian pipe making company George Fincham near Melbourne, which he wants to repeat. Couldn’t the ISO support this kind of extra training in arranging exchange programs? In the Pierce workshop so far some wooden pipes have been built. But now Pierce wants to extend this also to metal pipes, which still is rare in Australian organbuilding. This is also a reason why Pierce plans to start building a new shop which he is hoping to move into next year.

Anja Rohlf
(ORGELBAU ROHLF)