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Archive for Friday, March 5, 1999

S PIPE ORGAN INTO A MUSICAL MASTERPIECE.

March 5, 1999

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He probably has pipe dreams of organs.

Dan Abrahamson spends most of his time around the intricate instruments. He works for Reuter Pipe Organ Co.; he is an organist for First United Methodist Church; and for more than 30 years, he has spent his free time perfecting the church's instrument.

"Other people may just sit and twiddle their thumbs," he said. "I like to keep busy."

The giant mechanism is a masterpiece of decades of toil. When Abrahamson came to the church as organist in 1963, the instrument was a fraction of the size it is today and in disrepair. The church gave him free rein to repair it.

"They said you can do anything you want to the organ," he said, "but make sure it's playing on Sunday morning."

Years of his painstaking work have made it one of the larger organs in the region, as well as a well-tuned one.

A large, intricate instrument

Abrahamson stood in front of the organ console recently. Behind him, polished copper fanfare trumpets jutted straight out from underneath the circular stained glass window above the sanctuary.

"Only the larger instruments have them," he said of the trumpets. "Those are pretty assertive."

Nineteen-foot flamed copper pipes with marbled patterns of color dancing up their length framed the window. In front of the massive pipes were smaller, 3-foot tall reflective tin pipes.

"You're just seeing a very small portion," he said, pointing to paneling in the walls that hid more pipes on both sides of the altar. "... Some of those great big pipes can make the floor shake."

The instrument can produce a wide variety of sounds.

"The larger the instrument, the softer it will play," he said. "Some of the sounds are so soft you can barely hear them. It's really ethereal."

Ranks and stops

There are more than 7,000 pipes in the organ.

"I've tuned every one of them," he said.

The instrument has 111 ranks, or sets of pipes. Stop knobs on the console activate different ranks to vary the sound.

The console in front of Abrahamson was almost full; it has knobs, pedals and keys enough to confuse the uninitiated. Abrahamson pointed to eight knobs with little red dots on them, as yet unattached to anything. Soon, they will activate additional ranks.

"I'm adding eight more sometime this spring," he said. "That will be almost all it can accommodate."

The organ is so big, Abrahamson only tunes it thoroughly every seven years, but he said the pipes hold their tune well.

The organ was originally built by Reuter in 1938.

"Pipe organs are built to last," he said. "I expect this thing to last long after I'm gone."

Rebuilding the organ

Abrahamson joined First United Methodist in 1963 as a substitute organist.

"When I first came here, the church hadn't been taking care of the organ," he said. "Some of the pipes were missing. ... It sounded terrible."

It only had 44 pipes, and "fully a third of those didn't work." Playing it was a chore, Abrahamson said -- it had to be played just so, or terrible sounds would emerge. So he rounded up the church's administrative board and gave them a sample of how bad the organ sounded when played without a careful touch.

"I wanted them to agree to fix the organ," he said. And they did. He received a budget of $8,000 to rebuild; Reuter did the work in 1965. During the years, Abrahamson has kept working on it.

"I started adding some of this and adding some of that," he said. Many of the parts and pieces came from Reuter, either cast-offs or rejects.

"A lot of times, they needed to go into the melting pot, but sometimes I found a real gem," he said. "A lot of times, if you have the patience to work on something on your own, you can make something of it."

Other pieces that simply didn't fit in a project that Reuter was designing ended up in the church's instrument, purchased at a discount.

"They'd give me a real good price for it," he said. The church gives him a small budget he uses to purchase items.

During the years, Abrahamson has had around 150 volunteers help, but "it's mainly my work," he said.

"I've never counted up the hours I've spent," he said. "I'm afraid to. ... It really is a labor of love. It's given me a lot of self-satisfaction."

Spending time with instruments

Abrahamson has spent much of his life around organs.

He first played a pipe organ when he was 16. In a pinch, he filled in for an organist.

"I did it," he said. "I don't know how I had enough guts to do it."

He decided he wanted to play the instrument and he wanted to build them. He has a bachelor's degree in sacred music from Illinois Wesleyan University.

Abrahamson is a "voicer" at Reuter, where he has worked since 1961.

"Making the pipes speak is what I do," he said. "(The organ is) nothing but a sophisticated whistle. Each pipe only plays one pitch."

His job is to make sure all the pipes work together and sound right.

"A pipe organ is the most intricate, complicated instrument in the world," he said. "You're like a one-man orchestra."

One of the reasons Abrahamson said he has dedicated so much of his time to working on First United Methodist's organ is simple selfishness.

"I get to use all the wonderful sounds," he said. "If you find what you really like doing, you're eternally happy. I can't think of doing anything else."

-- Felicia Haynes' phone message number is 832-7173. Her e-mail address is fhaynes@ljworld.com.

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