Reflections from the Organ Bench - May 16, 2014 by Kenneth Dake, Director of Music
Posted on May 16, 2014 by Ken Dake

Why a Pipe Organ Matters

Those of you who worshipped with us recently on Easter Sunday may remember Dr. Brown mentioning a great dream that is now starting to become reality. God willing, on Easter Sunday, 2015, Marble will celebrate with a magnificent, newly designed and enlarged 95-rank pipe organ built by Glück Pipe Organs under the direction of their founder and master builder, Sebastian Glück. It is our desire to create a glorious instrument that represents the finest artistry in the craft of pipe organ building and will serve as a cornerstone of the Marble Music Ministry for the next century.

And yet there may be some who think, “Why not just go with an electronic organ? After all, most people won’t know the difference.” After listening to some side-by-side audio comparisons of pipe vs. electronic organ you may be surprised by what you hear and by how much you instinctively know whether or not you have any musical training.

As you might imagine, I’m somewhat of an audiophile. At age four my parents gave me a bright red record player along with my first LP, Peter and the Wolf, which I played over and over and over. My poor parents! Various stereo system upgrades ensued over the years – including an ill-fated teenage foray into 8-track cartridges – and music blared from my bedroom pretty much nonstop until I moved out of the house. My college-era bookshelf speakers have now given way to ones that are about 5-feet tall and capable of floor rumbling lows and window-rattling highs. Once, I even had a special dedicated electrical line brought into my apartment so as to maintain the total purity of electrical current needed for optimal audio sound. Audiomania is a slippery slope, and an expensive one.

What I have learned along the way is this: there is no audio system, no matter how high-end, that can replicate the sound and experience of a live musical performance. What we are currently listening to every Sunday at Marble is, in essence, an audio recording of a pipe organ. Our electronic organ is comprised of digitally sampled recordings of pipes that are then replayed through speakers when I depress a key. The technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the years to be sure, just as my stereo has. But it is still a recording, rather than a breathing, vibrating musical instrument.

Most musical instruments create sound by setting in motion a vibrating string (as in a violin or piano) or a series of vibrations caused by air flowing through a tube (as in a clarinet or a trumpet). In the case of percussion instruments it is the vibration of a skin stretched over a drum, or a metal object that has been struck and allowed to ring. These vibrations and the resulting disturbance of air is what provides LIFE to the sound of live musical instruments, causing their sound to resonate within our own bodies.

Speaking of which, our own bodies are the most divine instruments ever created! It is the very sacred breath which created and sustains life – Ruach - that allows us to sing. Our breath flows over and around our vocal chords, causing them to vibrate and create tone. It is no wonder that the pipe organ has long been the chosen instrument to accompany congregational singing, for it too is powered by breath – air passing through pipes – enabling the organ to sing along with us, and we with it. A great pipe organ should cause the very walls, floor and ceiling of the sanctuary to vibrate and “sing” in concert with it.

A great pipe organ must never attack the singer from above with shrill or piercing sounds; rather it should uplift the singer from underneath and embrace the singer from all sides. It should embolden the worshipper to lift their voice in uninhibited, unfettered, praise. It should uncage our spirit, allowing it to soar. To me, this is what transcendence in worship is all about: when music lifts us beyond our narrow view, obstructed by daily circumstance, and reveals to us a panoramic view of God’s divine glory. It is from that greater vantage point that Hope can resound, resonating deeply through our physical, emotional and spiritual self.

Along with this blog you will find audio samples of four pieces played on our current temporary electronic organ (installed in January, 2011) and our old Austin pipe organ which was removed in 2011 due to sanctuary construction projects. I’ve included two contrasting congregational hymns – When Morning Gilds the Skies and Fairest Lord Jesus. There is one excerpt of a choral anthem with brass – I Believe in Christ. And finally there is an excerpt from the famous Widor Toccata. When comparing the recordings start by listening for the richness and depth of tone. Which one gives you more of a 3-dimensional sound and vibrancy of tone? Which provides more warmth in the soft passages and a greater sense of fiery brilliance in the loud passages? Post a comment and let me know what YOU hear!

When Morning Gilds (electronic)
When Morning Gilds (pipe)

Fairest Lord Jesus (electronic)
Fairest Lord Jesus (pipe)

I Believe in Christ (electronic)
I Believe in Christ (pipe)

Widor Toccata (electronic)
Widor Toccata (pipe)

Upon arriving at Marble in January of 1996 I quickly learned that this is a community that loves to proclaim their faith through song. Our congregation truly resounds with hope! It is deeply inspiring to be your accompanist week after week. Now it is time for a pipe organ that equals the greatness of Marble’s singing congregation, one that will inspire future generations of worshippers to sing their hope boldly and joyfully!

To learn more about the 2014-15 Pipe Organ Project, go here.

Comments

Nish on May 17, 2014

Thank you for posting this! Hearing the pipe organ actually brought tears to my eyes. I knew I missed it but I didn't realize how much. I was thinking on Easter as I listened to the postlude that I can't wait to hear it played on a real organ again, to feel the sanctuary vibrate with the sound. Interesting how different Fairest Lord Jesus sounds in the different keys. Aside from the pipes, the higher key has a totally different character to it. Seems more ethereal somehow. I just love that hymn. So when's the dedication recital?

Richard Litzinger on January 12, 2015

Very nice, all of the samples! For a church, I would think a pipe instrument would be ideal, provided it was of fine quality and properly installed. It would also require funding to keep it in tune and repaired as needed. There are also excellent digital instruments available, both for worship and recital. All the best!

Ted on February 13, 2015

This project sounds great! There's no question a well-voiced pipe organ is a joy to sing with, unlike those soulless electronics, and you are fortunate to have such fine singers (even if they do talk during your postlude :). I am glad to see your church keeping its great traditions alive.

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