Magnum Opus

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Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Prelude

The shop floor beneath Greg Bahnsen’s sneakered feet is littered with coils of silvery metal barely more substantial than the tinsel on a Christmas tree. With each schwwwwwip of his hand plane, another wispy sliver of metal curls, dangles and falls to the ground.

Bahnsen, smiling, picks one up to display its delicacy, holding it the way a child might hold a butterfly caught by its wing, then lets it drop, shimmering, to the floor. When he breaks for lunch, he’ll sweep up the lot and throw it back into the melting pot. “Precious little,” he says, is wasted in this workshop.

Bahnsen is making languids, a poetic name for the thin, soft, circular pieces of metal partly responsible for some of the most majestic manmade sounds the world has ever heard, the notes played on an elegantly crafted mechanical action pipe organ.

It’s about a quarter past noon in Tacoma, Washington, on a placid day in mid-July. Bahnsen will make a few dozen languids today for pipes more or less an inch in diameter, his thought all in his hands as he fastens each short strip of this special alloy of tin and lead into a jig, planes its front edge at a precisely calibrated angle, scrapes it smooth and cuts it into squares.

The pipe-making for the current project began in 2012 and is nearly complete. By the time they finish this autumn, Bahnsen and Erik McLeod will have fashioned more than 3,000 languids for the flue pipes in the organ they and their six fellow craftsmen at Paul Fritts & Company Organ Builders are creating for the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame. They’ll make almost 2,000 reed pipes, too, which function more like giant clarinets in the way they create music from narrow streams of wind than the flue pipes, which work like giant whistles.

With four manuals, or keyboards, 70 stops and 5,164 pipes rising to the height of a four-story building, this will be the largest and grandest organ the company will have produced since 1979, when the 28-year-old Fritts took over his father’s small organ business. They will build it using methods and materials that guild craftsmen in the Netherlands and northern Germany three and four centuries ago would recognize and understand, but with the benefit of tools and technologies those Baroque organ makers could only envy. The masterpieces they created, however, represent what Fritts calls the high point of his art.

In spring, Fritts will host an open house for this organ. Visitors will gather at his workshop a few miles from the blue waters of Puget Sound, the distant, snowcapped heights of Mount Rainier peeking at them through the branches of titanic redwoods. But the true marvel of the day will stand just inside the open front doors of the massive postmodern log cabin that houses the Fritts organ works. The building’s “set-up room” required a special permit, its steep roof making the structure by far the tallest in this semi-rural neighborhood of modest homes and evergreens, but still it will not be tall enough to house the finished instrument, 40 feet and 1 inch high.

What those visitors will see is a towering but untopped organ case of poplar and oak, painted to match the Notre Dame basilica’s white walls and columns, and worthy of Europe’s most glorious cathedrals. Pipes as small as a No. 2 pencil or as tall as mature trees will rise in gleaming tiers, framed by some 60 gilt, handcarved decorative screens of leaves and berries fashioned by a woodworker nearing his retirement rest in eastern Germany.

To date, the Fritts shop has produced more than 40 world-class instruments for recital halls, private residences and churches in 14 states. These organs lead worship, inspire seasoned musicians and raise goosebumps in the Oberlin Conservatory, Princeton Theological Seminary and the prestigious Eastman School of Music; the Catholic cathedrals of Rochester, New York, and Columbus, Ohio; mainline Protestant churches from New York to Seattle; and Fritts’ own home across town.

This pipe organ will top them all. This, in short, is Paul Fritts’ magnum opus.

A still, small voice

But today, Monday, July 13, as Greg Bahnsen makes languids in tranquility, the open house, the next project and the Notre Dame delivery all seem far away.

Ask how long he’s been at Fritts and he answers without pause. “Tomorrow it’ll be 21 years and four months.”

What keeps them focused, if he may speak for his colleagues on this point, is their determination to construct the finest pipe organs in their power. “No two instruments are the same,” he says, trying to explain his zeal for the work. “There’s visual satisfaction; there’s aural satisfaction.”

And: “There’s the satisfaction of seeing the client’s jaw drop to the floor when they walk into the room and see what they’re getting.”

Try to imagine one of those 17th century Dutch or German pipe-makers in modern clothes and you might well be able to picture Bahnsen: fine white hair that falls past his ears, a nobly sharp nose, an impressively shaped white beard. Colored pens line the bib pocket of a denim apron he wears over his dark gray T-shirt. A choral singer, a glider pilot, an amateur photographer and cutter of precious stones, he’s worked as a jailer, a baker, a nurseryman, a printer. He leads a rich life that helps him manage the more tedious aspects of his day job, but it’s those greater rewards that keep his slender fingers working toward the collective, beautiful goal.

He walks over to a set of shelves and pulls out little drawers of the kind in which you’d keep penny nails to share examples of his workmanship. The scent of melting flux, fatty and metallic, reaches over his shoulder from Erik McLeod’s workbench about 20 feet away. Bahnsen picks up an unfinished pipsqueak pipe and blows through it, producing a shrill sound like a frantic piccolo. Just a leftover, he says. “We could have put it in the project.”

“We call it the museum,” McLeod explains. Legs crossed on a chair upholstered in duct tape and cushioned by old, folded bath towels, McLeod is hard after his own task this afternoon, making pipe mouths.

Flue pipes are like whistles. Personified, they are said to have a “body” — generally, the longer cylindrical part — and a “foot,” the upturned, conical part on which the whole pipe stands. The narrow opening cut into the seam joining those two segments, within what McLeod playfully calls a “controlled dent,” is the pipe’s “mouth.”

Put in these terms, the languid is a tongue. Fixed horizontally inside the mouth, it defines the flue pipe’s windway, constricting the air flowing upward through the foot into a narrow sheet and directing it toward the mouth’s upper lip, where it excites the column of air in the pipe body, or resonator, above. The length of each pipe determines the sound waves that come out, producing notes.

But pipes are also said to speak, and each one has its own voice, that combination of volume and timbre that makes the textures of organ music so varied, layered and rich. Most of them are principal pipes, which don’t sound like any other instrument but a pipe organ. Others, especially on an organ of this scale and complexity, receive the names of flutes, trumpets, bassoons, clarinets, oboes and violins — even the human voice and voix celeste, the voice of heaven — for a reason. When playing on an instrument such as this, a skilled organist is both a proficient instrumentalist and the conductor of a choir and symphony orchestra. The great pipe organs were the original synthesizers.

It’s often noted that pipe organs — even those historical precedents far smaller and simpler than this one — were the most complex of all inventions until the creation of the telephone switchboard in the late 19th century. Climbing into the case with Fritts to examine a set of windchests, I can see why. What I’m looking at is an incomplete but bedazzlingly layered network of levers, rods and fixed and sliding pieces of wood with precision-cut grooves and holes, as unintelligible to me as a motherboard.

Fritts does his best to interpret this weird “sandwich” for me. Windchests, he says, hold the pipes in place and contain channels that correspond with each key on the keyboard. When the organist plays a note, the key opens a valve in the windchest called a pallet that allows pressurized air to travel through a channel to its corresponding pipes. Ranks of pipes, each with its own sound or voice, are arranged on the windchest so the same notes are located along one channel. If the stop for the rank isn’t pulled, a pipe cannot speak. But when the organist pulls the stop, the wind streams into the pipe and it plays.

He adds that key action comprises up to five changes of motion between key and pipe, which happen so fast in well-made versions of this “simple, early computer” that the pipe’s speech may seem to anticipate the keystroke. Touch is important to organists. It’s easy to marvel, harder to comprehend.

Fritts’ father, Byard, was a lifelong organist and Eastman-trained professor of music at Tacoma’s Pacific Lutheran University, as well as an organ builder and inveterate tinkerer who built the family house that still stands next to the company’s much-expanded physical plant, and who restored a Model A Ford for fun. The younger Fritts helped his dad with everything, but he never played the organ. Instead, he was a violinist who dedicated himself to his music at a young age and developed an ear that has helped him earn a handsome and satisfying living.

Everything he’s learned about his craft started at home, then grew through personal experience and relentless study of the best organs ever built, some of which date back to the 15th century. There’s little room for innovation in this line of work, he says, but that has nothing to do with excellence.

“All of these things I could never come up with on my own. We draw upon history very, very clearly. I make no apology for that. A good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from. So my mission is not to reinvent the organ. It’s to further the art form.”

Over in the machine room, Joseph Green, in T-shirt and ballcap, new to the company and a boatbuilder by trade, grinds mortises into structural wood with the most ferocious power chisel I’ve ever seen. Ignoring the cacophonous fugue created by his cuts and the noise emerging from the massive shop vac that converts shavings and sawdust into bricks of firewood, Zane Boothby sits at his bench, dipping his index finger into a puddle of felt-and-leather glue. Boothby, a sophomore trombone performance major at Central Washington University, swabs the glue around holes of varying diameter cut into a sturdy plank of oak. Once felted with black strips four millimeters thick and mounted into the case, this board will become a rack in which reed pipes will stand.

Upstairs, Andreas Schonger, the company’s lead woodworker, sits in Fritts’ design office flooded with natural light. He strokes a brush over his short brown hair to pick up static, then lowers it to hover above a square leaf of gold foil the size of a Post-It note but only a few molecules thick. The metal lifts onto his brush as if gently inhaled, and Schonger places it on an uncovered section of decorative basswood screen, painted with a glossy red enamel that will intensify from within the brightness of the gold. He shapes each leaf into the wood with his fingers; a single carved piece of screen, about the size of an unfolded newspaper, might take him the better part of a day or more to complete. When not talking to visitors, he listens to NPR podcasts — Serial, Invisibilia, This American Life — to pass the time.

Small steps, one goal. No one seems concerned about the clock. To a man, Fritts’ artisans are quiet and introverted, eloquent about their trade, confident in Fritts’ leadership and free from interfering ego.

Like Bahnsen, they’re also alert and active, living in the present moment. Raphi Giangiulio, who makes the keyboards and fashions the keys out of heat-treated basswood covered with either cow bone or ebony, is away this week, climbing mountains in Colorado. Bruce Shull, a master builder in his own right who joined Fritts’ company 10 years ago, flies small planes on the weekends. Schonger broke his collarbone in a mountain biking race, which explains why he’s spending these days leafing instead of building the organ case. Together they take convivial half-hour breaks every morning at 10 to eat doughnuts, drink Fritts’ homemade cappuccino, read the comics and shoot the breeze.














2015 Basilica Organ – Images by Notre Dame Photography

Interlude

The question most people ask is why the Basilica of the Sacred Heart needs a new organ.
When the Holtkamp Organ Company of Cleveland, Ohio, designed, built and installed the choir loft’s current occupant in 1978, this magazine predicted it would “play a central role in the renaissance of public worship and music education at the University.” Father Ted Hesburgh, CSC, blessed it at a packed-house dedication Mass on April 2. That evening, after Vespers, Professor Michael Schneider of Cologne performed on it the much-celebrated all-Bach program that Felix Mendelssohn had played at Leipzig in 1840.

Consider what it’s witnessed ever since; the thousands of people whose anxieties, prayers, elation and grief were carried to heaven on its music. How many Notre Dame weddings, baptisms and Sunday and daily Masses? The final vows and ordinations of so many Holy Cross priests. The funerals and memorials that convened multitudes in sorrow: Fathers Hesburgh and Joyce. Ralph McInerny and Sister Jean Lenz. Declan Sullivan. Emil T. Hofman. So many others, including Gail Walton, the longtime basilica organist and Liturgical Choir director who first proposed the idea of the Holtkamp’s replacement and was its chief proponent until her death in 2010.

Among those moved by Walton’s passing was Andrew McShane ’93M.M., her understudy and successor and the inheritor of the organ project. “I’ve played this thing half my life,” the 49-year-old says of the Holtkamp, with its geometric modern case and its horizontal Spanish trumpet pipes arrayed overhead like the guns of a battleship. “It’s served the University really well over 40 years.”

McShane came to Notre Dame as a graduate student at age 24. He played two recitals as a master’s degree candidate on the Holtkamp, performed three more on it in pursuit of his doctorate at Northwestern, then returned to campus for good to assist Walton and supervise the practical training of students in the organ program that Walton’s husband, Professor Craig Cramer, was cultivating in the Department of Music. No one is in a better position to appreciate the Holtkamp, or to understand the extent to which it has fulfilled its original mission.

In later years, maintenance and mechanical reliability became problems, McShane says. Repair bills exceeded $1,000 per month. But the larger issue, he says, is how people drain sound. At 40 stops and just under 3,000 pipes, the Holtkamp doesn’t produce enough of it to fill the church and its chapels at those times when it’s needed most, such as the crowded high feasts of Christmas and Easter.

The Fritts organ will be the fifth to accompany prayer inside the University’s main house of worship since the completion of the original Sacred Heart Church in the early 1850s. In each case, the need for a larger instrument to keep up with the school’s growth and ambitions drove the decision for a purchase or new commission. Before he stepped down from the presidency in 1865, Father Edward Sorin, CSC, oversaw the replacement of a small reed organ with a hand-pumped organ of 1,500 pipes better suited to the existing wooden church. A decade later, with the north end of the current church bricked off behind the main altar as the University raised money for its completion, Sacred Heart boasted a 2,000-pipe organ commissioned from Derrick and Felgemeker of Erie, Pennsylvania. That instrument carried campus Masses well into the era of Hesburgh, when a 1961 renovation added some 300 pipes.

The Holtkamp was long overdue in 1978, but Notre Dame didn’t yet have the organ program that Cramer and music department chair Calvin Bower would begin building in the 1980s. Nor was the basilica yet the basilica. Pope John Paul II bestowed that designation in 1992, making Sacred Heart a national church — one of 82 in the United States so acknowledged as an important center of pilgrimage and devotion. Notre Dame’s liturgical reach and influence grew. Today, six choirs use the organ year-round. McShane counts four full-time organists and as many as six graduate-student organ assistants in a given semester. The 10 a.m. Sunday Mass reaches a national cable TV audience and the basilica frequently hosts liturgical conferences and workshops.

“Visitors to the basilica come and go forth throughout the world,” notes Rudy Reyes ’03MTS, ’07M.A., Notre Dame’s theology-trained director of foundation relations who has taken the basilica organ project under his wing. “They take their experience with them. So we better do it right.”

Approaching the Infinite

In this case, “doing it right” entails an irony. The church organ at an institution aspiring to global pre-eminence as a Catholic research university will be, in one important way, essentially Protestant.

Once upon a time, American artisans sought to build lavish organs that would serve all audiences, a kind of musical approximation of the now-discarded metaphor of America as Melting Pot. The more egregious examples of these “American Classics” wound up monstrous and loud, an egalitarian “pop puree of different styles,” in Fritts’ description, that played almost nothing very well.

Fritts designs organs foremost to lead congregational singing, which means he and Bruce Shull, his second-in-command, study the organs of Protestant Germany and the Netherlands for historical precedent, to understand both how they were made and how they supported the compositional literature that flourished in the hands of such great church musician-composers as Sweelinck, Buxtehude and Bach. The other prominent organ-playing countries tend to be Catholic, he says, and their tradesmen made organs primarily for instrumental performance and the accompaniment of vocal soloists.

Rather than lump these traditions equally into a single instrument, sacrificing quality in the pursuit of inclusion, Fritts privileges what he calls the “liturgical organs” of northern Europe, selectively adding sets of pipes from other cultures to “broaden the horizons a bit.” The approach will make the new organ both a worship guide to the Infinite and a superior teaching instrument for master’s and doctoral level students in Notre Dame, where the present need for a versatile, small “c” catholic organ — capable of leading hymns and accompanying basilica cantors as well as playing the sacred and secular works of leading German, Dutch, French, Spanish, British, Italian, Portuguese and even Lithuanian composers — was little more than a dream until the emergence of the thriving Program in Sacred Music over the last 10 years.

Just how versatile will the new organ be? “If you were to play all stop combinations on the . . . organ [in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center] there would be 34.3 billion combinations,” Professor Cramer says. “If you played each of those stop combinations one time and for one second, it would take almost 1,100 years to play all of them. If you applied the same calculation to the [new] organ, it would take around 1.6 trillion years to play all of the stop combinations.”

Building an organ with 70 stops, it turns out, is about more than impressive numbers or some kind of grand musical exhibitionism. It’s about creating an instrument capable of training 21st century masters, as Cramer is doing at Notre Dame in one of the few growing programs in the country. In the right hands, this pipe organ will be able to play just about everything.

Everything?

Bruce Shull, as expert and patient an organ builder as they come after 40 years in the business, qualifies that statement. The basilica organ, he says, will be able to play each repertoire authentically.

“‘Everything’ is an unreasonable, unattainable goal,” he explains. One limitation is tuning. You can’t retune an organ like a guitar to fit the many different systems of the European literatures that took shape around the instruments available to composers at the time. So while this organ won’t be ideal for playing every organ composition ever written, a master organist would be able to play most anything on it well.

In the end, Shull says, “we’re after making pipes that people want to listen to. Pipes that are soothing and exciting at the same time to hear. Soft sounds that draw you in and some big sounds that can really get your attention and everything in between.”

Therein lies the challenge for Paul Fritts and his shop. How to craft an instrument that will soar all the way to the basilica’s north altar and fill each transept and side chapel, yet is tuned and voiced so sensitively that its sounds float downward and land beautifully on all the listening ears.

It’s something that at Notre Dame has never happened before. This Fritts organ, a gift from Diana and Wayne Murdy, Notre Dame parents and grandparents, is an offering for the community today as well as for those who will sing God’s praises through the years accompanied by its music.

While the organ builders believe in their core that they will meet that need, no one will know for sure until their handiwork is assembled in the fortified basilica choir loft, painstakingly voiced to the church’s unique acoustical environment and played as a complete instrument for the first time in December 2016.

A mighty fortress

Notre Dame already owns two Fritts organs. The first, a more purely German-style instrument, was designed for the Reyes Organ and Choral Hall at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center and finished in 2004. The second Fritts, a seven-stop studio organ installed last year, anchors choir rehearsals in a room of the Campus Ministry building named for the late Gail Walton.

It was back in 2004, as Fritts’ crew tidied up at DPAC, that talk about a new basilica organ got serious. Walton formed a committee that did its homework, attending concerts and visiting workshops on a nationwide organ crawl to scout the four or five builders in the country capable of creating mechanical action pipe organs in the grand eclectic style.

In 2006, they drove to Columbus, Ohio, for the dedication of a cathedral’s new Fritts organ. “This was the one that sealed the deal,” McShane says. Fritts’ three-manual, 66-stop jewel, proved his shop could build the organ that would outlast the basilica itself.

“We felt comfortable that Paul would deliver what we envisioned: a monumental instrument in a landmark building,” Cramer says. “An instrument of rare beauty, coherence and depth.”

But if the courtship was swift and the match obvious, the marriage took longer to consummate. Six years passed before the contract was signed. The 2008 recession took its toll. Then, in 2010, Walton died. The committee redoubled its determination. And well before the ink dried on the agreement in 2012, Fritts took an unprecedented step and began to design. He told his pipe shop, ahead of schedule on other projects, to get busy.

So the pipe casting began. The specification calls for five divisions of pipes to correspond with the four keyboards and pedalboard. Ranks of pipes within each division will reflect the instrument’s primarily German yet pan-European lineage: Rohrflöte und Rauschpfeife. Baarpijp. Flûte Harmonique. Vox humana. “Trumpets” in four different languages.

When Fritts set up his own pipe shop in 1984, it was a big deal in the organ world. Even some of his high-end peers still outsource this work, but for him that wasn’t good enough. “Our experience back in the ’80s was they would only do certain things we asked,” he says. “And they didn’t want to do a high lead alloy because it burned up their table.”

Fritts solved the heat problem by switching out the linen on his stone casting table for a synthetic Dupont fabric called Nomex, found in military flight suits and NASA spacecraft. Later the shop moved to sand casting. Plain ol’ beach sand sucks the heat out of the metal 15 times faster than cloth, so as the metal hardens — almost instantaneously — it forms smaller crystals, which Fritts has found enables his pipes “to behave more musically.” Mixing the sand with a small amount of peanut oil helps it bind better as a casting surface — and leaves the scent of roasted peanuts in the room, even when the table is cold for days. It’s messy and requires more time to prepare a casting, says Fritts, but the pipes’ improved sound quality and quicker speech justify the extra effort. He learned the age-old technique from contemporary European builders; his is the only shop in the United States that makes pipes this way.

Work on the case began in December 2013, once Fritts completed his design. Now, in the warm summer of 2015, with the largest finished pipes lashed to the walls of the pipe shop and storage room, and the little ones nestled in blue cloths and tucked away in wide, wooden drawers, progress on the case is more dramatic. Its stout oaken bones rise out of the mounted cornice of its bottom tier. Inside it, the organ’s lungs, the bellows, looking like six heavy cornhole boards, are still visible at ground level to visitors who drop by the workshop.

Designing for the basilica presented serious challenges, Fritts says. First he insisted the carpet be removed for improved acoustics, a $500,000 flooring renovation completed in 2014. He took laser measurements of the church vaults and loft to ensure precision for the acoustics and dimensions of the case. The bell tower was not available for the blower and bellows that generate and govern windflow, so he put the blower in its own box to the right of the organ and placed the bellows inside the case the way he would for a small studio piece. That decision forced him to rely on a ladder access into the organ’s upper-level walkboards, which for construction, tuning and maintenance crews will be like climbing a fire escape to get into an apartment building.

Structural pillars in the basilica’s back wall required additional sacrifices of desirable space in his final design, he says. Architects ruled out an extension of the loft to accommodate both the instrument and choirs of up to 75 people, so Fritts customized the design to fit snug within an inch of the wall.

Then there were the wide, Midwestern swings of temperature and humidity to address. Pipes aside, mechanical action organs are mostly wooden structures. Fritts called for heat-treated wood to prevent warping in the case, key action and stop action, and to ensure a consistent seal in the reed pipes’ boots and blocks. Plans also call for an air-conditioning system to help the upper pipes stay in tune as heat rises, especially during the warm, damp northern Indiana summers.

Inside the woodshop, another finished cornice lies flipped on its back. Its rounded centerpiece, which will cap a semicircular wall of front pipes on the finished case, looks like a thick-staved beer barrel sawn in half across the middle. “It’s a very complicated piece,” Fritts says of the carpentry.

Nearby, Joe Green works on the framing of the Rückpositiv, a separate division of pipes that will sit behind the organist, built into the hip wall at the front of the choir loft. There it will preside over the basilica nave like a gorgeous cluster of stalactites.

No, this will not be like any organ Sacred Heart has seen or heard before. Not at all.

Postlude

“I stay up nights being terrified,” McShane deadpans over coffee with Rudy Reyes back in South Bend one morning in July.

The organ must start its cross-country journey late in July 2016. There is no moving the deadline. If it’s not done, Reyes points out, “we can’t just change the calendar. The way the basilica works, as you know, first week in March we book for the next year.” Football weekends. Weddings. The academic calendar. Non-negotiables.

Never mind. Reyes’ face brightens. “I can’t believe we’re getting this thing,” he says with the excitement of a kid on Christmas Eve. Still, he has a long wait ahead.

To meet the deadline, the Fritts crew must finish the organ by next summer, take it apart and pack it carefully in two full-size moving vans, then fly to South Bend. They’ll unpack those vans outside the basilica every bit as carefully. But back up a moment: A lot has to happen on campus before they get here.

On the day after Christmas 2015, workmen will unlock the basilica and begin the work of removing both the Holtkamp organ and the choir loft. The organ will eventually move to the new St. Pius X Catholic Church under construction about five miles east of campus in Granger, Indiana. The loft, dismantled, will be rebuilt with enough fortification to support the new organ — Rückpositiv and all.

For one year, the basilica choirs will relocate to the west transept, the small cross-arm of the church nearest where the priests vest for Mass. A Fritts studio organ will be used throughout the year. It will be amplified, a solution everyone seems to regard as a necessary evil.

When the organ builders and moving trucks reunite in South Bend in August, the organ will explode — delicately, so delicately — into the closed basilica, its parts filling the aisles and pews until they’re selected and placed piece by piece. Erecting the organ will take two full weeks with all hands on deck. Then, four-plus months of pipe voicing begins. Bruce Shull, Erik McLeod and Fritts himself will do most of this work. Masses will continue throughout the fall semester, but don’t expect to hear the new organ before Christmas. By tradition, the organ may not be played publicly until Paul Fritts, director of the organ building company that bears his name, says he’s done.

“What I hope is that the organs make friends with those who encounter them,” Fritts says. He means that Notre Dame’s professional organists will instantly feel at home. Students will have a high-quality experience relative to what they’ll encounter in the best European cathedrals.

For the rest of us? Well, maybe it’s a matter of feeling the intensity of transcendence while finding harmony within the soul.

McLeod first touched a Fritts keyboard as a teenager practicing the organ in a church in a small logging town about an hour west of Tacoma. The instrument was one of the first the Fritts shop ever built.

“It was just a tremendous shock,” recalls the musician, who had started out on a factory-built electric organ. “Everything’s so immediate. But I responded incredibly positively to the sound,” he says, slapping his chest as he speaks. “It struck me to the core.”

Now in his 30s, his light brown hair showing gray, McLeod has worked every Fritts installation since he joined the company 14 years ago. Nothing beats the feeling, he says, of making something that will last, of working with a team toward a shared goal, of building a great instrument.

“That’s the hope. And I think we’ll succeed. I cannot wait to hear it.”


John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.


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