Pipe dreams

How does a seven-person company in Georgetown become one of the top organ builders in the country? It’s in the details

This organ is destined for the Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman in LaCrosse, Wis. This organ is destined for the Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman in LaCrosse, Wis. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / June 17, 2010

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GEORGETOWN — It’s a cathedral of sorts all by itself, or maybe just a very nice treehouse. The towering pipe organ scrapes the 32-foot workshop ceiling, all smooth woodwork and gleaming metal.

Fritz Noack climbs its built-in ladders to pose for a picture. Smiling high above the shop floor, he picks up a small, shiny organ pipe and pretends to tootle on it.

“We try to make sure every little unit of the organ is aesthetically pleasing, though the guy down in the church never sees it,’’ says Noack, 75.

It’s an attitude that has made the Noack Organ Co. one of the country’s most prominent organ builders, with an increasing international reputation. This organ is the largest ever built by the small company located in a nondescript former school in the center of town. It fits in Noack’s tall “setup room’’ only because there are parts still unattached — it’s actually 34 feet tall. And by early July, the organ will be disassembled and loaded onto a truck heading for its new home, the Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman in LaCrosse, Wis.

“You build an airplane, and the first time it takes off on a runway, it takes on a life of its own. It’s the same with an organ,’’ said Noack, a genial, white-bearded Newbury resident.

This is “opus 152’’ for the organ company since its founding in 1960. Many have gone to churches and universities, although there are some small home and rehearsal organs on the list. Noack organs generally cost $20,000 to $22,000 per “stop,’’ which is a set of pipes with a particular musical voice. The Noack team can make about 40 stops per year. From first phone call to a contract is a minimum of a year, Noack said. Then, design and construction typically take three more years before delivery.

The LaCrosse organ has 72 stops, putting the price tag at around $1.5 million. In fact, it’s actually two connected organs, the huge 3,768-pipe gallery organ towering over the main console here, and a smaller 947-pipe chancel organ that can be played from the main console or its own, smaller one.

An organ buyer has several options just in northeastern Massachusetts — Noack, C.B. Fisk Inc. in Gloucester, and the Andover Organ Co. in Lawrence. “It’s no secret that Boston, from the beginning of organ building in America, was one of the most important places, if not the most important,’’ Noack said, noting legendary names like Hook and Skinner.

The LaCrosse cathedral’s director of music and organist, Brian Luckner, was heavily involved in the purchase, a process that began in 2003 and included a trip to New England to visit Noack’s shop and hear his organs played in area churches.

“He could not be better,’’ Luckner said. “He’s wonderful to be working with. It is an expensive project, and we feel we’re getting very good value for the dollar.’’

This organ “should be the crowning glory of the Noack company golden jubilee,’’ said organist James David Christie via e-mail from Paris. Christie, who often plays with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and is on the faculty of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, will play one of several dedicatory recitals at the Wisconsin cathedral. “The superb, reverberant acoustics of the cathedral are the dream of every organ builder in the world, and the new organ loft will place the instrument in the perfect location.’’

The organ had to serve various musical needs.

“It would have the kinds of sounds that would work well in supporting congregational singing as well as choral singing,’’ Luckner said. “We also do a lot of organ repertoire here, solo organ, both in the context of Masses and in the context of solo organ recitals. So we were also looking for an organ that would handle a great variety of the organ literature well. And I think a Noack organ will do that.’’

Many potentially conflicting factors come into play in designing each organ, from a church’s architecture to its musical needs and budget. The LaCrosse cathedral had to modify and extend its choir loft in part to accommodate the organ.

But the organ’s voice is the key, as Noack and his team make minute changes both at the factory and on site, tweaking the amount of wind that can enter a pipe or making nicks in the metal at its mouth to change the “attack’’ of the notes.

“You have to teach a particular pipe to sing,’’ Noack said.

Most of the work seems less poetic. In a separate room, his half-dozen employees don headphones to protect their ears from the screeching shop machines. The materials are as prosaic as wood and Elmer’s Glue, and the music spooling from a radio is Coldplay, not Bach. In the simple upstairs offices, a Mac and a large printer deliver the large sheets of complex plans. But electronics and computers have not changed organ-building that much.

“The technology that makes you play the pipes is essentially the same as it was for 2,000 years,’’ Noack said.

In fact, the Noack team occasionally makes its own pipes from sheet metal made of lead and tin in the basement of the shop. But most of the time they get their pipes from a traditional manufacturer in Germany.

Noack grew up in small towns in Germany. In high school, he jokes, he was “a straight F student, except in music and art,’’ and studied violin. He always liked making things. His older sister began taking organ lessons, and by the time he was in his early teens, he had seen his future.

He left school early and apprenticed with an organ builder in Hamburg for four years. After the darkness of World War II, he felt out of sorts with German nationalism and traveled all over Europe, sometimes on a small motorcycle. In 1959, he came to America to make a new start.

He fell in love with New England. And within a few weeks, he got a job with the Andover Organ Co. in Methuen, where one of his co-workers was the organ maker Charles Fisk. Just a year later, Noack left to start his own company in Lawrence. Wasn’t that a little bit cheeky?

“It was arrogant,’’ he said, smiling. “Trying to reinvent the wheel. . . . I don’t like bosses. I wanted to do my own thing.’’

His company runs differently. He long ago decided to limit it to the “magic number’’ — seven workers including himself (there’s also a part-time bookkeeper).

Although he is the boss, there’s otherwise little hierarchy. “It’s almost as if the shop has a mind of its own,’’ he said. “I always ask, should we decide who is foreman here? And I always get the resounding ‘No!’ ’’

Fifth-generation organ-builder Aaron Tellers, 26, of Haverhill, has been working for Noack since 2006. He was drawn there by Noack’s reputation as one of the best — and because many others in the business trained there, Tellers said.

“Pretty often you learn from Fritz,’’ Tellers said. “We really stress on the quality. It doesn’t matter if you can see it or not, the smallest thing. It’s all interrelated. It could be the most simple thing that could affect the outcome. The attention to detail is definitely huge.’’

Noack’s wife, Betje, is a psychotherapist. “If you’ll let me be schmaltzy for a moment,’’ Noack said, organs can do the same thing through music that his wife does, heal peoples’ spirits.

“Building an organ is incredibly difficult. . . . It is making a treehouse that can sing. And it doesn’t just have to sing in a self-congratulatory fashion,’’ he said, putting a hand over his heart. “It has to grab a thousand people at a time, right here.’’

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