ORGAN FAILURE

Not personally you understand. Our church pipe organ is in trouble. It was never a terribly distinguished machine, but now it seems the cost of repair is enough to have to consider alternatives.

As you can imagine, this is not something any church wants to have to contemplate; apart from the cost, there are painful decisions to be made. Do we seek to repair the current machine? Do we try and get a pipe organ from a now redundant church? Do we go down the digital route and get an electric thing?

What has interested me most of all is the issue between a digital organ and a pipe organ. These days, sampled organ sounds such as the Hauptwerk system mean that, depending on speakers and amplification, you can get a sound which is far far better than the “strangled mammal” sounds of previous generations of electronic organs. Sampling can recreate an original pipe organ, tuning, delays and all, so that few musicians cold tell them apart.

That’s disputable of course, and given that the sound from an organ comes from hundreds of different sources, it is impossible to exactly recreate the feeling of a pipe organ for an organist. How much difference it makes to the congregation is a different matter, but if a church seeks to attract people to play their organ, it makes a difference.

In the conversations I’ve had with the congregation, however, the issues people have with the idea of a digital one is not the sound (most wouldn’t profess to be musical enough to tell the difference between a very cheap digital organ and a pipe organ), but it’s more one of authenticity.

Say it was possible, say that a “reproduction” organ was possible, so that even the finest musical ear could not tell the difference. Would there still be a difference? Does it matter whether a sound is produced through the action of air though a pipe, or electricity through a speaker? What does “authentic” mean in this instance?

Authenticity is important in church things. There are letters of Paul in the New Testament which are disputed as to their authenticity. Were they written by Paul, or were they written by people who followed in his footsteps, and presumed to speak in his name? If they are not “authentic”, do they have value? Does a priest’s words count for less if you subsequently discover that he or she did not believe?

I suppose at the heart of that there is the question of what is really important. For me, there are two things about a pipe organ which are beautiful – the sound, and the mechanical beauty of it. I love the fact that something so simple can make sounds so beautiful. The digital one can (theoretically at least) reproduce one but not the other. The awful decision ahead of us is – how much of a price do you put on the latter?

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About frpip

Priest, Dad, A long way away. You can call me Father Father Father.
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10 Responses to ORGAN FAILURE

  1. frdougal says:

    We had this in Falkirk. The electronic was fitted behind the pipes so it looked authentic and none but the most finicky could tell the difference in sound. The difference between £10,000 and £50,000 was in the end decisive.

  2. We had this dilemma a few years ago, too, when our old organ conked out halfway through the main service on Palm Sunday. We also opted for electronic, again because of cost. The speakers are hidden behind the old pipes and the sound is fine.

    • frpip says:

      I’m afraid I’m one of the finicky ones John! I can certainly tell the difference in sound between a standard digital organ and a pipe organ. The new Hauptwerk samples are a different matter, depending on the quality of your speaker set-ups. But what’s interesting to me is whether there is actually a qualitative difference between these and a “real” pipe organ, or whether is it just innate conservatism on my part.

      • Fwiw, my other half is distinctly musical (former semi – professional chorister) and can’t really tell the difference with our organ. That might of course be because the old pipe organ was on its last legs, but seriously, go and listen to a really good digital one -the £10k sort, not a keyboard with big speakers.

  3. frdougal says:

    To me the question is more to do with: is it the best use of limited finances to enhance mission in your locale/ is it a a “good enough” sound to consider it an acceptable offering of worship to God? Is Melrose the sort of place where it will be used regularly for concerts etc outwith the Hour on a Sunday morning to make it a prudent use of funds? Does electronic produce an acceptable quality of music to the normal pew filling non musician?

  4. I helped a congregation to move to a digital organ in Bridge of Allan and think it was the right thing to do in that place and at that time. (And the music there went on from strength to strength after I was there and the orgain helped to retain a good organist). However I’m now in a different situation where problems with the organ have to be faced and am very clear the the digital solution isn’t the right one.

    The question is really about appropriateness and context I think. There are good arguments for digital and good arguments for pipes. Good solutions can result from going down either road. Expensive mistakes are not unknown on both sides too.

    • frpip says:

      Quite right. I agree with John that any spending should be appropriate to mission rather than appropriate to the desires of an organist, or worse a priest. Context is important, but I’d still hold out for the issue of authenticity – it’s a real question. But that said, I’ve known congregations squander vast amounts of money on organs which were in reality on life support. And I’ve also known congregations do the cheap and nasty thing of putting in an electronic thing which sounded like a cupboard full of strangled badgers.

      • Yes – but the authentic thing is what helps the people of God enjoy singing.

        There are many organs that are authentic pipe organs that just are not nice to play nor terribly suitable for the buidings they are installed into. Similarly there are older digitals which just don’t sound good enough.

        I think it is the task at hand that is important. You can have an pipe organ that just don’t help the basic task – what’s authentic about that?

        (Please consider replying to this using a fountain pen).

      • frpip says:

        I Always use a fountain pen.

        It is certainly better to get a digital thing than a “spit and sizzle” shrill little organ, which may well be all we could afford here in Melrose. But there is still an indefinable inauthenticity about a digital organ which is very hard to pin down. AN organist friend of mine said that they were “dishonest” which is an interesting adjective to use of an organ. For me who is more a pianist than an organist, it’s a tiny thing, but it’s still a thing – and it’s not a thing which is easily weighed up in any balance.

  5. I lamented greatly when I had to leave my “real” piano behind when I last moved house and invested very reluctantly in a digital piano because I was moving to a tenement flat where it just seems kinder on the neighbours.

    The digital is a better piano than I ever had access to at home. I’ve come to love it for what it is.

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