Piped-In Music (The Real Kind) in Bristol Valley

The console is the organist’s “office” where he can control the sound through an innumerable combination of stops. Pictured here is the console at Central Presbyterian Church in Geneseo.

The Bristol Valley: beautiful hills, good skiing, summer theatre, antiques, a pipe organ builder…

Wait – a pipe organ builder? Sure enough, just south of Bristol Center on Route 64, you encounter a long, flat, functional shop with a sign identifying Parsons Pipe Organ Builders. The company is owned by brothers Richard and Calvin Parsons, who are the fourth generation of organ builders in the Parsons family.

New life for an old tradition
What goes on inside that shop? And what role is there for this centuries-old “king of instruments” in the 21st century?

Tom Olsen, a 2004 recipient of Eastman’s Doctor of Musical Arts degree and the current acting university organist at Cornell, sees churches heading in two clearly different directions: congregations with full bandstands up front with praise choruses in the repertoire, and those with a renewed interest in the more traditional visual and artistic environment.

Today, the smaller, “tailor-made” pipe organ builders are busy. Richard Parsons explains, “At one time, every church had to have an organ. Sometimes they came quite standardized, a sort of necessary appliance. Today, a pipe organ is much more of a custom choice. The less costly, more standardized choice will more likely be electronic.”

In fact, the year 2004 marks a major expansion at the Parsons shop, with an addition featuring 24-foot ceilings with a 34-foot total height in “the pit” where organs can be fully set up. The shop may also be providentially located when one considers Rochester’s new focus on organs.
Eastman School of Music, which arguably boasts the premier conservatory organ department in the United States, has begun the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative. The project was described in The American Organist as a 10-year plan to assemble in Rochester a diverse collection of new and historic instruments that will be unique in North America. The initiative is a collaboration with Sweden’s Goteborg Organ Art Center, founded by Hans Davidsson, a new Eastman faculty member.

One organ that is in the planning stages is a three-manual instrument in late Baroque style and will reside at Christ Episcopal Church adjacent to the Eastman School. Meanwhile, Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery is set to host a restored 1770s Italian Baroque instrument, originally from the Naples region.

Another dream is a new concert organ for Rochester’s Eastman Theatre, whose old pipe organ – a mammoth instrument by Austin of Hartford, Connecticut – is history. Hopes are that a new one, unlike the old, could be handsomely apparent and speak directly into the hall. Such an instrument, together with an orchestra of the quality of the Rochester Philharmonic, would put Rochester in rare company for performing the repertoire of works for organ with orchestra.

Parsons’ role in all this includes joint responsibility for a 255-year-old Italian instrument currently on loan to the Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word in Rochester, and next year, a partnership with Cornell University in replicating a 17th-century organ by German builder Arp Schnitger. The project will use metal pipe casting techniques that are true to the period.

Also slated for restoration is the 1921 Skinner organ in Eastman’s Kilbourn Hall, originally installed under the supervision of Bryant Gideon Parsons, the grandfather of Parsons’ current owners.

How do they do it?
A pipe organ is truly an individual creation. Budget, stylistic preferences, and space limitations all affect its design, and every room is different acoustically. Certain builders will exert major pressure to remove organ chamber curtains, carpeting, seat cushions, etc., to aid resonance. Parsons takes a more moderate course. This is where pipe voicing is critical. Voicing, or coaxing pipes into uniformity by mechanical means, starts in the shop, one pipe at a time, and then resumes in the building where the instrument ends up.

Duane Prill, an Eastman graduate and noted organist in his own right, is Parsons’ tonal director. Often, he and another crew member will remain on hand for as long as two weeks after a new Parsons organ is installed, listening back and forth and making minute adjustments, bending and tweaking until the speech of every rank (or row) of pipes is blended, uniform, and right for the room.

While metal pipes come from outside sources (currently German in origin), wooden pipes and wind chests are made in-house. A wind chest is a plain wooden box that sits at the base of the pipes; air within this box is used to make the pipes speak. The style and finish of the organ console (which holds the pedals, stops, and manuals or keyboards) and the casework surrounding the pipes are all the work of real craftsmen. The American Institute of Organbuilders has two levels of certification for this work: journeyman and master. This is not work for the uninitiated.

To make an organ play, air is driven by a blower into reservoirs (storage containers for wind) at a specific pressure, regulated by weights or similar means, then released on demand – when keys are depressed – by valves at the base of metal or wooden pipes. A tone is produced based on the length and character of the pipe. In those pipe chambers that are “under expression,” volume is controlled by wooden shades (slats that look like Venetian blinds) that are opened and closed by a pulley that is connected to the swell (a large foot pedal at the console).

Organ pipes are made of metal or wood. Most of the pipes are flue pipes that produce sound when wind comes through the foot of the pipe and flows out the mouth. The wind causes the column of air inside the pipe to vibrate at a pitch dependent upon the length of the column. Flue pipes generate several families of sound, including principals (a bright, clear sound) for strength, flutes for color, and strings for warmth.

Reed pipes work differently from flue pipes. Sound is produced in a similar way to other single-reed instruments, such as clarinets or saxophones. The wind flowing through the pipe vibrates a flat, metal tongue, the length of which determines the pitch.

Reed stops have strong, penetrating tones reminiscent of oboes or trumpets.

The console, also known as the organist’s “office,” can have two, three, or even four 61-note keyboards called “manuals.” The 32-note row of foot pedals allows for the organist’s foot – or feet – to play a bass supporting line or, at a higher pitch, a solo. What’s a more sophisticated word for “ambidextrous”?

Getting Wired
Except for the aid of electricity, this whole basic mechanism has been around since the 1600s, and its ancestors since three centuries before. With electricity came wholesale changes. Pumping air manually into the reservoirs became a thing of the past. And an organ’s “combination action” became a sort of musical computer, decades before “computer” entered the lexicon. At the console, select the combination of stops (or knobs that turn the sound on and off) you want, then depress the numbered piston button you will use to order up that combination. Then release. The next time you push Piston Number Whatever, that combination will pop right out. With dozens of stops, and sounds, available, using these numbered pistons enables the organist to switch quickly from one combination of stops to another.

With electricity, players no longer need to sit at a console directly beneath the pipes. Electrically assisted action, in its various forms, allows for flexibility in console and instrument placement, and these days can come this close to tracker (or mechanical) action, which is still the purist’s choice in response.

It gets better. With solid-state electronics, many organs now sport electronic multi-level memories. Multiply an instrument’s complement of traditional combination pistons by 32 or more available levels of memory, and individual pieces, programs, and performers can all stay out of one another’s way in the organ’s memory. Just toggle a button up or down. This comes in handy when several organists are using the same instrument to play a number of different songs, and each piece requires a unique combination of stops.

Pipe Shopping
Organs cost money, big-time. Need must be proven, support garnered, research done, and expert advice obtained. Grants are available under certain conditions, and memorial gifts are a traditional funding source for churches and schools.
In addition to the overall cost, there are also a number of other factors that contribute to the final decision. If there is an old organ on the premises, its stops could possibly be reused and re-voiced. Acoustics, space and visual considerations also have to be made. One crucial piece of expert advice is: listen to any builder’s organs in unforgiving rooms as well as good ones.

Anyone purchasing a custom-made product wants to know what the finished piece will look like, so at Parsons, the design team of Ric and Ellen Parsons, Duane Prill and Matthew Bellachio produces fully detailed architectural drawings for their clients. Computer images can also show prospective buyers how the whole setup, from console to pipe divisions, will look.

Giving birth to music
On the program for a recital on Parsons’ Opus 17 organ at the Central Presbyterian Church in Geneseo, there appeared this quote: “To a church, the pipe organ is the result of long and careful planning, input and contributions from dedicated families of faith. To the organ builder, the process of designing and crafting a musical instrument is, in some ways, comparable to that of seeing a child grow and mature. As each instrument is being built, it develops and displays its own unique personality.”

This is what goes on in that shop just south of Bristol Center, and further during installation. “Future expectations are very positive, despite a depressed market,” says Ric Parsons, as his company reaches out from western New York to the likes of Virginia, Wisconsin, Washington, and California. Computer-aided design and old-world craftsmanship are alive and well and coexisting in commendable fashion, as fine music is born in the Bristol Valley.


by Bruce Beardsley   
Bruce Beardsley wrote previously for Life in the Finger Lakes about the Tioga Scenic Railroad. A career advertising writer/editor, he is the organist at Irondequoit United Church of Christ in Rochester. He may be contacted at kabamx@aol.com.