Can the pipes prevail? Part II.

While Part I of this series concluded with an anecdote, explaining my own personal connection to “the king of instruments”, this section continues with a trip to an organ manufacturer, just outside of downtown Indianapolis.


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Outside Goulding and Wood, pipe organ builders, along Massachusetts Avenue. (Source: Jonathan McAfee)

Along Massachusetts Avenue, east of College, the offices of Goulding and Wood sit ensconced among many of the other sturdy, century-old brick warehouses that at one time were probably far more commonplace than they are today. The handsome sign with gold lettering could easily evoke an English barrister’s office, as could the firm’s name. But a visitor to Goulding and Wood is far more likely to encounter colossal pipes in various stages of refinement, table saws at bewildering angles, pallets stacked like Jenga blocks, and pitched ceilings to accommodate huge conduits 30 feet above the floor. Two or three members of the all-male workforce stepped outside in the welcoming May sunshine to smoke a cigarette, while a couple others maneuvered dollies with stacks of what appeared to be particularly sturdy plywood. Goulding and Wood is Indianapolis’ own manufacturer of organs, operating in a building that has housed an organ manufactory since 1968. Holloway Company claimed the spot first; when they closed in 1980, Goulding and Wood almost immediately took over, according to Brandon Woods, Vice President of the company.


Storage and logistics at Goulding and Wood. (Source: American Dirt)

As anyone knows who has witnessed the changing fortunes of Massachusetts Avenue over the years, this part of town wasn’t always so fashionable. Woods recalled, “We used to apologize to clients when they came here to visit. ‘Look, the organ business is not a high profit margin industry; we had to keep our costs down, and that’s why we’re in this red light district.’ And now, people roll in here and, ‘Oh, no wonder these organs are expensive.’” But Woods would be the first to volunteer that Goulding and Wood employees can hardly afford a condo in the neighborhood these days. Yes, organs are expensive; the one that G&W was finishing at the time of my interview was $1.3 million. But the profit margin is unlikely to be more than 8-10%–not a lot. “Our accountant keeps telling us, ‘You guys need to get that profit margin more at 30-35%. Well, that’s right if you’re putting stuff on the shelves at Target. And you’re going to Philippines and getting cheap labor,” Woods said, “but we don’t have that luxury.”

Even after several months of lessons, my knowledge of the mechanics of a pipe organ is nowhere close to what it should be. A quick tour of the organ biz helped inch it a bit further, though that’s unlikely to help the 99% of us who haven’t had that luxury. I could build an overview on the history and physics of pipe organ from a variety of sources, but a subject this unfamiliar should avoid even the slightest whiff of scholarly research. So I’ve used a book that, for me, has quite a history: The Harper Collins Dictionary of Music, Second Edition, edited by Christine Ammer. I received this book when I was about twelve, and for about a year or two, it collected dust on my bookshelf. Then it finally snagged me on a glum winter afternoon, and up through high school, I probably managed to get through 80% of its 500 pages, in no particular order (it is a dictionary after all).

The Harper Collins article on the pipe organ survives with a yellowed piece of scotch tape holding one page together. It asserts confidently: “The organ is the most complicated of all the musical instruments, yet the basic principles whereby it operates were discovered more than two thousand years ago.” While most keyboard instruments depend on strings for sound, organs use an elaborate array of pipes, these days typically a lead-tin alloy. While all organs have at least one keyboard (known as a manual), most have at least two and can claim as many as seven. These manuals and the pedalboard below work in tandem to operate a set of pipes, in which a register (or series of different lengths) provides the full variety of pitches that correspond to individual keys on the keyboard, collectively offering a distinct tone quality. Most organs have at least a few registers, thus allowing the instrument to mimic an oboe, a flute, a trumpet, or a variety of other instruments, alone or in any combination. Meanwhile, in order to execute the sound, wind chests connect to the keys by means of valves called pallets, which control the passage of air that passes through the pipes. And the source of the air? Bellows—these days often electric fans, but sometimes mechanically operated.

When the unacquainted sits at a pipe organ’s console—the big box from which the organist achieves the sound—the assortment of keys, knobs, tabs, and buttons vaguely recalls an airplane’s cockpit. These stops activate different registers. Even a modest organ with only a dozen stops yields a vast array of sonic possibilities (known as the registration) through the various combinations of stops, as well as the different manuals—because who says an organist can’t play on two keyboards at the same time with separate hands, not to mention the fancy footwork of that pedalboard? (Truthfully, a talented organist can deploy three or even four manuals simultaneously, placing four fingers on one keyboard and stretching the thumb to the manual below.) A single activated register (just one stop) will most likely elicit a delicate, wan sound.   But the more stops activated, the more the sound will be dense, overpowering, sublime. It should come as no surprise that the idiom “pulling out all the stops” owes its existence to the pipe organ.

From the Harper Collins Dictionary: “Aside from using one or the other kind of action [mechanical versus electronic control, or a hybrid], organs are essentially the same except for size—that is, the number of manuals, stops, and pipes.” All the same, yet unique. Most churches or concert halls commission the organ manufacturers to custom fit to the dimensions of the interior. Unless an organ is 100% synthesized, it is unlikely to have an identical twin anywhere in the world, and the synthesized organs will usually still feature what I pejoratively call “falsies”—pipes that exist purely for aesthetics, to convince the naïve audience that the organ is the real deal. Indy’s Goulding and Wood generally avoids synthesized registers unless the commissioner cannot fit the largest pipes in its facility; otherwise it crafts each to specification.

At its humming laboratory, Goulding and Wood has created approximately 50 organs in its 33 years in existence —less than two a year. In that time—barely a nanosecond in the overall history of the organ—the mechanics have evolved considerably, Brandon Wood noted. “Up until the 1980’s consoles had a lot of components. Some were pneumatic and others strict electric. Each stop had its own ‘switch’ with 61 contacts—one for each note on the keyboard.” Through the refinement of electric switching, this dense network of wires now takes up only a cubic foot of space, with no moving parts. Wood recognized that “[t]he look of a console in the church and its size was still part of church culture, and most did not want that to change.” The result? Consoles are still huge, and much of that bulk is completely hollow. Even with electricity, the sound-producing mechanics of non-synthesized organs remain basically the same as before. This universality means that a greenhorn like me can maneuver around a new, unfamiliar instrument without too much difficulty. The mark of a gifted organist often has more to do with sensitivity of various registrations and how these numerous combinations of tone colors align with the desired artistic goals.


One of the primary carpentry rooms inside Goulding and Wood. (Source: American Dirt)

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The interior of a console at Goulding and Wood, where electric switching technology has significantly reduced the need for so much space—yet consoles remain very large out of tradition. Thus, the majority of an organ console is bulky and hollow. (Source: American Dirt)

Centuries older than the harpsichord, fortepiano, or especially the piano, rudimentary organs first emerged through the ancient Greeks, whose hydraulos in approximately 250 B.C. used water power to provide wind for the pipes. As Harper Collins notes, “air for the pipes was pumped into a water-filled chamber, pushing some of the water out. When the pipes were sounded, using air from the chamber, the water flowed back in and kept the pressure of the air steady.” About 400 years later, bellows replaced water power, with one, two, or up to ten men pumping. Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium before the Ottoman accession, was the first center of organ construction, but organ pipes lacked the different shape and width that allowed any diversity in tone color, or timbre. Only in the fifteenth century did their design achieve a level of sophistication that attracted talented composers to the instrument, particularly in Germany. The refined Baroque organ of 1650 elicited compositions from Johann Pachelbel, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Johann Sebastian Bach, whose mastery of the instrument—and Western musical vernacular in general—so surpassed the others that organ artistry fell into dormancy after his 1750 death. Only a century later, in the second half of the Romantic era, did a new organ emerge, with a design that allowed for greater dynamic contrast and a fuller range of expression than the razor-sharp precision associated with the Baroque era. Many of the Romantic masters were Francophone, such as Cesar Franck and Charles-Marie Widor, but Max Reger (Germany) and Franz Liszt (Hungary) wrote respected pieces as well.

Virtually all of Indy’s classically trained organists could offer a richer history of the instrument’s contribution to Western music than the above. But only a few are capable of expounding at length on the instrument’s mechanics. Indy could, at least until recently, boast at least one individual who wears both uniforms of the musician and of the wonk. Although David Sims earned a Masters of Music in Organ Performance from Indiana University and the role of Director of Music at a prominent church in Columbus (North Christian Church, the landmark “oilcan” church), his work as a voicing technician at Goulding and Wood remained his primary, full-time job. “My on-campus study job at IU was to help the organ curator at IU take care of all the organs. . .There are 13 organs all in one building; they all need maintenance and to be tuned,” Sims noted. “The retired founder of Goulding and Wood, Tom Wood . . . his retirement job was to be curator of the organs. He came two days a week. . . and I would help him. And I loved it. . .When you’re practicing, you’re never done practicing, you can always practice more. But when you fix something, you’re done. . .Having that balance in my life: I would practice during the day, and a couple hours a week I’d help him. . . When I graduated. . .[Tom Wood] suggested that I come here. I don’t know if they needed me, but they found a place for me.” [Quick note: at the time of the interview, Sims still worked as technician in Indianapolis and as an organist/music director in Columbus. As of recently he transferred to a music director position for Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.]

Despite the pipe organ’s receding role in the church, both Woods and Sims are sanguine about the future of the manufacturing industry. “Fewer and feel people will encounter [organs]. We had a tour in here of IUPUI students. . .many of whom had never seen an organ before,” Sims observed. “[The industry] is certainly on the decline. . .There have been a lot of organ companies that have closed in the last 30 years. But the ones that are left are all really good, because that’s where the demand is. The electronic organs have become very good as well, and so churches that would buy a cheap pipe organ are now buying an electronic organ. And so that leaves the pipe organ market for people who really do it right.” Obviously a contrarian could conjure the “elitist” boogeyman, but Sims defended: “It’s very homespun. . .We’re some of the few people that actually building things anymore. . .It’s pretty American.” Goulding and Wood, like the other surviving manufacturers, builds just about everything by hand, under the roof of their facility on Mass Ave.

With each passing year, though, the array of churches that companies like Goulding and Wood serves continues to shrink. The process of building an organ is slow and painstaking: the most recent commission, an Episcopal church in Lexington for which they were putting the finishing touches during my interview, began over a year prior to my interview. Fewer and fewer church communities perceive organs as an essential part of the liturgy; the widely proliferating non-denominational churches rarely adopt a pipe organ into their music programs. A company like Goulding and Wood has maintained a solid relationship with this Episcopal church throughout the manufacturing process, but Woods noted that when a church seeks a brand-new, hand-made organ, the various manufacturers must compete furiously to win the bid—usually between two and five companies who each visit the building that will house the organ, taking measurements and photos in order to develop a visual and mechanical approach.

Since demand for organs has receded, it logically follows that many organists must don multiple professional hats, and not all of them include the bohemian artist’s fedora (if a fedora is sufficiently out of vogue to qualify as bohemian). John Webb at St. Timothy’s Episcopal, for example, has an MBA and holds a day job as Director of Plan Consulting Services at One America Financial Partners. “The church is unstable and I also love business. [Finance] is my love as well as music. . .You have to be a certain level of a performer, and you’re usually—unless you’re really, really good—a starving artist. I had no desire for that.” Meanwhile, Tom Nichols, who recently accepted an appointment at St. Luke Catholic Church after 17 years at St. John the Evangelist downtown, has spun a number of other plates. He freelances routinely for off-site weddings and funerals, and he devotes numerous volunteer hours to the Indiana Transportation Museum, where he is a certified railroad conductor/engineer, best known for the annual Fairtrain taking people from Fishers to the Fairgrounds every August.

One of the city’s organists displayed his talents from many angles within the church, not all of them liturgical. Bob Schilling enjoyed an esteemed position at North United Methodist Church: he served as the Minister of Worship and the Arts, granting him the responsibilities of organist, choirmaster and associate pastor. “It was my goal to have a vocation in the church, and that could have been as a pastor or as the musician or possibly a future in a college or a seminary, so I sort of straddled the fence all along between music and theology.” After undergrad at DePauw, he continued with a Master in Divinity at Boston University, and a Master in Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary in New York. “When I was looking for a church job. . .[North United Methodist] specifically wanted an ordained minister as their main music reader, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.” Though Schilling typically only preached about once a year, he occasionally took on all the other pastoral functions: worship planning, teaching, officiating at weddings, funerals, baptisms, communion, and so forth. Though retired, he still substitutes as an organist routinely at churches across the city.

Regardless of the prestige accorded to a church music director—particularly those churches that invest heavily in music programs—the diminishing full-time positions force many to uproot themselves in order to secure a placement. For Simon Thomas Jacobs, who, until very recently, was the Fellow in Sacred Music at Christ Church Cathedral along the Circle, this translated to relocating to a new country: he grew up as a chorister in Waltham Abbey in Essex, England. “Around 15 or 16. . .I started doing my course with Janette Fishell [then in the UK, now at Indiana University]. These [organ] teachers were very encouraging,” Jacobs noted. Fishell and the others indicated that “maybe I had the ability to pursue [organ performance] professionally, which I didn’t think I did initially.” His goal at Cambridge University was to become an organ scholar, but he wasn’t sure about church organ work after school. Then his organ teacher secured him a job as assistant at Christ Church of Greenwich, Connecticut, where he remained for two years before applying and winning the position at the Indianapolis Episcopal Cathedral. Why remain in the US? Why not? Jacobs could easily respond: “It cannot be denied that, generally speaking, full-time church jobs in the US do pay better than jobs in the UK, but the really good and appealing jobs are still few and far between, and it certainly isn’t all about the money.” He has enjoyed experiencing life in the US, as well as the opportunity to work in the church with children—a facet of music directorship that he began in Greenwich and has continued in Indy. [Note: Jacobs recently took an appointment as the concert organist at Phillip Truckenbrod Concert Artists and was awarded a full scholarship to the Artist Diploma program at Oberlin College, where he had been taking lessons while working at Christ Church Cathedral.]

Some foreign-born organists (like Jacobs) leave behind venerable organ traditions in their native countries, in exchange for the breadth of opportunities available in the States. Others come from countries without any historic relation to the instrument. Tiantian Lang, current organist at All Souls Unitarian (a successor to Dotty Huffman), began her training on the piano at age five…in mainland China. She did not learn the organ until she matriculated at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where all music students were required to study an additional instrument as a minor. Concordia was also where she met her husband, Peter Rogahn from Bethlehem Lutheran. While Liang’s transition to this instrument makes sense from a kinesthetic perspective, since it uses some of the same technique as a piano, it was still a bold move. Liang recognized that “since I grew up in China, organ was not common. I went to a conservatory for middle school and high school and actually we never had an organ department. . . I always knew organ because of the Western movies, but. . .I didn’t know much about organ theory until I came to America.” The scarcity of organs in China—a country that broadly embraced other Western instruments such as the piano and violin—was not entirely accidental. According to Liang, “Before [People’s Republic of China] was established, there were a lot of Christian churches in the major cities. . .They pretty much destroyed all the churches and organs. People were not allowed to believe in Christianity, so the organ was not a big thing. Since China has opened its door to the Western world for about 30 or 40 years, it has started coming back.” Though Rogahn, her American-born husband, claims Korean heritage, he believes the novelty of the pipe organ in China has made it easier for live concerts to find an audience than they often do in the US. “Although they are starting to build more pipe organs in China, it’s not in the mainstream,” he observed, “but their focus is. . . on the organ as a concert instrument, so you’re more likely to find them in concert halls. . .in China. . .It’s kind of a new thing over there.”

Part III investigates how cultural and theological shifts are gravitating an increasing number of people away from the instrument, as well as what entrepreneurial minded organists are doing to retain an audience.

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