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Monastery invests in craftsmanship by expanding its hand-crafted pipe organ


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Pipe organs have a storied history throughout Western civilization, but demand for the king of instruments has seen a steady decline in recent decades.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on one attempt to change that.

His report from Collegeville, Minnesota, is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: The bells herald a new day at St. John's, a Benedictine, monastic and college community nestled in 3,000 acres of lake and forest in Central Minnesota.

But, on this September day, the attention was on sounds coming from inside the Abbey Church.

Stephen Tharp, Organist: It is really, really stunning, what they have achieved.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: World-renowned organist Stephen Tharp was rehearsing for the inaugural concert on an instrument that has been newly expanded to better commanded its space to flood the striking nontraditional sanctuary.

Stephen Tharp: And so it's kind of a surprise for people who've perhaps never heard an organ recital and wonder where all of that sound and color is coming from because you can't see it. But most of what you're going to hear is behind this red scrim. And I have never quite seen anything like it.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: I got a chance to peek behind that screen, thanks to K.C. Marrin.

K.C. Marrin, Organ Builder: All this older stuff below the level of the second floor up there is the original organ, and it works beautifully for what it was built to do. It just wasn't quite powerful enough for this room.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: A St. John's graduate and organ builder himself, Marrin has maintained this one for 45 years.

K.C. Marrin: So, what we ended up doing was preserving the old instrument and building upon it. And the new organ kind of tops it off and gives us the extra power that it needed.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Many instruments use mechanical pumps to send air through the pipes, but this one uses electronic signals. To tune it, Marrin uses a phone app.

K.C. Marrin: On the control side of things, we're really up concurrently with the technology. On the sound side of things, we're back centuries.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: The pipe organ dates back to ancient Greece, and its industrial-scale evolution came long before the Industrial Revolution.

MICHAEL BARONE, Host, "Pipedreams": In its earliest incarnations, it made more noise than pretty much anything before gunpowder.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Michael Barone is a leading historian on the pipe organ and host of the weekly public radio program "Pipedreams.

Michael Barone: Certainly, to someone who lives in the countryside, a peasant, a farmer, coming into a Gothic cathedral and hearing the organ sound, nothing has been comparable in their life. It is just astonishing.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: It's godlike.

Michael Barone: Indeed, it's been thought to represent the voice of God.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: And the heftier the sound, the louder the voice of God, the better, he added.

St. John's organ went from three manuals, or keyboards, to four and from about 3,000 pipes to 6,000.

K.C. Marrin: A good way to look at the organ, it might be like it's a small little city of 6,000 people, instead of 6,000 pipes. And half of them were kind of homesteaders here when the church was built, and the other half came in with Martin Pasi in the last couple of years.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Thousands of pipes, every single one handcrafted by a team led by Martin Pasi.

Martin Pasi, Organ Builder: And scrape off the paint.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: He's worked for three decades out of a converted two-room schoolhouse near Tacoma, Washington.

The larger base or lower end pipes are milled from hardwoods. Some are as tall as 32 feet and weigh up to 850 pounds, and up the treble scale with tin and lead pipes rolled, soldered and tapered by hand.

Martin Pasi: So, now I have it ready to go on the voicing track or voicing machine.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Pasi relies on electronics to confirm what his year is telling him, that the pipe is sounding the right note.

The typical organ like the one at St. John's takes up to two years to build, ship and reassemble in its permanent home, an exacting, increasingly rare craft. Only a few builders remain in business in America, most of them older, like Martin Pasi, who trained in his native Austria, before immigrating to the U.S. four decades ago.

It was while he was installing the organ in Collegeville that Martin Pasi says he had plenty of time for reflection, worrying in particular as age 70 approached about who would succeed him. And it's here that the idea first came up, why not move the whole operation to St. John's Abbey?

He's pinning his hopes on a campus with hundreds of students with a long tradition of woodworking. Most of the furniture at St. John's is crafted here from the abbey's own sustainable forests.

Martin Pasi: People can come and learn the profession from the ground up. And that will make all the difference.

I think somebody has not only the skill with their hands, but also an attitude.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: A passion for the instrument and these traditions?

Martin Pasi: A passion. Yes, a passion for the instrument, passion for the work people do with their hands.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Sometime next year, Pasi and fellow craftsman Markus Morscher will move into a newly expanded woodworking shop in Collegeville.

Father Nick Kleespie, one of about 100 monks at St. John's, says it's a silken glove fit.

Father Nick Kleespie, St. John's Abbey: I think organ building and our commitment to music and kind of communal singing, communal music-making is an embrace of what the monastic tradition has offered for many centuries and hopefully is what sustains us going into the future.

Speaker: Are you ready to play, sir?

Stephen Tharp: Well, as long as I'm here, sure.

Speaker: Ladies and gentlemen, would you please welcome tonight's featured artist, Stephen Tharp.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: This concert was one kickoff event into that future.

In a nod to the Benedictine tradition of Gregorian chants, he accompanied the trio of monks. Throughout the evening, Tharp brought out the impressive range and capability of the new Holtkamp-Pasi organ in a building that defied church tradition an instrument that's a rousing embrace of it.

For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Judy Woodruff: You have to be in awe of what they are doing.

Thank you, Fred de Sam Lazaro.

And Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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