Peter Sykes
Organist and Scholar

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The beginning of the sound, the speech of the pipes, is to me the humanizing factor in organ sound. If an organ speaks well, one can make music. If not, forget it. Well, speech is one of the major things that this organ is about. Especially in the Prestants. I believe first that the way that this organ is voiced takes into fullest account the possibility of affecting the speech of the pipes by the player, and second that the way these pipes speak, far from making the sound of the organ 'articulate', makes it, well, speak.

Instead of hum. Instead of hoot. Instead of scratch. Instead of wail. Instead of yelp.

Speak. Like a person. Not always the same, not regular, not predictable, but human. There's nothing intrinsically beautiful about speech though—what matters is what is being said, and how. So I say that this is not a beautiful organ, per se, but that it can make beautiful music, given the right combination of circumstances. The sort of thing that, happening just the right way in just the right time, counting on luck and serendipity and convergence and karma, can break your heart, it's so helplessly beautiful. Or, done the wrong way at the wrong time, oblivious to outside forces, clueless, can drive you to thoughts of violent retribution. There is no organ I have ever heard that can sound as different from time to time as this one, depending on who is playing it.

I have played beautiful organs. They're boring.

I quote again from Yuko's recording's liner notes, here a description of one aspect of the voicing process. "Probably the outstanding feature of the Old West organ is the voicing of the pipes. For Fisk, even voicing was a matter of opportunism. Fisk described "waiting for a stop to tell me what to do with it." He described "Beginning on the usual procedures with each pipe, usually voicing from bass towards treble, but always waiting for one especially good pipe to make itself known." Once the good pipe was found, he examined it carefully to see if he could tell why it seemed better than its neighbors. "Any visual difference detected, such as a wider windway or a more protuberant upper lip, is then tried on a neighboring pipe to see if this visual difference is responsible for the difference in quality of tone. And of course the question of whether a pipe is good or not can never be told simply by playing the pipe alone; it is essential that throughout the voicing process all pipes of the stop be played on in various ways in order to see how the pipes stand in relation to music."

How the pipes stand in relation to music. What a beautiful turn of phrase.

Having played my share of music on this organ, I can say that these pipes certainly take a stand. And it's not that this organ likes one kind of music and doesn't like another; the difference is more subtle. It's more like the pipes are asking to be played different ways for different kinds of music. I have heard almost the entire gamut of organ literature played on this organ. No matter how weird or unsuitable the repertoire might have been to how this organ was conceived, the result was always interesting, and in some ways musical, although sometimes things got pushed a bit too far. (And I count myself in that category!)

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