Why you should consider reform of your professional organizations

by Jonathan Ambrosino

The following has been adapted from an after-dinner talk given by Jonathan Ambrosino at a joint meeting of the Incorporated Society of Organ Builders and the Federation of Master Organ Builders. These two British organbuilders’ organisations met in Liverpool October 14 through 16. At their meeting, the I.S.O.B. and F.M.O.B. were seeking ways to strengthen the image and solidity of their respective organisations, and possibly to merge the two. Mr. Ambrosino was asked to lend perspective with commentary on the current American organ scene, and offer some words on the United States’ correlative organbuilders’ organisations, the A.I.O. and A.P.O.B.A.

Your meeting this afternoon was an invaluable lesson in perspective. However tempting the thought, one can draw fewer direct parallels between British and American organbuilding than one might initially suspect. This has been especially true in the last few decades, where, thanks to such a broad market and a diverse clientele, American organbuilders have been able to perform a lot of experimentation and exploration. List your options of historical styles, it all seems to have been done in the States: French Classic, French Romantic, North German, South German, 17th-century Dutch, Niehoff, both Silbermanns, Iberian, Italian, early English, even Father Willis. Electric- and tracker-action builders alike have flocked to France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Mexico, England. Save for the German Romantic organ, which has a relatively small literature and is probably too similar (and, frankly, inferior) to our superb Hooks, Johnsons and Simmons from the same period to merit intensive study, no style seems to have been avoided in this harvest; we have even built hand-held lap organs!

All the big topics—key action, electric-versus-mechanical stop action, pistons or no pistons, encasement, winding systems, temperaments—rage like little bonfires on computers, fax machines and telephone lines ’round the States. Tracker action has been explored in a variety of forms, and I think I can say without undue prejudice that we have had the opportunities to develop the finest modern actions in the world, especially of the suspended type. This has come about not due to any particular talent or ability, but merely the vast amount of activity which has taken place, coupled with a great exchange of information among builders (more on this in a minute).

But there are signs, clear signs, that this period is coming to an end, as builders wonder what new style is waiting in the wings to assert itself as a logical path of the future. The most enlightened in the business are reminding us that it took a Willis to inspire Stanford, Parry and Elgar—not the other way around —and it took a Cavaillé-Coll to inspire Franck and Widor. The great organbuilders offered the medium first; therefore, creating an organ to play pre-existing literature, however intelligently, is to ensure a certain stagnation. Even the best examples of historically-informed eclectic organs tend to unconsciously prevent the creation of new music, or simply a new aesthetic of playing the organ. Both in the building and in the playing, we are upon an exciting treadmill, but a treadmill nonetheless.

So, if some new style must emerge from all this dedicated inquiry, what is it to be? Certainly in the area of key action, much of the virulence of the tracker-electric debate has subsided, as larger realities replace outworn polemic. Tracker builders are coping with the fact that sensitivity, simplicity and reliability in organ actions is inherently at odds with large organs, both in the building and in the playing. Furthermore, furnishing large organs with the sounds to play Romantic music, but not the means of intelligently controlling them, is to ignore some incompatible objectives. Since Americans want both sides of the coin: sensitivity without duress, assisted key actions are once again being explored. Some builders opt for electric coupling; some, such as Fisk, foster the notion of servo control (either pneumatically or electrically); others admit that for a large organ, electric-action is the most intelligent response after all, and entirely in keeping the premise of Barker Lever or other forms of assisted action. (One builder has wryly suggested that the next thing the tracker builders will discover is electric action, but, and only but, if they design and wind their own magnets.) Meanwhile, electric-action builders are realising more and more that younger players find that there is something to tracker action, even if just a personal preference for the feel of the keyboards, and this disturbs them as much as it eludes them. Too often, however, the electric-action builders do not intelligently exploit electric action to make small instruments more flexible.

From a tonal standpoint, there are so many avenues being explored that it is difficult to know where a core style might settle down. However, it seems clear that there is a greater desire for an eclectic organ than a repertoire-specific one, except for educational settings. The best of these eclectic attempts are yet defining a new kind of ensemble, which may set the foundation for a new, indigenous style of the early 21st century.

All of this certainly makes for fascinating observation, especially for one who has been involved in both restoration and new organbuilding, as well as straddling the fence between mechanical and electric actions (having worked first for Nelson Barden, then the Austin company, and most recently, Manuel Rosales). That observation must now be tinged with concern. The artistic forecast may be uncertain, but the market forecast is decidedly dreary. Business is bad; orders are down; even those companies who had enjoyed spectacularly luxurious backlogs are now pounding the pavement for contracts. Artistic idealism is giving way to some survival tactics, especially when venerable tracker builders have taken on electric-action rebuilding jobs, and electric-action builders are turning to electronically-generated voices to produce bass tone and soft accompanimental registers. Neither of these scenarios would have been considered until only very recently.

Out of this scene, I would like to touch on three developments. The first is the traditional monikers of Classic and Romantic. Indications are promising that the silly generalisations attached to these two words might at last be put to rest. When the big war between these two camps started in the 1930s, it was simply a matter of tonal priorities, since the mechanism of the modern electric action organ was taken for granted in all organ discussions. With the introduction of tracker action, and the subsequent issues of encasement, style, temperament and stop control, the choice between Romantic and Classic seemed even more obvious. Most modern trackers were branded by the Romantics as unison-thin, bass-deprived, low-wind, rough, raucous——fill in the pejoratives of your choice. On the other hand, the electric action organs were then considered the holdout of Romanticism, an equally ridiculous claim, since so few of them had the characteristics or timbres of any Romantic organbuilding tradition. But the attacks continued nonetheless, and a certain acrimony developed, roughly until the mid-1980s.

Things changed in the early 80s, when the more historically-versed American tracker organ builders realised that they had based many of their artistic decisions on falsehoods, and, in compensation, started increasing wind-pressures, scales and cut-ups, not just in neo-Romantic work, but in their 17th- and 18th-century inspired German work as well. Suddenly, the tables were turned. The beefy, big-scale sound was now coming from the “stick” organs, while the majority of the electric-action builders were still producing thin-sounding choruses with squeaky mixtures and plenty of ghastly chiff (some still are), plus hybridised “French” chorus reeds with small basses and thin tone. The aftermath is that, while a certain few hang on to the old Classic-Romantic notion as a means of defensive comfort, the organs that are supposed to be Classic don’t fit the mold anymore, while the organs that are supposed to be Romantic simply aren’t, aside from the possibility of a few good celestes. The perfect example of this syndrome is the 1992 Fisk organ in the Dallas Symphony Hall. I think I can safely say that no electric-action builder would have employed such enormous scales, nor produced so Herculean a result as the Fisk folks did.

However, beef alone is not necessarily beauty, and there is a darker reality to this observation. Very few of the tracker builders’ neo-Romantic efforts have resulted in organs that have a true Romantic spirit. At worst, they are simply neo-Classical organs with a Romantic stoplist and a few add-ons, such as the inevitable Great harmonic flute. Or, they may be thoughtfully considered Classical organs with Romantic “attachments”, in the form of flutes, strings, some reeds and a Pedal Open Wood (the rite of passage for most big new organs). Sometimes, these organs go farther, to provide characteristic colors, blend and balance of Romantic organs. Still, a sense of caricature pervades, in which the instruments possess characteristics but not character. (It is all the more embarrassing, since our own superb 19th-century instruments have so much to teach about creating warmth and breadth in dead rooms.) I suspect that much of the effect of the new organs can be traced to too much literal copying of foreign historical material and not enough interpolation for our radically different environments. Many of these builders are entranced with the effect of the Cavaillé-Coll instruments in those divine acoustical settings. Perhaps “seduced” is a better word, because there are at best a handful of venues in the United States that offer the organbuilder a chance to work with tonal elements in that realm. For the standard American church, most builders seeking to emulate the concepts of Cavaillé-Coll would almost learn more of relevance by studying the organs of T.C. Lewis.

But if the tracker builders are committing the sin of commission, the electric-action builders, in the main, are surely committing the sins of omission. It has dawned on some that their lean cuisine tonal design is no longer classical, romantic, or anything of enduring beauty, and so they scramble just to figure out what’s going on, much less catch on to the larger trend or inaugurate one of their own. Few of these organs make an impact on the pedagogues or the connoisseurs, but these builders continue to provide serviceable, reliable instruments which are reasonably-priced in comparison to their mechanical-action equivalents. This is not always the case, however, and may change further as tracker organs become more standardised, or as electric-actions become simpler still.

In this climate, where old and comfortable arguments are falling by the wayside, lies my second observation. A great deal of camaraderie has sprung up in the uncertainty and anticipation of a new ordering of the organbuilding culture. The exchange of information between builders is free, its spirit genuine. This “Saturday marketplace” ideology has been true of the mechanical-action world for quite some time, but happily it is also starting to occur in the electric-action world. From my desk at Rosales, I know, both as friends and colleagues, people at the Fisk, Dobson, Brombaugh, Taylor & Boody, Bigelow, Bozeman, Fritts, and Harrold shops, as well as electric-action builders at Schoenstein, Schantz and, of course Austin. Neither is this mere politeness; I think we all soberly realise that clients come to individual builders for reasons ultimately beyond our control, be they money or taste (or a lack of these two factors, some might say!). So if we lost a contract to, say, C.B. Fisk (which we have), it would hardly stop us from contributing some bit of data that will help them build a better organ. For example, Manuel contributed a lot of data for the enormous 32’ reed in Fisk’s highly successful organ in the Dallas Symphony Hall. Or it might be sharing experience about one of our Schnitger-style Pedal Trombones, or some little detail of the Silbermann overbite in flue pipes; in reciprocation, Fisk have been incredibly generous in exchanging information on every part of organbuilding, musical and mechanical. There is, more and more I think, a refreshingly mature attitude which says that we can still compete in the sales arena, and learn from each other in the artistic one. It has reached the point where the Austin company and Fisk are co-sponsoring an AIO mid-winter conclave on voicing techniques, an excellent way for many schools of thought to be examined and witnessed. Ten years ago, such a collaboration would have been viewed suspiciously, even cynically. Today, I can honestly say that it is a healthy sign of the times.

The other place in which this sharing takes place, and has for the last twenty years, is in the field of restoration, which again in my opinion has had the chance to develop to a far higher degree in America than in England. For example, the top electro-pneumatic restorers, such as the Thompson-Allen Company at Yale (one of the two directors being the son of Aubrey TA, for years a director at Henry Willis & Sons), or Nelson Barden in Boston, or Ed Stout in San Francisco, or Doug Hunt in New York, are in regular contact, each letting the other know the best current sources for leathers, adhesives, fish glues, rubberised cloths, as well as keeping each other informed on the various status of pending contracts. The same kind of dialogue exists among restorers of 19th-century organs. Is this a Mafia? No more so than any other alliance in the organ world, and in my experience, this collaborative spirit has always benefited the organs and the clients, and makes for still better restoration work which can only be a good thing. It also elevates the art. Where the English builder would meticulously restore the case, but never think of doing likewise to the mechanism, the American restorer is not afraid to consider the entire organ as a work of architectural art. You can now have a pipe organ restored as elegantly as a music box if you wish it, and for little more than the cost of a standard rebuild. Furthermore, the respect for old organs has steadily increased. Leaving old organs alone, or putting them back as they were originally (such as with the Harrison & Harrison’s exemplary approach to restoring the Lewis at Southwark Cathedral), is going strong, although there is much work yet to be done.

I will close my remarks with a third observation on the state of organbuilders’ professional organisations. You have spent an afternoon, indeed a period of many months, considering how best to restructure your professional organisations so that they will help both builder and craft. Some have raised the concern, quite naturally, that a unified profession must necessarily mean a unified product. Others insist that the common denominator of organ work must be raised, to fend off threats from synthesizers, electronic organ substitutes, or church musicians who no longer wish to be bothered with organs. How does this affect the industry? Sharing is all well and good, but as I wander about the organ world and take stock of the situation, I believe more than ever that the exchange of ideas must occur in both formal and informal ways, and that in its professional camaraderie, the organbuilding industry must project an image of intelligence, organisation and solidarity to the purchasing public. It is all well and good that one builder can contact another in a moment of private desperation to rectify a serious miscalculation. The more important aspect is that we share freely with all in our industry—not by educating others in the traditional sense of training, which I think is best left to the workshop and an apprentice’s thirst for knowledge, but by exposing the fraternity to our ideals and, in seminar, putting forth the details of how we try to achieve those ideals. At best, we must encourage those in our employ to constantly learn new things, and to perfect those techniques they have already absorbed. With such an attitude, we might build better organs, and that in turn might keep our art alive for the next generation.

I am sure that in the past, other people my age (I am twenty-eight) have looked with despair toward the future; at present, it is doubly sobering to look around and see so many genuine threats to the longevity of a lively, broad-based organbuilding culture. Electronic substitutes have made shocking inroads, and in ways that I fear most organbuilders are too ready to ignore. A great many small organs that were the bread and butter of large American organbuilding factories are now regularly replaced by electronics. And yet it was the profits of the small organs that often made the big jobs possible. In a similar vein, if you are a small, well-established builder throwing together one large tracker organ a year, you may certainly not care about the electronic threat. If you are a regional builder fighting for an honest rebuild job, however, I fear you know the electronic threat all too well. These two hypothetical firms need each other desperately; one cannot exist without the other in the long run. Furthermore, it does not help when someone like Carlo Curley takes an Allen into a place like Ely Cathedral, where I was two weeks ago, and due to the acoustical situation and placement, the Allen sounds depressingly effective. Whatever I may think of the sound, and I can assure you of my strong feelings on this matter, I have not the slightest doubt that the majority of the two thousand people present didn’t mind the Allen in the slightest, and what’s worse, readily equated it with the pipe organ, one a substitute for the other. If you do not consider this a threat, I would remind you that there are now more than 3,000 Allen organs alone in the UK, and that number is bound to increase. I think we need to be ever more vigilant and vocal in our views on this threat. My hope is that some churches which have purchased electronics will realise the disposability of the goods they purchased, and return to the dependability and longevity of pipe organs. Or better still, that one forces a committee to ask themselves whether they have kept their cars, refrigerators, toasters or other solid-state appliances from generation to generation, and found those items capable of economical or viable renewal. It is not every family that can afford so long-lived and rebuildable a car as a Rolls-Royce, but well-built, carefully designed pipe organs—like the churches that house them—offer just this advantage. Is the price all that high, once amortised over forty years? That churches learn to quantify the long-term impact of their investment, both artistic and financial, would be a nice phenomenon to look back on as I close out my career.

But the larger threat remains that a splintered organbuilding fraternity is ultimately bad for business. At such a time when business is bad, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that our professional organisations are strong, effective and worthwhile for their members. While there are many excellent such organisations in the States, I would mention just two, those which correlate to the FMOB and ISOB. In the States, we have the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America, or APOBA, and the American Institute of Organbuilders, or AIO. The APOBA currently comprises about 35 member firms which meet once a year on their own, and a second time in conjunction with the annual AIO Convention. APOBA was originally formed to deal with the joint acquisition of materials after the war, and secondly, as a sounding board for the big factory firms. Nowadays, factory organbuilding is less prevalent, and many of the small prestigious “boutique” builders play a big role in administering APOBA. Not, I might add, that APOBA seems to do much at the moment; in addition to some useful education outreach activities, they really just get together and hobnob—a vital thing for them to do, of course, but not something that reaches deep into the lives of everyday organbuilders. Recently, APOBA has sustained its own threat of factionalism. One member firm has started to build pipe and electronic combinations exclusively; other members have raised the issue, is our organisation not called the Associated Pipe Organ builders of America? And therefore, are we to allow members who undertake to build this kind of instrument? This controversy has not gone very far, and may simply be ignored for the time being. Should they dissolve? Can the concerns of the firms be ably met by such an organization as AIO. Such issues remain up for debate, and once again point out the differences between British and American organbuilding. Your numbers are fewer, and you may find greater strength in a single, powerful organisation. The matters and their implications are different in the States, where too great a size tends to distract an organisation from its primary missions.

Where the AIO is concerned, I can speak with pure pride, because they really are an excellent organisation, well-run, smartly organised, and they deliver the goods to their members in the form of a smart quarterly journal and generally excellent annual conventions. The AIO will have just concluded their Indianapolis convention yesterday, and I can guarantee you that for the next month or so, as the dreaded Christmas tuning season looms large, the organbuilding world in the States will ever a more chummy place. The Education Committee of the AIO strives to address a broad range of organbuilding topics, and then encourages the local program committees to pick the right people to present the lectures. The Committee receives regular feedback via an extensive evaluation system, whereby all convention attendees complete a reaction form on each lecture. These forms are later consolidated and analyzed, for consideration in the planning of future events. The result is that an AIO Convention is never just four days of exclusively technical talks. Perhaps my favorite aspect is the so-called Table Talks, wherein five or six very specific topics—harmonic flute voicing, the oiling of blowers, chimney lengths, the adjustment of whiffletree swell motors—are given a specific twenty minute treatment; the assembly divides into as many groups as there are Table Talks, and sees them all in rotation. I have learned much simple and practical information this way. Also, not all of the longer lectures discuss strict organbuilding, but time management, cost accounting, health insurance and tax issues, and other business matters on which American organbuilders are notoriously ignorant.

Inevitably, the most valuable aspect of the AIO Conventions is the simple act of being in the presence of other organbuilders, getting to put a face with the name, and realising that people whom you have assumed are ogres (and probably have been at one time or another) are in fact good people at heart, simply trying to stay in business just like you. In the end, I am sure that more information is exchanged at the cash bar than across any podium. The AIO also holds a mid-winter seminar, of a type mentioned previously. This gives intensive study into one aspect, such as reed voicing, where a small group of no more than 30 people congregate for a few days for specific study. This usually takes place in February, the annual Convention is unfailingly the first weekend in October. I should point out that membership in the AIO is $65, or roughly £40 per annum. By the time all is said and done, the attendance at an AIO Convention runs between $1,000-$1,200, including hotel, airfare, and the considerable boozing that is the best part of any convention. They are very clever, however; if you aren’t a member, your convention registration is $65 higher than for non-members, so they get you either way. (Come to think of it, I must get to joining one of these days.) Since the Conventions are so much fun, and often so educational, I don’t hesitate paying for any of this. In fact, it is the one thing for which I actually make sure to set aside money every year. If there is any possibility of attending one, I cannot recommend it too highly; next year is in San Jose, a fine small city about sixty miles south of San Francisco, where you will see a marvelous cross-section of American organbuilding, both old and new. Again, I should point out that the AIO cannot serve as a model for emulation as you devise a new role for the ISOB. However, I think that it can serve as a healthy example of an organisation, and one from which you can gain many valuable ideas.

In closing, let me thank you once again for the invitation to bore you. As you work out the destiny of your professional organisations, I wish you luck and goodwill. However desperate you view your straits, you need only peer over the English Channel to France, and to the frayed tatters of organbuilding in that country, to recall that in your English sky there are still many lucky stars to count. Good evening and cheers.