Pipes Sound All Around You --
an Exceptional Organ at SUNY Buffalo

By Lawrence Biemiller

Amherst, New York -- Screwdrivers, tape measures, and yogurt containers full of grommets clutter Slee Hall's organ loft this fall. A red vacuum cleaner the size of a puppy nestles beneath enormous wooden pipes that are part of the pedal division, and the wind chest for the positive division is only half full. Its reed pipes won't be installed until the flue pipes they would obstruct have each been tuned and voiced -- that is, checked and adjusted for volume, timbre, and tone.

On the other side of the loft, where a pedal-division wind chest isn't in place yet, you can see down to a delicate symmetry of thin aluminum rods -- "trackers" -- that will connect the pedals to valves that admit wind to the pipes. At the three-manual console jutting out over Slee Hall's stage, two pieces by French composers share the music rack -- one by Louis Vierne and the other by Olivier Messiaen. Next to them is a pad labeled "Rob's List of Things to Do."

Six months will pass between now and the new organ's inaugural concert here at the Amherst campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo. But organists and organ enthusiasts who have heard the instrument described -- as well as those who have heard parts of it play -- are already excited about it.

The organ is being built by the C. B. Fisk Company of Gloucester, Mass., the largest and best-known maker of mechanical-action organs in the United States. Fisk's designers and the members of the university's music department have together planned an instrument exceptional in several respects.

The organ will have 46 stops and 2,822 pipes distributed among four divisions -- pedal, great, positive, and swell. It is a fairly large instrument for a 750-seat concert hall, and it will be what organ makers call "eclectic," in that it isn't intended for the repertoire of a specific country or period. Like all Fisk organs, it will have a mechanical action in which the keys are physically connected to the valves that operate the pipes. Charles B. Fisk, who died in 1983, was a leader of the continuing rebellion against electric actions, in which the keys trigger electrical signals that operate magnets attached to the valves.

"A mechanical-action organ lasts longer and is easier to repair," says Mark Nelson, the Fisk project manager who designed this organ's action. "And a pipe organ that is controlled mechanically gives the performer more variables than an organ controlled electrically. You control how fast you let air into the pipe, and how fast you stop it from playing."

What makes the organ here exceptional, however, is a pneumatic device that can be turned on to assist the organist in pieces that require a large number of stops to be used at the same time. Mr. Nelson calls the device "a grand gesture towards 19th-century France."

On an electric organ, you can activate as many stops at a time as you like and the feel of the keys remains the same. But on a tracker organ, each stop you activate makes the keys a little harder to depress. In the 19th century, Mr. Nelson says, the French organ maker Aristide Cavaille-Coll solved this problem with a mechanism called a Barker lever, which offered the organist mechanical assistance.

It also opened new realms to Romantic-era composers. "The whole French repertoire is laid out to be played on the system of helps that Cavaille-Coll used," says Mr. Nelson. The introduction of electric actions, however, made the Barker lever obsolete.

The pneumatic lever being incorporated into the new organ here is an improvement on the Barker lever. The new device uses the organ's wind pressure, channeled into miniature bellows, to assist the organist in opening as many valves as he needs. It was developed by a Fisk employee, Stephen Paul Kowalyshyn, and its advantage over an electric action is that it follows the movement of the key exactly, moving down to open the valve as the key moves down -- and giving the performer more control over the pipes. The Barker lever, like an electric action, has only two positions, open and closed. The new pneumatic lever can be disconnected when it isn't needed.

Mr. Nelson says the pneumatic lever "allows you to have combinations that haven't been possible on tracker organs." If it is as successful as Fisk expects it to be, it will probably be incorporated into a much larger organ the company will build three years from now for I. M. Pei's new symphony hall in Dallas.

Mr. Nelson credits David Fuller, a professor of music who has been named curator of the new organ here, with inspiring Fisk to add the device. "This whole instrument is very much the product of a particular ideal David Fuller has about how to approach eclecticism," says Mr. Nelson. "He had a very strong sense of what was right for here."

In fact, it was Mr. Fuller's persistence over a period of years that persuaded the university and the New York State bureaucracy that the Fisk company could build a better organ for Slee Hall than any other manufacturer, including any located in this state. At the last minute, he also persuaded the campus administration to purchase an organ almost twice as large as had been planned -- an organ that will have cost considerably more than $600,000 by the time the last bills are paid.

"Fisk was the only builder able to take many styles and develop a synthesis that had artistic integrity," says Mr. Fuller. "This organ has new, elaborate features that are somewhat experimental, and extremely interesting."

Besides the pneumatic lever, several other features on the organ are new to Fisk -- particularly an electronic stop-changing system. It can be turned on for pieces requiring stop changes that would take too long to make by hand. "Organists in the 20th century are used to fast changes," says Mr. Nelson. But he says the system does nothing more than offer computer-controlled electrical operation of the organ's traditional stop mechanism. As far as Fisk is concerned, the system doesn't compromise the instrument's mechanical integrity. "They can have their buttons and we can eat our cakes," says Mr. Nelson.

The organ offers performers other choices as well. It has both French and German trumpet stops, for instance, because "the French used Renaissance trumpets that were very loud and fiery, and the Germans used a more sophisticated, more delicate trumpet." Also available is either "historical" or "stabilized" wind pressure. "The inadequacies of the organs Bach knew are written into his music," Mr. Nelson says. The largest pipes use so much wind, he explains, that playing them reduces the pressure available to the whole organ unless the pressure is mechanically stabilized -- as it had been by the 19th century. "This is a historically designed system much like Bach would have known, but with overrides that allow you to perform 19th-century pieces."

The organ here, designated as Fisk's "Opus 95," is by no means the company's first unusual instrument. The University of Michigan, for instance, wanted an organ based on the instruments of Gottfried Silbermann, a German organ builder of Bach's time. Wellesley College wanted an organ that used the Baroque tuning system called mean tone.

The company's most exceptional organ to date is probably the one it built for Stanford University. That instrument, an organ scholar's dream recreated in trackers and pipes, can play in either the Baroque tuning system or in the later system, which came into use during Bach's time. Each octave has five extra pipes to accommodate the differences between the two systems, and the switch from one to the other is, of course, made mechanically.

Such elaborations create technical challenges for Fisk. Adding the pneumatic lever to the instrument here, for instance, meant that Mr. Nelson had to find a way to disengage the great-division keyboard from its regular trackers and link it to the pneumatic mechanism instead, at the same time connecting the pneumatic mechanism to the trackers that lead to the pipes. Even without the pneumatic lever, the route from console to pipe is complicated. The touch of the organist's finger on any key of the great-division manual is transferred up, back, sideways, back, and up again on a dizzying array of rods and rollers, each of which must move almost effortlessly.

Meanwhile, there are walkways to accommodate (trackers for the positive and pedal divisions of the organ run beneath them); the swell division to mount above the great division (and to enclose in louvered doors that, as they open, allow the volume to "swell"); and 32-foot pipes to fit in a 23-foot-high space (they fold over on themselves when they reach the ceiling). Mr. Nelson says tracker organs give "a sense of the marvelous mechanical things man can make."

"We don't have the context to appreciate the organ today," he says. "Imagine yourself in the early 19th century. You could see clocks and guns, but the organ was the most amazing mechanical thing in your town. We can't grasp that today, because we live in this amazing time -- and because we know noise like nobody's ever known noise."

Mr. Nelson tackled the mechanical challenges after another Fisk employee, Charles Nazarian, designed the organ's case to fit -- and enliven -- Slee Hall, which was built in the early 1980's. "Especially in a room like this," says Mr. Nelson, "where everything else is so plain, we thought the organ should be as sculptural as possible -- the organ provides an incredibly strong focus for the room.

"The whole idea of this campus is materials as texture and shapes as sculpture, so we tried to use that to advantage, with Honduras mahogany in the case and hand-hammered pipes in front," he adds. The inspiration for the design, he says, came from a video shot in the Moscow Conservatory, where a Cavaille-Coll organ occupies a similarly horizontal space.

The horizontal space here is by now a 23-by-27-foot astonishment of complexity and craftsmanship that shudders gently when Mr. Nelson turns on the blowers. "Put your finger in here and press," he says, pointing to a hole in the base of a tall wooden pipe at the back of the organ. A deep rumble shakes the floor. "Sixteen cycles per second," says Mr. Nelson. Then he leads the way out to the console.

His demonstration begins slowly. Eight-and four-foot diapason stops in the great division acquit themselves, and then Mr. Nelson starts combining stops and talking about "brilliance" that an untrained ear can barely distinguish. His discussion moves through the ranks, passing viola da gambas and spillpfeifes and chimney flutes. Mr. Nelson glances up now and again when he hears a scratchy note or a note that is too loud or soft. Finally the mounted cornets sound high in the swell box -- five pipes for each note -- and the brilliance is impossible to miss.

"This hall is not quite big enough for the Mahler Second, but you could do almost everything else -- the Saint-Saens, the Poulenc," Mr. Nelson says, meaning Saint-Saens's Symphony No. 3 and Poulenc's Concerto for Organ and Orchestra. He pulls out all the stops in the great division and gives students gathering below for a chamber-orchestra rehearsal a taste of the instrument's power. Then he begins sight-reading the Louis Vierne piece on the music rack, at first concealing its mystery within the closed louvers of the swell, then displaying it majestically.

Afterwards, a student in the chamber groups asks when the organ will be finished, and then requests the Bach Fugue in G-Minor. "I can start it, but I won't get very far," says Mr. Nelson, and Bach's notes begin to race through the pipes. When the fugue peters out, Mr. Nelson substitutes "O God, Our Help In Ages Past."

Climbing up inside the organ to stand behind the great division, you can sense the wind gathered in the chests and in the hollow trunks beneath the walkway. Pipes sound all around you -- now soft, now loud, now rich, now deep. Mr. Nelson adds a darting, playful overline to the second verse. In it, soaring out of the swell box above, you're sure you hear the mounted cornets.

Copyright © 1989 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published October 25, 1989.