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Organomics 

Frank Gehry, Manuel Rosales and Caspar von Glatter-Götz pull out the stops

Thursday, Oct 23 2003
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

When DISNEY HALL’S first 2,265 concertgoers file 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.

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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 façade. 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-Götz, 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-Götz 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-Götz 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-Götz 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 façade, 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.

“I can’t wait to hear this thing!” I yell down to Rosales.

“You and a lot of other people,” comes his response, echoing from below.

 

The Philharmonic has been deluged by organists interested in performing with the orchestra in its new digs. And the flood of press about the hall, with so many interior shots of the organ crowning the stage, has been generating a lot of public interest. Unfortunately, we’ll all have to wait, because although the concert hall may be ready, the organ is not. All the pieces are in place, but it will take Rosales the next eight months to tune them, a process called “voicing” in which all the organ’s pipes are adjusted to sound like components of a single instrument. Today, only a fraction of the pipes can be played, but those few do give a tantalizing sense of how the whole thing will sound when completed.

“The best seats for hearing the organ will be the three rows in the back of the third-floor balcony,” says Rosales, pointing. “And the three back rows on each side.” This is because the ideal acoustic for organs requires good reverberation for a nice, blooming atmosphere. And so for an organ performance, you want seats where the sound will bounce off the ceiling and other nearby surfaces.

Acoustics, Rosales explains as we visit various seating areas, are a matter of preference. Some organists, of course, would prefer more reverb, while the orchestra wants clarity. But both orchestra and organ will sound great, he emphasizes: Unlike the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, whose proscenium compressed and homogenized the sound, the new building will give the audience the full and very different experience of a world-class concert hall designed for music listening only.

Likewise, the organ marks another first for music in the city. “There are works that cry out for a pipe organ, and we’ve never been able to perform them as intended,” says Ed Yim, the Philharmonic’s director of artistic planning, as we watch the orchestra rehearse the score from Planet of the Apes via a closed-circuit television in his office. “A substitute just won’t do for the opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra. Or for Saint-Saëns’ wonderful Organ Symphony. Or Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass.” Just as the hall itself will bring Los Angeles its symphony orchestra as it was meant to be heard, Yim says, the organ will let people hear a whole range of works in their full splendor for the first time.

That day will come in early July, when organists Cherry Rhodes, Robert Parris and Joseph Adams will sit down at the console for a private concert. Rosales, Gehry and Yim will be there, as will many others who will be keenly awaiting the first notes to see if the organ’s playing will live up to its planning. Perhaps the most nervous person in the room will be Glatter-Götz, who will have his fingers crossed that no chips or dust or other glitches foul up the works. “It always makes you worry, and this time especially,” he says, laughing a little anxiously at the thought. “Still, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

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