Organs and architecture

First of all, prior to yet another post on the organ, I wanted to take a moment to apologize to Musica_Ecclesia and any others who may have taken offense to some of my prior comments on this subject. Not all that I said was edifying and at times I was overly antagonistic. This is not to say that I've suddenly fallen in love with the organ, but that we should keep things in the proper perspective. Criticism may at times be necessary, but the spirit of conversation should be one of love.

It seems that I've posted many a time on something sparked by Mike Horton's A Better Way, but I'd like to do so once again. One of the topics that the book touched upon was the architecture of church buildings (pages 173 - 177), and this led me to reflect how we construct church buildings. Michael Horton took this argument as far as the slope of the roof, which seems to be a bit extreme to me, but do you attach any significance to this? I think that by and large we can agree that an organ is acceptable for accompanying worship, but that some give this instrument a significance which it is not due. Following along the lines of Michael Horton's comments, the question which came to mind is whether or not this can be counteracted through architectural changes.

Thought 1: Should the organ console be migrated to the rear of the church building? In this way it becomes less visible, and therefore hopefully less distracting.

Thought 2: Musicia Ecclasia has published on his site an article which complained about a "worship pit" containing musicians which was located above and behind the sanctuary. Although organ pipes are stationary, they seem to me to be the dominant architectural element inside most CanRC churches. Can or should organ pipes be migrated to the rear of the church? Could organ pipes be relocated to a lower level than they are currently generally found? Would either suggestion negative impact acoustics or space utilization?

Comments

The only significance I attach to the slope of the roof is how it affects acoustics. Ideally it should be sloped the same as the floor, with the lowest point above the pulpit.

I'm not sure I would go so far as to say the console should be moved to the rear of the church building. I've heard of a congregation that had to build a curtain around the organist because he was jumping around too much on the bench. I'm a bit confused though how most people can be looking at the organist and their Book of Praise at the same time, except in instances where they have memorized the words, but from my observation this is fairly rare. Regardless, I personally think the console belongs at the front for concerts and the like. (It's not impossible to build a console that is movable, but it would be a lot of work to move it and would cost more to build which I think you would not be in favor of.)

Indeed, organ pipes are usually arranged astethically. Why are you trying to hide them? When Solomon built the temple, he imported quality materials. Migrating the pipes to the back would have a negative impact on acoustics; unfortunately there are some who can't tell the difference and this group can potentially be troublesome if they find some sort of reason to prefer having the pipes in the back. Relocating the pipes to a lower level I suspect would also have negative effects, though perhaps not as noticeable. I have a hunch you would have more reverberation; there are things that can be done but it will cost more in the end and won't sound as good.

I'm a bit confused though how most people can be looking at the organist and their Book of Praise at the same time, except in instances where they have memorized the words, but from my observation this is fairly rare.

The limited number of songs in the BoP, combined with an emphasis on memorization in the associated schools would suggest to me that a fair number of people would have at least some percentage of the Psalms memorized. As well, in a typical service the organist plays prior to the service, a prelude and postlude to each song, during the collection, and during the recessional. It's not just when people are singing that the organist plays.

Regardless, I personally think the console belongs at the front for concerts and the like.

Which I guess brings us back to the question of whether we're building a building for holding worship services or something more general purpose. When I was in Langley CanRC last afternoon for a mission presentation after the afternoon service, I was thinking there of architecture as well. The building is not built to support an LCD projector or slide projector alongside a speaker on the pulpit, and such a setup could also prove useful for other events. When new church buildings are constructed, do you think that this should also be taken into account?

Indeed, organ pipes are usually arranged astethically. Why are you trying to hide them?

So that people are less likely to attach undue importance to the instrument.

As well, in a typical service the organist plays prior to the service, a prelude and postlude to each song, during the collection, and during the recessional. It's not just when people are singing that the organist plays.

Before the service, during the collection, and after the service, many people are talking amongst themselves. IMHO a much more important issue than the organist moving around a little more than usual. For some particular songs, some of that extra movement is actually necessary.

Which I guess brings us back to the question of whether we're building a building for holding worship services or something more general purpose. When I was in Langley CanRC last afternoon for a mission presentation after the afternoon service, I was thinking there of architecture as well. The building is not built to support an LCD projector or slide projector alongside a speaker on the pulpit, and such a setup could also prove useful for other events. When new church buildings are constructed, do you think that this should also be taken into account?

Holding worship services is the first and foremost purpose of a church building, but not the sole reason. I wrote a thirteen-page report on this for Aldergrove's church development committee. Even for just worship services alone the acoustical requirements are unique because you're trying to balance singing with preaching; most spaces are optimized for one or the other. Likewise for architectural choices, I think it's important to consider the other uses of a church building before construction begins. Most often I suspect this can be done without compromising anything.

So that people are less likely to attach undue importance to the instrument.

Do people attach importance to organ pipes? If so, is it undue? Do people attach importance to other things besides organ pipes? Are those undue? We can't be afraid to build a good-looking church building because someone might formulate a false impression. Sure it's possible to go overboard, but our church buildings are very ordinary compared to churches in Europe. Should we tear down all the cathedrals? [sarcasm]Maybe you start the Church of the Cardboard Box.[/sarcasm]

In typical Dutch immigrant fashion, some of our church buildings were built on the cheap. The cheapest materials were used in everything, also for the sound system. No consideration whatsoever was given to acoustics. Two problems: first off, we're to give our best to the Lord in everything (see Malachi 1 for an application of this to worship). In some of these cheap churches, the members are extremely wealthy and they live in finely constructed homes. But yet when it comes to a house of worship for the LORD, they build cheap. That is just plain wrong. Second, we believe the preaching of the Word to be central, the most important means of grace. If we *really* believe that, wouldn't we want the best acoustics and the best possible sound system? What are we saying when we opt for acoustics and sound systems which tell our people, "Now you lay you down to sleep..."? There is a history to these attitudes, but thankfully we seem to be getting past it and over it.

Second, we believe the preaching of the Word to be central, the most important means of grace. If we *really* believe that, wouldn't we want the best acoustics and the best possible sound system?

If preaching is the most important means of grace, why counteract this by increasing reverbration to accomodate the organ? ("When we had carpet in Langley, several years ago now, the acoustics was like in a recording studio: the sound was absorbed instantly, there was no reflection! Perfect acoustics would some say, we can hear the minister very well through the microphone")

I have no idea.

BTW, I cut that quote off a little earlier than how it was set originally. The given reason there for the change, was so that people would hear others sing more.

Personally I didn't think that Langley had any big problems before as far as acoustics when singing were concerned. I was just hoping to use this as an example of how preaching is not always what people are targetting when they look for "best" acoustics in a church.

For shame, I say.

Some further clarification about Langley...

There are different opinions about acoustics. Many North American churches consider good acoustics to be *NO reverberation* (or echo) at all in the sancturay, compensated with microphones and speakers.

When I was in Cloverdale last week I noticed that they had a significant echo in their (new?) PA system, but this delay was only electronic for the sound of the spoken word. In Langley there was also some testing done with an electronic delay when we got the new sound system after the renovation.

For the spoken word many people think that the room should be absolutely 'dead', and with electronics you would amplify. These days the technology is adding an echo after all, but only benefiting the speaker.

Both spoken word and the music (singing) require a certain amount of reverberation (echo). When the cathedrals were built in Europe from the early Middle Ages on, there was no amplification. They did not fight the echoing with hanging up cloths and so on, instead they used the echo as their PA system: the spoken word would be transported through the building by means of the echo.

In Langley we try to balance the sound and give the spoken word, singing and instrumental music as much natural volume in the sanctuary.

We're not there yet: the acoustical engineer we hired commented on an issue re: transportation of the sound around the beams in the ceiling, but more so, we got a demonstration and explanation of the limited volume of the lower notes in the sanctuary. We heard this demonstrated on the piano: this would have also impact on men singing vs the women singing. The ministers voice could be adjusted through the PA system, and an organ can be "voiced", but you can't fix the piano or peoples voices. The expert suggested to fix the santuary instead (walls), and through that all sound would be better.

Acoustics seem to be very personal, but some people have a PhD in this field and there are many acoustical engineers making a living of this!

Frank, very good explanation of acoustics!

Dave, there are three types of reflections: early reflections, late reflections, and reverberation. Early reflections are what we've aiming for; as Frank mentioned, they act as a natural amplication system. Late reflections are considering bad, because they reach your ears after the actual sound and create distortion. Reverberation is a bit more complex; sort of a specialized form of late reflections that have degraded so much they aren't all that clear anymore and so are less likely to create distortions unless you have too much reverberation. In the town of Birmingham in the UK is a concert hall with the best acoustics in the world; it has special reverberation chambers that can be opened to increase the amount of reverberation.

Before the service, during the collection, and after the service, many people are talking amongst themselves. IMHO a much more important issue than the organist moving around a little more than usual.

So, you think that people should be silent when sitting in a church building, even the service is not in progress?

I'm not against aesthetically pleasing church buildings, but the organ is one thing that it seems to me that people are overly attached to. Hence the thought came to mind as to whether or not one could reap the practical benefits of the sound, while avoiding visibility of the instrument otherwise.

A question: how do you fit an aesthetically pleasing church building into your understanding of Q&A 98 of the Heidelberg Catechism's reference to images?

Likewise for architectural choices, I think it's important to consider the other uses of a church building before construction begins. Most often I suspect this can be done without compromising anything.

So, you think that church buildings should be constructed to allow the use of an LCD projector alongside a speaker on the pulpit? Or does this compromise something?

So, you think that people should be silent when sitting in a church building, even the service is not in progress?

A certain amount of whispering is to be expected, but it's not social time. I would say that talking before the service and during the collection is on par with daydreaming during the sermon. Your mind is not in the appropriate place.

I'm not against aesthetically pleasing church buildings, but the organ is one thing that it seems to me that people are overly attached to. Hence the thought came to mind as to whether or not one could reap the practical benefits of the sound, while avoiding visibility of the instrument otherwise.

Most of the people I know that have strong attachment to the organ are those who play it. Darren has his oboe, Frank and I have our pipe organs.

A question: how do you fit an aesthetically pleasing church building into your understanding of Q&A 98 of the Heidelberg Catechism's reference to images?

It is definitely possible to cross the line between aesthetics and images. I recall Langley did this a year or two ago by putting art on the walls. Q&A 98 prohibits things such as statues, sculptures, art, etc. Thing such as organ pipes, organ consoles, pulpits, and pews I would say don't fall into this category unless somebody carves some sort of image into them. For example, the pulpit in Maranatha was designed to vaguely resemble the bow of a ship. They asked the minister at the time what he wanted it to look like and that's what he asked for. Probably you would never come to this conclusion on your own because it's not very obvious, though I can't help but wonder if that also explains why they chose blue carpet. Pulpits, pews, organ consoles, and organ pipes are all practical items that often include certain aesthetic choices in their designs in addition to the practical choices. Likewise, contouring and baffles on the walls are for practical purposes, but they also look nice. If practical things look ugly, people don't like them. Crosses are a good example of something that is halfway between. Some are part of the architectural design (Maranatha), while others are just decoration (Aldergrove). But since you can't learn anything just from looking at them, they don't really fall into the prohibiting image category.

So, you think that church buildings should be constructed to allow the use of an LCD projector alongside a speaker on the pulpit? Or does this compromise something?

I'm not sure I would put the projector output alongside the speaker on the pulpit. I would opt for somewhere a little bit farther away I think, but still close enough to the front that everyone can see it. LCD projectors are definitely useful for mission presentations, congregational meetings, etc. What else is at the front would be a factor, but in most cases you could probably include a projection screen without compromising anything. Just because you put one in doesn't mean you need to use it during a worship service, and that's the real issue.

A certain amount of whispering is to be expected, but it's not social time. I would say that talking before the service and during the collection is on par with daydreaming during the sermon. Your mind is not in the appropriate place.

Doesn't that to some extent depend upon the topic of conversation?

Darren has his oboe

Nope. It's now property of the CCHS band department (I don't think that he ever played it after high school).

It is definitely possible to cross the line between aesthetics and images. I recall Langley did this a year or two ago by putting art on the walls. .... But since you can't learn anything just from looking at them, they don't really fall into the prohibiting image category.

Just trying to mesh these two comments of yours together. Where do you think that Langley crossed the line?

I'm not sure I would put the projector output alongside the speaker on the pulpit. I would opt for somewhere a little bit farther away I think, but still close enough to the front that everyone can see it. LCD projectors are definitely useful for mission presentations, congregational meetings, etc. What else is at the front would be a factor, but in most cases you could probably include a projection screen without compromising anything. Just because you put one in doesn't mean you need to use it during a worship service, and that's the real issue.

Just yesterday I thought of another argument in support of using LCD projectors during worship services. This comment is derived from a quote from a choir director that I heard some time ago. It had to do with the position in which choir members should hold their music folios. The argument was that these should be held up to such a height as to essentially block the face of the choir member from the view of the audience. Apparently having things at this height leads to an ability to breath better.

I'm not sure if this ability to breath easier related to the direction in which you look, or having your arms raised. I also suspect that having the folders at this height would somewhat muffle the sound, although I would generally expect choir members to effectively have memorized the piece prior to performing it. I wonder if the same would apply if the congregation were to be singing words projected somewhere in front of them. People then wouldn't have to have their faces tilted downwards - as seems common - in order to be able to view their BoP.

Doesn't that to some extent depend upon the topic of conversation?

It can.

Just trying to mesh these two comments of yours together. Where do you think that Langley crossed the line?

By meshing them together you take the second half out of context. I was referring specifically to crosses. Langley crossed the line immediately by putting actual pieces of artwork in the sanctuary.

I'm not sure if this ability to breath easier related to the direction in which you look, or having your arms raised. I also suspect that having the folders at this height would somewhat muffle the sound, although I would generally expect choir members to effectively have memorized the piece prior to performing it. I wonder if the same would apply if the congregation were to be singing words projected somewhere in front of them. People then wouldn't have to have their faces tilted downwards - as seems common - in order to be able to view their BoP.

Never heard of this theory before. I think it would have more to do with the angle of your head (and its effects on your throat) than anything pertaining to your arms. I agree that the sound would be muffled which seems counterproductive. (I disagree that the choir would be expected to memorize the pieces; even professional choirs don't do that.) One could hold their Book of Praise higher if they wanted, but your arms would get tired (especially if you're singing all verses :-P). I think the main criteria for where people hold their Book of Praise is what angle and distance they are comfortable viewing it at.

By meshing them together you take the second half out of context. I was referring specifically to crosses. Langley crossed the line immediately by putting actual pieces of artwork in the sanctuary.

The question that I was trying to aim at there was why you felt that a cross was OK but not some relatively abstract art. I'm still a little unclear regarding that.

I'm not quite clear myself, but the best explanation I can muster is that a cross is a well-known religious symbol. Even if someone doesn't know the full meaning, they've most likely seen it before. By looking at a mere cross, nobody is going to figure out the significance of it, but if there were a sculpture of Jesus attached to the front of it they would. So I guess it's when it conveys meaning that the line is crossed.

So are you suggesting that the criteria here then are at least somewhat subjective?

I hesitate to affirm or deny that I'm suggesting anything because I can't be sure that what people understand is what I intended.

In Europe it is almost by default that the organ is located in the back. Because the majority of the organs has a mechanical action, the organists plays where the organ pipes are: up on the balcony. In many cases, he is playing 'inside' the organ, with a small organ behind his back (so called 'ruggewerk') so that the player is totally invisible.

The fact that in North America many organs are located in the front of the church, is just a custom. It has most likely to do with the role and involvement of the organist in the worship service (not so much in our churches) and his/her place in the liturgical centre; it has to do with the practical aspect of better hearing the balance between the organ sound and the congregational singing; and also the technical options with electronic (digital) and pneumatic systems - it is possible.

Personally I don't have an issue with being in the front because of the better sound and contact with the minister, but it can have negative impact on inspiration and 'musical emotions'.

Frank
(By the way - your apology accepted!)

I can't believe I forgot about that! Indeed, having the console at the front is very helpful for hearing the volume of the congregation. Here is an experiment you can try for yourself: sit in the back of the church for one service, and in the front of the church for another service. Notice when you are sitting in the front how much fuller the singing sounds. For best results, you need to do this in the same church building with fairly equal attendance.

Contact with the minister is important; a few times a year there is a discrepancy of some sort, either due to last-minute change in liturgy or just a mistake on someone's part. Also, the organist/pianist needs to see: when someone is on the pulpit, which is the cue to stop playing before the service (usually); when the deacons are sitting down again, which is the cue to stop playing after the collection; and when the minister enters the foyer, which is the cue to start playing after the service.