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Hurricane Mama, as the Walt Disney Concert Hall pipe organ is affectionately called, was completed in 2004.  It caused a sensation in musical circles with its radical design, but skepticism was silenced by the tone, range, subtlety and power of this magnificent instrument.
 
 
It may be essentially a “big box of whistles” as the Smithsonian Magazine once described the instrument known by its formal name of pipe organ, but the great ones can blow you away.  Incredibly complex and powerful, each modern pipe organ is unique — literally — having been made specifically for its location, customized to not only the size but to the composition of the space it occupies, to the aesthetic impact desired, and to the budget of its purchaser.  Though each is unique in its particular construction, most conformed to a certain conservative style until the Walt Disney Concert Hall pipe organ came along.  But more of that later, first a bit about the origins of the pipe organ.
 
The original pipe organ was much less grand than those being constructed today.  In fact, it is an instrument that was invented, not by a musician, but by an engineer doing what engineers do - solve problems.  In the 3rd Century BCE Ctesibius, a Greek engineer working in Alexandria, puzzled over the question, “How can one person play more than one pipe at a time?”  The result of his efforts was the hydraulis, which was the first instrument which combined all of the elements characteristic of a pipe organ:  sound producing pipes resting on chambers in which mechanically pressurized air was contained and then released into the pipes by depression of keys on a keyboard.  The pressurized air in Ctesibius' instrument was produced by water pumps, hence the name hydraulis.  Sometime during the 2nd Century BCE during the Roman Era, the instrument underwent its first modification, when bellows replaced the water pumps of the hydraulis.
 
After the division of the Roman Empire into the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire with its center in Constantinople and the Western Empire with its center in Rome, the organ continued to be used and developed in the Byzantine Empire, but it's technology was lost in the West.  It was not until 757 CE that it was reintroduced when an eastern potentate presented an organ to the Court of Pepin the Short (Charlemagne’s father).
 
   Israel Van Meckenem 15th Century woodcut
 
The pipe organ developed over the centuries from an instrument that might be held on one’s lap, to a table-top version, and finally to the magnificent examples that exist today.   The largest and still operating pipe organ was built in 1911 for John Wanamaker and housed in Wanamaker’s Department Store (now Macy’s) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  That same year, the second largest pipe organ was also constructed, this one at the United States Military Academy’s Cadet Chapel in West Point, New York.  
 
  The console of the Wanamaker Pipe Organ     Cadet Chapel Organ, US Military Academy
 
 
By comparison, the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ is not so big.  It has 4 manuals  (keyboards), while Wanamaker’s has 6 and Cadet Chapel's has 4.  It has 109 ranks of pipes, compared to Wanamaker’s 466 and Cadet Chapel's  380. And it has only 6,134 pipes, while Wanamaker’s has 28,765 and Cadet Chapel's has 23,236. But the Disney instrument is sensational in every sense of the word.   Designed by Los Angeles organ maker Manuel Rosales, German organ maker Caspar von Glatter-Götz, and architect Frank Gehry,  it is an idiocyratic creation, iconic and a powerhouse, to which composer Terry Riley has given the nickname “Hurricane Mama.” 
 
Hurricane Mama has been chided as a “an oversized box of French fries” and “Medusa on a bad hair day.” By design at Mr. Gehry’s request, it does not remotely resemble any other pipe organ.  In its blatant individuality, it rises organically within the warm Douglas fir walls of the concert space.  From a musical standpoint it is also magnificent.  
 
Here is a brief glimpse into the creative process that produced this fantastic instrument:
 
 
Here Manuel Rosales explains the mechanics of Hurricane Mama:
 
 
And finally, Dr. Carol Williams performs her composition Twilight, Opus 3 on the WDCH organ.  I hope you'll enjoy it. 
 
 
 
Sources: 
Organ History: James H. Cook, Brigham-Southern College http://faculty.bsc.edu/jhcook/OrgHist/index.html
The world's largest pipe organs: http://www.sacredclassics.com/bigpipes.htm
 
 
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