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September 3, 2004
Vol. IV, No. 24

"Give Me Pipes!"
Whenever I write a Weekly Rampage denouncing digital organs, I always hear from "the victims." These are the organists who claim they have no choice in the matter, that the church where they play doesn't have enough money or enough space for a pipe organ.

First of all, and I've said this before and I'll say it again, lack of money and/or space are not reasons to buy a digital instrument instead of a pipe organ. Money? There are churches resorting to bake sales because they want pipes so badly. Space? Be serious, even if your church met in a New York City studio apartment, you'd have room for a pipe organ. The bottom line is this: There never has been and never will be a true need for a church to buy a digital organ (other than someone wants to sell them one and someone else has been talked into buying one).

Secondly, no one can be forced to play a digital organ. If you aren't happy with the instrument you play, you can either work toward having it replaced or walk away. I've done both at various times over the years and I can tell you that I've always ended up happier.

If, on the other hand, you are happy with the instrument you play and it's a matter of hiding behind blaming the church, this really must end. If you happen to like a particular digital instrument for what it is, just say so. Sure, pipe organists will think you're crazy but what do you care, you're happy, right? Stand up for yourself and be proud of your choice. As long as you're happy with your instrument, it shouldn't matter to you what anyone else thinks.

Besides, there might just be a little more tolerance and understanding on the part of pipe organists for digital players if those players just came out and said they liked digital instruments. It would certainly be a lot easier to take than suspect rationalizations, misplaced blame and spurious claims of instrument superiority. If it's one thing a musician understands, it's that as musicians, we naturally develop a relationship with the instruments we play.

I've been playing the same pipe organ for over nine years now and you get to know an instrument in that amount of time. I'm thinking back to a particularly hot and humid Wednesday this past June. After walking to the church I was hot, tired and drenched in sweat. When I sat down at the console and played, I remember feeling that the organ was having the same reaction to the weather that I was. We suffered through together that evening.

Speaking of humidity, it's amazing to think about all the factors that go into producing the sound of a pipe organ. Humidity and temperature have a large-scale effect on the pipes. The way the instrument is installed in the building and the building, itself, create the acoustics, which in turn are also affected by humidity and temperature. And don't forget the audience and what they're wearing. All of these factors and more combine to form a complexly-integrated macro-instrument that influences how a player plays.

Sometime after the organ console was replaced in the church where I play, someone came up after a postlude and remarked, "The organ sounds much better now!" My response under the circumstances was the only one possible, "It sure does!" I replied. Experiencing someone else's perception of the organ caused me to explore my own perception of the organ. So where's the organ?

An encased instrument, especially a freestanding one, is easy to identify as an instrument, self-contained, as it is, like a piano. However, a large, complex installation makes it much more difficult to determine exactly where the organ is. In my case (no pun intended), the bulk of the church's organ is installed on the 2nd and 3rd floors behind a fašade at the front of the church. The echo division is in the dome and sound filters down through the ceiling. Other than the console, the instrument is literally encased in the building.

As I continued exploring, the question of what actually constitutes the organ as an instrument became a little more complicated. Aside from all the sound-producing elements, what about all the non-sound producing elements? There's a multi-fiber cable that runs from the console up to the dome, contained in a conduit. Are both the cable and the conduit to be considered part of the instrument? There's the woodwork that supports the pipes, the entire room that contains the Echo division, the shutters that regulate how much of the Echo sound flows into the dome, the dome that allows the sound to blossom before filtering down to the listeners. Where does a building end and an organ begin?

The discussion becomes still more complex when considering the many different designs of organs and the many different ways they are installed in buildings. Yet while each organ and each installation are unique, there is one common factor that they all share: pipes. No matter what it looks like or sounds like, if it has pipes, it's a pipe organ and if it doesn't, it's not. That commonality is what makes the pipe organ unique and it's what needs to be preserved if the organ as an instrument is going to survive. If the pipes are all gone, we might as well pack it in and go home.

In recent years, the swordfish was nearly overfished into extinction. Of course, no one wanted to take responsibility. The fishermen were just trying to make a living. Restaurant patrons wanted to eat their swordfish. The corporations didn't want to disappoint their shareholders. Nothing was being done and the end was near. Of all people, it was a bunch of chefs who stepped up and voluntarily agreed to boycott swordfish until the population was replenished. Like an endangered animal, the pipe organ, too, must be actively protected.

The good news is that there is a great deal of activism at the local level and I've been highlighting some amazing examples on the website (see Updated Pages below). But it would be nice to see some national leadership on this issue. The AGO is currently pursuing a policy of "digital inclusiveness," claiming it's suffering from financial hardship due to declining membership. While this new atmosphere of inclusiveness will be great for certain individuals that play digital instruments, and most certainly fiscally for the AGO, it will be terrible for the pipe organ itself. The AGO owes its very existence to the pipe organ. Will it now turn its back when its support is needed most?

Click this link to read comments and offer your own:

Updated Pages
Pipes Hall of Fame:
Newly inducted is A Denfeld Organ Project (ADOPT) of Duluth, Minnesota. Click below for a recent article and their website containing photos and additional information.

Featured Links:
Added is a link to Advocates of the Pipe Organ (ATPO). Founder Leonardo Ciampa says, "For almost twenty years I have dreamt of having an organist association that does not depend on money from companies or individuals who advocate non-pipe instruments."

WHAT I'M READING..."Civil Disobedience and Other Essays" by Henry David Thoreau. Surrounded by calls for and acts of civil disobedience, I thought this book might be a good way to look into the whole idea. Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" grew out of his opposition to the Mexican War (1846-1848). At some point he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax as a way of protesting the actions of the United State government against Mexico. Of the remaining four essays, "Life without Principle" is particularly appropriate for musicians as he discusses, among other things, the value in having a job doing something you love. Click the link below for more information on this book:
Click this link to see all selections in Dan's Book Club:

WHAT I'M LISTENING TO..."I Robot" (1977) by The Alan Parsons Project. This is a concept album warning of the dangers of dehumanization but that idea doesn't really come through. Some of the music was on the radio in the 70s but most of it is new to me. Soundwise, Steely Dan comes to mind because it's such a clean and intricately-produced album, but where Steely Dan is more jazz, this is more pop. You might get away with calling it progressive pop. Lots of synthesizer use for the early days of pop. Click the links below for more information on this CD:
Click this link to see all selections in Dan's CD Club:


Have a great holiday weekend and drive carefully!

Dan Long

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