The Origins of the Tour
The origins of this trip lie in two conversations.
The first was with Michael Dudman who was giving a lecture on ‘Organbuilding in the US’ at St Francis’ College, Brisbane in around 1984. Afterwards we talked and I remember his enthusiasm for what he had seen and the developments in organbuilding. This stayed locked at the back of my memory until the next conversation some fifteen years later.
The next conversation was with Manuel Rosales and Lynn Dobson over dinner at the 1998 International Society of Organbuilders conference in Paris. I knew little about organ building in the U.S. and was surprised at the number of U. S. organ builders attending the conference and enjoyed their company and enthusiasm. As we talked, Manuel leaned over and said in his blunt way, ‘ Well, you know, we have plenty of good organbuilding in our country. You should come and have a look for yourself.’ I decided I should take him at his word.
With encouragement from Robert Boughen and John Maidment, I embarked on applying for a Churchill Fellowship.
This in itself was an interesting process as well useful. I had to think about what would be useful to me as an organbuilder working in Queensland, and what the US had to offer. I also had to plan a trip in a foreign country visiting people that I had not met. One of the main difficulties was trying to put into words and communicating ideas about organbuilding. The awarding of the fellowship was a great honour and I must thank the people who helped me as well as, of course, the Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship.
My fellowship proposal was to study Pipe Organ Building in the U. S. A. In particular, I wanted to concentrate on the following: · The study of many small to medium sized pipe organs. · Observing new trends in U. S. organ building · Observing how U. S. builders cope with designing organs for buildings with poor acoustics.
Originally I had intended to concentrate on the work of six organ builders by visiting and studying their factories and work for a week. I hoped to play at least 3 of each organbuilder’s work to get an idea of their style and action.
As can be seen by my programme, my plan changed considerably. Manuel Rosales suggested that I should attend the A.I.O. String Seminar in Chicago as it would be of interest to an organbuilder and I would meet some 32 American organbuilders. This three-day seminar had us voicing string pipes in various styles and wind pressures. It was very useful as well as introducing me to different voicing tools and techniques. I also became aware of the diversity of the people around me. I received many invitations to see their work and this is reflected in my programme.
I know this may seem naïve but I had no idea of the wealth of good work taking place in the U.S.. So, as I travelled I altered my plans so as to play important organs and to meet the organbuilders whose work was well regarded. I wanted to make the most of my time.
In the end, I found that I had achieved:
- Inspecting the workshops and work of 16 organ builders.
- Playing and inspecting over 70 pipe organs.
- Attending an American Institute of Organbuilding 3 day Seminar in Chicago on String Voicing
- Attending the 2001 Organ Historical Society Convention in North Carolina.
- Travelling over 4,200 miles by hire car.
- Taking 12 internal air flights.
- Taking over 900 photos
- Completing a journal of 120 pages of notes and diagrams
I was very impressed by the Americans’ openness and friendliness. Everyone was happy to talk about and show me their work. I could take as many photos as I liked. I would contact them by email and arrange times and obtain the very necessary directions. I visited the following organbuilders and their factories:
This represents a broad range of organbuilders from the small builders to the large Austin factory of 45 employees. Mainly, I looked at mechanical action but also examined some new electric action organs and some with borrowing.
It soon became apparent that I did not need to spend a week at each workshop. I found that I could talk to the main personnel, tour through the factory and then concentrate on the areas that were different to other builders or that took my fancy. I found that I was looking at workshop practices, different tools and the various ways they built their soundboards. Sometimes, I would return to the factory to ask further questions after playing an organ with a feature I liked or which was new to me.
It soon became apparent that another very useful result of this was not only comparing organbuilding techniques, but also general workshop approaches. I saw how various organbuilders organised their workshops, managed their work and a whole range of business techniques. Not only that, but I could then compare this with the results in their work. This was quite useful.
Some of the most important things I noticed were:
At Bedient I was shown a computer programme to cost, plan and check the progress of every job. I had spent 3 years trying to design one and here it was working happily in front of me.
I have problems in my own work with wood warping both in the slides and pallets. I saw many different ways of solving these problems ranging from careful selection of fine wood from the tree, to the use of modern materials. By playing the various examples of each builder and asking the organist of each organ questions about reliability and function, I was able to draw my own conclusions as to the success of their design.
I found that a small workshop, when properly organised, was capable of making up to 30-stops of organ a year including pipework and keyboards.
I compared pipemaking techniques. I found that many of the best builders made their own metal pipes, which is an art in itself. I was able to see how they achieved this and various techniques of casting. I was amazed to find that many important builders made their own reeds including shallots and it was possible for my workshop to do the same.
I tried to play at least three examples of each builder. I would approach each organ in the same manner. I would play a hymn on it, pulling on each stop of the chorus. I would then play either Bach’s E minor Prelude and Fugue (or the C major from the 8 Short Preludes) to gauge the wind and action repetition. A short piece by John Stanley would examine the 8′ Principal and the cornet or solo reed. I would then play various pieces to test the possible colours and repertoire of the instrument. By repeating the process, I was able to compare and judge each organ.
Even in just playing and hearing so many organs in a short space of time crystallized my views and tastes on the types of sounds that were beautiful.I need to make one last comment on the people themselves. TV formed my impression of the American people before the trip, just as I found that their impression of Australians was based on Crocodile Dundee and the Crocodile Man. What I found throughout with very few exceptions was a gracious and thoughtful people. It was hard not to share their enthusiasm or verve. In general the organbuilders and organists were not afraid to try something new or experiment. One very important and surprising comparison I made when I got home was that I experienced more road rage in one week of Brisbane driving than in 7,200 kms of driving in the US! Having said that, the nicest thing about travel is coming home.
I was impressed by the overall quality of the best organs I saw. I was looking mainly at the good examples but my travels also showed me some that were not so successful. This in itself was useful. For example, I was able to compare wind systems and make up my own mind as to what was musical and what was not. Sometimes you learn more from the mistakes and realise the achievements of those who succeed.
The Americans have used their own natural inquisitiveness and ingenuity to re-examine traditional organ approaches.
· The organs of Taylor and Boody are superb examples of fine craftsmanship based on the 17th and 18th Century North German tradition, but I suddenly found some superb English William Hill sounds coming out of their organs (Trinity, Staunton).
· John Brombaugh has achieved some wonderful singing sounds but using new techniques for action (Springfield).
· Lynn Dobson does the most sophisticated, superb and well-crafted balanced actions. His style has developed throughout his career and is achieving a distinctly modern American sound (influenced by the 19th Century Hook Brothers) (Pakachoag and Storm Lake).
· I will never forget the individual sound of Rosales at Claremont, drawing from Murray Harris, Caville-Coll and a wealth of other builders and yet very individualistic.
I also saw some very impressive small organs. Even in this wealthy country, small organs are alive and well.
· The 8-stop Fritts organ at Stanford is inspired by the 1610 Compenius organ. It contains 16′, 8′ and 4′ reeds of exquisite beauty, and is capable of accompanying medium congregations in the large Memorial Church.
· Schoenstein have a small 8 rank organ in St Agnes, San Francisco. It utilises electric action and extension, and in the large acoustic, is a wonderful and versatile instrument.
· At St Paul’s Seminary, St Paul, the 21-stop Noack organ must be regarded as a small organ in such a large building. I can only describe its tone as English Classical, and this sound permeates the whole space with music.
· By contrast, the 13-stop, single manual Farmer organ in St Timothy’s Church utilises divided stops to give more variety than its size suggests. I believe that in Australia, all four approaches to small organs are valid, assuming that the acoustic is large enough to carry the sound throughout the building.
This raises the question of acoustic. Every organbuilder bemoaned the modern practice of building churches and halls with as little acoustic as possible. They offered various solutions to achieving good organ tone in poor acoustics. They ranged from not altering the scaling but using more stops, to using larger scaling.
I attended the Dobson organ opening at Red Wing. This building had a very dead acoustic, it was full of people and at the opening I heard choirs, a flute, handbells and even a bagpipe. The organ was always clearly audible throughout the building. Dobson had used larger scaling and slightly more aggressive voicing and regulation. It was very successful. Likewise, the Glatter-Gotz/Rosales at Palos Verdes used the same techniques to achieve a quite remarkable tone and clarity in the dry building.
Some organbuilders noted with relief that some modern architects are now returning to ensuring good live acoustics in modern buildings because of singing and the realisation that often amplification causes more problems than it solves.
I played some really fantastic instruments. I have already mentioned some of them and should include the Pasi organ at Lynnwood, the Fisk at Stanford, the Richards, Fowkes at Boston and the 1866 Hook at Newburyport. However, playing the Taylor & Boody organ in St Thomas’, New York was an epiphany for me.
The organ is in a west gallery and has only 22 stops. Every stop blends and it was possible to use many combinations of stops that should, in theory, not work. The reeds were smooth but pervasive which can also be said of the chorus. The flutes were simply beautiful. The suspended action gives an intimacy to the player controlling the speech of the pipes. The wedge bellows give a good flexible wind system that enables the organ to breathe throughout the music rather than giving harsh chords. In short, this is less a mechanical instrument and more a living instrument based on the human voice.
I believe that new organs will have a viable future in this country and encourage new organists if they look beautiful, sound beautiful and have a responsive action such as the best organs I have seen and heard on this trip.
So after such a trip, what are some of my conclusions?
· The use of different voicing techniques can achieve a more vocal and lyrical sound in Australia.
· There are innovative solutions for poor acoustics and we must not be frightened to experiment in the building we find ourselves working in.
· There is a need for refinement of Australian organ actions. This does not necessarily mean smoother actions. Just as in voicing, a totally smooth action can become lifeless and dull. This is not an argument for irregular actions, rather it is for actions with character.
· Use of flexible wind systems will give the organ more life and sensitivity. Just as with actions, it is a question of taste and depends on the style of building. But it is certainly one of the factors in creating a living instrument.
· Utilising better workshop organisation and practice can achieve better planning and control, and thus allow the artist to create exactly what they want.
U.S. builders, by basing their organs on traditional models (whether baroque, classical or romantic) have also created new and exciting instruments. We have not heard some of these sounds in Australia and I think we need to.
As I mentioned before, a good thing about travelling is coming home. I certainly enjoyed my time in the U.S. and the friendships I made. It also recharged the batteries and maybe even a little enthusiasm has rubbed off, too.
I am looking forward to building the new organ for Nazareth Lutheran Church, Woolloongabba where I will have a chance to put some of these ideas into practice. Meanwhile, I will just have to keep playing the copious CD’s I was given in the US.