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Tonal Architecture VI- The Situation

By Charles Hendrickson
Copyright 2000 The American Guild of Organists. Used with permission.

The tonal architecture of a pipe organ eventually has to include a consideration of the situation- the size and character of the room, the acoustics, the client, the budget, the organist, etc.  Only occasionally can the pipe organ be an independent musical instrument in the same way that a clarinet, piano, or violin can be.  How does the situation of its potential installation influence an organ's tonal design?

Each builder is endowed with certain artistic abilities and mental processes unlike those of any other builder.  We expect differences in tonal architecture.  Over a lifetime, each builder encounters a daunting array of different rooms, organists, committees, and consultants.  Each exerts an influence upon the builder (some good, some bad) and the final product represents the builder's attempt to bring all of these forces together without compromising the integrity of the instrument.  Learning from both success and failure, the builder develops a method or style of dealing with certain types of situations.  The builder's feeling about what will work best encompasses more than any rule book or acoustical measurement can tell.  This is where the artistry of the builder counts: being able to solve problems in a wide variety of situations.  Anyone can be a captain in fair weather; the true test comes when all the builder's powers must be brought to bear on solving difficult problems.  

In the midst of all of this lurks the builder's own image of the organ, that ideal of tonal design the builder would produce in the perfect situation with no constraints.  We strive for that and try our best even in the worst situations.  

The organ and its room are one.  No builder can discount the room.  Knowing the room in Its entirety is not possible, but there is no substitute for listening and study before the organ is designed, built, installed, and voiced.  Every organ is a surprise when it is finally installed.  No builder can anticipate every nuance of sound in advance, but the best builders know how to cope with problems and provide effective solutions.  Acoustics, placement, physical constraints, structure, heating and air-conditioning, and a host of other factors, must be considered.  In the best instruments, the organ and the room are a perfect match.  

The personalities operating within the situation are as variable as the acoustics.  A strong and talented organist will provide direction, and if the builder is also a strong personality, the stage may be set for either a wonderful collaboration or a difficult confrontation.  Some builders are right for some situations and wrong for others.  The manipulation of tonal architecture to fit the people involved is a topic of considerable difficulty.  

If there were a way to build an organ without worrying about the budget, the builder would rejoice.  Trying to fit the needs of the client to the limitations of the budget is a most profound problem.  Tonal architecture is totally subservient to the available funds.  No builder likes to cut comers, and few clients understand the builder's need for another rank, or two, or ten.  It all sounds like just so much greed on the part of the builder when suggestions are made to increase the size of the organ.  Big 16' ranks do cost much more than 2' ranks, and often a restricted budget has the unfortunate effect of "thinning" the tonal architecture.  

Tonal architecture sometimes gets lost in the details of personalities, budget, physical problems, contract technicalities, appearance, architecture, etc.  Losing sight of the sound of the organ in all of this is easy to do and the builder must eventually focus upon what the final goal is a great musical instrument and the tonal architecture necessary to produce it.  

As the builder constructs the tonal architecture and forms it into a fitting style for the situation, doubts may arise about whether certain ranks or divisions might better be changed.  Hindsight is wonderful, but the best builders seem to operate by instinct in generating a design that is complete and adequate with the least number of errors.  This is where experience and taste tell. 

In the background of tonal architecture looms a pair of opposite concepts.  For some, the organ is a given pre designed instrument whose concept is fixed and eternal.  We merely replicate this ideal regardless of the situation.  For others, the organ is a movable feast, ranging widely over various styles and effects.  No two are alike, just as no two situations are alike.  These extremes of approach to tonal architecture coexist in all builders to varying degrees.  The extent to which an organ is molded and tempered to fit its surroundings.  or whether the organ ignores its location and commands its own space and style, is a measure of the attitude of the builder and the malleability of the organist and committee.  Success or failure is available in either approach.  

In this series of articles about tonal architecture, the emphasis has been on concepts rather than specifics; outlook rather than details.  No single style of tonal architecture has been celebrated as best and no model has been propose for the reader to follow.  This may be the only way in which tonal architecture can be appreciated successfully.  The organ world has a long and varied history.  Myopia does exist and it mars our vision of such a vital and creative instrument.  

Understanding the complexities of tonal design requires a broad and tolerant mind.  I find the greatest hindrance to musicality in tonal architecture is snobbery, trendiness, and narrow vision: snobbery resulting from a studied belief in the superiority of a certain type or period of organ history; trendiness that follows the popular organ style of the moment; and narrow vision that tolerates only a few musical ideas.  The opposite of these can also create problems; making the organ all things to all people by dropping all standards can rob the instrument of vitality and focus.  Great tonal design is broad but not bland, avoids fads but is not antithetical, and excites the musically competent without elitism.  These are not specific requirements but guidelines to help us all understand the wonderful world of the pipe organ.  

The best tonal architecture is that which seems obvious and self evident in the situation: a design that is natural, unforced, and in character with its surroundings.  No two people will hear such results in the same way, but the best design will be a wonderful musical experience unique to the room and the instrument that brings it to life.



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