I said yesterday, that there was a whole area of music which I love that is so big and so unknown that it needed its own post. So, let me introduce you to the Theater Pipe Organ. Now, this is an instrument unlike the organs that you find in churches, or the Hammond B3’s which are commonly used in blues and rock, they really are a unique beast.
A little bit of background, silent films were never really silent. They certainly didn’t have a recorded soundtrack, but they were always shown with live musical accompaniment. In small towns, this was often provided by a pianist, but most theaters used an orchestra. As you can imagine, this became rather expensive for the theater owners. The Theatre pipe organ, more formally known as the Unit Orchestra, was, as the name implies, designed to give a single organist access to as much of the tonal range of the orchestra as it was possible to create with a 1920s pneumatic technology.
The instruments are amazing. In addition to the pipe work, most of these instruments have a tremendous variety of auxiliary sounds. Most of them have a piano which is played from the organ console, as well as various percussion instruments, also played from the organ console. These percussion instruments can include everything from glockenspiels and vibraphones to drums of every description to gongs, chimes, and castanets.
Of course, this tremendous range of both pipes and auxiliary instruments gives the theater organ an amazing range of both tone color and volume. A big theater organ at the top of its volume range can easily compete with many rock bands, yet often it is played at barely above a whisper. This ability to move through such an enormous dynamic range creates an amazing listening experience as a song can build from a single soft flute to literally shaking the building.
Of course the introduction of “talking pictures” spelled the beginning of the end for theater organs, at least in common use. Fortunately, quite a number of instruments have been preserved in many locations which range from private homes to theaters to at least one church that I know of and perhaps most unusually, pizza parlors. Much of the work of preserving these instruments is due to the incredibly hard work by members of the American Theater Organ Society, and its chapters.
Of course, all of this talk is somewhat meaningless. It’s about the sound. Before you listen, let me tell you that an instrument of such wide dynamic range is very difficult both to record, and to playback accurately. While this video gives you some sense of the range and power of the instrument, it’s nothing like the experience of hearing it in person.
So hopefully, that gives you something to whet your appetite to hear the theater organ.
I’m also a fan of the classical pipe organ and particularly of the organist Cameron Carpenter, who I think may be the greatest organist who has ever lived. He has both incredible musicianship and technical ability on the instrument which seems superhuman. Check out this video of Cameron playing his arrangement of Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude.
For those of you who happen to live relatively near me here in New England, we have a number of very fine theater organ venues. To find out about upcoming concerts, the best thing to do is to check out the website of the Eastern Massachusetts Chapter of The American Theater Organ Society. All of the venues where they produce events have good organs, however the Shanklin Music Hall is an extraordinary venue, in Groton Massachusetts. If you ever have the chance, you should experience it at least once.
So, have I opened your eyes, and maybe changed your mind a little bit about what the organ can do and how interesting it is? I’d love to hear your response in the comments!