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Architecture and Organs

Last November, at the end of a long day of walking, I sat in Saint-Étienne-du-Mont and tried in vain to sketch its rood loft.1 I thought I was alone, but after a few minutes and without any announcement someone started playing the organ. This was a striking experience: totally still and twilight-dim (memorably dimmer than it is in photos online), the body of the church was suddenly filled with sound.

I’ll discuss two interplays I’ve picked out of this experience in Paris: first, between the organ and its architectural enclosure (its place), and then between the organ and the organist. I’m interested, from a theoretical perspective, in how an instrument (in the general sense: a tool) can behave as a sort of architecture.2 My typology of organs is sloppy, but I’m particularly interested in big religious pipe organs, and especially those where the console is somehow obscured.

This post covers the first interplay: between organs and their enclosures.


In some respects, pipe organs just occupy the space allowed to them. In churches designed with pipe organs in mind, this might mean it fills an organ loft, or it might hang from an arch or perch on a choir screen like the nest of some infernal wasp. Organ case design differs dramatically, often to the end of integrating the instruments with their surrounds. Baroque cases gild the mechanism; ornate folds and statuettes hide the sharply geometric ends of the pipes, blur the instrument’s edges, and fill the seams between an organ’s angular guts and the rounds of its enclave. Rococo organ cases are suitably ludicrous.

In gothic cathedrals (or with more modern organs) this effect might be more subtle. At the Basilique Saint-Denis, the organ is connected to the surrounding architecture by its case’s mock-tracery. The three darkened sections of Cologne Cathedral’s transept organ recall the cathedral facade’s black, tripartite bulk. In Reykjavik’s Hallgrímskirkja, where both the instrument and the church experiment with gothic forms, the clusters of pipes and their angular brackets recall the exterior’s quasi-basalt.3

Musically, on the other hand, the enclosure becomes a part of the organ. The acoustics of premodern churches might be as much by accident as by design, but each is a unique acoustic extension to the instrument it contains. This is true of other spaces and other instruments, but a given organ is fixed in a particular acoustic context and the range and timbre of pipe organs makes their music feel especially reverberal. Inasmuch as its musicality is bound up with its space, the same instrument in two different spaces isn’t really the same instrument.

Soissons Cathedral’s nave was torn open by shelling during World War I. Its organ stayed put—weirdly costmetically intact—in the loft.4

The organ exterior is so static, so visually unmoved by the sounds it makes, that its music feels like sounds the space makes itself. I think this must be, at least to some extent, an association born of an organ’s unique capacity to hold notes without modulation or end: no quaver of human breath, no percussed dissipation, no reversals in the direction of a bow. What else could sound like an edifice?5 This connection between musicality and place is especially strong in Áine O’Dwyer’s Music for Church Cleaners: this isn’t an aterritorial instrument carted into a recording studio, but rather the music of a particular site of labor and ritual, complete with the shuffling of feet and quiet clatter of brooms.

By contrast, other pipe organ recordings are engineered in an effort to extricate the instrument from its architectural setting. The recording does its best to silence the architecture, but comments like this from the release notes for Kali Malone’s The Sacrificial Code admit the concomitance of an organ and its setting:

The recordings here involved careful close miking of the pipe organ in such a way as to eliminate environmental identifiers as far as possible—essentially removing the large hall reverb so inextricably linked to the instrument.

This close relationship with place also yields an artistic association with the church/state/power trinity: there haven’t been that many pipe organs, and every one of them is an exceptional mobilization of craft and capital. It’s a quintessentially baroque instrument. Along with colonially exported baroque architecture, colonial organs signify hegemony by design. Spain razed Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor and built a cathedral in its place; in that cathedral the Spanish crown comissioned a succession of organs, including its twin surviving mahogany behemoths.

The sound itself, even absent a physical organ, has this baroque-architectural connotation. Last Year at Marienbad’s opening Möbian catalog—of stucco, carpets, hallways opening onto hallways—loops against Francis Seyrig’s trilled Shepard scale to situate the film in its terminally complex architecture, an architecture too slippery for memory.

I’d call all three of these compositions “ambient.” Not all organ music is ambient, but both architecture and the organ have strong aesthetic ties to ambience. My claims about the acoustic and visual interplay between an organ and its enclosure are probably uncontroversial, but this poking at an aesthetic isometry via ambience really captures my imagination.

My assertion that organs as instruments are tied up with architecture makes me nervous. What about organs that have been restored and moved from one space to the other? What about the great trends and conflicts in organ tonal design––have I done the necessary reading to make some totalizing claim about the instrument’s connection to place?

I’ve done some nervous googling to check that I’m not way off-base. One article:

The beauty of the organ — or the curse, depending on your point of view — is that no two are alike; each is built and voiced to fit the acoustics of a particular room. A pipe organ does not travel. […] because the pipes can be located several hundred feet from the manual, they often “speak” at slightly different intervals from the moment a key is pressed.

And another:

But the organ itself is just one part of the sonic and aesthetic equation; the other is the architecture that houses it. To hear an organ fully is to experience it in what organists call “the room.” Whether an intimate hall or a vast cathedral, the size, shape, and building materials are vital factors.


  1. Apparently this is such a famous rood loft it’s pictured in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on rood lofts. I didn’t know it was so famous—or what it was called—at the time.↩︎

  2. “Consoles” (as in the architectural brackets) are a joint etymological ancestor for organ consoles and electronic consoles. This is probably the kernel of what I find interesting here: the console simultaneously fixes the function of a space and constitutes a part of its architectural form.↩︎

  3. I found this brief overview of the adaptation of Gothic-architectural motifs to organ case designs. Crenellation feels like a distinctly pre-gothic inclusion on these original organs, which leads me to wonder if the earlier organs at Saint-Denis (a basilica completed in 1144) mimicked their surroundings as carefully as its current instrument (the last in a line of sevaral organs, built in 1841). If I had to guess, the stylistic similarities have probably gotten stronger as successive revivalist waves became more self-aware; this probably subjects me to a kind of recency bias.↩︎

  4. Gilman, Roger. “The theory of gothic architecture and the effect of shellfire at Rheims and Soissons.” American Journal of Archaeology 24, no. 1 (1920): 37-72.↩︎

  5. The impression that an organ’s sounds belong to the building itself might be especially dramatic at the S.F. Legion of Honor: the Spreckels Organ’s pipes are hidden in the building’s walls. I haven’t had a chance to catch one of their concerts yet, but I probably prefer organs I can look at anyway.↩︎