By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov|
When DISNEY HALL’S first 2,265 concertgoersfile in beneath Frank Gehry’s celebrated stainless-steel challenge to Euclid this week, they will most likely get their first view of the building’s equally remarkable interior: the terraced vineyard shape, the soft bulges of the scallop-bellied ceiling, the sharp lines where the hall’s many gentle curves intersect and, presiding over it all, the 51 massive shoots of bowed blond-red wood branching out from behind the stage. Some may think this upward-reaching thicket of timber is purely ornamental; others will recognize the console and understand that it is actually an impressive instrument. And the rest,
the design connoisseurs and music professionals, will know that they’re looking at what will soon be the most famous pipe organ in the world.
The pipe organ rotated out of vogue in the United States several decades ago; new concert halls were built organless, and existing instruments were often neglected. It was still somewhat daring when, in the late ’80s, the first models for Disney Hall appeared with bunches of sticks evoking an ambitiously conceived organ. “In the beginning, there was a decree,” explains Manuel Rosales, the organ designer who collaborated with Frank Gehry on the instrument. “‘There will be a pipe organ.’ That came from Ernest Fleischman, then executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Organs were just starting to come back, and he wanted to be at the vanguard. Now, of course, every new hall gets an organ — but not one like this.”
We are standing at the organ’s console, shrouded by the bases of the pipes, all of which — like every other architectural element inside the hall except the pine stage — are exquisitely crafted from Douglas fir with a tight, perfect grain. The console’s four keyboards are flanked by rows of ebony and porcelain draw-knobs, each inscribed with the name of the “stop” — a set of pipes designed to have a specific sound, or timbre — activated by that knob. The art of blending the voices is knowing which stops to pull. This organ has 136 of them, and pulling out all the stops, as the expression suggests, would produce a big, forceful effect, opening up every one of the 6,125 pipes.
Above us rise the two stops everyone will know by sight: the Contrabassoon 32 and the Contraviolon 32, which make up the heavy arcing forms of the organ’s dramatic faÃ§ade. This design is
the result of a long and fitful planning process. Gehry had a specific request from Lillian Disney not to make the hall look like a church, and that meant being innovative with the organ. “There were plans with metal out front,” Rosales says, “but wood keeps its integrity when bent, whereas curved metal loses tensile strength.” There were also early models with wilder configurations of the pipes — a series of what Rosales calls “highly imaginative but equally impractical ideas,” including one that had the entire organ hanging from the ceiling like a chandelier.
The trick was for Gehry to create a visual aesthetic that was compatible with Rosales’ vision for musical performance. After retreating to a period of plain articulations, Gehry moved toward the current design, which Rosales refined using a scale model.
When the final plans went public, they sparked a surprisingly intense controversy. Some purists complained that the design was, in a sense, arrogant. You wouldn’t let an architect redesign a violin, they complained, so why change the shape of an instrument with an even longer tradition? And the bowed pipes, they grumbled, may be detrimental to the sound. But others were enthusiastic. “I was amazed that one could imagine an organ like this,” says Caspar von Glatter-GÃ¶tz, a well-known German organ builder. “I was very jealous, in fact. I wanted to build it.”
As it happened, Rosales did eventually contract Glatter-GÃ¶tz for construction. And since it was true that no one knew whether curvature in the pipes would affect the sound quality, the first thing he did was make test notes at his workshop in Germany. Luckily, the sound was good. Glatter-GÃ¶tz and his craftsmen then built the pipes, all by hand. The bigger ones, which can weigh up to a thousand pounds, had to be shipped to the United States in pieces and assembled in the hall’s basement. The largest of them is the 32-foot Contrabassoon, which emanates a deep, resonant C that is just below the range of a piano and sounds almost bottomless.
Glatter-GÃ¶tz and Rosales are clearly proud of their work. They explain the organ’s complicated mechanics, which — greatly simplified — involves a mechanical bellows, a chest that stores the wind pressure, and countless moving parts. These include several miles of razor-thin bands of spruce “trackers” that spread around the organ in Escher-like arrays and transmit the action of the keyboard, directly and accurately, to the valves that let air into the pipes. Given all that, theirs is actually a fairly compact design, with most of the pipes lined up in the swell boxes, which are the big chambers you can see stacked up behind the faÃ§ade, with shutters that can be adjusted for volume. Standing in the top swell box, 50 feet above the stage, one gets the sense of the power behind this instrument, which, in the hands of a passionate organist, could create more sound than the entire orchestra.