LAKE CITY, Iowa — Inside a two-story brick building here, woodworkers saw and sand pieces and parts that look a bit foreign, at least to a non-musician.
Randall Wolff trims and smoothes the edges of a case door. Kent Brown cuts the angle and spacing of the curved central tower. And a smiling Lynn Dobson holds up the blueprints for the project they're constructing: a pipe organ for a chapel at England's University of Oxford.
For about five years, Dobson Pipe Organ Builders Ltd. of Lake City, a town of 1,800 about 120 miles northeast of Omaha, has been designing and building an organ for the 13th century stone chapel at Merton College, one of the 38 institutions that make up Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
Competition to build the organ, which is to be delivered in time for the 2014 observance of the 750th anniversary of Merton's founding, was worldwide. When installed later this year, the organ will be the first American organ at Oxford and only the third American-made organ sent to England since World War II.
And for Dobson Pipe Organ, this is its first overseas job. The 90 organs the company has built from scratch since 1974 — from a Los Angeles cathedral to another in a Philadelphia performing arts center — all are in the United States.
“In America,” said Dobson tonal director John Panning, “we're kind of used to European organ builders building organs for churches over here. It's not that uncommon. But it's very, very unusual for American organ builders to send organs to Europe. It hardly ever happens.”
Made from quarter-sawn white oak from the southern U.S., designs on the organ's case were hand-carved, and the designs on the organ's pipe shades, a decorative grill that covers the pipes, were laser-cut. The Merton organ has 44 unique sounds or “stops,” which permit an almost infinite number of combinations. The organ also has nearly 3,000 pipes, which range in size from a telephone pole to a drinking straw.
“We've never built the same organ twice,” said Dobson, the company's president and artistic director.
Organ building, like many centuries-old crafts, is becoming increasingly rare. The Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America and the American Institute of Organbuilders, two groups that represent a considerable portion of American organ builders, have a combined 200 members.
But larger operations like the ones Dobson's size — it employs 18 people, including draftsmen, pipe makers, cabinetmakers and pipe voicers — are even fewer, with an estimated few dozen nationwide. Half of Dobson's crew members are locals, and half are organ builders who moved to Lake City for the job. Most have backgrounds in music.
In Europe, there's more public support to build new or restore old organs in European chapels, cathedrals and concert halls because the buildings often are publicly owned, Panning said. More European organ building jobs means more European organ builders and repairers.
So consider the Iowa firm's surprise when, in 2009, Merton reached out to the company about submitting a bid in the international competition to build its new organ. Merton college representatives had seen and heard some of Dobson's instruments on a visit to the East Coast.
The college was seeking an organ that could not only accompany worship services, but also serve as a practice and examination instrument for its organ scholars. It wanted an organ that could play famous English choir anthems and psalms as they were meant to be played. Its current organ, a 1960s-era one built to play music from the Baroque period, isn't equipped for that.
Benjamin Nicholas, Merton's music director, said college officials also wanted an organ that could properly accompany the college's recently re-established choir. In 2008, nearly 20 choral scholarships were awarded, giving a new reason for the chapel to invest in the instrument.
It would be inconceivable to think of a place like Merton College without a good pipe organ, he said, because the instrument is played every day.
Paul Hale, an English organ consultant who worked as the liaison between the potential builders and Merton, suggested to bidders a couple of options: Embrace the chapel's medieval influence and Gothic shapes and curves, or ignore the style altogether and make something “breathtakingly modern.”
“But being Lynn,” Hale said, “he also looked carefully and closely and incorporated little modern reinterpretations of those shapes, particularly the pinnacles. They're quite modern. It's very clever.”
What started as doodles on Lynn Dobson's easel evolved into pencil drawings, then inked versions and then computerized drafts made from architectural design software.
On a trip to visit the chapel, Dobson noticed its geometric designs, so he incorporated the medieval geometric shapes, each with a subtle difference, into the case of the organ. The twists and turns of the decorative windows on the organ's central tower top even spell out “MC” for Merton College and the years “1264” and “2014” to commemorate the 750th anniversary.
“Each window is different,” explained Dobson, as his fingers danced across the drawing to point out design elements that mimic Gothic architecture. “They really zeroed in on that — that I was detailing it like the building was.”
After the short list of builders was whittled to contenders from four countries — Switzerland, England, Canada and the United States — Dobson's design prevailed, particularly because of Dobson's attention to detail, Hale said.
The company has designated the organ the “Opus 91” to represent that it is the 91st organ the company has made.
This is a 52-rank mechanical key action organ, which means that there are mechanical links that directly connect each of the keys to valves under the pipes, and it rises 46 feet tall, stretches 26 feet wide and weighs about 16 tons. This kind of organ was created before the advent of electricity and generally is preferred among premier organists.
Dobson declined to say how much the Merton organ costs, but the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America estimates they range in price from $30,000 for a used instrument to millions of dollars for a new one made for a major church or concert hall.
Construction, which started in October 2011, has been a three-phase process because the organ is so enormous it couldn't fit inside the company's erecting room all at once. Now, workers are finishing the final top third and starting to paint its color scheme of blue, red, yellow, green and 22-karat gold gilding.
Years of practice making organs couldn't have prepared Dobson for some of the challenges the ancient chapel presented.
Numerous advisory societies had to be consulted before any alteration was made to the chapel because of its age and historic significance. The chapel's construction started in the late 1280s and continued through the early 1400s.
Similarly, the societies needed assurance that the organ would fit with the chapel's intended design and not cover up or deter the eye from the chapel's other historic elements. For example, some of the glass in the chapel windows is original.
The societies generally reject proposals to alter ancient buildings because they want to preserve them, but groups get permission if they can convince the societies that the project will enhance and make the space more beautiful, Hale said.
“There are several companies in the world that can build this organ,” Hale said, “but there's only one Lynn Dobson. His design — and it was his case design and his instinctive understanding of what we wanted — that's what clinched it.”
More hurdles remain, however.
The organ can't be set directly on the floor. Instead, because the chapel's underbelly is covered with medieval graves and the chapel floor is marked by memorial monuments, the organ needs to be supported by concrete footings and steel beams. An archaeologist was brought in to do a survey and the footings were placed in between the graves.
Next is a logistics issue that the company is still working through. After the massive organ's 4,000-mile voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, it must travel about a mile by way of narrow, winding roads that were laid out in the 1100s. The roads are impassable for large trucks, so Dobson is thinking they may have to hand-carry the organ piece by piece.
“All things considered,” he said, “the project has all kinds of levels of complexity.”
The most painstaking process in completing the organ will come last: the tonal finishing. The organ can be the most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing piece of art, but if it doesn't sound right, its purpose won't be realized, Panning said.
For six weeks, a crew of 10 workers will install the instrument, followed by about 12 weeks of adjusting the pipes to match the acoustics of the chapel. One person will sit at the console, where the keys are located, and decide how the organ sounds from there, while another person will sit out in the chapel and listen.
Together, they'll determine which pipes are too loud, too soft or not quite the right tone. They'll adjust the pipes — all 2,947 of them — until each tone is just right. An English organ builder will oversee the instrument's tuning and maintenance once Dobson's work is done and he and his crew return to the U.S.
From a sound perspective, Panning said, the Merton chapel is the kind of space English choral music was written for. The chapel returns a pleasantly reverberant sound, a kind of aural halo that supports and blends the organ and choir to make a full, rich tone. Even children recognize the kind of good acoustics an organ builder appreciates.
“Kids get into a room like this and they'll yell or make some sound because they suddenly realize that sound coming back is something they created,” Panning said, noting that it's not an echo but a sound that hangs on, or resonates. “On a little more sophisticated level, that's something we're intrigued by — how a room enhances the sound.”
Hearing the organ publicly played for the first time is what many of the builders are most excited about. The 750th anniversary celebration is planned for next April, but the organ will be used as early as November when its installation is complete.
For Dobson, the biggest compliment is when people look up at the majestic instrument and comment that it appears like it's always been there. But even more than the design and sound, Dobson said, most enjoyable has been the journey that's taken a small-town Iowa organ-building operation international.
“I think every day is more exciting,” he said.
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