Sound the Pipe! (Part I)

Over the past few months, the Woodshop has been slowly filling up.  Not with the typical chairs or tables, but with organ pipes…enormous, wooden organ pipes.  Ranging in length from 17 to 32 feet and weighing up to 850 pounds, these pipes will provide the foundational notes for the expanded organ in the Saint John’s Abbey and University Church.  In September, they will leave our crowded Woodshop and join the additional 2,600 pipes that are currently being crafted by the renowned Pasi Organ Builders in Roy, Washington.

As it now stands, the Saint John’s Abbey and University Organ is a masterpiece in its own right.  It is the last instrument built by Walter Holtkamp senior and it has faithfully accompanied the monastic and university liturgies for over half a century. However, the original plans for the organ describe an instrument with considerably more power and musical color to fill our nearly 2,200 seat church.  This expansion will complete the organ in a manner which the builder originally intended and provide a sound and experience that will not only be unique to state, but also the country.

As a shop, we’ve long been anticipating these pipes.  Apparently, so has the larger Saint John’s community. Ever since word got out that we were going to construct the largest of them, we’ve been asked, on a daily basis, “How are the pipes coming?”  It is as if nothing else that we make matters!   And while our craftsman, Rob Lillard, and local organ builder, KC Marrin, have labored most on these pipes, you’ll see in the accompanying pictures that there is typically a group of woodworkers around the pipes.  Due to their size, one or two people could not build them alone…they are just too big.  You truly need a shop of craftsmen, students and volunteers.

To celebrate the uniqueness of this project, we held a first-of-its-kind event in the Woodshop: A Pipe Sounding.  About 80 donors and monks filled the lower shop to bless and hear the first “sounding” of the lowest and largest pipe:  the 32-foot low C.  As air passed through the pipe for the first time, the crowd oohed and aahed:  more than a sound, you felt them.  It is as if you were being wrapped in a big hug that you felt in the core of your being.  This profound tone will set up the harmonic series and help create a unified sound for the entire instrument.  When completed, this organ will be one of only three in the state that has such an extraordinary pipe.  

The low C has since been dismantled and will only sound again when situated in the organ loft of the Abbey and University Church when the Pasi Organ Builders start installation this fall.  When completed, we will affix the plaque that was signed by those present at the Pipe Sounding event, marking the first time that this largest pipe was heard (or felt).  When this pipe is played in concert with the nearly 6,000 other pipes of this expanded instrument, it will truly be a magnificent sound.

+ Special thanks to Tommy O’Laughlin and Rob Lillard for photographs used in this post +

Abbey Woodworking