We have contracted with CB Fisk Organbuilder to build a “3 manual tracker instrument of 39 stops in an eclectic tonal style.” In the last article we started to define terms in that sentence so that we might better understand. In fact, here is the pop quiz for that article: what is a manual and why do we want three of them? The answer will be at the end of this article. Don't peak – you know the answer!
Let's look at the next part of the sentence now. We are getting a “tracker instrument”. Again – one might ask what and why??
The sound of a pipe organ is produced by air in pipes. To make the pipes produce sound, the musician depresses the keys of the manuals and pedal. The keys must be connected to the pipes in some manner. The traditional way for the keys to be connected to the pipes is by trackers – or thin strips of wood that connect each key to the valve, allowing air into each pipe. Very simple, right? In theory, yes. But I hope the kind people of Fisk don't mind if I have my nose poked in there while they assemble our Grace. I can't wait to see how they can design the most economical path to run those trackers from the keys to all of those pipes.
It is important that the path of the tracker is indeed economical. Each extra inch of tracker or change in direction increases the effort required to depress the key. It is important that the action remain light and fluid and not become heavy and cumbersome when the music calls for many quick notes or big, fat chords. I said earlier that traditionally trackers were strips of wood. Modern trackers are actually carbon fiber rods. They are more stable and lighter weight than traditional strips of wood.
Our last instrument had a flexible 'umbilical cord' of wires connecting the console of keys to the pipes. That made it possible for the huge console to be rolled to different positions on the Chancel area or even into its garage. Grace's key desk will be attached permanently to the center front of the pipe chamber, so that those trackers have efficient paths to the pipes.
Because mechanical action (another term for tracker action) is the simplest, it is also the easiest system to maintain. While electric actions will be needing significant repair or replacement in 25 or 30 years, there are many examples in Europe of tracker instruments that have lasted for centuries.
The most important reason for choosing tracker action however is to be able to make beautiful music.
The direct mechanical connection between the musician's fingertips and the valve allowing air to the pipes provides the opportunity for a great deal more control over the beginning and ending of each note. In an electric action the valve opens when a magnetic connection is made. It is simply on or off. With tracker action, the musician feels a slight resistance when the valve is about to open and can have some control over how the valve opens. If you push through the resistance quickly, air will rush into the pipe more quickly and the beginning of the pipe sound will have a 'p' or 't' at its beginning. If you push through the resistance a little more gently the sound will begin with a 'm' or 'n'. The same control is available with the closing of the valve. You can end the sound a distinct 'd' or 't' or ease it smoothly to the next note with 'l' or 'n' connecting them. This is of course extremely subtle and the listener may not be aware why the largest piece of furniture in the room, made of wood and metal, is able to sound as if it is singing to you with a human voice with human emotions. You can be sure however that the organist is very pleased to have such an intimate connection with the instrument and the opportunity to use music to weave together the hearts of a congregation.
And the answer to the pop quiz: A manual is a set of keys like on a piano. We are glad to have three of them so that the music can have the structure of sound allowed by contrasting manuals – like solo and accompaniment or echoes or duets and trios.