The Megaphonics of Music…

The power of a symphony to ‘absorb’ its parts into the organized whole depends, in part, upon the sound volume. Only if the sound is ‘larger,’ as it were, than the individual so as to enable him to ‘enter’ the door of the sound as he would enter through the door of a cathedral, may he really become aware of the possibility of merging with the totality which structurally does not leave any loophole.
Adorno, “The Radio Symphony”, 1941 [1]

I

This text examines the push to build monster pipe organs at the turn of the 20th century and the rise of a broad fascination shared by organ builders, organists, and the general public towards loud sound in musical performance. Pipe organs are an under-appreciated realm of musical expression and sonic experience. They straddle a vague and fluid terrain that confuses strict definitions of musical instruments and electrical media. Organs blur the distinction – if one could be said to exist – between instruments, machines and architecture. The writer Philip Wirsching pushed this fluid distinction even farther by referring to the organ as “melted architecture”. [2] At their loudest, organs were capable of obliterating individual subjectivity and easy distinctions between music and noise. They comprise a significant and early instance of extreme volume in musical expression. Organs challenge the conventional histories of “noise-music” as beginning with Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori or the works of composers such as Igor Stravinsky or Henry Cowell. While organs have been often used for fairly conservative artistic repertoire, many pipe organs built in the United States were also far louder than any of the aforementioned instruments or works. Thus, the infernal sonic power produced by early twentieth-century pipe organs is an important precursor to the ensuing widespread popularization of loudness in music, much of which relies on qualities of overbearing immensity as a virtue in compositional practice and listener experience. 

The focus is on the work of Robert Hope-Jones and the ramifications of his short period of activity in the organ-building realm of the United States. Originally trained as an electrical engineer in England who progressed from a tinkering hobbyist into a full-time organ builder, Hope-Jones was also a source of contempt, inspiration, and misunderstanding. He is presented here as an emblem of a broad interest in the possibilities of immense volume that could be achieved through musical instrument design. Loud sound rendered by the honking, blasting, shimmering, and sometimes thunderous pipe organ offered the opportunity of losing oneself, if for a short period, through the power of its enveloping material force.

The early twentieth-century pipe organ is a quintessential megaphonic technology. It is the crystallization of a wide range of musical and scientific cultures all sharing a common interest in the productive power of loud sound in musical experience. The result, if for a short while, was the development of a novel form of technologically mediated transcendental experience that was affordable to a greater range of the general public than symphonic music. The fleeting example of the early twentieth-century American monster pipe organ was both the product of and an active agent in an emerging culture of loudness. Sonic excess, a recurring manifestation of the sublime in music, was seen as a force of collectivity and the dissolution of the self. This force was understood as an almost physical, vibrational musical power that mimicked divine presence within secular fora. The divine breath of God increasingly became a force of mechanical pneumatics.

II

Historically, pipe organs are most commonly linked to their longstanding role in Western Christianity. Organs have lingered under the dominion of Christian theology for over a thousand years, but support of the Church towards the organ has been neither absolute nor without pause. The instrument exceeded the Church – before, during, and after its reign of influence. Prior to its adoption in roughly the 8th century, the instrument was viewed by Church Fathers with mistrust as an instrument of pagan culture. The apparently unbreakable relationship between the organ and the church as a divine instrument – the breath of god – ignores the multitude of contexts in which the organ thrived, beginning with its early secular pagan uses until it made an eventual return as an instrument of civic mass spectacle in the early twentieth-century. It was firmly outside the realm of the Church, where the limits of musical instruments were most vividly pursued.

More than just an instrument of soothing tones suggesting the comfort of divine presence, the organ has also been devised for use in the most nefarious of contexts. Perhaps the most compelling example is a war organ, the Horn of Themistius, believed to have been devised between the ninth and twelfth centuries. In his examination of the Arabic text Kitaby al-siyasa, Roger Bacon noted a described organ designed to be heard at up to an unfathomable distance of sixty miles. While designed with the possibility of musical tone, the organ is better described as a violent siren made to trigger terror and bodily harm:

…it is a terrifying instrument used for various purposes. Because it will enable you to summon the whole district, and even your kingdom, and assemble the military officers the same day or more speedily or in any way that is required in a large and numerous army, for the sound of this instrument carries sixty miles…In time of war it convokes an army for sixty miles, and the horn is manipulated by sixty men on account of its bulk and enormous structure. [3]

The unrivaled power of the siren-organ was such that the sixty people required to operate it needed to have their ears stuffed with cotton and covered with wax so that “their sense may not depart” when using the organ. This monster pneumatic instrument is more than an esoteric relic of the Middle Ages. It is a deep historical example of an enduring human interest in exceedingly powerful (musical) sonority and a continuing source of curiosity since its alleged reign of devastation. For example, the Themistius war organ was of interest to early work on acoustics and amplification, particularly to the work of Athanasius Kircher in his Phonurgia Nova of 1673. [4] It also functions as a paradigm, in the sense of Giorgio Agamben’s interpretation of Foucault’s historical method in The Order of Things, as an example that derives a rule from the singularity of its example alone. [5] Its very existence sets the groundwork for a general rule.

The paradigm of the war organ is that it straddles the threshold between a musical instrument (it had the ability to play three or four harmonic tones) and a fear-inducing siren. This duality of linking immense musical sound with communication technology, as well as being a tool of obliterating power capable of rendering subjects physically and psychologically captive, is uncannily similar to the organs and sirens that were to come at the turn of the 20th century. The paradigm of the musical horn of terror, with its purportedly unfathomable levels of extreme loudness, is a model that returns at different periods, including late nineteenth-century developments in megaphonics. It was an ancient instrument fostering a taste of the sublime avant la lettre. Nothing comparable to its alleged existence would be built again until the year 1932. 

As organs had the ability to span massive distances in displays of awe-inspiring power, they were also believed to have the ability to coalesce ethereal vibrations into material edifice. The idea of building a sound palace out of music was a common theme to many writers: the vision of a palace built out of organ music in Paradise Lost; Keats’ Lamia; and the dome built “in the air” of “music loud and long” in Kubla Khan. [6] It is almost an inversion of Schelling’s comment about architecture as “frozen music”; rather organs were seen as a form of liquid architecture.

It was commonly the enlargement of material edifice that gave justification to organ expansion. Churches, the primary domain of the organ for most of the nineteenth-century in the United States, were in a period of expansion due to a population growth in the eastern United States alongside significant westward migrations. Due in part to an expanding number of Irish and German immigrants, stress was placed on congregation capacity. Many churches were forced to expand their premises.

An ongoing state of contestation and conflict would endure around claims regarding sufficient acoustic power. This was a battle that, for a period of time, became increasingly dominated by those espousing organ loudness. From this came a knock-on effect on the organ building business – bigger organs, and more of them, were in demand. [7] By the late nineteenth-century, organ loudness was not an issue that arose suddenly. It had been present in periods throughout recent history.

Monster organs were a subject of significant of interest at the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace featuring the earliest iteration of electric organ building and a bizarre idea of installing eight facsimiles of the most celebrated organs controlled by one central console. [8] The idea for a monster organ at Crystal Palace surfaced again in 1854, which was quickly dropped. [9] The 1869 National Peace Jubilee in Boston featured what was then one of the world’s most powerful organs, played alongside an ensemble of a 100 anvils, 1,000 instruments and 10,000 voices. The dream of having the largest pipe organ appeared to be a common thread across secular and sacred lines. For some churches, a loud prominent organ was an index of its eminence and modernity. Along secular lines it was an indicator of technological mastery amidst a cultural condition increasingly electrical in nature. Many priests and church leaders approached organ builders with the specified goal of building the largest organ in the country, as the parish priest of Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal was reported to have done in 1885. The American Organist took a historical overview of a 1972 New York Church which professed to have the “most powerful organ in the world”, describing an organ of high wind pressure of “such penetrating power that the tone is actually felt as well as heard”. [10] Through the vibratory force of high volume, churchgoers felt the presence of the divine. In fact, pipe organs assisted in authenticating whichever institution it inhabited. An organ’s loudness was a source of institutional authenticity and legitimization.

Some of the most prominent organs that were built in the late-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century were also organs that were unfathomably loud. This period was dominated by an organ building culture obsessed with power, volume, and immensity. It was a competitive arena of expertise dominated by a few builders. One of the key organ builders to emerge during this period would employ his experience in electrical engineering at the service of musical immensity.

III

Robert Hope-Jones (1859-1914) was raised in England and spent his early years working as an engineer for the Lancashire and Cheshire Telephone Company. After a period of tinkering on local church organs and applying his knowledge of electrical relay systems to a variety of uses on organ mechanics, he moved to work full time in the art of organ building. In the U.S. where Hope-Jones spent most of his productive years, the big business of organs did not peak until approximately 1927, when at its height about 2,500 organs of all types would be produced in that year alone. [11] Organ popularity was widespread, partly because it was one of the primary means of hearing full fidelity music that was affordable and accessible to many. The World’s Fairs during the era often featured pipe organs as exemplars of some of the most technically complicated and sophisticated achievements on display; it was the instrument most emblematic of modernity in music. In fact, organs were emblematic of much of modernity’s knotted contradictory characteristics: Matei Calinescu’s notion of mechanized industrial capitalist modernity (as the prominent technical and financial aspects of organs); Marshall Berman’s interpretation of the enveloping aesthetics of “gaseousness” as a major aspect of musical modernity (as a key metaphor of the sonic experience of those organs); and the proximity of kitsch aspects in the nature of organ concerts. [12] It was most evident in the audacious visual displays of sonic-technological prowess. The raw power of modern pipe organs was often presented with massive looming pipes exposed in an act akin to what David Nye has referred to as the technological sublime – the fusion of transcendent spirituality, technological triumphalism, and civic pride. [13]

The work of Hope-Jones would come to be known perhaps as the finest exemplar of the technological sublime in musical production. His approach to organ building was distinct in a number of areas: the promotion of the electrification of the organ; trendsetting extreme wind pressures; development of the loudest, fairly radical organ stops such as the diaphone which was designed for dual-use as a foghorn; utilization of a moveable instead of a fixed keyboard console; and instigating a push against blended tones known as “mixtures” in favour of pure tones. Among those advances, most importantly was the development of pipe organs more powerful than anything built by his peers or developed in recent centuries. He was a central figure in a musical culture increasingly obsessed with the power of sound in musical experience.

It must be mentioned that Hope-Jones was not the most productive organ builder, nor by far the most financially successful (most of his ventures ended in financial ruin). He is sometimes dismissed by historians as an anomaly, the supreme icon of a period of madness quickly left in the dustbin for more nuanced, modest approaches to organ building. I would argue that Hope-Jones was not an influential organ builder pushing his vision from the outside, but rather a product of a prevailing cultural condition of his age responding in part to a specific interest in organ power and sonic power more generally. The major organs he built during his productive years, including Worcester and Ocean Grove, New Jersey, are direct precursors of the world’s largest instrument, the Midmer-Losh organ built in 1932 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was Hope-Jones who was the most influential and extreme proponent of the zeitgeist and the most emblematic architect of organ building during a period of indisputable decadence regarding sonic design.

As much as his work was disparaged, Peter Williams described his works as “the worst organs ever made from a careful, professional builder.” Others would agree that Hope-Jones was a key inspiration in the art of monster organ building – an arc ending with the realization of 100-inch pressure in Atlantic City, an absurd amount of pipes, and power embedded within the world’s largest auditorium. [14]

Hope-Jones began building organs as a hobbyist while working as a telecommunications engineer, but the work quickly shifted over into a full-time endeavor. While other organ builders trained in the traditional techniques of mechanical actions and wind delivery, Hope-Jones was working in the vanguard field of electrical communications. [15] The pressure of an emerging culture of electricity and its promises of abundance were pushed upon the moldy mechanical world of organs. The grammar of electricity was deemed understood only by a specialized cadre – few in the organ building trade were capable of integrating its benefits.

The electrification of the organ, aside from creating anxiety amongst traditional organ builders, also raised the question of where the divide between an electric musical instrument and communication medium lies. It might be of little surprise to learn that the electrification of the organ was claimed to have been derived in part from interpretations of telephone relay systems. It was Hope-Jones’ experience with switching in telegraph and telephone relay circuits allegedly informed his organ construction work. [16] This meant that instead of a purely mechanical act of playing an organ, triggering the opening of air to the pipes, an electrical action employed relays to trigger the same effect, albeit quicker and with less physical effort of the part of the organist. He was not the first to consider the idea, but did patent and implement the electrical action beyond anything done to that point. The link between the telegraph and the electrical organ would be made more explicit later on.This network-based approach to musical instrumentation would allow for the channelling of musical rapture to both a greater scope of ends, such as a higher number of pipes, but also through bigger, more elaborate systems – much akin to the increasing scope of telegraphic systems. As the self-styled “inventor of the megaphone”, Hope-Jones pushed a prescient and almost cybernetic understanding of an organ partly predicated on the miniaturization of the orchestra and functioning as a scaled-down version of contemporary telecommunications systems. It was an aspiration of constructing an organ which would seek to absorb the most affecting elements of Wagnerian orchestral immensity while drifting along the line between musical instrument and telephonic device.

IV

America at the turn of the century was the indisputable epicenter of the technological sublime. Bridges and skyscrapers were being built on a monumental scale not seen elsewhere. Musical spaces were not immune to this spirit of modernization. Various cathedrals, and increasingly civic spaces, were vying to host the largest instrument in the country. The title of having the largest organ was fleeting and impossibly competitive. Size and power were characteristics in abundance.

When a misty Christian seaside resort in New Jersey called Ocean Grove was planning to build an organ for their Auditorium, they turned to Hope-Jones to transform their barren architecture into resonant music. The Auditorium was constructed in 1894 with a capacity of 10,000. It was large for such a small resort town, which was mostly empty for much of the year. Their ambition with respect to their musical agenda was common to many other institutions of the time, which was to build the greatest organ devised – an organ especially designed for a musical program that was highly secular despite the Christian nature of the organization. After bouncing between various companies throughout most of the decade, Hope-Jones landed a project that would allow him the nearly unfettered ability to construct an organ that matched his (personally invested) monumental aspirations. He would convince Auditorium staff that they needed, amongst other things, a set of diaphones powered on fifty-inch wind pressure. The “great weight” of the diaphonic tone would be further amplified by the ceiling of the building, a varnished wood surface of curved shape designed specifically to amplify the room’s acoustics. The result was nearly too much power.

The organ built for Ocean Grove represented a clear instance where acoustic power trumped the desires of tonal quality. It wasn’t that richness in tone was not a concern – it certainly was. But what made the organ special, and mirrored the interest of other organ builders and commissioners who desired the grandest organ across the land, was the scope of sonic power that remained latent within the instrument itself. An organ was desired which could venture from a gentle whisper to a trembling, unleashed thunder of tone.

Thunder was a key metaphor at Ocean Grove indeed. The triumph of power over tone was evident in the announcement made by the association responsible for contracting the organ – they were confident it would become the greatest organ in the world, or more specifically by guaranteeing it “to be the most powerful of any in the country”. [17] It was celebrated as having five times the wind pressure of the ordinary organ, using electric turbines to provide an “immense volume of tone” that could only be constrained via swell shutters that attenuated the volume by boxing in the pipes at various degrees. [18] This allowed it to become quiet enough to accompany a human voice. However, the exceptional capacity for high volume placed in the wrong hands could turn quickly into a painful display of vulgar noise. The torrent of sound lying latent in the chambers of Ocean Grove was something to evoke with discretion and tact.

Ocean Grove was Hope-Jones’ major achievement during his tenure as an organ builder. It represented the realization of many of his obsessions around the power of musical sound. It was also in some ways the realization of the long-aspired dream of the palace of sound built by organ music shared by a wide-assortment of writers from Milton to Robert Browning. In another sense, Ocean Grove was an attempt to return to what Nietzsche called the Dionysian in music – a condition of immersive sonic experience that didn’t encourage order or staid contemplation, but rather through an infernal acoustic overabundance implicitly aspired towards transcendence, excess and the dissolution of the self. Loud sound, music and its enclosing space could furnish this state through such force and plenitude.

Ocean Grove may not have matched the Wagnerian rapture of Bayreuth, but the organ remains as a testament to the development of an edifice where musical transmission aspired to carve out etheric solids through a musical apparatus firmly entombed within the building. The organ was embedded with the bricks and mortar of the auditorium, but it was more than simply a shelter or a space to congregate. It was an apparatus that aspired towards a liquid architecture of transcendence, similar to what was dreamt in Kubla Khan: “with music loud and long, I would build that dome in air”.

V

Hope-Jones casts a deep shadow across the field of organ building, particularly in the U.S. He made a case for the pipe organ to move beyond its recent theological past towards a future of secular entertainment. Thepowerful new civic organ provided a unique form of secular transcendental experience to a public that was, for a time, increasingly interested in organ music. It was a form of mass musical charm before the proliferation of high-fidelity audio recordings and electrical amplification. During the early twentieth century, the orchestra was the sole competitor to the pipe organ as the most prominent form of mass musical spectacle. It was a point of great debate as to whether organs should be designed on the basis of mimicking the orchestra or to develop into an instrument of its own right, severed from orchestral imitation. Builders like Hope-Jones would go as far as to propose pipe organs as a cost-saving rationalization for replacing over-paid union theatre orchestras. The promise was they were cheaper, easier to maintain, and could easily match the volume of a sixty-piece orchestra. [19]

During the second decade of the twentieth century increasingly large crowds were attending civic organ concerts. The interest in organ concerts was partly because it was an affordable means of hearing full-fidelity music at a robust volume. Orchestras, conversely, were for the relatively wealthy, and radio and audio recordings were both in their infancy and incapable of providing quality, loud sound. [20] At this time, music was still an evanescent phenomenon that could not really be stockpiled and enjoyed at a later date – it needed to be appreciated at the site of its originating source or not at all. Less an experience of bringing the individual closer to god and more one that brings people closer to each other, modern loud organ concerts were often events that fostered some of the most profound instances of collective experience.

By the early 1930s, the shifting American metropolis and the broader cultural condition of modernity were having an impact on the once coddled domain of the pipe organ. The cover of the February 1932 edition of The American Organist displayed the situation in a compelling fashion: a monstrous urban skyline loomed on the horizon that could eclipse the sun. It was an omen of the impact of technics on musical life and perhaps an underhanded plea to a return to a simpler time. The metropolis of early twentieth-century modernity was commonly seen as a having the attributes of a dynamic force. The architect Le Corbusier famously complained a few years earlier of being driven off the once pedestrian-friendly boulevards of the Champs-Élysées by the force of brutish automobile traffic. [21]

Musical instruments were being built with a scope and intensity that mirrored the brutish and spectral dynamic forces of the encroaching megalopolis. That same year, an organ by the Midmer-Losh Company was being completed in the Atlantic City Convention Hall that would dwarf any musical instrument ever built. It would set a benchmark that has never been surpassed since. This infernal organ was itself an apex of musical technics, representing a terminal endpoint of the culture of high wind pressure championed by Robert Hope-Jones.

For a period of time, Atlantic City was considered one of the premier leisure destinations on the Eastern seaboard of the United States. In 1926 the city was building a new convention hall in an effort to capture and amplify that popularity. It was not a modest nor average hall— the intention was, in fact, to build the largest convention hall in the world. It would boast a more than robust capacity of 40,000 people and met numerous other feats such as the largest stage in the world, “the most powerful public speaker system in the world”, and the promise of being able to transmit “perfect sound”. [22]

The builders of the hall decided that such a monumental building needed a monumental music system to accompany it. In fact, two separate organs would be built for the building: one for the main hall and one for the ballroom. After a competitive bidding process, the contract to build the main organ was given to the Midmer-Losh company being the lowest bidder. It was a fatal low-ball strategy that would bankrupt the firm. Announcing the imminent construction of the instrument, the American Organist gave the Midmer-Losh organ a long feature in 1929, calling it the “greatest organ ever projected”. [23] According to the publication it constituted the singularly greatest event in twentieth-century organ building. The specifications of the organ itself were titanic; plans for the organ ranged between 29,000 and 43,000 pipes spread out throughout eight clusters embedded in the walls of the giant convention hall. In opposition to earlier overt visual displays of acoustic prowess where pipes were presented prominently in the foreground, the unrivalled power of the Midmer-Losh would be recessed within the building’s veneer. Confident in its capabilities, the organ was less a separate musical instrument as it was a resonant architectural edifice. In effect, the building was the instrument. It was an architecturally embedded version of immense surround sound avant la lettre. Every form of reed and flue pipe would be represented, some voiced on wind that would finally be delivered through the holy grail of 100-inch pressure.

While the power of pipe organs is usually denominated in the metrics of wind pressure, the size of organs are most often the tally of their pipe counts. The absurdly large pipe counts planned for the Midmer-Losh were not culled out of thin air, rather they were based on a strategic calculation to supersede the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, an organ installed in a Philadelphia department store. The Wanamaker organ, built for the 1904 World’s Fair, resided in numerous places before settling into a life inside the department store. Designed by Hope Jones’ nemesis George Audsley, it boasted a pipe tally that grew through the era to around 28,000 and was described as a billowing and opulent “niagara of sound”. [24] Yet its power would be constrained because of its commercial-oriented location. Its function in the store was to be “entertaining without distracting.” The same constraints would not be placed in Atlantic City. But the builder of the Convention Hall organ, Senator Emerson Richards, still wanted to go beyond the Wanamaker organ. It was competitive ambition above all else – a nearly unachievable scenario akin to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo where the builders were not prepared to deal with the fact of its near impossibility. What was contained in the final plans, despite cutbacks forced by the looming Depression, was an organ both bigger and louder than any that had come previously. Many organ builders denounced the organ as a stunt of imperial ambition. For others it was hubris or even “a circus effort to beat the world on the largest organ mania”. [25]

If any ghost might haunt the modern technological console of the Midmer-Losh organ in Atlantic City, it would certainly be that of the spirit of Hope-Jones. The Convention Hall organ is the culmination of many of the ideas Hope-Jones worked to develop over his relatively short career, among others being: the most extreme wind pressure ever achieved in a working organ, the use of some of the largest, most unconventional organ stops such as the diaphone, and a robust employment of sophisticated electrical technologies. The Midmer-Losh organ was to be voiced on 100 inches of wind pressure. The numerous wind blowers were housed deep within the basement vaults of the Hall. The functional requirements of 100-inch pressure was such that an air compressor-type of apparatus was necessary instead of the more traditional high-pressure wind blowers. [26] The result was an organ stop with capabilities beyond anything of musical use, power beyond anything previously achieved in a musical instrument, and yet another ceiling falling apart from organ loudness:

When we first played it, a lot of the sound absorbent bricks dropped right out of the ceiling – not in the chamber, but out there in the hall… And there was a terrible noise from one of the steel beams up in the middle of the auditorium ceiling; a rattling noise like a machine-gun that started fast and slowed down, then started up again. [27]

The diaphone, an organ stop originally devised by Hope-Jones to provide both “fundamental organ tone” and nautical acoustic signaling functions, was employed in the Atlantic City organ as a terrifying fountain of sonic power, a trembling low-frequency instance of musical sublime. By 1930, the publication Diapason purported the organ was offered nothing less that the “possibilities for the education and uplift of humanity which very few musical instruments, if any have as yet possessed”. [28]

By late 1932, the organ was built. The American Organist devoted its entire August 1932 issue to the organ, referring to it as the greatest organ in the world, an “epoch making acquisition in the realm of the musical arts”. [29] What was constructed over a period of three years was an instrument beyond the physical scope and sonic capabilities of any instrument ever realized. In six basement vaults, high-pressure wind was fed to a network of over 33,000 pipes embedded in clusters throughout an enormous building controlled by a console using advanced electrical engineering and an unfathomably immense system of electrical wiring. As such its historical importance has been grossly understated, its ongoing decline a tragic tale of neglect; it is the victim of shifting tides of popular taste and inadequate custodial funding.

There is no better musical example of the type of technological sublime discussed by David Nye – it was a musical instrument equivalent of the Golden Gate bridge, which at the time appeared beyond debate. Like the awe-inducing power of Niagara Falls to nineteenth-century visitors, experiences of the Midmer-Losh organ were similarly liquid and encompassing. An “unprecedented flood of tone” which provided “a tonal energy far surpassing anything hitherto considered possible” was how one visitor explained it. [30] Indeed, the organ had so much power that it was considered nearly an embarrassment to the Midmer-Losh Company. George Losh believed that showing the organ to potential customers made them lose out on a number of contracts. This soon-to-be bankrupt company took steps to avoid unleashing the monster of tone when giving tours.

It was also a veritable health hazard to be near the high-pressure stops. Organ tuners would work with cotton in their ears. One of the most recent organ curators is deaf in one ear from working on it. It would sometimes be too much for audience members; complaints about its loudness were common. At a climatic passage of a rendition of Wagner’s Tannhauser, an audience member approached the organist pleading to play quieter. [31] A familiar secular-emphasized organ repertoire would be the employed in the Hall triggering trembling thunder pieces such as The Storm composed for the Hope-Jones organ in Ocean Grove and other nautical pieces including the quasi-sailor song Return of the United States Marines. 

Of all the high-pressure stops in the Midmer-Losh organ, the highest-pressure wind of 100-inches was reserved for the Grand Orphicleide 16’, a shrieking trumpet-like stop of ear-splitting volume. It continues to be recognized as the loudest organ stop in the world. Its loudest notes sit at a higher register in the frequency spectrum than the Diaphone, which resonates most powerful at nearly inaudible low-frequency bass notes.

During a visit to the organ I had an opportunity to play both the Diaphone and Grand Orphiclede. Despite the organ being in a state of total disarray due to a variety of factors, both the Orphiclede and Diaphone manage to still emit sound, continuing to be a nearly brutal form of acoustic power however misaligned and malfunctioning. The Orphiclede, on 100-inch pressure, is a rattling and skull vibrating tone and the Diaphone, at its lowest 64-foot tones, is essentially sub-sonic. A frequency of eight Hertz could be said to be a vibration that is pre-tonality; it is possibly the closest a musical instrument comes towards a material force. [32] I was shocked from this experience and given its limited functionality could only imagine the force provided when fully functional. In the past, impressions of the 64-foot Diaphone have been occasionally to describe its sound as that of a helicopter hovering in the building. Indeed, during the 1970s a helicopter would manage to fly within the enormous enclosed space of the auditorium – as part of a test to conduct the world’s first indoor helicopter flight.

The Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ, inaugurated in 1932, would remain as the apotheosis of both organ power and musical instrument building likely not bettered since. The proclaimed “new era” of organ building that was to be ushered in by its presence never occurred. Public winds would irrevocably turn on the question of monster organs during the Depression – large organ projects were at first no longer financially possible and later no longer desirable. The pipe organ, once an object close to the center of American musical life, would fall irreparably out of vogue. Tastes changed, the fidelity of recorded media improved to the point that it wasn’t as enticing to hear an imitation orchestra when a reproduction of the real thing could be heard in the comfort of one’s own home. [33] The organ-building world itself was in the midst of a throwback movement. The “organ reform” movement, which picked up steam in the 1930s, sought to get rid of the excesses of recent organ building in favour of a more Baroque approach to instrument craft. An instrument’s worth returned to the benchmark of its ability to perform Bach. Robert Hope-Jones was reduced to a caricatured emblem of all that went wrong with the organ building trade. In short, organ power dropped out of favour; orchestral mimesis was gauche. The era of high-pressure pipe organs was over.

The early twentieth-century high-powered pipe organ remains as a quintessential megaphonic technology and a resolute example of monumental artifice in musical experience during the era. An arc of work spanning from Hope-Jones’ late nineteenth-century organs to the 1932 Midmer-Losh in Atlantic City reflects the compelling ways in which the power of sound was seen as a catalyst for transcendent experience and modern musical rapture. The fact that these organs were influential and important, if only for a fleeting period, suggests some broader linkages of how loud sound can be construed as more than merely noise in need of abatement – these organs offered the ability to experience quasi-sacred music in secular venues. One could consider it as a return of sonic power in music not seen since the Babylonian War Organ, the Horn of Themistius. In terms of musical instruments, nothing louder has really come since. In the 1970s the Atlantic City Convention Hall apparently hosted a competition against a rock band to see who could be louder inside the hall. Even in its state of decay by that time, the Midmer-Losh organ still easily triumphed against the band. This should come as no surprise.

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, et al., Essays on Music / Theodor W. Adorno; Selected, With Introduction, Commentary, and Notes by Richard Leppert; New Translations by Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2002), 256.
[2] Diapason, Volume 1 Number 2, January 1910.
[3] See Henry George Farmer, The Organ of the Ancients, From Eastern Sources (London: W. Reeves, 1931), 123; Roger Bacon, et al., Secretum Secretorum: Cum Glossis Et Notulis: Tractatus Brevis Et Utilis Ad Declarandum Quedam Obscure Dicta Fratris Rogeri (Oxonii: E Typographeo Clarendoniano, 1920), V5, p. 151.
[4] Roger Bacon, et al., Secretum Secretorum: Cum Glossis Et Notulis: Tractatus Brevis Et Utilis Ad Declarandum Quedam Obscure Dicta Fratris Rogeri, V5 p. lviii.
[5] Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things: On Method (New York Cambridge, Mass: Zone Books, 2009), 22.
[6] Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I: 705-32.
[7] Orpha Caroline Ochse, The History of the Organ in the United States (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975), 103.
[8] J. W Hinton, Story of the Electric Organ (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., 1909), 22.
[9] New York Times, April 18, 1854.
[10] “In 1872”, American Organist, August 1930, Volume 13:8, p. 475-77.
[11] David L Junchen, Encyclopedia of the American Theatre Organ (Pasadena, Calif: Showcase Publications, 1985), 21.
[12] See Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987). And Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 144.
[13] David E Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1994).
[14] Peter F Williams, A New History of the Organ From the Greeks to the Present Day, 182.
[15] Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 15.
[16] CE Ramsbottom, and AJ Ramsbottom, “Development of the Electric Organ and the Significance of the Contributions of Robert Hope-Jones, Miee,” IEE Proceedings A Science, Measurement and Technology 136, no. 6 (1989), 324.
[17] Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, 38th Annual Report, 1907, OHS Archive, p. 123.
[18] “Description of the Hope-Jones Organ at Ocean Grove, New Jersey”, 1908, OHS Archive.
[19] New York Times, 16 August 1911.
[20] See Craig R Whitney, All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters, 28. And Evan Eisenberg, The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture From Aristotle to Zappa, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).
[21] Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, 165.
[22] Stephen D Smith, Atlantic City’s Musical Masterpiece: The Story of the World’s Largest Pipe Organ (Portsmouth, N.H: Published for the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ Society, by Peter E. Randall, 2002), 18-21., and The American Organist, Volume 13 No. 7, July 1930, p. 409.
[23] American Organist, May 1929, Volume 12, Number 5, p. 273.
[24] Craig R Whitney, All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters, 42.
[25] American Organist, May 1929, Volume 12 Number 5, p. 273.
[26] Stephen D Smith, Atlantic City’s Musical Masterpiece: The Story of the World’s Largest Pipe Organ, 69.
[27] Stephen D Smith, Atlantic City’s Musical Masterpiece: The Story of the World’s Largest Pipe Organ, 179.
[28] Diapason, (November 1930), p. 44.
[29] American Organist, August 1932, Volume 15, Number 8, p. 469.
[30] American Organist, April 1930, Volume 13, Number 4, p. 228.
[31] Diapason, November 1930, p. 44.
[32] Goodman, Steve. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010, 18.
[33] Craig R Whitney, All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters, 49.