Thursday, November 20, 2008


I’m probably more of a purest than is healthy for me. If I am going to eat something sweet I want sugar and not some chemical that tricks my taste buds into thinking that I am eating sugar. But I make concession out of necessity. When a new bell system was needed at my first assignment the highest quality fake bell system we could find was purchased. It consisted of a control panel, a lot of wires, and four speakers on the roof. There was no clacker hitting mettle anywhere. In fact, since it was solid state, the only striking that took place was the pastor hitting the roof when I gave him the bill.

But even fakery should some pride in its appearance. For the bells to make sense they had to appear as though they were coming from a place that could conceivable have bells. The expanse of the building let you believe (if you tried hard enough) that they could exists somewhere. Yet, the same bell system could be easily installed in a storefront church with the speakers on a flag pole on the front walk. But that would spoil the illusion like finding out the Wizard of Oz was just a befuddled old man hiding behind smoke and amplifiers. “Pay no attention that man behind the curtain. I am the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.” All of a sudden it’s, “So what.”

So last week our music director invited me to a church that is installing a new organ. We know that our beloved organ is heading toward tough times soon and so we thought just to keep an eye out for what other parishes are doing. Here we came to one of the most spectacular organs I have come across in a long time. It was still being installed and tuned but the man working on it was able to put it through its paces a bit for us. The pipe sound was phenomenal. You could hear the wind passing through the pipes. The beauty of a true pipe organ is the quality of the sound – the beginning and end of notes have certain characteristics due to the nature of air passing through the pipes. Electric reproductions often have harsh beginnings and ends of notes. When the chimes were played you could actually hear the mechanics of the bells being struck. But the amazing part of it is that it was a completely electronic organ. No matter how impressive, I have never been awed by “fake” organs but this instrument was a true beauty.

The problem for me was that the speakers for this instrument were in such as space as to leave no impression that there was a large instrument anywhere. The congregation sat almost directly in front of the speakers. It would almost be like having this instrument in your living room. There is no doubt as to the authenticity (or lack thereof) of the instrument.

Now, there are those who could care less about this I know. There are others who would argue that if we can contain the sound of a true pipe organ in a much smaller instrument, then it returns to being authentic. I may have bias because of my upbringing (neither good nor bad - just the way it was) and what I have been exposed to growing up. I came from Luddite family that did not (and in many ways still does not) appreciate the electronic over the mechanical.

That being said, we have as Church at least the goal of authenticity. That is why our documents proclaim the pipe organ as the first instrument of the Church and asks us not to use artificial flowers as far as possible no matter how real they may appear to be. So when there are discussions connected to our art and environment (including architecture) these questions must at least be raised and taken as seriously as possible.


Anonymous said...

Same issue with pianos. Accoustic pianos are best but they do not always speak effectively in large spaces that lack resonance. Yet many electronic pianos have a terrible, obviously fake sound. We did not know the pipe organ at St. Sebs was in trouble. What is it, a Wicks? Wonder if with clustering there won't be a number of good instruments that will be available. Horrors, it seems that St. Stephen is on the block, and there certainly is a great instrument there. There is a big Wicks on Lansing Road at Immaculate Heart; I think that place is on the block too.

Anonymous said...

Please contact the folks at
Their opus 27 is a work of art and quite reasonable.

Anonymous said...

I was on the A & E committee..we drafted everyone into it for the seasonals --husbands, kids, whomever didn't have a real good reason to run away from us. A & E's a darned if you do, darned if you don't thing. The pastor at the time was exceedingly frugal - I caught heck at the Pastoral council meeting once for what he considered too much money for the donut holes in the new post-Mass coffee social we were trying to bring back (when else do any of us gather these days??). As you can imagine, we had fake ficas! Plastic flowers, ferns, ribbons and bunnies.. though of course there were real whatevers around the altar and the tabernacle. And of course, no one liked the plastic.

Over at St. Mary's, the Angelus rings out daily from the bell tower. We shouldn't have asked that jolly-wide pastor who is the bellringer (how we hoped it was he), for then we heard that the carillon is tape recorded. *sigh..

I saw an organ in an ancient church in Ireland that had over 1000 pipes --some of them under the wooden floor. We didn't get to hear it played, but I imagine it would've felt as if we were aboard the Challenger. Thank God every church I attended Mass in all my life had a real organ. My cousin and I were the choir in the loft with Mrs. Jackson--she wore a wide-brim black hat, black dress, black hose, black pumps.. in retrospect, she looked a lot like the bad spy in either Highlight or Mad Magazine, but so glamorously so.

:-) Wow, good memories tonight. Thanks. I do sympathize with you, and I wish the A & E folks there a peaceful Advent/Christmas season..

real Christmas trees, right?

Anonymous said...

The same argument could be made in favor of contemporary church architecture. Just as live flowers are more authentic than their silk/plastic counterparts, there is something honest about construction materials being applied in an authentic fashion. 99% of the brick and stone used today are literally veneers. Buildings are held up with steel, concrete and wood... not fluted columns or keystones. Gothic cathedrals are beautiful, but if one were built today it would be quite artificial.

Anonymous said...

tara, yeah, somebody told me the columns in our cathedral are wooden and are covered up with fake stone

uncle jim said...

cynics, you are

why, today's digital processes CAN reproduce the sounds effectively ... including the starting and finishing sounds - really.

having said that, let's look at architecture. i've mentioned it before [elsewhere] that the Cathedral in Toledo OH lays claim to having been constructed without a single piece of structural steel - quite a feat in the 20th century

Mary said...

On the controversial subject of pipe vs. electronic organs, it's also true that one is a piece of electronics that will be outdated/broken and unrepairable in 20 years, and the other is a piece of handmade art that can last hundreds of years if properly maintained.