Turning a Pipe Dream Into Reality

BY: Ryan Weber

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, July 6, 2014)

John-Paul Buzard builds what was for centuries the most complex machine civilization had ever introduced to the world. The modern world would issue in bigger, louder, taller and faster machines: steam ships, cars and telephones, and, later, airplanes and computers, including the black 4-inch touchscreen that constantly chirps in John-Paul’s pocket. Yet for all that these machines can do, they still can’t achieve what John-Paul’s can.

His machines speak the voice of God.

“The sound of a pipe organ,” he says, “is just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”

John-Paul builds church pipe organs. He has spent most of his life carrying on a centuries-old tradition that has seen its prominence fade. Organs are expensive and few churches can afford them today. But he carries on, believing that nothing else can affect people like his machines.

“The organ,” he says in his soft, thoughtful voice, “has a way of touching people’s souls.”

John-Paul, 59, was 5 years old when his dad told him there was no money in building organs. He was 6 when he knew he wanted to do it anyway, 13 when he assembled one from scrap wood and old spare pipes for a science fair, 16 when he played one at a recital, 21 when he met his wife, who today plays organs for a living, and 25 when he received his master’s degree in organ performance. At age 30, he opened John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders in a then-desolate and crime-ridden downtown Champaign.

Today, the shop is littered with thousands of wooden pieces and hundreds of pipes as long as 16 feet and as heavy as 400 pounds, as short as an eighth of an inch and as light as a few ounces. In the next three months, all of them will eventually comprise the console, facade and infrastructure of a new organ, which will live in the Monastery of Saint Vincent Arch Abbey in Latrobe, Pa., due to be installed July 2 and completed in August.

In the shop’s three-story erecting room, the skeleton of the pipe organ’s case has grown closer and closer to the ceiling. Right now, one of John-Paul’s 16 builders drills into its side so he can mount hundreds of intricate mechanisms that will control which pipes receive air when one of the not-yet-completed cow-bone keys is pressed. John-Paul walks to a nearby workbench where two conjoined poplar panels lie, waiting to be screwed onto the behemoth’s frame.

“Feel that? How smooth that joint is?” he asks. “You can’t find better craftsmanship.”

The piece is as smooth as glass, thanks to diligent sanding and seven coats of lacquer. Although it is going inside the organ, tucked away where no one will see it, the piece still must be perfect. He glances at another joint on the workbench and notes that his woodworker needs to clean it up more.

“It’s not perfect,” John-Paul says.

If an organ is to last, that must be the standard. “The place where organs go to die is not a good place,” he says. First, an organ’s exhaling wind chests will wear and it will be unable to keep up with complicated musical compositions. Worse, the pipes will cipher — meaning the organ keeps making sounds when no one is pressing its keys. The better it’s built, the longer it will live.

“My organs will play for 100 years.”

The sound was loud, John-Paul remembers.

He was 6 years old when he heard a pipe organ cipher for the first time. He was rehearsing in the choir that day at St. Paul’s By the Lake Episcopal Church in Chicago, where his father was a priest. As soon as the pipe began ciphering, John-Paul bounded up to the organ loft where the church’s frail organist had opened the little door that led inside the instrument.

“Now, boy, I’m too old to get down this little ladder,” the organist told him. “But do what I tell you, and we’ll fix the organ and all will be fine.”

So John-Paul climbed into his first organ with instructions to hunt down the screaming pipe. A single bare incandescent bulb exposed a sea of thousands of glistening, silvery pipes. They rose out of scores of wind chests, each in control of pipes that could sound like clarinets or strings or trumpets. He could hear the organ seem to grumble as it breathed and hissed into its pipes.

“It was like it was alive,” John-Paul remembers. “It was literally alive.”

He climbed down the small ladder onto the one-foot-wide pathway through the instrument, and he was scared. One wrong step or turn and he could fall into the pipes. But he remained focused, running his hand an inch or two from the mouths of the pipes, feeling for the cipher.

“Did you find it?” the organist shouted.

John-Paul found it or, rather, felt it — wind. He popped out the pipe, dusted it off, reinserted it — and silenced the scream. “I felt like a million bucks. I was just smitten, and I thought I really want to build these. I’d like to learn how to play them, but I’d really like to build them.”

In John-Paul’s second-floor office at the Hill Street shop, architectural renderings of hundreds of organs lie about. Every year, his shop will service a pipe organ every few weeks but build only one or two new organs a year. Over the years, he has built 42. Today, his organs cost as much as $1.5 million. A hand-drawn draft for his Latrobe organ rests on a large table. Every organ he has ever built started the same way — with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil. He won’t use a computer as do most other organ builders because he’s afraid it will limit his creativity.

“With a computer, the organ doesn’t look real,” John-Paul says.

He believes designers rely too much on libraries of presets on computers. That just won’t do because pipe organs must become “one” with the buildings in which they’re installed. They must look as if they were there from Day 1, even if they are installed decades after the construction of the church. No two organs are ever alike — “If they are to be good,” he says — and neither are their sounds. An organ’s design should match its sound, John-Paul says. If the organ is designed to play Baroque music, its architecture should also be Baroque while matching the style of its church.

The design of the Latrobe organ has been turning over in John-Paul’s head since he visited its choir director, with whom he went to grad school. So when the abbey approached him about the project, he didn’t hesitate, turning down a score of other inquiries that year.

“The organ was dying and something needed to be done.”

He has designed the Latrobe organ so that its facade pipes hug a large stained-glass window that lets the light pour onto it during Mass. Its 2,500 pipes will make the organ sound “classically symphonic, where it will be very deep in its pitch, and you will feel the sound as well as hear it. It has to be able to play Bach, so it has to be clear. But it also has to be thick in its texture of sound.”

When an organist sits in front of it to play, he can pull out one of its many stops, engaging a set of pipes that can sound like a tuba or a bright trumpet, depending on which lever he pulls or button he presses. If the organist wants a bright church hymn, he’ll engage the trumpets. He might use the bellowing diapasons to shake the floor in a dark fugue. The Latrobe organ will be able to play stirring concerts and uplifting church hymns, and a master organist will know the right combination of pipes to move an audience.

“This organ is beautiful,” John-Paul says.

His piano lessons started at age 8, organ lessons at 16. In 1979, he played a recital at Yale University’s Woolsey Hall, performing the finale of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 — the part of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony when the organ speaks above the rest of the instruments as the voice of God. But building, not playing, was John-Paul’s passion. He hasn’t played seriously since his 1980 graduation from Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music.

Yet, every now and again, he’ll sit down at an organ and “noodle” something out — improvise, he means.

Today is one of those days.

At Champaign’s Episcopalian Chapel of St. John the Divine, John-Paul sets the stops on the organ he built for the church in 1991 and prepares to invent some music. This isn’t a small practice organ like the six he had built before it. St. John’s organ is a concert organ.

John-Paul inhales, places his hands on the ivory-colored keys, hesitates and presses down — the pipe organ sings and rings and fills the gray stone chapel’s cold interior with mellifluous warmth. He pulls an eight-foot principal stop here, a 16-foot diapason stop there. Hundreds of pipes and soon thousands blend together to create a symphony all by themselves. His feet dance across the machine’s 32 pedals. The organ is so loud no one could even speak over it.

He hits another chord and the machine shakes. Then he stops just before he’s about to play the final chord. He presses a button below the keyboard so nearly all of the stops are pulled and all of the pipes engaged. He exhales and presses down on the keys, and the organ breathes — and God really does seem to speak.

When he finishes the final chord, he smiles. Not because he has just brought the organ from piano to forte to forzando in a seven-minute improvisation that shook the chapel. No, he’s smiling because he can say he built it.

“This is not for everybody, but I like them,” he says. “They’re absolutely impeccable.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s