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Pipe Dreams

[whitespace] Bill Visscher
Scott Lechner

Blowin' in the Wind: Organ maker Bill Visscher makes sure each of the almost 6,000 pipes inside his organs is in tune.

Bill Visscher keeps the art of handcrafted pipe organs alive and well in Felton

By Kelly Luker

EVERY SO OFTEN, majestic notes will roll out of the old lumber mill found in the hills above Felton and into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Deep and vibrant, the music notifies passersby that sawdust is no longer the stock in trade of this cavernous redwood building, but instead it's organs. Pipe organs, to be exact.

Some may call it a woodshop, but it's really Bill Visscher's cathedral. Pale winter sunlight filters through high windows, creating its own stained-glass effect as the rays scatter off dust motes and towering aluminum pipes.

This is where Visscher spends from six months to two years crafting each individual pipe organ, preparing it for consecration in its new chosen home. Chances are good that home will be a church, one willing to pay between $55,000 and $500,000 for an instrument that will be the centerpiece of liturgy and worship.

His company, Visscher & Associates, is one of only about a half-dozen in California that produce organs--and only four of those still craft them by hand.

Not many kids plan to be organ makers when they grow up, and Visscher was no exception. But he recalls as a child growing up in Pennsylvania listening with wonder to a huge pipe organ in his church.

"I always liked taking stuff apart," Visscher says. "And this organ had a door where you could walk inside and watch it work." Looking inside the behemoth's innards--ogling those sky-high pipes and pumping pedals and listening to the whoosh of air--the youngster witnessed a lifetime of opportunity to dissect and rebuild.

Visscher learned to play the piano in the third grade. His father was in the Army Reserves, and the younger Visscher found his skills in demand on Army-issue pump organs at various bases by the time he was in his teens. He enrolled as a music major at Pennsylvania's Susquehanna College, but a future as a professional musician did not look terribly promising. Instead, Visscher switched his major to music education--a career that ended up short-lived.

"The kids walked all over me," Visscher remembers of his six-month student-teaching career.

While at Susquehanna, Visscher would occasionally help the organ repairman who visited the college. That experience paved the way for a repair job after graduation, which led to other repair and organ-building jobs.

Eventually, Visscher headed west to Los Angeles, where he found himself itching to strike out on his own. His first contract was to build an organ for a private residence in Pasadena. Although he employs five people today, Visscher had to build that one single-handedly.

"It took 10 months," Visscher remembers. "It was a challenging and enlightening experience to discover that in spite of years of building organs with other people, there's all this stuff you didn't know."

ALTHOUGH Visscher explains that the organ is structurally a complex instrument, it actually boils down to a simple concept: "Think of it as a lot of penny whistles," he laughs.

A brief tour through his workshop, however, does not reveal anything even remotely resembling penny whistles. Wooden pipes 16 feet long lie like pick-up sticks in one room, tempting unwary feet to take a serious tumble. Another room finds workers carefully sanding cabinetry and casework for an organ that will find its way later this year into Monterey's First Presbyterian Church.

Although the wooden pipes are more striking, it is the tin-alloy pipes that constitute the majority of what is used for building organs. A pipe organ is composed of sets of pipes known as "stops," each averaging 61 pipes. Some organs use thousands of pipes. As an example, Visscher mentions the 60-stop pipe organ he built for Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. With 4,000 pipes--the tallest reaching 32 feet--the project took him two years to complete.

But it was that original Pasadena contract that got him to Santa Cruz, where friends suggested he move his business. His first workshop was in Brookdale; then he moved to Soquel, and finally six and a half years ago, Visscher found the abandoned Santa Cruz Lumber sawdust mill.

One of the changes that prodded Visscher to move was the interest in bigger and bigger organs. His small workshop in Brookdale could not handle the sheer size of his first church contract, an organ for St. Mark's Episcopal of Santa Clara that towered 15 feet high.

Photos of the huge organs crafted by Visscher can be found on his website (www.cris.com/~leboom/visscher), and they reflect his esthetic: a soul-deep understanding that his calling is more than merely creating fine instruments. It is about honoring a form of music that stretches back more than 2,000 years.

"Most likely," Visscher figures, "Nero was playing with his organ--not his fiddle--when Rome was burning."

Earlier versions of the organ required up to 10 people pumping the bellows to provide enough air. The instrument found a good match with cathedrals, which dominated the landscape as a city's largest structure. The organ's rich, swelling notes not only resonated beautifully with the church's cavernous insides but would also carry throughout the land to beckon townspeople to worship.

"The sound was awesome to people," explains Visscher of the organ's power in the Middle Ages. "It moved them to otherworldliness."

Not only did the organ provide the background to prayer and hymns, it also offered an entertainment soundtrack--a forerunner to the instrument's job in the silent-movie era. Audiences could vicariously experience battles, coronations and other events of the day through the organ's thundering music.

It is perhaps that power and reach--and the organ's association with churches--that keeps this ancient instrument indelibly linked with the sacred. But the organ may be at risk of losing that connection. Although it hit a pop-culture low in the Flower Power era with Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," the organ may be suffering an even more serious hit from the changing tides of religion. Visscher notes that the "prayer and praise" style of worship is quickly replacing traditional organ-accompanied hymns. Prayer and praise, a format embraced by nondenominational and evangelical churches, focuses on short musical repetitions usually backed by keyboards and drum machines.

It's also no wonder that Visscher finds more pastors foregoing organs--the musical instrument's price tag easily reaches a half-million dollars.

Given his instrument of choice, however, there was probably no way that Visscher could avoid a life of worship. He played the organ for both Catholic and Protestant churches in his earlier years but has been the organist for the St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Capitola since he moved to Santa Cruz County in 1983.

"I went from 'Yeah, there's something out there,' to the faith I have now," Visscher says. He stays involved in activities at St. John and now assists with its youth group.

Visscher has come a long way since that ill-fated career as a teacher. In fact, he says, if he wasn't tinkering with pipes in his workshop, he would like to revisit that career.

"I enjoy teaching people and I enjoy music," Visscher says. "Since most people have music surrounding them from the time they wake up in the morning, it would be nice to instill in people a little appreciation and understanding of it."

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From the February 17-24, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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