Friday, August 29, 2014

A Young Person's Guide to the Organ

While we wait with fear and trembling for our organ console to arrive, let's go over the wealth of wonderful noises the organ will make when we've gotten it installed in our sanctuary again:

Organ stops come in six families.

There are the flute stops. Their sound is pretty obvious. There is more variety about them than you might think. Our organ has four of these customers, and they are all of a slightly different hue. Here are is a flute stop with the pipe capped at the top, called a bourdon:


There is also a chimney flute, or in our case a rohr flute (the German equivalent), and a nice spitz flote which is an octave higher.

We've covered those already in a previous blog. We've also talked about foundation stops, which are the heart of the organ sound, and usually much louder than the flute stops (you'll hear the difference when each section is repeated on a flute stop instead of a principle stop), though they are still relatively vanilla compared to what comes next.


...which are the reeds. Those are the trumpets and the krummhorn. Although often resplendant, or at least joyful (as in the first sections of the Christmas carol I played for you a couple of weeks ago on this blog), I take particular delight here in the impolite low flatulence that is our 16 foot tuba trombone stop, here interjecting a low C into the proceedings:


What we haven't discussed yet are the strings. What these are generally good for are sustained, misty chords that hint at ethereal things. But you can do scales and arpeggios on them, too:


Then there are the mutation stops. We've got two on our organ, and I'll let you hear both of them. They actually sound an octave and a fifth--or a third--higher than the note you are playing. The mutant aspect is no accident; by themselves they sound really strange. But when you combine them with more bland stops, they add a nice, if slightly exotic, color:



Most ranks of pipes contain one pipe per note. But there are also compound stops. Our mixture stops play three, or four, pipes per note. That means for each note you strike, you are hearing the fundamental note, the one you actually ordered, plus a fifth above that, and the octave above it. Two of our three mixture stops stop at three pipes; the one on our lower keyboard adds a fourth (a fifth above that, I think).

Mixtures don't do well by themselves, but added to a healthy chorus of foundations, give the organ that awesome sound that reminds some of us of Halloween. But they don't have to:


Flutes, foundations, reeds, strings, mutations, and mixtures. And all of them had been invented by around the 15th century! That part of the organ is definitely NOT modern technology. But in a couple of weeks I'll show you what is.

Friday, August 22, 2014

How Low can you Go?

When I told everybody back in June that while our organ console and the wiring between the console and the pipe were getting repairs and new features the sound of our organ would remain the same because we weren't getting any new pipes or anything, it turns out I wasn't entirely correct.

That's all due to a sudden development last week wherein I discovered, in the middle of a conversation with a technician working in the pipe room, that it would indeed be possible to add a spectacular sonic feature to our organ.

The pitch of groups of pipes is given a number based on the length of the lowest pipe for that particular sound. And of course a longer pipe will make a lower sound, so a 2-foot stop will sound very high, and a 16 foot stop very low.

Now a 32-foot stop is really in the basement. It produces a nice grand rumble. And there aren't any such resplendent rumblers on any organs that I know of in Champaign-Urbana, nor are they all that common on pipe organs in general, for one very good reason: the pipes have to be in the neighborhood of 32 feet long!

There isn't any way we at Faith could actually install a rank of 32-foot pipes. For one thing, at today's prices, a single rank of pipes (one sound at one pipe per note; somewhere around 60 pipes) costs upwards of $40,000 (which is about 80% of the cost of our entire project). And for another, where in the heck would we put a bunch of 32-foot long pipes?

A few years ago I read about an interesting way to make it sound as if the organ had a 32-foot stop without actually going to all the trouble and expense of creating one. And I happened to mention that to our organ technician, Trevor, who said that contrary to my dashed hopes, it would in fact be easy to create one on our organ. It's called a Resultant, and here's how it works:

When you play a note, in addition to the note you called into action, there are other, higher pitches that sound as well. They are called overtones (you can read about them here). The first overtone is always an octave above the note played (called the fundamental), and the second is a fifth above that. Now if you combine two existing ranks of pipes together, so that one note plays using one group of pipes and the fifth note above that plays on another group of pipes at the same time, you can fool the ear into thinking that what it is actually hearing are the first two overtones of the octave below that. So without actually playing very very low basement C, you can create the aural illusion that it is there anyway. Pretty sneaky! And since there are no new pipes involved, the cost is small. All that needs to be done is that a new stop knob has to be put in, and also a new wire or two in order to be able to send signals to both ranks at once, and the rest is done courtesy of the new software in the little computer screen that comes with the console which allows all kinds of things to be programmed in.

Trevor tried it out for me by temporarily rewiring the low C. If you felt a slight earth tremor at 3:48 last Wednesday afternoon, that could be why. At that extremely low pitch it almost sounds like a helicopter, and is more vibration than sound. I won't even use it very often. You might well ask why I would want one. To which I have to answer: when I strike the final chord of a grand organ toccata, full organ, with the 32-foot down there to fill everything out, you'll know why. Better yet, you'll really feel it in your bones!

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Visit to Buzard's (part two)

I don't know what possessed me in my last installment to refer to Buzard's as a "factory." There is certainly nothing like a factory in the modern sense: nothing is automated, and they are not turning out hundreds of identical products. Instead, each organ is designed and built for a specific customer and a particular location. It may take a couple of years to build, and is still done by hand, mostly without the use of power tools.

Jean-Paul Buzard has been in business since 1984. Unfortunately, when our church organ was purchased, he had only been in business for a year and built I think one organ, so the committee wasn't sure he would have been a good choice to build ours. Too bad. He's certainly proven himself since then.

But the firm of Buzard is known nationally, and is busy in all 50 states--most of them, it seems, this summer! In the last few weeks they've installed a new organ of their own make in Pennsylvania, and re-tooled and moved organs in North Carolina and Texas. And those are just the ones I know about.

There are 16 employees at present. They punch in and out using the time-honored "drawknobs" in the hallway:

I wonder if the choice of stop says anything about the character of the employees (like, would the other employees make fun of you if you chose a 1' sifflote, or did everybody fight over who got to be the contra-bombard?).

It will be hard to convey the atmosphere in shop, but I'll try. On the first floor is a large workspace.


This is where the pipes and various other parts are made. But the room behind this one saw the most activity the day we were there. This is because they were shipping a new organ to Pennsylvania, wrapping the individual pipes in cellophane and putting them on a truck.


There were lots of fun things upstairs, too, such as the portative organ in the hallway, the plans on the wall for a possible new grand organ in the great hall at the university, and pieces from organs that let's just say need a little help to make their full potential, like the entire wall of magnetic relays that really is so 100 years ago.


There is the occasional rank of presently dispossessed pipes looking for a home. On the left are some of the smallest:


This bizarre looking confabulation of pipes is sitting in the tonal director's office (he's the one responsible for the sound of the organ). It is a compilation of all the C's on the various ranks of one organ, to test them for uniformity.  They don't normally all hang out together like that. Frankly, I don't think I've ever seen so many C notes in one place.

Not having an eye for the typical, I neglected to get a picture of a smiling Jean-Paul Buzard as he showed us all of these wonders or explained his passion for the organ and the art of organ building. We greatly enjoyed the tour. It was swell.

Pun intended.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Visit to the Buzard Factory

Last week I went to the "organ hospital" to see what had become of our console. Sensitive organists may need to look away, or skip down to the next picture, because what follows is very graphic!

All the internal organs have been removed for rewiring, cleaning, re-bushing, and so on. Only the outer shell remains (Some insensitive clods I work with have been joking that the organ is just a "shell of its former self." Geez! :-)

Some of those pieces are below. For instance, I submit to you the "stop jamb"

Apparently those were all the pictures I had the strength to take! But I got plenty more from the factory tour, which I'll show off next week. And on a thrilling note, I'd like to make an announcement. The new parts for the console have arrived. Would you like to see them?

I thought you would. Here, for the first time, this sneak preview of our exciting new console!....

They are in those boxes, sitting in the front hallway of the Buzard factory. Don't feel cheated; I'm sure we'll all get to see them in their intended glory later on.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Principal of the Matter

The foundation stops of the organ--the real "guts" of the organ sound, if you will (and many organists won't!)--are known variously as the "principles" or the "diapasons" or as "montre." This is because the organ speaks many languages.

The organ at our church is a German speaking instrument, so the stops there are known as principles. Their sound is somewhat "fluty," but they are much louder, and have a more aggressive tone than the flutes. This is because the width of the pipes (flue pipes, remember?) is much narrower than the pipes used for flute stops. Organ builders refer to this as the "scale" of the pipes. Generally a narrower scale results in a less rich sound. As for the volume? I think we owe some of that to Mr. Bernoulli and his principle but I haven't quite been able to figure it out given the technical nature of the Wikipedia articles! Besides, the organ builders got there several centuries ahead of either him or Newton.

In any case, foundation stops are necessary for accompanying the congregation during hymns, and since they aren't expected to be very quiet, they are always placed out front, where they are "on display" (which is what "Montre" means in French) and therefore can't be controlled dynamically by the shutters which separate the pipes out front from the ones in the pipe room behind (see my previous article if you want to crawl around in the pipe room).

not actual size

When you sit in a pew and stare up at the organ pipes, the ones you are looking at are the foundation pipes, or the principles. The rest of the organ pipes, some four-fifths, I would estimate, are the ones you can't see back in the pipe room.

I estimate our organ has some 1,000-1,200 pipes and this was recently affirmed by the head of our organ building firm in town. I don't have an exact number (shame on me) but you get the idea. I can't exactly take it home with me in the evenings to practice.