Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Classic Rock: The Great Stalacpipe Organ

Today, I'd like to take a look at what I consider the most incredible musical instrument in the world: the Great Stalacpipe Organ of Luray Caverns.

Devised in 1954 by Leland W. Sprinkle, a mathematician and electronic engineer at the Pentagon and also a talented organist who studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, the Great Stalacpipe Organ is the conversion of 3.5 acres of ancient caverns in Luray, Virginia into a single massive musical instrument.

Sprinkle selected 37 stalactites throughout the caverns that, when struck, produced tones that closely matched the Western musical scale, and fine-tuned them to concert pitch by grinding with a sander (though two were found naturally in tune). He then mounted electronic mallets with rubber-tipped plungers and used more than five miles of wire to connect them all to a large console, custom-built with four keyboards and a pedal board. When a key is pressed, it triggers a particular mallet to strike, and the resulting chime rings out through the caverns.

It took Sprinkle three years to complete the initial stage of his project, which he unveiled to the world on June 7, 1957. His dedicatory recital received much attention from the press; the portmanteau "stalacpipe" was coined by music critic Paul Hume of the Washington Post, and the name stuck. Over the course of another 33 years, further development saw this monumental instrument refined to its present state.

Several recordings of Sprinkle's live performances were made. This is an impressive feat of engineering on its own, considering the size of the area involved and the nature of the caverns. Reverberations of dripping water contributed to the natural ambience of these recordings.

The organ can even be controlled automatically by a system of rotating plastic belts full of holes, somewhat like a player piano (or a very large music box). Visitors to the caverns can still hear the organ played this way; the selections of music are changed seasonally.

Although the Great Stalacpipe Organ is certainly expansive, it is not generally considered the largest musical instrument in the world. That distinction is held by the Convention Hall Auditorium Organ in Atlantic City, which will be the subject of an upcoming post.

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