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WORK IN PROGRESS
February 11, 2009
 
It is tea time, and we have set out eight matching mugs and one of Cindy D'Alimonte's pumpkin breads for the organ crew. They know how to eat, this group, especially the young apprentices, who are still in their teens. One in particular, Stephen, takes almost constant ribbing from his colleagues about his tremendous capacity for food, all the more remarkable because he is skinny as a snake.

Want to go up? one of them asks me as we stand beneath the swell box. Why not? I say, and make my laborious way up the little ladder on the side of the organ, embarassed by my slowness. The crew scamper up and down it all day like monkeys.

I teeter along the narrow wooden walkway suspended above the tracker rack and look down upon a network of perfectly fitted wooden trunks. David sends some wind into the 16' contrebasse and it emits a deep and satisfying rumble. And there are the cedarwood trackers, wound round and round at one end with red wire -- I have never seen trackers in person. And there are the bellows, sandwiching their folds of snowy white leather. I have never seen any of this in person, either. Most people haven't. You don't see an organ go together very often.

They have been here all week, the organ team, and they have been building our organ in their Liverpool works for amost two years before now. It filled the church when they loaded it in -- every pew, the whole chancel, bolth aisles --a thousand separate pieces. The light wood is poplar, one of them tells me, and the reddish is mahogany. Oak for the casework. They make their own wire. Their own wooden stoppers. They're planning to start making their own brass screws. You can't get decent brass screws anymore, David snorts. He is the president of Willis Organ Works, where they know what a brass screw should be. Ours is an evil age, I guess, where screws are concerned.

This work is not done substantially differently today from the way it was done in medieval times. Each organ is different -- the oldtimers can tell where an organ is and who built it after hearing only a few notes -- but the principles according to which which organs are built haven't changed much in almost a thousand years. You don't go to school to learn how to build organs -- you do what these young people are doing. You learn from a master. Eventually, you become one. But there are not many such people. There never have been many. Hardly anybody in the world knows what these people know. It is an honor to host them.

On Wednesday evenings, the team joins the students for the weekly dinner. Tonight it was zuppa di pasta e fagiole and shepherd's pie, a nod to our English visitors. We mowed through two enormous trays of shepherd's pie like locusts in high summer. The organ guys said it was completely authentic. Then there were two cheesecakes. They were authentic, too: in Italy, cream cheese is known generically as "Philadelphia."

It was a good evening and I am tired, the good kind of tired you get from having worked hard at something worth doing. I'm tired like that a lot here, which is why I don't write as much as I would like. That will come later, when I return home to my other life. To everything a season.
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You can see Stephen the apprentice sitting up high on the half-finished organ at http://stjames.it/news/history-in-the-making-the-organ-installation
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