The Collaborative Spirit

by Jonathan Ambrosino

The ability to collaborate reflects a summit of maturity: that point at which artisans can co-mingle their visions and be prepared to live with jointly-produced results. But what could possibly make organbuilders want to work together?

Sharing ideas, techniques and research is one thing. It happens gladly and frequently across certain sectors of American organbuilding, mostly in the fields of restoration and craft tracker organbuilding. But share the creation of an organ? After all the work of establishing a shop and a staff, a style and a reputation, the hard-won ability to create organs according to one’s own convictions surely is not so easily relinquished.

Like everything else in organbuilding, collaboration is hardly new. In the last hundred years there have been several notable collaborations in America. Carlton Michell figures prominently in this regard, working with a number of builders to produce instruments in his distinctive style. G. Donald Harrison was ready to collaborate with J.W. Walker & Sons in the late 1930s on an organ for Buckfast Abbey, in consort with Ralph Downes. More recently, the landmark 1961 Fisk organ for Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore was built in collaboration with Flentrop; an assurance to the client in light of a young company and an ambitious project.

Though heralded as a lofty ideal in the pages of dedication brochures, collaboration is often borne out of some pragmatic need, where the first party is charged with a mission that for whatever reasons requires a second party to realise. Accepting the apparent compromise of collaboration, however, often leads builders down channels they might not have navigated on their own. Due to the multi-faceted nature of the artistic investment, the results are rarely predictable and often fascinating, as three recent projects demonstrate.

The 1995 Noack organ in Christ the King Lutheran Church, Houston is built specifically after the work of Gottfried Silbermann and Zacharias Hildebrandt. The congregation is thoroughly rooted in the Lutheran choral tradition, drawing largely from the Bach and pre-Bach repertoire and singing heartily in parts to any and all chorale-based music. In line with this commitment, Dorry and Carroll Shaddock, organist and choirmaster respectively, knew they wanted a Bach organ. A trip to Germany convinced them that the guttural, vocale-style organs of Gottfried Silbermann and Zacharias Hildebrandt provided a viable style for emulation in their modest but reverberant modern church. The research trip also brought the couple into contact with Kristian Wegscheider, an East German who has restored several Silbermann organs and who is thoroughly versed in the traditions these instruments represent.

Wegscheider acted initially as a consultant to the Shaddocks and the church, not so much as a collaborating organbuilder but as an informed resource as to style and detail. When Fritz Noack was chosen to construct the instrument, he relied upon Wegscheider’s guidance and assistance in formulating many design aspects, as well as the latter’s ready access to old German organs. Perhaps the most active collaborative element was that Wegscheider’s voicer came to Houston to assist Noack with the final voicing.

Fritz Noack is a venerable tracker revival builder who started work with Charles Fisk in the late 1950s. He has been around long enough to bridge the first and second stages of the tracker revival, moving from early neo-classical efforts to later romantic influences—the latter stemming from a pivotal experience with his firm’s 1984 restoration of the 1864 E. & G.G. Hook in Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts. Later instruments have demonstrated an eclectic blend of the builder’s personal experience: classical choruses with Hook-inspired elements. Where Noack was certainly at the forefront of the first-stage tracker revival, he has never quite emerged at the front rank of the revival’s second stage. For him to step into the old clothes of “copy” organbuilding is an interesting development at this stage in his career.

Noack’s willingness to subjugate himself entirely to the stylistic milieu of Silbermann and Hildebrandt, and his excellence as a craftsman, have not only produced an instrument eerily representative of its model; his seriousness has dignified the entire process. The result is not only distinguished but accurate: if one averted one’s gaze to a few construction details, it would be possible to believe that one was in a restored old organ. The wood is not finished, merely planed and scraped. Pine is used extensively, giving a feel and look appropriate to the style. There are no modern climate-stabilising devices such as slider seals. Both client and builder understand that living with this new instrument will entail some of the compromises of living with an old one.

The sense and style of the interior carry through to the action and the ensemble. The vocal color of the principal tone and the choruses in general, coupled to the resulting cohesion, would be distinctive in any style; here it faithfully echoes its model. Can one tell the Wegscheider influence? Hard to say — clearly this organ takes pride in its fidelity, and if Noack relied upon Wegscheider in this area, the debt is apparent and gratefully acknowledged.

A more integrated kind of collaborative effort can be found in the new Glatter-Götz organ in the First United Church of Christ in Claremont, California. Glatter-Götz of Owingen, Germany is a young company, but company chief Caspar Glatter-Götz is an organbuilder of considerable experience. After several decades working alongside his family at Rieger, Caspar Glatter-Götz moved to Germany a few years ago to establish his own firm.

From the outset the Claremont organ was conceived as an unapologetic collaborative effort. Scottish architects David Laird and Graham Tristram conceived the organ’s visual design (Glatter-Götz had worked with them on the Rieger at St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh); Rosales Organ Builders of Los Angeles took charge of the tonal direction. The casework is traditional, in its use of towers, flats and pipe shades, but modern in its treatment of shape, line and color. The skillful integration of metallic elements lends point and focus. Perhaps most distinctive is the console area, striking a note of freshness with its concave retreating back panel and music desk, square stop drawknobs, exposed pedal key tails, and pedestal bench with concealed electric lift.

The Rosales involvement is as unusual as it is significant. From a practical standpoint, Glatter-Götz is not a voicer nor does he employ one. His decision to employ tonal talent outside his company is a necessary step in the creation of any instrument he builds. But since the Claremont organ is the first of this firm’s American installations, with much fanfare attached to it and in a big university town, Glatter-Götz has scored a coup of sorts, since Rosales organs are usually met with great acclaim.

Although the initial tonal design was suggested by Caspar Glatter-Götz, Claremont’s specification was further refined by Manuel Rosales and Carey Robertson, the church’s organist. With Rosales and his longtime colleague Kevin Gilchrist specifying all scales and details of pipe construction, also placement of stops on windchests), it is hardly surprising that the organ has assumed a distinctly Rosales flavor, growing not out of any Rieger tradition but instead building on—bettering, some say—the larger Rosales organs in Portland and Oakland and to some extent the Fisk/Rosales organ at Rice University. The concepts blend mostly Germanic and French ideals with certain elements from the instruments of turn-of-the-century California builder Murray M. Harris, Southern California’s most prominent organbuilder from 1895 to 1915.

The organ is at home in much music, and unlike many modern eclectic tracker organs, it begins to address certain liturgical needs through softer registers rarely found in this genre of organbuilding. Most significant perhaps is the organ’s overall impact; while undoubtedly big, it is nonetheless appropriate in scale, as some of these instruments have failed to be.

The Claremont collaboration is a team effort in which the various players have kept fairly well to their own task. Neither Glatter-Götz nor Rosales would have produced precisely this organ on his own. If it begs any question, it is whether such an approach helps or hinders Glatter-Götz on the stage of world organbuilding. Must an instrument’s visual, mechanical and tonal concept be in the hands of one guiding force in order to be successful, distinctive and musical?

The organ at Rice University represents a third kind of collaboration and perhaps the genre in its most integrated form. Professor Clyde Holloway had long dreamed of a large organ in French style for Rice University, and worked to create a purpose-built hall with splendid acoustics. A contract was signed with Rosales Organ Builders in 1992. A year later, as Rosales neared the completion of his largest instrument to date in Oakland California, he concluded that large-scale projects overtaxed the resources of his small shop.

Given a long-standing collegial relationship between the Rosales and Fisk shops, the decision to transfer the contract from Rosales to Fisk in 1993 was perhaps less surprising than it may initially appear. Fisk was in a position to deliver a large instrument within a very reasonable schedule, relieving Rosales of the burden while allowing him to retain a central role in the instrument’s artistic development. The goal was to produce a truly cooperative creation.

All pipe scaling was shared between Manuel Rosales and Fisk’s head voicer David Pike, with input on reed construction by Michael Kraft and Stephen Malionek of Fisk. The two firms made a joint study trip of French baroque, classic and romantic organs in September of 1994. The instrument was built almost entirely by Fisk, with Rosales supplying a few peripheral parts; pre-voicing was carried out by Fisk voicers in the Fisk shop, but site-voicing was handled jointly between Rosales and a revolving team of Fisk voicers. The result is one of the most instantly acclaimed organs of its day, certainly as much of a success as, say, Rosales’ organ in Portland or Fisk’s organ for the Dallas Symphony; David Fuller has said that its “authenticity” is almost unimportant, since it is simply “one of the most beautiful romantic organs in the world.” Pressed to consider the division of responsibility, one would have to admit that in its polish, refinement and sophistication, the organ resembles more Rosales’ work than Fisk’s generally; but the instrument is really unprecedented for either firm.

The collaborative process demonstrates itself as a discipline that can draw the best from those who submit to it, removing even the most perceptive artisans from the unavoidable insularity of their individual firms. If nothing else, collaboration may highlight a simple point: however annoying it might be at the time, we might just do better work with our colleagues watching over our shoulders.
Reproduced with permission from the May/June 1998 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2001