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March 8, 2011

Fine Tuning

by soundlandscapes

I AM FASCINATED BY SOUND – listening to it, recording it and archiving it. My special interest is recording everyday sounds – the sounds that most people either ignore or take only a fleeting interest in – the sounds that create a lasting sense of atmosphere or a sense of place.  Paris is full of such sounds but so too are other places.

Sometimes I seem to stumble across sounds that are not only interesting but also unusual and to find these sounds is always a pleasure.

On a recent visit to Poland I visited St John’s Cathedral in Warsaw. Built in the first half of the 14th century, the original church was almost completely demolished during the Second World War. In 1939 the church was bombed and partly burned and then, after the Warsaw uprising in 1944, in a particularly callous act, German tanks entered the church and completely destroyed what remained.

After the war, with typical fortitude, the Polish people decided that the church should be re-built. By 1956 the reconstruction of the building was complete but it was not until the 1970’s that the restoration of the interior was finally finished.

It was against this background that I found myself, on a very cold Saturday morning, in St John’s Cathedral.

When I visit a church or a cathedral the first thing I look for is the organ. Church and cathedral organs are another passion of mine – sound recording and church organs seem to go hand in glove.

The organ in St John’s Cathedral was built by the Eule company of Bautzen in Germany and it was installed in 1987. This King of Instruments stands proudly in the organ loft above the west door.

The Organ of St John’s Cathedral

On this particular Saturday morning the organ was receiving some special attention. It was being tuned. What I know about organ tuning could be written on the back of a postage stamp but, after listening to the process for over an hour, I came away having learned a lot.

I learned that it takes at least two people to tune a cathedral organ. In this case, a young lady sitting at the organ console pressing keys on cue from the organ tuner who was buried deep inside the bowels of the instrument.

I also learned that organ tuning is in part a long and delicate process demanding an acute sense of pitch from the organ tuner and in part a quite brutal process in which a hammer seems to be an essential part of the organ tuner’s armoury.

Tuning the upper register:

As well a hammer, a selection of pitch pipes are used so that the organ pipes can be tuned to a reference pitch. The combination of the sound of these pitch pipes and the sound of the organ pipes makes for an interesting effect.

Tuning the lower register:

After much hammering and blowing of pitch pipes, it was time for the obligatory ‘road test’. The organ tuner emerged from the bowels of the instrument to take centre stage at the console where he showed that he could do more with his hands than wield a hammer.

The road test:

Job done!

Many famous Polish people are entombed in St John’s Cathedral including Ignacy Jan Paderewski, concert pianist and one time Prime Minister of Poland – a man who I’m sure would appreciate the fine art of organ tuning.

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