Friday, December 08, 2006


THE WEBSITE, L'ORGUE et ses BUFFETS (The organ and its cabinets), features photos of remarkable pipe organs. The site is in French, but the photos speak for themselves.

The pipe organ is one of the most ancient of European musical instruments, invented in the 3rd century B.C. by Ctesibius of Alexandria, who also designed an accurate clock. Both of these were widely used in the Roman Empire; the organ, being tremendously loud, was popular in amphitheaters during games and circuses. The earliest organs were hydraulic, with the pneumatic pipe organ appearing in the 2nd century A.D.: I wonder what are the comparative advantages and disadvantages of using water versus air in organs?

Organs were used in the Byzantine and Islamic empires, and portable organs were developed in Europe during the Middle Ages. It may be surprising then, that even though the use of the organ has been so widespread, that it has no use in current popular music.

Pipe organs, being prominently used in the Church and for classical music, and being expensive to install, difficult to play, as well as requiring extensive planned maintenance, have typically been at the forefront of technology throughout the ages. Since the instrument does not rely on the musician's power to generate the sound, the size of an organ is unlimited: richness and variety of sound are easily augmented by adding pipes. But the very earliest organs had one key per pipe, with the key directly linked to the pipe valve, which made the organ keyboard huge and physically difficult to play. The early invention of clever mechanical linkages between the keys and the valves, as well as grouping pipes together in the form of "stops" made the keyboards smaller and easier to the touch, as well as allowed flexibility in the placement of the pipes. (The phrase "pulling out all the stops" comes from pipe organs.) Electricity and electromechanical mechanisms were incorporated into organs in the 19th century, marking an early use of these technologies. Later, electronics were incorporated in organs, often replacing the pipes altogether: however, the intense air-moving quality of pipe organs cannot be duplicated with speakers.

Computer technology has been incorporated into organs, starting as early as the 1960s, and becoming nearly universal by the late 1970s, with many older organs being retrofitted with new control systems. This technology allows precise control over airflow in the pipes, and allows for far more combinations of sounds, and better keyboard "feel" for the organist.

The human ear is so finicky that anything much short of perfection in music is intolerable, so it is not surprising that a tremendous amount of effort is spent on refining musical instruments and on the training of musicians. The fact that we speak of musical instruments tells us that these devices are highly refined and precisely made. Also, the ancients would use the example of musicians to illustrate the development of virtue.

Music is perhaps the oldest, and also most abstract art form, and is the most universal. More importantly, the laws which govern good music seem to be linked to mathematical laws which govern the workings of the cosmos: the mathematical study of harmonics has universal applicability, from music, to planetary orbits, to the vibration of atoms. Because of music's deep connection with ultimate reality, we shouldn't be surprised that so much effort should be spent on the development of the "king of instruments".

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