In Search of a Pipe Organ Subculture


old estey photoIn the following, the documentary-makers reflect on their experiences researching the Estey Organ Company and the culture surrounding it.


I have yet to meet anyone who would describe the people surrounding pipe organs as part of a specific subculture.  In fact, no one has even referenced the thousands and thousands of organists around the world as anything more than a vague cloud of people who exist mostly in solitude, connected only by their profession, acknowledging each other only when they cross paths, like bus drivers waving at each other as they drive in opposite directions down a busy street.  I suspect this is due in part to the nature of the organ as an instrument.  Not only is a pipe organ fixed to a specific location, and not only is the console often isolated or hidden from view, but it is played, more often than not, without the accompaniment of any other instrument.  This is not to say that the organ is usually a solo instrument.  Organs as they are most often utilized—as the leading instrument in the music of a religious service—usually act as accompaniment for a choir or cantor.  Other instruments may be added in, but there is rarely a need for two organists to be in the same place at the same time.  Even in classical organ pieces (as opposed to organ pieces with specific religious functions) there is never a need for more than one organ.  The instrument, in its unparalleled frequency range and variety of tone, is specifically designed to replicate the effect of many, many separate instruments, thus making the pairing of two different organs redundant and overwhelming.  All this contributes to a group of people who do get together—to teach, to learn, to chat, and do all the other things social niches are want to do—but who almost never play their instrument of choice with each other.  (I say “almost never” here not because I have encountered any organ duets, but because I assume that such a composition must have been written and performed at least once, if only for the novelty of accomplishing something never before accomplished.)   Still, though they are largely autonomous, most organists play similar roles within their communities—usually Christian churches.  The organist either leads or accompanies the choir, which is one of the more commonplace ways for everyday parishioners to get involved in their church and their spirituality as a whole.  The music produced by a pipe organ also affects the rest of a given congregation. Most everyone I have spoken to about organ music said that they find some spiritual or religious value in the sound of a pipe organ, and would most likely agree that the organ in particular usually plays a central role in the soundscape of any given service, church, or choir.


The churches that I've encountered in my own fieldwork are either fiercely proud of their organs or determinedly working towards repairing or replacing their existing ones.  Of course, many churches also utilize pianos.  One in particular—the Westhampton Congregationalist Church—uses a piano to accompany their chorus, while their fully functioning Estey Pipe Organ lies dormant almost all the time, being put to use only when an organist is brought in by the organizers of a special occasion, such as a wedding. All of this illustrates that, while there is not much of a pipe organ subculture, the instrument and its players nevertheless play a crucial role in their communities.  Without them, not only would the world of religious music be unimaginably different, but a countless number of professional, casual, musical, and economic relationships would simply cease to exist.


Many of the people we have worked with are hardly what most would consider professional (though many of them were classically or formally trained)—the majority of the organists I’ve encountered have been substitutes for churches and are usually local students or people past the age of retirement who play the organ as more of a hobby.  These people, though they may not be considered professional musicians to many, are contributing an important service to their communities by playing for and taking part in rituals (weddings, funerals, church services, graduations, etc) and keeping the Estey name from completely being forgotten. 


The people involved in the Estey soundscape are a diverse group, and the way in which they are situated within the soundscape and within society varies. As I mentioned earlier, the organists themselves are usually non-professionals—they have other careers and tend to view playing the organ as more of a hobby or a community service. The community of organists is where the most variability exists—they range in age (from student to senior), education, and in general, have different interests and reasons for being an organist.  The audiences that listen to Estey performances are also quite diverse. Esteys are found in different churches, so audiences range in age, class, education, and creed. There are also listeners who aren’t even aware that they are listening to this particular type of organ, and are therefore engaging in a soundscape without even being fully conscious of the fact. Those that take a great interest in Esteys (maintenance people, enthusiasts, historians like those working in the Estey Organ Museum) tend to be more of a homogenous group. On the whole, the people Andy and I have encountered thus far typically seem to be white, middle-to-upper class, of a Christian denomination, and over sixty years old. That is, of course, not to say that there aren’t exceptions to this.


What the Estey soundscape and its participants do for their society is create a sense of togetherness. While it is true that some of the participants are very similar, there are some definite variations within the community, which, without the soundscape, might not have ever been combined otherwise. There are some genres of music or styles of performance that are gendered or predominately dominated by a certain sex, but the organ soundscape differs in that most organists and enthusiasts are equally male and female. The soundscape is primarily embedded in a religious context, seeing as how the organ is the primary instrument for a majority of church rituals, but it also plays a role in the social world at large. They are engaging in a musical community (and maintaining and telling a history) that is unique to this area. I believe the best way to describe the role of the Estey participants and the soundscape itself is to quote Ruth Finnegan: “Without these musicians the taken-for-granted accoutrements of religious worship and of the church’s social activities could not function—nor, in turn, would one of the main centers of local music continue to function”