Sunday, June 17, 2012

My hometown church goes steampunk

An antique analog pipe organ with a solar-powered blower -- how steampunk is that?

The organ is an 1896 Casavant, the oldest remaining in the United States, warehoused for years and now being restored to function. For communication from keyboards to pipes, the instrument works the old way, relying on perfectly balanced analog parts rather than electronics. It's the centerpiece of a church renovation that includes a massive solar electrical system. So the electric blower that the Casavant requires will be powered by the sun, as will the rest of the building. That means musically top-notch full-organ sound entirely off the grid.

[CORRECTION: The architect in the family says what they're going for is not "off the grid," but "net-zero energy." Well, still cool.]

The local writeup's headline is, "Amherst Church Looking to Heavens for Power", but you don't have be religious to appreciate the sheer earthly elegance of a setup like this.

Think of it: Easter Sunday morning with the lilies and trumpets, church and choir belting out the hallelujahs, full organ driving and supporting it all, and the whole sanctuary is off the grid.

As you may have guessed, there's some special pleading here. I grew up in the church in question -- South Congregational Church, Amherst, Massachusetts. My dad, who is a conservatory-trained organist as well as a librarian, has had a lot to do with this project. I keep telling him that steampunk and maker types should be fascinated. So far, attention to it seems mostly local and congregation-centered -- a best-kept secret that shouldn't be secret much longer.

My dad contributed to these updates on the church site. The firm doing the restoration, Czelusniak et Dugal, Inc., provides loving illustrated detail about the instrument and the project on its own site. A bit more at the Organ Historical Society here.

There's a recorded broadcast available on this American Public Media radio site with more on the respected Québecois firm of Casavant Frères, including samples of performance on surviving Casavant instruments.

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