Not many people know it, but the South Sound not only has a wealth of beautiful mechanical organs built in the style of European 17th- and 18th-century instruments, but it also is home to two of the country’s most respected organ building workshops: Paul Fritts and Co. in Parkland and Martin Pasi in Roy.
This week, a technical course is bringing 18 young people from around the country, plus Japan and France, to study local organs and how they’re built.
The unusual opportunity even extends to the public, with a kick-off demonstration concert Sunday night at Pacific Lutheran University.
“There’s more than the usual concentration of good organs in this area that began with the … Flentrop organ at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle,” explained Paul Fritts, who since 1979 has been building organs for major churches and institutions around the country. “We want to convey to young people the vast range of ways of organ building in a way that connects with them.”
To achieve that, Fritts and Pasi are helping the Tacoma chapter of the American Guild of Organists host its third Pipe Organ Encounter Technical. It’s a weeklong conference where young people ages 16-23 are taken around the region to visit organs and the workshops where they’re built, get behind-the-scenes tours (including crawling into organ pipe spaces), demonstrations of different instruments by leading performers, opportunities to play themselves, and hands-on building instruction, including a team project to build a tiny portative organ, just 18 inches high and with 18 keys and a hand-pumped bellows.
The participants are mostly organists themselves, though playing ability isn’t a requirement. All that’s needed is a willingness to work with your hands and a desire to learn.
Students will stay at PLU, where the conference begins with a mini-demonstration concert by Paul Tegels, showing off the quality of the Fritts and Brombaugh organs in Lagerquist Hall. The concert is open to the public and will go beyond a typical recital in explaining and showing the differences between the various stops and registrations and how they’re used musically.
Conference director Shari Shull — an organist herself, whose husband Bruce works in the Fritts shop — explains why the Tacoma chapter volunteered to host the third conference of its kind.
“One of the things Bruce and I enjoy is fine concerts on fine organs,” she said. “We want to share that with these kids and hopefully get them involved in organ building.”
The program Shull has devised definitely gives the students a thorough tour of Puget Sound’s pipes. In addition to the Lagerquist organs, they’ll get demonstrations of Fritts organs at the University of Puget Sound, St. Mark’s and the private homes of both organist Sandra Tietjen and Fritts himself. They’ll see Pasi organs at St. Mark’s and in Lynnwood. And they’ll see a variety of organs at Parkland’s Trinity Lutheran (Schlicker and Kilgen), Seattle’s St. James’ Cathedral (Rosales and Hutchings-Votey), and Tacoma’s Christ Episcopal (Brombaugh). They’ll even visit a four-manual 1920s theater Wurlitzer with 48 sets of pipes, kept in perfect working order in a private home in Gig Harbor. At most places, they’ll be shown the technicalities of each instrument, crawling into the pipes housing wherever physically possible and discovering the craft behind the sound.
It’s an unusual experience, particularly because of the concentration of fine organs built in a certain historic way — mechanical action, hand-cast pipes, hand-built freestanding housing and that unique, fluting sound that you’ll never hear from an electronic factory instrument.
“I don’t like blowing my own horn, but there’s a lot of cutting-edge organ building in this country,” Fritts said. “We’ve influenced European building in the last 30 years. They don’t build many new organs in that (historical) style because they have so many … and we’re coming up with some really good ideas.”
“Martin Pasi and Paul Fritts are among the best organ builders in the country,” Shari Shull said. “They’ve been a huge drawcard (for the conference).”
For students who might play organ but have no idea how it works, it’s a golden opportunity.
“As an organist, I play lots of different organs,” said Sam Libra, a University of Washington graduate organ student who holds a church organ position and is attending the conference. “But my knowledge of how they work and are built is limited. It seemed like a great opportunity to get hands-on technical knowledge about the instrument.”
While Libra is mainly interested in learning how to do small maintenance work himself, there also is a possibility that the conference will inspire some participants to make it their career.
“I think there are a lot of opportunities,” said Fritts, who employs six people. “As Martin and I get older, we wonder who will take over our shops.”
Organ building is a career that takes a certain blend of skills: an ability to work with your hands in wood and metal, a love of design, an understanding of acoustics, some musical ability and a cooperative nature.
It also takes patience: Organs like the one Fritts is currently building for Notre Dame University can take months or years to build, with every step done by hand. Conference attendees will get to see every aspect of this, from the sawdust-scented room with precision-cutting machines, to the huge table where molten lead/tin alloy is poured into sheets for cutting and wrapping around enormous conical mandrels to make pipes; from the carpentry room where rough sawn planks are built into elegant housings and keyboard parts, to the voicing room where a small organ can test pipes for intonation and clarity.
They’ll even see the computer design program used by Bruce Shull to develop the tiny portative they’ll make together.
“It’s all hands on, no machines,” Fritts said. “It’s pretty skillful work.”
For participants like Libra, it’s a chance to learn the engineering behind the music.
“I’ve never had hands-on experience like this,” Libra said. “It would be easy to take this further if it whetted my appetite. And it also sounds like fun!”Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/arts