Arts and Culture

An Insider’s Look at Pipe Organs

Ever wondered where the phrase “pulling out all the stops” came from?

These levers are called stops, so called because they stop the air from passing through to create sound. Welcome to the wonderfully complex world of pipe organs.

These levers are called stops, so called because they stop the air from passing through to create sound. Welcome to the wonderfully complex world of pipe organs.

The Ninja Turtle and GodzillaPin had the pleasure this Sunday to spend some time with a few of GP’s cousins. One of his cousins happens to be a musician – an organist to be specific. After a Mexican-themed lunch featuring not enough guacamole and just a little too much tequila, Rock ‘n’ Roll Rabbit thought it would be a fantastic idea to pop down to the church and show us some tricks of the trade. On a good day, Ninja Turtle and GodzillaPin wouldn’t resist. On a tequila-fuelled day, they naturally insisted they get a turn to play the instrument too.

So, down to the church they went. It was the Notre Dame of Juvigny, situated in the Champagne region. The church was old; built some time in the 12th century, it has been continuously restored. What it harbored inside however, was even more remarkable.

here is something remarkable to be mentioned about this pulpit; it was originally constructed for another church in Châlons, that was destroyed during the French Revolution. It was salvaged, purchased and relocated to the Notre Dame of Juvigny.

As was this magnificent pipe organ, built in 1603.

As was this magnificent pipe organ, built in 1603.

It’s practically impossible to imagine how one goes about relocating an instrument of this scale back in the 18th century, let alone with their technology back then, all the way up there. So, the duo stopped asking these pointless questions, and instead, tried asking clever ones. Like…

Is it a percussion or a wind instrument? A pipe organ works something like this: the organist has got to tap a key on the keyboards, which admits wind into the pipes. Before this however, the organist has to decide which of those funky levers, called stops, are to be pulled out, permitting the wind to thus pass through and make the desired sound.

So, the next question is, where does this wind come from? Well, today we have this magical thing called electricity, but way back when they didn’t, someone had the most fantastic job of pumping up and down this device called the bellows, which forces air into the organ. The range of motion of the lever for the bellows is greater than the Ninja Turtle’s height, so a job like this has got to suck. Thank goodness for electricity.

These stops, what exactly do they do? Well, if you’re familiar with an electronic organ, a pipe organ’s like the original copy. These stops are like the buttons for different sounds; one can press the same key but with different stops, the sound (also called the speak) produced is different. With a combination of stops pulled, you can create something like a chord. When you pull out many stops together, you can literally create a rich, complex combination of sounds (and voices!) that lend atmosphere to all sorts of music, from Bach’s fugues to the orchestral soundtracks for movies.

How does it work, exactly? Well, each stop controls a rank of pipes. These ranks are organized according to the pitch and timbre of said pipes. How many pipes are there exactly in a pipe organ? Well… that depends on the number of keys and pedals, and the number of stops.

What are those weird labels on the stops? Those are names, and they can be confusing because there is no real standardization. The same stops on different organs can have varying names. Depending on which country it was built in, the stops names can vary too.

According to Rock ‘n’ Roll Rabbit, who’s played in various cathedrals around France, different organs play differently, which may seem like stating the bloody obvious, but then again, organs of the same make don’t sound the same in different churches. This means having to arrive in advance for a practice session, and acquainting himself to the organ and the “surround sound system” of each church space.

Here’s a video of Rock ‘n’ Roll Rabbit doing a little demonstration for the Ninja Turtle and GodzillaPin. And the next time you walk into a church and listen to the swelling chords filling the atmosphere, think about the person up there, working on a combination of keys and pedals, and literally pulling out all the stops to create this little bit of magic just for you.

If the above video doesn’t load automatically, please visit this link.

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