I was in the Minster twice last year. First in May for a delightful hour or so locked in alone with the Minster pipe organ and then in October to join a group celebrating the 100th birthday of former Minster organist Francis Jackson. Had I known at the time that we would be providing 2 instruments for the pipe organ ‘interregnum’ I would have paid more attention to the building and tried to work out the special challenges providing temporary digital instruments present.
Many of you will know that in April this year we installed a Regent Classic instrument to cover the organ rebuild in Canterbury. If I might paraphrase Lady Bracknell ‘to be asked to supply one great place of worship with a temporary instrument is an honour, to be asked to supply two at almost the same time seems to be a dream’.
Two organs installed at York Minster
Be that as it may, it was with great pleasure I left York on the afternoon of September 19th with both our organs playing albeit not yet ‘joined’ by midi link so they could be played in tandem.
I hope you will find the account that follows of general interest as I share with you what we provided and how it all works. There is no library book to go to for guidance of how best to install a digital organ in a big space. Perhaps we can now begin to write it?
Each location has its own particular protocol and at York much of the hard work, installing speakers and cables was relatively easy. There are 2 totally separate instruments. 3 manuals and 56 stops in the nave with 18 speakers on a large scaffold tower. In the choir 3 manuals and 50 speaking stops on 12 speakers set in what is known as the ladies chamber. You can see the location of the consoles and speakers on the marked up floor plan.
York Minster – ladies chamber
The ladies chamber is a very small gallery space set above the north side choir stalls long since fallen out of use. In Victorian times, when the choir was all male, it seems women were not allowed entry into the choir and so this gallery was created to allow lady guests sight of the choir without actually setting foot there! Today it is clearly a little used storage space which has now provided a wonderful invisible location for the speakers for the choir console.
Most of the service work will be played on this instrument allowing the organist a direct view of both singers and conductor. I wonder how the organists will adapt to this new location ,which in many respects may actually be an easier place than the loft to keep in pace with the other musicians.
York Minster – the nave
The nave organ will be used for larger, more formal services needing the additional space that nave seating affords. Here a purpose-built scaffold has been constructed on the north side facing south west across the nave and providing 3 levels high above the nave floor on which our 18 speaker cabinets are set up. Speakers always work best set high above floor level though in spaces this large and reverberant the actual speaker location very quickly becomes almost impossible to identify as numerous reflections of the sound rumble round the building.
The sub bass being on the nave floor inside the tower footprint. In a few weeks time the tower will be wrapped in cloth of almost identical colour to the stonework behind and so it is hoped it will almost blend in. In the nave the amplifier racks are close to the console at the base of the speaker tower. 3 amplifiers give 20 independent channels so providing for 2 spares if a channel should fail.
The amplifiers that can draw substantial current at the moment of start up have a staggered switch on. This avoids any current overload. In the choir the amplifiers are a 30 metre cable run from the console and also provided with a time delayed start up.
A large building like this poses a challenge
In York we could work on through the evensong service that started at 5.15. In Canterbury working through a service was most definitely not allowed even though the building is larger and our distance from the seat of the service far greater.
There are occasions when the Minster is full to bursting with both nave and choir seating fully occupied and for these occasions we have made a plan for both instruments to play from the nave console by use of midi connection. At the moment the consoles are too far apart for this to be tested but shortly the pipe organs mobile console will be moved out so allowing our console to move close to the choir screen and the second console. We will then be able to test the final part of the jigsaw and listen to the 2 instruments speaking into the 2 different spaces simultaneously but with one set of speakers in the nave and the other about 30 metres to the north I have no doubt the organist will be presented with a challenge of which sound if any to take his cue from.
In Canterbury the problem is even bigger where the nave speaker bank is about 70 meters from the console. The console sits directly below the triforium speakers and the nave sound is a full half second distant, a playing experience I found truly unworkable!
Please let us know if you visit York Minster
The pipe organ continues to be in use until October 9th (2018) which will be the first time the Minster will be relying on our 2 instruments. If you are there and hear them in use please do tell us what you think of the sound and the effectiveness of digital technology in the context of this great building.
And just in case you are curious, Minster is an honorific title given to particular churches in England. The term minster is first found in royal foundation charters of the 7th century. Although it corresponds to the Latin monasterium or monastery it then designated any settlement of clergy living a communal life and endowed by charter with the obligation of maintaining the daily office of prayer.
I have had a passion for church organs since the tender age of 12. I own and run Viscount Organs with a close attention to the detail that musicians appreciate; and a clear understanding of the benefits of digital technology and keeping to the traditional and emotional elements of organ playing.