Monday, December 25, 2000

Pipe organ business seeks modern niche

Classic instrument has contemporary fans

By Jason Keyser
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS, Ohio — Just before Pope John Paul II's visit to the United States in 1987, workers at a Miami cathedral had made all the preparations, including spray-painting the grass green. The only problem was the pipe organ.

        Sometimes it played, sometimes it didn't. Sometimes it played by itself when notes stuck.

        So they called Phil Minnick and Robert Bunn, two guys who started a pipe organ business in their basement in Columbus, to make the repairs.

        “It was a speechless moment,” Mr. Minnick said about seeing the pope. “I could tell that he loved the sounds of the organ by the expression on his face, the way he applauded the organist. I can't even describe it.”

        The two owners of Bunn-Minnick Company Pipe Organs wish that everyone showed the kind of excitement the pope did at hearing the boom of a centuries-old pipe organ.

        Some churches opt for electronic or digital organs, which cost considerably less than the $250,000 to $500,000 needed for an average pipe organ. But Mr. Minnick said electronic components and plastic keys wear out and repairs become impractical after about 25 years.

        He believes crafting a medieval sound with a pipe organ is gaining some new appreciation in a high-tech age for another reason too.

        “It's a relief from the modern world,” he said.

        The 31-year-old company and its 25 workers have long since moved out of Robert Bunn's basement and into a large three-story building cluttered with hunks of poplar and lead pipes. The company is one of only about 100 pipe organ makers of its size nationwide and is booked with orders and restoration work nearly two years in advance.

        But challenges remain. The company has low profit margins because of the high cost of materials and labor.

        The problem now is finding a younger generation of workers willing to sacrifice higher paying jobs in high-tech businesses to pursue crafts like pipe organ making.

        One of those younger people is Scott Gorsuch, 38, a rock guitarist and cabinet maker who showed up on the company's doorstep about four years ago.

        “Ninety percent of my friends sit in front of a computer at their jobs,” Mr. Gorsuch said. “They can't grasp what it is that I do.”

        Mr. Gorsuch sets the pitch of the pipes, making slight adjustments in their openings to give them their voice.

        He sees himself as a kind of ambassador as he introduces his rock audiences to an older sound.

        “Pipe organs are not terribly hip,” said Mr. Gorsuch, who's just put out a solo CD that includes a pipe organ in the middle of a Led Zeppelin-inspired rock song.

        In his shows, Mr. Gorsuch admits he uses a digital sampler to replay the sounds of a pipe organ — something he fears too many churches are doing. Would he ever drag a pipe organ on stage in one of the city's smoky clubs?

        “Hell yes!” he said. “That would be hysterical. It would be good for people to see real pipes.”

        Mr. Bunn worries about finding younger workers like Mr. Gorsuch to continue the craft.

        “I hate to think that Phil and I built all this up and it would go to pot,” Mr. Bunn said. “There are not a lot of young people interested at this point.”

        Religion plays a central role in their work, which Mr. Bunn and Mr. Minnick call a ministry. Above the entrance to the building is written: “Soli Deo Glori,” a Latin phrase that Bach inscribed on his manuscripts that means, “To God alone, the glory.”


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