SoundSCAPE

Interview with organ Builder Frank Weimbs.

Organ craftsmanship and music have a centuries-long tradition in Germany, a tradition which was inscribed in Unesco’s list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage in 2017. Frank Weimbs combines historical craftsmanship with modern technology. In the town of Hellenthal, located in Germany’s Eifel region, Weimbs manufactures Organs for churches and concert halls around the world.

Frank Weimbs has just returned from Japan. He wanted to make a personal appearance for the premiere of one of his instruments at a chapel in Kyoto. The Weimbs family has been building organs since 1927, but hearing a new organ for the first time is always special. Organs are massive, complex, expensive instruments that may seem anachronistic when you consider the possibilities of digital audio processing. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In Germany alone, around 400 organ builders employ more than 2,800 people, and no church or concert hall would be complete without the sound of a hand-crafted organ. “Each organ is one-of-a-kind, and each is specifically crafted for the space in which it will one day be played,” says Frank Weimbs.

But Weimbs uses advanced technology, too. Three-dimensional visualizations help him to plan and design organs for specific spaces. Computer-controlled cutters and drills create precise shapes in wood and pipes. “Computers help us to work more efficiently and stay one step ahead of the competition, but most importantly, they help us to build better instruments,” says Weimbs. Acoustics programs simulate the final sound and simplify the process of tuning hundreds of pipes on location, a procedure which can take weeks. The mechanical parts of older organs have largely been replaced by electronic components. With today’s organs, the keys are no longer connected to cables. When the organist presses a key, an electric motor operates the stops that regulate the airflow to the pipes. Some modern organs can even be operated via an app. But these playback organs are missing the human touch, says Frank Weimbs. “The organist determines the sound and the effect of the organ. Organists play for the congregation and the choir – sometimes faster and sometimes slower. A computer can’t do that.” Maybe it’s this intuitive interaction between the organist, the instrument and the singers that makes organ music so moving.

Between bone glue and computers

German organ manufacturers have their zeal for new innovation to thank for their worldwide success. Of course, that innovation must be coupled with training, experience and creativity. An organ builder must be as adept with bone glue as he or she is with programmable components. “We have to achieve the right mix of tradition and modern technology. We have employees who would keep every last woodworm of an old organ, and we have others who are crazy about new technology. What we all have in common is a sense of curiosity and the desire to continuously improve our instruments,” says Frank Weimbs.

Picture credits: Maria Schulz

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