Milwaukee pipe organ builder John Miller and I got together on New Year's Eve day at Five Watt Coffee on Hennepin here in Minneapolis to discuss all things pipe organ and in particular, that which relates to a project we want to launch that repurposes my Op.1 into something that correlates well with our shared idea of an organ placed in an alternative space for collaborative use. It was notable that Five Watt Coffee is a space that combines a coffee shop with an active alt-indie music performance space. One can even find visual art displayed for sale.
I had thought about the merge of pipe organ culture and alt-hipster culture before, and wrote about it here after seeing two friends form a collaborative indie folk group combining dance with music, perform out one night. I also discussed in the same story the possibility of placing a cabinet organ for collaborative use in an alternative performance space like an art gallery. John Miller saw potential in the type of space provided by Five Watt Coffee itself.
I sometimes work with the Product Design major at the University of Minnesota where students are set up in courses to work collaboratively in teams. This method of instruction is referred to as Team Based Learning or alternatively, Active Learning. The performance space John and I see an organ going into is essentially, whether on a college campus or not, an active learning space where a team of musicians get together and perform using our collaborative pipe organ project as a performance hub. And like Five Watt Coffee, the ideal location would be a multi-use performance space where people come together to experience and interact with the art and performance going on around them.
My goal in the new year is to shop our concepts around and seek a project commission that rebuilds Op.1 into a tool for collaborative music performance. The goal is innovative, and worth taking time to pursue.
Posted January 11, 2020 09:25
I completed building another pair of triangular pipes with cross sectional area equal to the last set, but with base angle somewhat greater than the previous set making the pipes narrower with decreased mouth width. I thought it would be a good idea to talk here about what it is they represent. This most recent set was particularly successful. The new geometry seems to produce a more pronounced tone. More about that in a later post.
I have had the opportunity for a number of semesters to be involved with the Product Design program at the University of Minnesota, and people often ask me why an organ builder is involved specifically with the Toy Product Design class taught by program director Barry Kudrowitz. The following video explains that more, but specifically it explains where my thought process is with regard to the work currently underway in my workshop involving triangular organ pipes.
The subject of the video is radical innovation, which Kudrowitz presents in a completely entertaining way. My takeaway begins with his presentation of the concepts of discovery, invention, and innovation. Triangular pipes belonging to Aeolian-Skinner Opus 892 were already there up in the pipe chambers at Northrop Auditorium, it was just up to me to discover them for myself. In the course of making triangular pipes of my own, I may have invented a low pressure harmonic flute stop based on triangular cross section. At least I know of no example already built and installed in a pipe organ. That brings me to innovation. You can tell by the content I post elsewhere that my work regarding triangular pipes is incremental. From the video, Barry Kudrowitz describes incremental innovation as something that people like, and gives reasons why this is so.
What most people often do not like is radical innovation, or that which produces disruptive change because maybe importantly, change of any real magnitude often breaks ingrained habits, ruins established workflows, and in general often messes up everything. While my work with triangular pipes may be incremental, my plan for them is not. I want to free up space on the windchest of an organ to add more pipes to give what is essentially a chamber organ the capability of an organ much larger. This can be thought of more as radical innovation, especially by the status quo used to things being the way they are. That organ, the first that I built, is already capable of an impressive variety of sounds from nothing more than five stops as evidenced by the video recording made by Milwaukee organ builder John Miller.
So therefore, my rebuild design incorporating triangular pipes, and the added stop or two made possible by their ability to nest efficiently on a windchest, may seem more radical than incremental because of the expanded capabilities made available from essentially the same footprint as before, functionality usually not found in such a modest sized instrument. My goal is to create added value through innovation.
I hope to find people who see the pipe organ as a collaborative and sustainable musical instrument not unlike the instruments of American colonial builder David Tannenberg. So you see, deconstructing Skinner finds Tannenberg.
Posted December 23, 2019 10:03
I started a project this fall to better understand wood organ pipes made with triangular cross section. I produced a number of triangular shaped pipes last fall after seeing a triangular flute rank up in the pipe chambers at Northrop Auditorium belonging to Aeolian-Skinner Opus 892 located there. Those pipes I made one year ago were my first introduction to building organ pipes with triangular cross section, and I wanted to take on a new project this fall to further investigate the effect of base angle and scale on tonal result.
The triangular cross section may have an actual application if the availability of the first instrument I built becomes a rebuild before relocation. Triangular cross section allows pipes to nest compactly on a windchest. Replacing the rectangular shaped wood Flaut 4' pipes of that organ with those of triangular cross section would free up space on the windchest to address a tonal deficiency by allowing the inclusion of principal scaled stops at 8' and 4' pitch in the treble sharing the first seventeen bass notes with their respective flute counterparts as was sometimes done in the nineteenth century with small instruments. I would only need to retable the windchest, not trivial in and of itself, but still so much material from the original instrument could be used in the rebuild to make cost attractive.
The triangular pipe project I completed this fall has an accidental and potentially significant outcome. I produced a pipe with very narrow scale not really knowing what to expect, and found that it became harmonic effortlessly on lower wind pressure. This needs more investigation because having a harmonic flute available to me that overblows on lower wind pressure would give an additional and useful tone color to include in the design of a small cabinet organ. And its ability to save space makes additional space available to another stop whose inclusion might not otherwise be possible.
I know of no documented example of a harmonic stop whose pipes are made of wood with triangular cross section. Let me therefore introduce you to the Flûte octaviante triangulaire as it might have been named had it come from the shop of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
A short video demonstrating the harmonic triangular flute and a normal length pipe speaking the same pitch can be found here.
Posted November 30, 2019 10:34
I wrote about building a small stand-alone kitchen cabinet during my early experience in woodworking to house plates and utensils during a time when I lived in a small studio apartment. That cabinet is pictured above with its front doors and utensil drawer open.
Here is the photo of a drop leaf table drawer unit I built in my Minnesota shop where the project environment and client preference called for use of finer woodworking technique and advanced methods.
Still I'm proud of both. It would be disingenuous though to say the least, that the small kitchen cabinet represents the current state of my best design work and shop output here in Minneapolis. The creative and innovative drawer unit table represents that so much better.
I built my first instrument for a church that closed a little more than two years ago after a long period of financial decline. The building was purchased by an African American Apostolic congregation which had no use for a pipe organ. Recently, the organ was purchased and removed by a young organ builder in Milwaukee who is just starting out, but whose interest lies in mechanical player instruments. He was impressed enough with the tonal and visual design of the organ I built to consider it worthy of saving.
He is interested in partnering with me to relocate the instrument. I am excited to potentially get a large piece of my design history back and placed in a location where it could function as I originally intended it to, as an instrument for collaborative performance or worship. This could be another church or even a multi-use performance space hopefully located here in Minnesota close to me, the original builder.
Playing the Northrop Auditorium Aeolian-Skinner Opus 892 on the University of Minnesota campus is the experience that got me thinking about cabinet organ building again. The problem was never quality or creativity, but how to defend the idea of elegant restraint against the status quo of orchestral-symphonic excess. From a study of the organs of David Tannenberg, and the community and culture in which he lived, along with a trip to play his 1802 instrument at Hebron Lutheran Church in Madison, Virginia this summer, I developed the following three design themes as a sort of rubric.
- collaborative use
- economic sustainability
- design efficiency
Somewhat through various projects completed over the years in my Minneapolis workshop, I have been working out the definitions of a cabinet organ design architecture from which to build a family of instruments.
The specifics are not really that much different from those I used before to create a more primitive, historically referenced look and feel, but now maybe better refined and somewhat up-engineered.
My goal when I returned from playing the 1802 Tannenberg was to secure a new organ commission that would combine design rubric with design architecture. But my first opus is now available. I think that if I am to get involved with it as a project, I need to rebuild the organ into something that is used collaboratively, something that provides its owners with an economically sustainable solution, something that is design efficient, and as practical as possible something that represents as closely as possible my Minnesota cabinet organ design architecture. This is the story I want to tell. As I wrote earlier, the story is no Ken Burns documentary, not one to read or publish to social media, but one to see and hear, a story that needs to be built in my workshop.
Or maybe as I went on to write, it is a Ken Burns documentary titled "Deconstructing Skinner Finds Tannenberg". The story of my journey from the Northrop Aeolian-Skinner through Tannenberg to the building of a nearly new instrument.
Posted September 28, 2019 14:22
A major source of hardwood lumber to the artisan community in Minneapolis was Youngblood Lumber which suddenly closed last April after serving the area for generations. I wrote about it in a previous blog entry. Another independent business important to me is closing at the end of the month. I was interviewed for an article that appeared in the campus newspaper two weeks ago. You can read it here.
The closing of Youngblood Lumber is obviously important to me as an organ builder. It might not be so ovbious why the closing of an independently owned bike shop is equally important unless you read the article linked to above. We in the organ community know that the pipe organ has had its own sustainability issue for some time. My experience with the 1802 Tannenberg organ at Hebron Lutheran Church in Madison, Virginia let me see an approach to sustainable design through the work of a builder living through the constraints of frontier colonial America. I believe the work of Tannenberg is applicable to my work today.
I am in the process of collecting the Tannenberg experience along with some of the reading I did to inform that experience into a coherent digital story. I hope to have it posted here in the near future.
Posted September 7, 2019 12:15
Posted September 2, 2019 13:30
People incorporate tools in their lives to accomplish tasks that are often determined and constrained by the culture in with they live and work. I wrote a digital story a few years ago that dived deeper into this subject from my perspective as a studio woodworker and project designer. You can find a link to it below.
Ernest M. Skinner and David Tannenberg could not have been more different in their respective approaches to pipe organ design as one lived and worked in a world far different from the other. Tannenberg did not journal his thoughts, ideas, or design concepts, but Skinner did. He authored a book titled "The Modern Organ", and in it he explains his path to develop the organ into a viable substitute for the symphony orchestra. He enlarged pipe scales, increased wind pressures, applied extensive voicing technique, electrified the key action, gave the stop action combination pistons that one could preset, all to make an instrument played by one individual capable of simulating the sounds and dynamic contrast of the symphony orchestra.
I remember thinking as I read Skinner's book that if one deconstructed his improvements, one would arrive at the comparatively primitive work of baroque organ builder Tannenberg. Tannenberg too was influenced by the socio-economic culture and ethos of this time. Both men worked to design and build tools that were needed by those who used and experienced them. To understand what motivated the work of Tannenberg, I began to look at his time and his religious community the Moravians, in an attempt to synthesize a set of major design themes that I could apply to the design of a new instrument.
When you begin to understand the time in which he worked, the methods he employed, and the elegant solutions he developed to provide an instrument that ideally served its task, the work of David Tannenberg seems anything but primitive as I found when I researched and played his organ built in 1802 at Hebron Lutheran Church in Madison, Virginia this summer.
Posted August 20, 2019 17:07
I say in my bio that I value the work of David Tannenberg for its softer voicing technique and use of wood pipes. I describe the design intent of the third organ I built as one that combined the color of Clicquot with the intimacy of Tannenberg. Still I had yet to play an organ built by David Tannenberg. So recently towards the end of July, I traveled to see and play the 1802 David Tannenberg organ at Hebron Lutheran Church in Madison, Virgina. I will describe that experience in this and subsequent entries.
My experience with the 1802 Tannenberg exposed a weakness in my photography setup. I brought along a Nikon f/1.8 35mm prime lens attached to my camera which worked so well in the past especially in low light conditions. The Virginia church built in 1740 was more square than rectangular, and a wider angle lens would have been more effective in capturing that space.
I purchased a Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 large aperture zoom lens this week and tested it out at Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus where I have regular playing time on the recently renovated Aeolian-Skinner Opus 892. The new lens is supposed to be a good general purpose low light travel lens. I took some photos inside the auditorium, and am so far happy with it. I still might purchase a Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 wide angle lens to compliment the new zoom lens for site photos, but that's a ways off.
At any rate, I enjoy playing time on the Northrop Aeolian-Skinner. Although it's a completely different experience than the Tannenberg, I acclimate quickly to either instrument. Fortunate guy I am to have playing time on two diametrically opposed yet historically significant instruments in less than a month, fortunate enough to get occasional playing time on the Van Daalen tracker over at the West Bank when I need it, and fortunate too to be one of the group here who regularly play at Northrop.
The work of Tannenberg interests me because his approach to the design of an organ is close to mine. Researching him, his instruments, and finally playing a nearly unaltered example has renewed my focus on what it is I want to build, and has helped me further define the elements of my own design philosophy.
Posted August 18, 2019 13:44
Today it's about lab space. The first time former grad student Youssef Roman PhD saw my workshop, he commented that it looked like it was set up as a research lab. Well it sort of is. The shop is not only a space from which to build, but a space from which to develop ideas in the form of real objects.
Northrop feels a lot like lab space to me now that I've returned from playing the 1802 Tannenberg. It's a space that allows me to return to the organ as in the past, and a space where I develop the tools and methods to photograph, record, and evaluate an instrument and its design.
There's a story now I want to publish based on my playing the Tannenberg, only it's no Ken Burns documentary. The story is not one to read, not one to publish to social media, but one to see and hear, a story that needs to be built in this workshop.
So maybe it is a Ken Burns documentary. A good title for it would be "Deconstructing Skinner Finds Tannenberg". It would be the story of my journey from Northrop through Tannenberg to the building of a new instrument.
Posted August 11, 2019 11:17
Leaving Spyhouse Coffee today, I noticed that for the second straight week, the main entrance to Youngblood Lumber was closed. Worried, I looked at their website and found out that they are closing for good.
I built a solid woodworking reputation after moving here to Minnesota by opening a workshop on Hennepin where I built objects using wood often sourced from Youngblood. Everything built here in fact contains some type of wood sourced through them. They were a trusted partner. Even though visibly impacted by the financial and housing crisis, they continued to operate, at least until now.
The loss of Seven Corners Hardware in St. Paul was difficult enough for those of us who equipped our shops through their immense tool selection, but this is equally sad. Another tradition lost.
Posted May 11, 2019 10:44
My design language is restrained, though my instruments are larger than chamber organs or portativs. I talk about what first formed my design language in the story linked to below by introducing two instruments that had a strong impact on me during my formative years. Those were years where I found out how I wanted to be different from other organ builders and go in my own direction.
The house organ shown in the photo above was built by German organ builder Gerhard Brunzema. It was the first of those two instruments, and the one with the most impact. The second will surprise you.
Posted May 1, 2019 17:57
I had been keeping a few sets of pipes in workshop storage since I began organ building. Those in the foreground of the photo above are a partial set from a vintage 4' harmonic flute rank. The pipes came from the same source I obtained the three sets of pipes I used in the first organ I built. Many of those pipes gifted to me then were damaged beyond repair because they were packaged and stored improperly by the church that originally owned them. Those who dismantled the organ unfortunately used bubble wrap. Packing straw like that which is used to store and ship wine bottles also properly cushions organ pipes when crated for storage or shipment.
In the background of the photo and mostly under packing straw is the front pipe set of a principal 2' rank I had made by a pipe maker in the Netherlands for a small organ I was going to build on spec when starting out. I got my first commission before I began building that spec organ, and these became archived material.
I really thought the stored pipes would not be of value to an organ I would build, but I held on to them anyway. Having the opportunity to deconstruct the work of Ernest M. Skinner by having the opportunity to play and research his firm's orchestral Opus 892 at Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus places this archived material in an altogether new frame of reference though. As I think about designing a new cabinet organ for client commission, I now believe the pipes could form part of that instrument in interesting and creative ways.
Posted December 27, 2018 13:35
A unique feature found in many of the larger Skinner instruments is a rank of open wood pipes with triangular cross section. With regular playing time on the Aeolian-Skinner Opus 892 at the University of Minnesota Northrop Auditorium, and having built wood pipes for my own instruments, I wanted to know what it would take to build a wood organ pipe with triangular cross section.
This blog entry introduces my triangular wood organ pipe project published in the story linked to below with additional entries to follow that explain various aspects of the project more in depth.
Posted December 21, 2018 13:09
Most people who know me know that I am a pragmatic person. I build organs limited to five or six stops. To do so in a valid way requires not only good tonal and visual design, but good mechanical design as well. The organ is both significant parts art and engineering.
This blog entry introduces a story linked to below that I wrote to explain two ways in which computer technology assists my design process.
Posted February 13, 2018 16:42
I took some time when I first set up shop here in Minnesota to develop a design language that I describe here as influenced by the Grand Avenue, Macalester College area of St. Paul, one characterized by early-century, industrial-agricultural affluence. My studio work began to take on that influence which could be described by contrasting dark woods with light, and the use of mechanical joinery apparent in dovetail or box joined constructions.
I then set out to create a structural design architecture that would form the design foundation for a family of cabinet pipe organs. I talk some about that process in the following story linked to here.
Posted February 7, 2018 17:23
Digital storytelling is a unique and compelling way to present an idea. I was introduced to the concept of digital storytelling at the University of Minnesota. I would describe the stories I write as photos backed up by words, rather than words backed up by photos.
I decided to first give digital storytelling a try by describing my professional journey as a pipe organ builder. I used a new Microsoft app to write the three autobiographical stories that described that journey, and then introduced them in this design blog entry.
Posted January 27, 2018 15:25
You cannot escape math and physics when designing a pipe organ. My engineering education and background lets me see important relationships between energy and sound, between structure and applied forces. Yet I consider my work to be historically referenced where to me it matters. I talk in this design blog entry about the methods I use to develop the tonal design of an organ that rely more on the work of the old masters rather than emperical relationiships.
Posted January 27, 2018 15:09
I talked about workshop projects I do to expand my skill set outside the bounds of pipe organ building in my last entry. Some projects also provide surrogate opportunities to develop construction techniques relevant to cabinet organ building as I envision it.
One could describe my idea of pipe organ building as minimalist. I imagine that my minimalist approach could actually help a musician develop creative and innovative uses for an instrument that at first seems limited, yet is anything but.
I talk some about developing cabinet frame constructions and my thoughts about limitation here in this design blog entry.
Posted January 27, 2018 09:15
I started the processes of designing a new organ about five years ago. I write about that here in this design blog entry on my approach to tonal design. I was thinking about building a small recital organ back then. The availability of my first organ may take me in any number of directions with the building of a new organ.
Posted January 27, 2018 08:39
A church can often be an organization without individuals united by a common goal or purpose. No wonder then that I think about the design of a cabinet organ for a unique recital venue like an art gallery space for instance. The structural difference between an organ designed for church use and one designed for recital use is not all that different. The difference lies in tonal design as each are built for a different purpose.
Here I wrote a blog entry that took me back to an original idea I had when first starting out.
Posted January 27, 2018 08:25