Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Beam me up.

So, here's the thing. I love NYC. I mean like, I love it. Like, totally.

Here's the dealio: last night I received my own personal tour of the great organ at St. Mary's. Above you can see a photo of the organ. While the instrument has been tonally finished in the past ten years or so, the case was never built due to lack of funds, so the pipes stand stark and exposed to the French Gothic church. I love the raw look of it.

We started in the basement, where the huge blower pumps air upstairs to be used in the pipes. It's a pretty huge and impressive piece of equipment and a critical piece of the whole works which is hardly ever seen.

Also in a room downstairs is a huge collection of old and currently-unused pipes and organ pieces. It's amazing! Full ranks that for whatever reason they're not using right now sit on shelves just waiting for their chance to blow again. All the works from the old console are set up--all four keyboards and all the stop draws, so you can see how it originally looked.

The basement itself is incredibly eerie--it's a giant open space filled with old furniture and other detritus, and the whole room is crossed at regular intervals by giant steel beams which give the pillars holding up the church extra strength against cross-winds. I'm told that various horror movies have filmed down there and I believe it.

Soon enough we proceeded on to the grand finale--playing with the beast. We headed up to the organ loft, where the giant console just barely fits in the narrow space. The addition of solid state electronics would probably allow for the console being half its original size, when everything ran on pneumatics. The air is piped up from the basement in conduits disguised to look like pillars, where it fills up various wind chests, which are basically giant bellows compressed with springs or weight. My friend took me through how the console worked, and about half of what he said I already knew or made common sense, and the rest was just Greek. I'm still not sure what the "Unison Off" knob does. And the couplers are still a bit confusing--I understand the concept, but I wasn't seeing the reasoning why any one of them would be on or off at any given time.

My friend the guide played some pieces for me, and he beat himself up for not playing well, not that I could notice. I was so happy to be so close to the magic! I have no idea how he or any organist can coordinate their hands and feet to make music like that. And playing a fugue is just crazy difficult--the artist must keep three or more phrases going at all times, and I don't know about yours, but my mind just doesn't work that way!

Hearing the organ in the loft was much different than being in the church. In the loft the pipes are directly above your head, speaking out into the room, so you get almost no direct sound from them, only the reflection from the walls of the church. Because of this, it seems like the church is actually making the sound, rather than the organ above you. The effect is quite dramatic--it's as if the high altar, rood beam, and stained glass windows are all singing at you in the most beautiful of voices. All the hard surfaces and the long, tall, narrow shape of the church give the room almost perfect acoustics. A loud chord on the organ will reverberate for several seconds; I counted at least five or six. The whole building seems to ring like a bell.

In a word, it's spectacular. I can't believe how lucky I am!

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