Why is this interesting? - The Pipe Organ Edition

On destruction, artisans, and acoustics

Chris Erickson (CE) is friend of WITI and one of our earliest readers and supporters. He is a United States Army Special Forces (aka Green Beret) veteran, a professional digital marketer, and an amateur creative.

Chris here.On April 15, 2019, the world was shocked to see the very heart of Paris in flames. The famous Notre Dame cathedral, which had been in the midst of a renovation, was the scene of a raging inferno. Fifteen hours later, it’s famous spire had collapsed, and most of the roof was destroyed. The damage was extensive, and yet several iconic and fragile elements had miraculously survived. As the smoke rose from the charred remains of the Gothic church, the signature rose windows and pipe organ remained intact among the ashes and ruin.

On August 3rd of this year, work to restore the pipe organ began. This complicated operation is forecasted to take nearly four years. Even then, after all of the dismantling, cleaning, and reassembling is complete, it will still take another six months just to tune the organ. The next time it is expected to play is April 16, 2024, marking five years and one day since organist Johann Vexo first heard the fire alarm blaring during the evening Mass being celebrated when the fire first erupted.

Why is this interesting?

For such an ancient and analog technology, it is somewhat surprising that the skilled labor and artisans required to undertake such a project exist abundantly today. After all, Ancient Rome’s recipe for opus caementicium was lost for more than a millennia, and it took us until the 18th century to reengineer a concrete that could set underwater. With all of our width and depth of knowledge, we still don’t know how to make Greek Fire or exactly how the Egyptians built the pyramids. Yet, there are still a surprisingly large number of people that have a deep understanding of an instrument with origins in the 3rd century BC. Hopefully, these artisans will be able to flawlessly tear down, clean, and reassemble the thousands of pipes that allow the Great Organ to harness the wind and play some of the most complex pieces of music ever written.

The origins of the pipe organ are found in Ancient Greece, where Cstesibius of Alexandria invented the hydraulis in the 3rd century BC. This instrument utilized a cistern of water to create enough air pressure to play music with its pipes. From this early piece of engineering, it took nearly twenty centuries to develop all of the sounds available on the classic pipe organ. Until the creation of telephone exchange in the latter half of the 19th century, the pipe organ remained the most complex piece of human engineering in recorded history.

The current version of Notre Dame’s Great Organ dates back to the 18th century, the peak of organ innovation. When constructed by François Thierry in the 1730s, twelve pipes from the original 14th-century organ were reportedly utilized. Then, in the 19th century, the number of pipes was doubled by master organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Col, and it became the largest organ in France. With nearly 8,000 pipes, it is hardly the largest in the world, yet it remains unique for reasons beyond its complexity. The true voice of a pipe organ is not determined by its components alone. In these cathedrals, the building shapes how the music is perceived. Beyond just the walls and ceilings, things like the pews and even the cushions can change the instrument’s resonance and sound. Notre Dame has what is known as a seven-second echo, meaning that the parishioners themselves can change the waves of sound in the cathedral just by their presence. 

Your smartphone can download an app in seconds that will allow you to recreate the sounds of a classic pipe organ, but no matter how big your speaker, it will never match the experience of the real thing. The team disassembling the pipes of Notre Dame is undoubtedly working with digital assets that help streamline and organize the enormity and complexity of this project, but at the end of the day, the work is inherently non-digital. After cleaning, they’ll have those digital assets, but they’ll only be a small piece of the puzzle in recreating this work of art. In the end, the organ can’t be completed until the construction is done and vice-versa. The rumble of the bass won’t be fully realized until it is humming in the chests of the audience, after bouncing around the stone, wood, and glass of the structure in which they share space.

Engineering becomes truly artistic in a space like this. (CE)

Longread of the Day:

The New York Times with a deep, immersive piece of journalism detailing how exactly the explosion happened in the Port of Beirut. The use of animations, 3D, and narrative are masterful, and this is truly what great journalism on the Web should aspire to. A teaser: “Fifteen tons of fireworks. Jugs of kerosene and acid. Thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate. A system of corruption and bribes let the perfect bomb sit for years.” (CJN)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Chris (CE)

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