Facebook Twitter



THE OLD American Fork 2nd Ward Chapel resounds with "music making" even though the original organ was removed years ago.

M.L. Bigelow & Co. Organ Builders occupies the building, one of the first LDS meetinghouses erected in the community. The four employees construct classic European-style tracker organs from scratch. Evidence of their work is scattered throughout the old church.The grand sounds of the craftsmen's painstaking labor fill cathedrals and concert halls across the United States, for Bigelow is one of few American companies that makes pipe organs in the tradition of those on which Bach composed some of his masterpieces.

"We hearken back to that," said proprietor Mike Bigelow, who opened his shop in 1978.

But unlike their 17th-century predecessors, Bigelow organs take only one person to play. An electric blower powers the instrument's "lungs" in place of an organist's assistant who raised the bellows by hand or foot.

The company handles every aspect of organ building from design to installation. A typical model requires about 50 design drawings, 10,000 hours of hands-on work and two years to finish.

The tracker organ derives its name from the narrow strips of basswood that run underneath the console and up the back of the instrument to connect the keys to air valves under the pipes. Tension strengthens the otherwise flimsy pieces of wood.

The size of an organ is measured in stops. A stop is a set of 58 pipes. Bigelow's Opus 24, a 36-foot-high white oak behemoth under construction for Conception Abbey in Missouri, has 40 stops. Stop knobs with names like "gedackt" and "chimney flute" turn on and off the sets of pipes.

"You've heard of the expression, `Pull out all the stops.' Well, that comes from organs. When you pull out all the stops, that's when you get all the big sound," Bigelow said.

The phrase sums up the way Bigelow builds organs. The company cuts no corners, meticulously fashioning thousands of components to work in harmony with each other. The sawdust-laden shop is filled with an array of machines, including saws, planers and shapers.

Woodworkers Shayne Ward and Robert Munson carefully mill and fit each piece of wood that goes into the instrument's interior and exterior. Tonal director David Chamberlin inspects the sound quality on as many as 2,300 pipes in some models, ranging from a thunderous 16-foot-long, 2-foot-square wooden bass to a shrill half-inch-long metal whistle. Bigelow oversees the operation.

The foursome builds and tests an organ in the shop, dismantles each part, packs the pieces in a semi for delivery and reassembles them on location. Installation takes weeks.

Bigelow's interest in organs goes back to his childhood. At age 12 he was trying out his church's new electronic organ while his friends played basketball. He was the church organist two years later. He even skipped school once to play a particular model of the instrument.

"I was always fascinated by organs," he said.

After graduating from the University of Utah in psychology and entering architecture school, Bigelow reached a crossroads in life: He had to decide to continue with graduate studies in architecture or pursue his fascination with pipe organs. He chose the latter and accepted a job with Abbot & Sieker in Los Angeles, the only tracker organ builder in the West at the time.

Bigelow gained an understanding and appreciation for the obscure profession while helping install several tracker organs in Los Angeles. On weekends he made pilgrimages to a growing number of Dutch, German and Swiss imports on the West Coast. He was mesmerized by tracker organs' superior sound. Bach came to life. Tours of Europe followed.

"If you want to know how to build good organs you have to go back to the fountain of all organs - Europe," he said.

The history of the pipe organ can be traced back nearly 2,000 years. The major features of the modern instrument were developed from the 1200s to 1500s. From the 1500s to mid-1700s, many European composers, including Bach, wrote organ masterpieces. Organs are fixtures in most churches today.

A majority of the 24 pipe organs Bigelow has made reside in Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist churches. There is one in an LDS Church stake center in Provo, and Bigelow just installed a practice organ in Brigham Young University's music department.

Chamberlin, who does the computer-assisted design work for the company, shares Bigelow's passion for music and organ building.

"It's like a disease. A rare disease," he said.

Chamberlin encountered several noteworthy organs studying abroad while earning a music performance degree from Brigham Young University. He also has dabbled in organ building at Bigelow. After earning a master's degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., his perspective changed. He discovered he preferred building organs full time and playing them part time.

"I've always loved music and mechanical things. The organ is the perfect intersection of those two," he said. "It's an art and a science."

For Chamberlin, who plays professionally at Zion Lutheran Church on Sundays, nothing quite compares to the thrill of performing on an organ that he helped design and build. "I guess it's sort of like building an airplane and taking it out for a ride," he said.

Once the solo ends, it's back to the drawing board for Bigelow & Co.'s next opus.