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Trivium

Would you want a pajarito on your organ? Or, how about a campana? Didn't think so. Well, in reading about some pretty old organs, in 17th century Spain and Mexico, built about the same time and maybe by the same organ builder, both had the above instruments. The first was actually a bird whistle. In principle it worked like a theatre organ's bird whistle except that it incorporated six or eight treble pipes to do the warbling. I built one recently just for the heck of it and found out one important thing. The pipes used should be the same pitch or be in thirds or fifths. Otherwise, it does sound strange. Kind of like six dissonant birds. Basically it involves using a jug of water (I used a Folger's coffee jar, type of coffee unimportant) through which air bubbles before reaching the pipes, hence the warble sound. Or, the pipes are actually inverted so that the tops are under water. Both ways work. A theatre organ bird whistle is a one-note device. The above instruments had a permanent little funnel to use for replenishing the water or, today, a lightweight oil, to avoid evaporation. I suppose you could use larger pipes if your wish was to have a really big bird sound like maybe a whooping crane. The organ in Salamanca, Spain contains a pajarito operated by a foot pedal.

The other instrument, the campanas, seemed to be a type of zymbelstern. These aren't used in theatre organs as far as I know although they could be of course. The zymbelstern uses four or six small graduated bells mounted in a circle that are struck be a rotating clapper to give a little tinkling sound; a little background sound but to go with what kind of music I have no idea. Both instruments are in the Gospel organ in the cathedral in Mexico City. Gospel in this case referring to the south side of the church with the alter facing east (or is it the other way around?) An organ on the opposite side would be the Epistle organ. The ten bell campanas is sounded by a rotating cylinder having pegs to trip the clappers and is powered by a windmill affair and wooden gears. It would be interesting to build one of these, as if I don't have enough projects on the books. Some home organ builders now are using wind chimes to get a similar effect.

Speaking of old organs, it is pretty well accepted that a Greek barber by the name of Ctesibius made the early organ possible by developing a method of supplying a constant air pressure. Blowing on one pipe with the mouth was OK but having a mouth full of pipes really looked weird. Ctesibius lived and barbered around 250 BC in Athens. Sorry, he wasn't the Barber of Seville. Apparently cutting hair wasn't topmost on his mind or else business was slow. Never the less, he came up with a system which later on, or even then, was called the hydraulus which utilized a water column to create a constant air pressure, water weighing about 64 pounds per cubic foot and being plentiful, worked out well. After about 350 years, the organ had finally reached a compass of three octaves. The Romans carried a portable organ called a portative or Regal into battle which scared the beejeebees out of the enemy, much as my playing would do today were the Roman enemy nearby. Progress was slow back then so a keyboard organ such as we know came along centuries later, around the year 1500 matter of fact. The early keys, as much as 6 inches wide, were so big and cumbersome that they actually had to be hit with the fist, hence the term organ beater or even organ pounder instead of organist. How would you like to try an arpeggio on one of those monsters?

On another note, pun intended, we talk a lot about getting young people interested in the pipe organ in general and the theatre organ in particular. It is a challenge all right. In a recent issue of the ATOS magazine, some one editorialized that we might better spend our time on the middle-agers

 

with more success. This is not to say to give up on the young people but to change the ratio of effort I suppose. Today's middle-ager is the baby boomer, but you know who they will be in about 20 years.

If you recall for a moment how you became interested in the theatre organ and its music, the answer more than likely will be that it happened while sitting in a dark movie palace as the mighty Wurlitzer rose from the depths and made the hair on your neck stand straight out. At least it did for me at 13 years young. Experiencing that today is far more difficult if not impossible. However, hearing the music and seeing the majestic console is only part of the attraction for some of us. There have been many people over the years who have restored these instruments that could not play a note. Its complexity is its attraction sometimes even though its appearance is intimidating. Electronic organs may be as complex but with a pipe organ you can feel the wind blow, hear the blower rumble, see the shutters open, walk among its voices, even put your hand in its pedal Bourdon's mouth if so inclined. You can listen to its leaks but never quite silence them. Your can tune to your hearts content but never quite get it in tune, nor would you want too. Is it likely to be a perfect instrument with no more maintenance, no more tuning, and no more problems? Of course not. However, therein lies its fascination, its imperfection. Even today's electronic organ is now being detuned to sound more like the pipes it is copying. And the voices themselves are being copied digitally from the real thing. That says a lot.

All of this leads to the conclusion that among some of the kids out there are those just like us who might become interested in not just the music of the organ but the insides, the construction, the logic, the control, the organics of it.

There are literally truckloads of organ parts being discarded every year for various reasons. New organ purchasers don't want old parts and the rehabilitation of them is not cost effective for a commercial builder. They are however a gold mine for the amateur builder who has more time than money usually. Kids nowadays are usually as busy as their parents are which is far too much in my opinion. For those who have a little time, like to tinker, are creative by nature, maybe musical and we are all are in some way, AND, some adult who could be the sponsor; let them build an organ. It's not rocket science, believe me.

The requirements? A small interested group of kids of any age, an adult with some basic knowledge of pipe organs, a place to do it, and small amount of parts. Well, some of those may not be too easy. The parts are easy to come by though. I have enough spare parts that I would never miss them and I am sure the two local organ companies would cooperate. The place could be a school, a church basement, a scout (boy or girl) meeting place, a museum, someone's home, ad infinitum. The result of all of this activity would at least acquaint the younger group with the pipe organ if not create a life long interest of some kind.

The adult sponsor? The best ideas in the world are useless without the people to carry them out. I am hoping that some of these ides I throw out from time to time will bring forth some response from our members.

John Adams

 

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