For decades it sat silent—broken, hidden and forgotten by most. The melodic and harmonic sounds its pipes once echoed throughout the Lightsey Chapel during concerts and other school musical events became just memories of the past—that is, until recent weeks.
The electronic-pneumonic Moller organ at Charleston Southern University is making a comeback, thanks to the persistence of Matt Swingle, adjunct faculty member for CSU’s Horton School of Music, and a few students.
Swingle said he had been pushing to restore the traditional instrument since joining the university staff in 2012. The first time he spotted the classic music box he said he knew it needed to be seen and heard.
“When I came down here and started doing concerts, I saw this organ and said, ‘Well, this thing looks fantastic; this is just a glorious instrument,’” Swingle said.
But the actual organ is just part of the musical equation. On either side of the chapel stage, attached to the upper part of the walls, are the eye-catching pipes—at least 2,400 total, according to Swingle. They produce a variety of sound, depending on their size, ranging from just a few inches to several feet tall.
Unlike tracker organs, the other common organ type Swingle said, when played the electronic-pneumonic sends a signal to giant blowers located beneath each set of pipes. The blower then pumps air through a series of windchests and bellows that send air directly into the pipes.
But despite their seemingly sacred vibes and clerical beauty, the pipes were simply just that—chapel decoration—that staff didn’t have sufficient time or passion to revive, according to Swingle. He said he asked about repairing the organ and pipes multiple times, but the words he always heard possessed a similar theme: restoration would be too costly, time-consuming, and not worth the hassle. He said there were even rumors that the organ wasn’t functional at all.
“That was pretty much the story…and personally I was thinking, ‘Why did they put it in if that was the case?’” Swingle said. “It was a simple case of telephone—one person says something and it gets changed along the line.”
According to Swingle, it was a combination of lack of maintenance and Hurricane Hugo that contributed to the organ’s dysfunctional state. He estimated at least 200 pipes were in need of repair.
Hugo’s damage to the chapel roof negatively affected the pipes, and their condition only worsened over time, as the metal objects’ top-heavy design forced many of them to bend out of shape, distorting their sound, Swingle said. Music staff tried to keep it in use but eventually tucked the organ away—though the pipes on the walls remained a reminder of its existence.
“After Hugo it was attempted to be played about a handful of times, and each time more things weren’t working, and it just kept snowballing,” Swingle said.
He estimated a potential price tag of $100,000 to have a reputable organ repair company complete the repair work. So Swingle instead settled on Plan B, asking permission to fix it himself, with the help of a few willing students including sophomore Cam Buskirk, a music education major.
“I finally was like, ‘We’re going to get this done,’” Swingle said. “We have great opportunities to be able to use it. We can really enhance our recruiting efforts...to really provide an extra breadth for our current students and possible future students.”
But it’s not the first organ the musical pair have repaired. They first worked to restore one at Buskirk’s church, Advent Lutheran in North Charleston. When the worship facility was in need of an organist, Buskirk said he instantly thought of Swingle, who agreed and now serves as music director. So it only seemed fitting that when Swingle reached out to the college underclassman for aid with the CSU organ, Buskirk jumped at the chance.
“Whenever he talked to me about this one, I was like, ‘Yea, let’s go for it,” Buskirk said. “Bring it back to what it deserves to be.”
And since the start of the fall semester, the restoration project has been underway, with the organ making its first grand appearance during two different school concerts in September. But there’s still more work to be done before the organ is fully repaired and incorporated into the Oct. 28 inauguration concert for new CSU President, Dr. Dondi Costin. It will also be used for his inauguration ceremony the next day. Both events start at 3 p.m.
“It does have some challenges but they are easily worked out,” Swingle said. “It’s like a car that hasn’t had an oil change in a while, but it still runs and gets the job done.”
“The smallest adjustment can make a world of difference,” he said.
According to both men, organs are a necessary and unique instruments that have started losing their place in the music world—and now ironically sit idle across the religious region.
“This is the ‘Holy City’ and like there’s organs everywhere, but because it’s just such a rare and lost art nobody does it anymore,” Buskirk said.
Swingle echoed his student’s concern.
“Organ music and organists are a dying breed,” Swingle said. “There are hundreds of jobs left open in the nation because there are simply not enough trained organists. …(There are) so many schools in music that are not utilizing the instruments they have available to them because they believe certain job markets are going in different directions.”
One of three faculty members who can play the organ, Swingle said he started learning the particulars of the instrument in high school, after had grown bored of piano play, which he said he mastered in a matter of weeks. Despite the assumption that the two instruments are nearly alike, he clarified the differences.
“It’s a different aspect and mindset and coordination (than a piano)—the whole aspect of sustaining sound with your hands and feet,” Swingle said of the organ. “It’s a different technique that goes along with it; on top of that, you have to know how to build the sounds. You literally are your own ensemble director; you have to figure out what pipes sound good…as an organist you can literally emulate an entire ensemble.”
But together the piano and organ can create a unique sound, “an extremely passionate and expressive product,” that Swingle said is “appealing to all audiences.”
And Swingle is hopeful that eventually other religious and educational facilities, like CSU, will return to organ play.
“These organs sitting in churches and college universities—they aren’t going anywhere,” Swingle said. “They paid a lot of money to put these in. …There’s also a massive revival of going back into traditional music.”
Swingle also plans to conduct maintenance on the instrument, tuning the pipes at least twice a year. He said the tedious process requires listening and adjusting each of the pipes to ensure a perfect sound.