August 2, 2004

Schwartz pipe organ a work of art itself


By Hal Jacobs

When Daniel Jaeckel said his Opus 45 Pipe Organ, which he and his team have spent nearly 10 years planning and building for the Schwartz Center's Emerson Concert Hall, is "good for a couple hundred years," he wasn't boasting. If anything, given the circumstances and his building techniques, he's being rather modest.

As one of North America's top builders of hand-crafted organs and a skilled organist himself, Jaeckel has played instruments that were some of the most complex mechanisms of their age. His fingers have coaxed sounds from a Sion, Switzerland, mechanical-action organ built in 1390 and a Rysum, Germany, organ from 1430.

In the Alsace region of Germany, Jaeckel has paid numerous pilgrimages to the well-preserved organs of Andreas Silbermann, renowned for integrating the French Classic and German Baroque in the early 1700s. In fact, the tonal design of Silbermann's organs greatly influences Jaeckel's 54-stop mechanical-action organ that will be the crown jewel of Emerson Concert Hall.

Jaeckel prides himself on using the same building techniques and the same materials in his pipe organs--wood, glue, tin, lead, leather--as did the masters (only the blower, which provides wind for pipes, is electrically operated). That's why he knows that over the decades, the dove-tailed corners and pinned mortise-and-tenon joints will fit together even more smoothly, and a little dust on the organ case façade will add a patina that no artist can duplicate--or cleaning crew should remove.

Because he disdains electronic gizmos and mass-production techniques, Jaeckel's organs are as responsive to human hands as those from earlier centuries. Perhaps more importantly, audience members will hear organ music almost identical to what people heard three centuries ago.

Since 1978, Jaeckel has presided over a small workshop in northern Minnesota that has produced nearly 50 organs, large and small, for churches, colleges and concert halls (he currently has one under way in Tokyo). Prior to that, he received a truly interdisciplinary education: a master's degree in music composition, a bachelor's in education and undergraduate work in mathematics, civil engineering and theology.

Thanks to the influence of a music professor, Jaeckel gradually realized that he could combine all these interests in the "physics of sound." He dedicated himself to learning the organ-building trade and was fortunate enough to apprentice with the Rieger Orgelbau firm in Austria.

These days he works with six full-time employees, and the team starts from scratch to build every part of the organ, from trackers and pipes to consoles, wind chests and reservoirs. Indeed, Jaeckel is known for his virtuosity in building stylized organs.

"What I do more than anyone else is combine and overlap styles," he said. "It's an educated eclecticism. I know where I can and can't compromise."

And he cherishes words like the compliment he received from an expert organist who had just performed on one of his instruments: "It taught me so much."

Timothy Albrecht, professor of music and University organist, began collaborating on the construction of the organ with Jaeckel in 1991. Recently, Albrecht said he caught a sight of the partially completed organ in Schwartz and it gave him goose bumps.

"Daniel Jaeckel nailed our desire to have a visual organ design for Emerson Concert Hall that would be completely at peace in its Emory surroundings," Albrecht said. "Its rounded pedal towers, wood carvings that include Southern foliage, and colored panels reflect a secular and academic orientation that avoids a 'church-organ' appearance in a university concert hall.

"It reinforced my earlier conviction that Daniel Jaeckel is a visual artist as well as a master organ builder," he continued. "To be able to pull off having a 14-ton structure appear completely at home as the visual focal point of the Emerson Concert Hall, being neither too muscular and overpowering nor too understated and inconsequential, is confirmation of Daniel's preeminence."

Rosemary Magee, senior associate dean of Emory College and a guiding force behind the pipe organ project, believes Jaeckel's pipe organ also reflects a growing sense of Emory's commitment and appreciation of the arts.

"What's so exciting about this organ," Magee said, "is that it is both a great work of art in itself and will be an instrument for the creation of great works of art for many years to come."

Of course, much work remains before Albrecht's first recital in fall 2005. From all outward appearances, the organ looks finished. But Jaeckel will not complete the arduous process of voicing the pipes until next summer. To do so, he must tune each pipe individually (the longest is 27 feet and the smallest is a quarter-inch).

"When you do pipes you go into sort of a trance," Jaeckel said. "Your ears get attuned, then you start hearing things that nobody else does." Sometimes, he said, it takes a full day to get the sound right for one pipe.

When finished, the stage will be set for the Emory community to celebrate the inaugural year of the organ (Albrecht refers to it as "The Year of the Jaeckel") with a weekend festival. Later in the year, Albrecht will premiere a new piece written for the occasion by Stephen Paulus, one of the most accomplished composers in the United States.

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