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Archive for Monday, October 31, 1994

AIR FINDS LIFE INSIDE INSTRUMENT

October 31, 1994

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Meticulously honed materials come alive in downtown Lawrence.

Listen in tonight's Halloween winds for the musical voice of Hollywood horror, the famous A-G-A that starts Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ.

It is one of dozens of voices that take shape in a basement workshop in Lawrence, where last week Michael Phelps pried at the "lip" of a two-foot-long pipe made from "spotted metal," a pliable lead-tin alloy with a leopard-like pattern on its surface.

The pipe's "toe" and "foot" -- the base -- were planted above a valve, and when Phelps depressed a middle C on his voice machine's keyboard, a whoosh of air that sounded like the toneless gush of a miniature steam engine rushed through the pipe. Fwoosh.

For six years Phelps, 31, has been one of three flue voicers at The Reuter Organ Co., 612 N.H. He helps create the various and varying sounds in the flute-like "flue" pipes that make up about 85 percent of an organ's pipes.

Some of the voices will be warm, some will shine, some will be breathy like a lusty tenor saxophone or Marilyn Monroe.

The other pipes are reed pipes, with internal flaps of copper that vibrate somewhat like a clarinet's reed. They have names like Krumer, Oboe, Krummhorn and Vox Humana, and they are voiced by a different team of workers.

Elsewhere, cabinet makers mold rough-hewn poplar, cherry and oak into pedaled, multikeyboarded consoles. Joined by endless miles of wires and lustrous oil finishes, these giant musical machines rise over a period of two or three months in a factory along the Kansas River.

They become, as much as the notes that thunder, trumpet or chime out of their thousands of pipes, magnificent tactile works of art in their own right, sculptural, architectural wonders of glistening wood, cooper and zinc.

"I think the best feeling is going and seeing something like that and knowing a little piece of you is up there," Phelps said.

The Reuter Organ Co. has built more than 2,100 organs since 1917 for churches and university concert halls around the world, including those of the universities of Michigan, Texas and Indiana.

Last week Phelps was working on the flue voices for an organ bound for a United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg, Va. It will have 34 sets, or "ranks," of 61 notes, each with a unique voice. That's 2,074 individual pipes.

"Voicing is like teaching a little kid how to speak," Phelps said. "You're trying to get everything aligned in the correct position so it can form a sound."

He pried again at the spotted metal lip, adjusted its angle, fiddled with the pipe's languid, or "tongue," which helps steer air past the lip.

Again he pressed the middle C, and the voicing machine's reservoir, its "lungs," exhaled deeply through the pipe.

The pipe resonated with a clear, unwavering, powerful tone -- just the beginning of a voice, yet to be rounded with a hint of air, tweaked with a twist of artistry.

If you listen carefully you may hear such a voice tonight.

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