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!

  • I have never much been a fan of classical organ music. That being said, however, watching that fellow move his feet faster than most can move their hands, and seeing the complex array of keys and buttons and keyboards on the organ give me a new respect for it.

    For the other, the sound of the theatre organ has become in our ear a little cheesy, and that’s a shame, as it can produce some amazingly varied music. I have seen theatre organs, but never heard one played, or t least never played as well as the one you provide. It was most amazing, though, in a non musical sense. The little white, red and yellow keys that surrounded the keyboards, the ones that control the flavor of the sound, all seemed to be moving independently of anything he did. A precursor to preprogramming!

    Thanks, Andy. I very much enjoyed this post.
    .-= Geoff´s last blog ..Post 18 – A Hustler, a Hovel and the Happiest Place on Earth =-.

  • I have never much been a fan of classical organ music. That being said, however, watching that fellow move his feet faster than most can move their hands, and seeing the complex array of keys and buttons and keyboards on the organ give me a new respect for it.

    For the other, the sound of the theatre organ has become in our ear a little cheesy, and that’s a shame, as it can produce some amazingly varied music. I have seen theatre organs, but never heard one played, or t least never played as well as the one you provide. It was most amazing, though, in a non musical sense. The little white, red and yellow keys that surrounded the keyboards, the ones that control the flavor of the sound, all seemed to be moving independently of anything he did. A precursor to preprogramming!

    Thanks, Andy. I very much enjoyed this post.
    .-= Geoff´s last blog ..Post 18 – A Hustler, a Hovel and the Happiest Place on Earth =-.

  • admin

    Thanks Geoff –

    Many people are not fans of classical organ music (or think they are not) and often that is the result of being exposed to mediocre organs and organists. When you get to hear a master like Cameron, it’s a different ballgame. I had the chance to work with him about a year ago at a concert here in New Hampshire, and many of the audience members came in skeptical and left only after DEMANDING (and receiving) 2 encores.

    On the theater organ the white, red and yellow keys are called stop tabs, and they control the different sets of pipes and other sounds. When the move automatically they are being triggered by what’s called the combination action. It lets the organist store memories of combinations of sounds (called registrations) and recall them by pressing the small round buttons between the keyboards.

    In the original theater organs the combinations were “programed” with something called a “setter board” it’s a panel with hundreds of electrical contacts, and small stiff wires sticking out over the contacts. Before the performance, the organist would bend the appropriate wires to touch the metal contacts, to set the combinations he wanted.

    On most modern instruments, the combination action is done with computer technology – so the console is all original and the pipework and pneumatic systems are all original, but the electronics in between is modern. It gives both greater flexibility and reliability, often at a lower cost.

    Take care,

    Andy

  • admin

    Thanks Geoff –

    Many people are not fans of classical organ music (or think they are not) and often that is the result of being exposed to mediocre organs and organists. When you get to hear a master like Cameron, it’s a different ballgame. I had the chance to work with him about a year ago at a concert here in New Hampshire, and many of the audience members came in skeptical and left only after DEMANDING (and receiving) 2 encores.

    On the theater organ the white, red and yellow keys are called stop tabs, and they control the different sets of pipes and other sounds. When the move automatically they are being triggered by what’s called the combination action. It lets the organist store memories of combinations of sounds (called registrations) and recall them by pressing the small round buttons between the keyboards.

    In the original theater organs the combinations were “programed” with something called a “setter board” it’s a panel with hundreds of electrical contacts, and small stiff wires sticking out over the contacts. Before the performance, the organist would bend the appropriate wires to touch the metal contacts, to set the combinations he wanted.

    On most modern instruments, the combination action is done with computer technology – so the console is all original and the pipework and pneumatic systems are all original, but the electronics in between is modern. It gives both greater flexibility and reliability, often at a lower cost.

    Take care,

    Andy

  • This was great – your blog is a musical adventure.

    Cameron is amazing.

    One of the largest pipe organs in the world is in the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah. It is simply fabulous. I have toured Temple Square and heard it many times.

    We even had a smaller version in our local tabernacle. What a treat.

    Andy- Thanks again.

    Sheila
    .-= Sheila Atwood´s last blog ..How To Work At Home =-.

  • This was great – your blog is a musical adventure.

    Cameron is amazing.

    One of the largest pipe organs in the world is in the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah. It is simply fabulous. I have toured Temple Square and heard it many times.

    We even had a smaller version in our local tabernacle. What a treat.

    Andy- Thanks again.

    Sheila
    .-= Sheila Atwood´s last blog ..How To Work At Home =-.

  • admin

    I had not known much about the Mormon Tabernacle organ – but your comment got me curious – so I did some research on youtube – what a wonderful American Classic instrument – I’d love to get out there to hear it in person some day….

    In terms of GIANT instruments – I’m very excited by the ongoing renovation to return the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ to functionality – just to give you an idea – this is about 4 times the size of the Tabernacle organ!!!!

    you can hear some (not great) recordings of it before it was taken out of service by a giant renovation of the building here:
    http://www.acchos.org/gallery_aud.php

    Andy

  • admin

    I had not known much about the Mormon Tabernacle organ – but your comment got me curious – so I did some research on youtube – what a wonderful American Classic instrument – I’d love to get out there to hear it in person some day….

    In terms of GIANT instruments – I’m very excited by the ongoing renovation to return the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ to functionality – just to give you an idea – this is about 4 times the size of the Tabernacle organ!!!!

    you can hear some (not great) recordings of it before it was taken out of service by a giant renovation of the building here:
    http://www.acchos.org/gallery_aud.php

    Andy

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