Where Do We Go From Here?

Peter Rodwell
International Organ Foundation

Some 20 years ago I was, for my sins, the Editor of what was at that time Europe's biggest-selling computer magazine. I was frequently asked to make predictions about The Future of the Industry, the Next Killer Product, Will Anyone Ever Earn a Living from Unix, etc, etc, and sometimes I was rash enough to oblige. I won't bore everyone with a breakdown of the results; suffice it to say that I learnt two things: that the prediction business is at best a minefield; and that -- fortunately -- people have short memories.

At that time, the early 1980s, with both the IBM PC and the original Macintosh still very wet behind the ears and the industry in turmoil, nobody - but nobody, not even me - would have been rash enough to predict the Internet as we know it today. Sure, there was the Arpanet, but that was for the academics. And there were various embryonic commercial e-mail systems, few of which lasted very long. But the idea that I could sit in my home in a small village (pop. 3,500) in the mountains in central Spain yet be in constant communication with an entire community of people spread all over the world… well, ridiculous, of course.

To me, this is what PIPORG-L has become over these last 10 years: a community. As in all communities, it has a wide and refreshing variety of characters: the purists, the flippant, the witty, the learned, the learners and - most treasured of all - those who so generously share their knowledge and wisdom with the rest of us. Unlike many communities, this one is nearly always well-mannered and considerate, too.

It's difficult to think of any organ-related subject that hasn't been thoroughly discussed on PIPORG-L over these last 10 years, often several times over. One theme that does crop up regularly is the fate of organs, the general disregard of the public towards the instrument, the lack of interest from the young in learning to play it, the invasion of electronic organs, and so on. A non-organ person reading the list could be forgiven for thinking that the organ is dying fast.

Personally, I don't think that after over 2000 years, the pipe organ is dying. New organs continue to be built, although the level of this activity varies wildly between countries. I happen to live in what is probably the least musical and definitely least organ-minded country in Europe, yet even here, half a dozen or so organ builders manage to make a living both building new instruments and restoring old ones. This despite disheartening news such as that one church has installed a sort of karaoke system, a large video screen on which the words of hymns appear so that the public can sing along (and it's difficult to think of them as a 'congregation' under such circumstances). One becomes accustomed to entering a church to find an abandoned, rotting 18th century pipe organ in the gallery and a cheap electronic keyboard in the sanctuary.

(People often ask why I live in Spain, especially in view of the above. The answer is: Because I like it here, despite the above. Also, being half Irish and half British, I feel out of place both in Britain and Eire.)

Elsewhere, countries such as France and Germany have led the way in developing systems that declare certain pipe organs as belonging to the 'national heritage' or being 'national monuments', conferring on these instruments a special status that guarantees their protection. UNESCO does not include pipe organs in its World Heritage scheme, but plenty of individual churches and cathedrals are on the list, meaning that their pipe organs are also protected to at least some degree.

Conserving what we already have is, of course, essential, but it does relatively little to promote the organ and to expand awareness of the instrument. Is more needed? After all, the organ 'industry' is quite healthy in many countries, especially the United States, with its plethora of denominations and donors - both individual and institutional - who are prepared to fund the building of new organs. It would be nice to see some of those funds being used to promote the organ outside the US, in countries where such wealth is simply not available - in Latin America, for instance, where thousands of instruments languish for lack of money. In fact, one of my original intentions when I set up the IOF back in 1990 was that it could act as a channel for such funding, although this has yet to happen.

Harking back again to my computer magazine days, we copied an American idea and encouraged the setting up of something called ComputerTown UK. Briefly, the idea was that, although at the time personal computers were rare, it was clear that they would soon become all-pervasive, and that a lot of people were uncertain or even fearful of this probability. ComputerTown UK encouraged PC owners to take their machines down to the local library or other community gathering point, set them up and let people try them out, all for free. There was no official organization - we simply told people to go away and do it. We devoted a page a month in the magazine for people to report their experiences and ideas. The basic idea was to reduce technofear -- when you are familiar with something, you lose your fear of it -- and I like to think that it helped in some small way.

I don't think the public at large is afraid of pipe organs, obviously, but perhaps the same principle could be applied: those 'in the know' teaching the rest.

Perhaps this is where the PIPORG-L community can play a role. While it is of course useful for many to hear other people's experiences with different makes of organ shoes, I personally am more interested in the efforts being made by a few to promote the organ, through formal events or simply by letting a child press a few keys - and perhaps thus changing his or her life completely.

Of course there are many organ people who are doing exactly this, with Pipe Organ Encounters, etc, which should be encouraged and supported by all of us. At an individual level, organists could 'open the loft' for, say, a half hour after a service so that both children and adults could get to see the instrument close up and even have a go themselves. Organ builders - admittedly busy people with a living to earn - could hold the occasional open day or school visit; after all, theirs is a highly-skilled craft that is fascinating to many people but which few get to see. It is tempting to suggest that such a field trip should be compulsory for every Organ Committee!

Reporting in these initiatives through the medium of PIPORG-L would be invaluable to others attempting to do the same. Experience-sharing always leads to a wealth of new ideas, especially among such a highly creative community as PIPORG-L.

Let's make the next 10 years of PIPORG-L really count!


About the author: After serving as a teenage apprentice to an organ builder in the UK, Peter Rodwell wandered into, firstly, journalism and then computers (he holds degrees in both) as well as working briefly as a helicopter pilot. He is a former Editor of the UK monthly magazine "Personal Computer World", the author of 15 computing books and the co-founder of two successful software companies. He founded the International Organ Foundation in 1990 as a way of getting back to his life-long interest in pipe organs. He has lived in Spain since 1986.