Behind a secret, sliding panel in the choir loft stands a world unto itself, a cross aesthetically, between a treehouse and a densely-packed wine cellar. Except there’s nothing remotely consumable here, unless you like the idea of organ music about to descend.
If you do, the hundreds of metal and wooden pipes are the stuff of dreams, cascading in graduated heights and widths in a dizzying array of precision and order and standing testament to the evolution of man-made music, at least through the late 1970s, when the church organ was manufactured in Highland, Illinois, by the Wicks Organ Co., and shipped in vast crates to Memphis.
“A lot of people think this is the organ,” Dr. David Ouzts, minister of liturgy and music, says, gently thumping the wooden console that serves both as the platform and control panel for the church’s organists.
The organ in its entirety is a much grander proposition. It includes nearly 2,000 pipes, all housed in specially built chambers on over three levels of the choir loft originally designed to hold people.
“It is as much a part of the fabric of this building as the heating and cooling system is because it was custom-designed for this room,” Ouzts says.
The pipe organ was dedicated in June of 1980, replacing the home pipe organ given by Frank Norfleet when the church opened in 1950.
The congregation heard the new organ for the first time when its notes pealed over their expectant heads on Palm Sunday 1980. It cost $96,000 and took months to install in a series of hand-built cabinets with spring-loaded louvers for controlling the sound. Inside, the system is connected by catwalks and bunkhouse-like ladders (for the tuners) and air-flow tubes meticulously engineered to get an unbroken column of wind to each pipe, from those narrower than a pencil to the great behemoths that stand like portly courtesans at the end of each row.
In the meantime, the organ has appreciated to more than $1 million even though it has only two manuals (levels of keyboards), and most choral and organ literature requires three or four.
As the Vestry studies the feasibility of reconfiguring the Nave, Ouzts has become the local physiologist of sound, explaining patiently that while engineers once believed a domed ceiling improved the flow of sound, the theory has been debunked.
“Trying to raise our voices in song in praise to God in this room is very difficult,” Ouzts says, noting that the barrel-domed ceiling distributes sound unevenly. The ceiling is also covered with tile that absorbs the sound, shunting it into the unseen rafters. And not just the organ and choir, but the spoken word from the pulpit too.
“For instance, when our children’s parents sit in front row to listen when the children sing, they are going to see them of course, but they won’t hear them very well. Our sound, for whatever reason, makes an arc and travels ten pews back.”
People seated in the back of the Nave tell Ouzts the organ is too loud. And people in the front can’t hear it or the rest of the congregation singing, making them feel like they are worshiping in a vacuum, he said.
An analysis of the Nave done in 2016 by Threshold Acoustics in Chicago outlines a number of issues, including the porous tile and barrel-domed ceiling.
If the Vestry approves the changes in the Nave suggested by noted liturgical space designer Terry Byrd Eason, the ceiling would be flattened and plastered, creating an optimal environment for the church’s electro-pneumatic pipe organ.
Eason’s concept drawing, which the congregation saw in listening sessions in May, also includes a “bump-out” to the choir loft to accommodate the console, freeing up space in front for musicians who now crowd the doorways during special services, including Christmas and Easter.
Besides safety and sound, the improvements would go a long way to putting Holy Communion on the organ concert circuit, including stoking interest from prestigious groups like the American Guild of Organists, which rarely holds recitals at the church.
“Right now, we don’t have room, and our organ is limited,” Ouzts said, noting that the Vestry received an estimate of $64,000 to add a third manual and digitally retrofit the console.
“That would allow us to more easily play a church service and organ literature written for the 19th and 20th centuries, and it would allow us more flexibility when accompanying choral anthems,” Ouzts said.