FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Humid Organs

“Arbor eram vilis quondam sed viva tacebam / Nunc bene si tangor mortua dulce son” counts as one of the most lovely and lengthy of the Latin mottos used to decorate the inside of the lids of seventeenth-century Flemish harpsichords. It translates: “I was once an ordinary tree, although living I was silent; now, though dead, if I am well played, I sound sweetly.”

The same defense of the human improvement on nature could well adorn the largest and oldest of the keyboard instruments—the organ—though with the crucial addition, somewhere amongst the branches and thorns of the Latin syntax, of chalicitis (ore) or perhaps metallum used to make the pipes that actually produce the sound.  These gleaming columns are the first to catch the attention of the eye. Most organs have wooden pipes, too, though they are out of side behind the shining façade; the pipes of a few celebrated organs—most famously that from the early seventeenth century in Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark—are made exclusively of wood.

Yet aside from the pipes themselves, wood elsewhere in the instrument is arguably just as crucial to the instrument’s sound production. The case, on which mottos are indeed sometimes written in guilded letters, is the outwardly most elaborate of the wooden elements of an organ and it is often ornamented with moldings, florettes, spires, and statues.

For the sound, be it sweet or fierce, the interior wood is more important. The pipes sit on what are called windchests, historically made of oak. These windchests have interior channels that keep the air that is intended for one set of pipes from activating another adjacent set. Running perpendicular to these grooves are sliding boards with holes in them connected by wooden shafts to a stop knob at the console. When pulled out, this knob causes the holes to line up with those drilled in the top of the chest on which the pipes rest. Pull out all the stops, as they say, and all the holes line up. When J. S. Bach tested organs he did just this and then played music that demanded massive amounts of wind. In this way Bach made sure that “lungs of the organ” were robust.

Feeding the all-important windchests were wooden ducts that conveyed the wind produced by humans pumping several large bellows, themselves made out of wood and leather. Finally, there is the key action, essentially a form of remote control already perfected in the 14th century, and one that allowed the movements of the organist’s fingers and feet at the keyboards and pedal to be conveyed to a valve at the bottom of the windchests. When depressed these keys would instantaneously send air racing into a given channel, up into the pipe and to sounding life. Indeed, the organ has often been described by music theorists as if it were a living organism: its wind systems are lungs; the pipes themselves are given the human attributes of toes, feet, and mouth.

While the wood may have appeared dead to the motto makers of seventeenth-century Antwerp, the substance continues to breathe: it has cells and capillaries that are constantly reacting to changes in the air. The health of the wood and therefore the lungs of the organ depends on humidity.  Like humans, the wood becomes parched if it is dry and saturated if it is wet, often quite quickly finding what experts call its equilibrium moisture content. In arid climes the wood can crack, in tropical ones become swollen and damp.

Even before the age of superstorms, Upstate New York was a region of climatic extremes.  Summers were sultry and Winters arctic, the air either thick with moisture (towards 90%) or almost completely depleted of it (down to 20%). Human skin cracks, and the lines of age add decades to the human face in winter, only partially to be shed by the natural Botox of Summer. Imagine the ravages done by such variation to the mighty organ, unable to burst its shackle to its framing architecture of church, chapel, or concert hall and take the next flight to La Jolla for a regenerative week at the spa.

The first published book about organ design, construction, and maintenance, Arnolt Schlick’s Spiegel der Orglmacher und Organisten (Mirror of Organ Builders and Organists), 1511, registered the threat of rats, leaking roofs, and direct sunlight streaming through windows to the condition of an organ. But from the banks of the Rhine to the shores of the North Sea, the humidity in the heartland of the organ was temperate and welcoming. The thick stone walls of churches and castles further moderated changes in the weather: these chapels were—and still are—bracingly cold in winter, cool in summer, and never too dry. This in turns encourages the most environmentally conscientious and economically efficient approach to climate control: wear a sweater.

The same buffering effect is not to be enjoyed in many of the wooden churches put up by the colonists to New England and New York, nor for the later Americans who often favored the cheap and cheerful over the earnest and costly. As for sealing buildings from the ravages of humidity—the current rage for “green” building rarely extends to cash-strapped churches, nor to many a heavily debt-ridden institution of higher learning.

Smack-dab in the middle of New York State, Cornell University is a good example of the climatic travails faced by organs. There are four organs on the campus, ranging from the small to the grand. Consider first one of the former:  a Neapolitan instrument acquired at auction a dozen years ago in San Francisco. The organ was built in 1746 in Italy and lingered in a state of benign neglect in the soothing Mediterranean air for more than two centuries, before it was acquired by a collector in Berkeley California in the 1980s. It enjoyed the moist Bay Area climate for some twenty years before being rudely displaced to Cornell’s leaking nineteenth-century chapel. The arctic blasts ripping through the place in winter were combatted by cranking the ancient radiators up so high that I once cooked a baked potato in aluminum foil on one of them during a long mid-winter practice session.  These radiators suck what little moisture there is out of the air, sending humidity levels to dangerously low, wood-cracking levels. The poor Italian yearned for his homeland, clearly missing his native stone church and gentle breezes off the Bay of Naples. The windchest complained with errant squeaks and pipes sounding out of turn—a phenomenon that organ builders call ciphering. This emigrant’s life was a hard one. Eventually we installed an interior system of humidifying bars like those used to protect piano soundboards; these add moisture or extract it depending on the demands of season. The Italian’s lungs were assuaged, but the rest of the case continues to register its displeasure by occasionally shedding bits of paint and allowing its seams to widen slightly here and there.

The big swings in humidity inherent in seasonal shifts are increasingly aggravated by the extreme shifts from one day to the next.  Here in New York, last week’s subzero temperatures and searing dryness were overwhelmed this week by sixty degree weather and torrential rains.

Another, smaller chapel on campus built in the 1950s is more porous.  By then the style had moved on from Victorian brick to Campus Gothic. From the outside this building looks as solid as the European churches that inspired it. But the stones are not more than merely a thin layer of facing attached to a steel frame.  Wind whistles through the window casings, and the uninsulated walls—a bit of stone on the outside and plaster on the inside welcome the elements inside like polite hosts. One of the great organs of the world, the instrument that occupies that chapel’s balcony is a synthesis of two of the greatest examples of the north European organ art  from around 1700. The organ was dedicated in 2011, and no more beautiful an oaken case has been made in our time, nor has such a case framed a more lovely array of pipes, both metal and wooden.  The wind generated by four large bellows in the chapel’s tower is conducted along the back wall of the gallery through wooden trunks and into the windchests. The instrument’s exterior beauty is paralleled by superb interior workings.

Today it’s 61 degrees with 80% humidity; by the day-after-tomorrow the forecast calls for a high of 25 degrees and humidity in the twenties. Through this winter of wild weather swings and into the tropical summer ahead, the organ will continue to sing sweetly if played well.  But there are many more years to come …

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

January 17, 2019
Stan Cox
That Green Growth at the Heart of the Green New Deal? It’s Malignant
David Schultz
Trump vs the Constitution: Why He Cannot Invoke the Emergencies Act to Build a Wall
Paul Cochrane
Europe’s Strategic Humanitarian Aid: Yemen vs. Syria
Tom Clifford
China: An Ancient Country, Getting Older
Greg Grandin
How Not to Build a “Great, Great Wall”
Ted Rall
Our Pointless, Very American Culture of Shame
John G. Russell
Just Another Brick in the Wall of Lies
Patrick Walker
Referendum 2020: A Green New Deal vs. Racist, Classist Climate Genocide
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Uniting for a Green New Deal
Matt Johnson
The Wall Already Exists — In Our Hearts and Minds
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s Flailing will get More Desperate and More Dangerous
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party: Part Three
January 16, 2019
Patrick Bond
Jim Yong Kim’s Mixed Messages to the World Bank and the World
John Grant
Joe Biden, Crime Fighter from Hell
Alvaro Huerta
Brief History Notes on Mexican Immigration to the U.S.
Kenneth Surin
A Great Speaker of the UK’s House of Commons
Elizabeth Henderson
Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Support a Green New Deal
Binoy Kampmark
Trump, Bolton and the Syrian Confusion
Jeff Mackler
Trump’s Syria Exit Tweet Provokes Washington Panic
Barbara Nimri Aziz
How Long Can Nepal Blame Others for Its Woes?
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: When Just One Man Says, “No”
Cesar Chelala
Violence Against Women: A Pandemic No Longer Hidden
Kim C. Domenico
To Make a Vineyard of the Curse: Fate, Fatalism and Freedom
Dave Lindorff
Criminalizing BDS Trashes Free Speech & Association
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: The Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party: Part Two
Edward Curtin
A Gentrified Little Town Goes to Pot
January 15, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
Refugees Are in the English Channel Because of Western Interventions in the Middle East
Howard Lisnoff
The Faux Political System by the Numbers
Lawrence Davidson
Amos Oz and the Real Israel
John W. Whitehead
Beware the Emergency State
John Laforge
Loudmouths against Nuclear Lawlessness
Myles Hoenig
Labor in the Age of Trump
Jeff Cohen
Mainstream Media Bias on 2020 Democratic Race Already in High Gear
Dean Baker
Will Paying for Kidneys Reduce the Transplant Wait List?
George Ochenski
Trump’s Wall and the Montana Senate’s Theater of the Absurd
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: the Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Glenn Sacks
On the Picket Lines: Los Angeles Teachers Go On Strike for First Time in 30 Years
Jonah Raskin
Love in a Cold War Climate
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party
January 14, 2019
Kenn Orphan
The Tears of Justin Trudeau
Julia Stein
California Needs a 10-Year Green New Deal
Dean Baker
Declining Birth Rates: Is the US in Danger of Running Out of People?
Robert Fisk
The US Media has Lost One of Its Sanest Voices on Military Matters
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail