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GREAT PIPES Film tells story of creation of C.B. Fisk's Opus 139 organ for Harvard church

September 15, 2013


Sept. 15--When the late Charles B. Fisk, a Harvard-educated physicist-turned-organ-maker, installed the first organ in Memorial Church at his alma mater, he wanted it situated in back of the congregation. For various reasons, his wish was not granted and the organ was installed in the front of the church in 1967.

When C.B. Fisk Inc. of Glouceseter built an updated organ for the Harvard church, however, Opus 139 was placed in the back of the building when it was installed last year, and the late Fisk's wish finally was granted.

Now this story, and the legacy of the Gloucester organ-making shop, is the subject of the documentary, "To Hear the Music," by Dennis Lanson. The film will be screened in Rockport at the Shalin Liu Performance Center on Thursday.

The business card for the film describes it as a documentary "about making a quality product in an age of ersatz."

"To Hear the Music" is the story of the life so far of the grand Opus 139, beginning with the organ's conception and continuing to its inaugural concert on Easter 2102 at Harvard's Memorial Church.

Fisk, who died in 1983, apprenticed with Walter Holtkamp Sr., who was at the time the most avant garde of American organ builders. Fisk went on to become a partner and later sole owner of the Andover Organ Company in Andover. And in 1961 he established C. B. Fisk near his childhood summer home on Cape Ann.

"The first organ (for Harvard Memorial Church) was very important to him, and the second one was important to us as a company to revisit this venue," said Greg Bover, project manager and C.B. Fisk's current vice president of operations.

More than 40,000 hours of labor went into the creation of Opus 139.

Over the years, the Gloucester organ-building company has been featured on television programs such as "Charles Kuralt" and "Chronicle," as well as being filmed on an informal level. "To Hear the Music" is the first professional high-quality film about the unique shop and its founder.

Fisk originally planned to have a career in nuclear physics and began his studies at Harvard University. Then came World War II, and he enlisted in the Army.

Soon after, at the age of 19, he began working under Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos as a minor technician on the detonator team for the Manhattan Project. After the war he resumed his studies at Harvard and after graduation continued at Stanford University.

Like others so close to the creation of the atomic bombs that ended World War II, Fisk changed career paths and followed his passion for music.

"To Hear the Music" filmmaker Lanson, a Gloucester resident, is a neighbor to David Pike, a Fisk employee. As the two chatted, Lanson became intrigued by the the one-of-a-kind organ building shop. He describes the work that goes on at the Fisk organ business as a "wonderful marriage of art and craft."

"The people at Fisk are musicians, so they have this incredible erudition. There are people who have studied at conservatories, who are organ players, and more, and they all work in this shop together," Lanson said. "It's an unusual environment and it's unlike any business environment I've seen, almost like the guilds of the past."

It's as much a community as a workplace, he added. "It's an impressive model."

Bover said the documentary covers the development of the organ from initial design meetings with Harvard's late Rev. Peter J. Gomes, and continues through every aspect of building and testing, rught up to the Easter 2012 inaugural concert..

"It's such a beautiful documentary," he said. "We are all very excited about it."

The film also addresses the idea of what it means to create a product built to last in this world of the disposable. And it's the story of a model workplace, where every craftsman's voice is heard.

"It explores the Organ Wars of the early 20th century, that pitted electro-pneumatic advocates against the pure mechanical tracker connection between the finger's touch and the speech of the pipe," a press release states.

Lanson, who produces and directs the film, has taught for years at Boston-area colleges, most recently at Endicott College in Beverly. Director of photography is Austin de Besche, a Boston-based cinematographer for more than 35 years whose credits include John Sayles' first two films "On Thin Ice," an Emmy-winning anti-drug documentary, and "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," about director Nicholas Ray.

Co-producers Rob Cooper and Pam Pacelli are co-owners of Somerville-based Verissima Productions.

Opus 46, the organ that was removed with the installation of the new Opus 139, will have a new home in a new building designed for acoustics at the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.

If you go What: "To Hear The Music," Gloucester filmmaker Dennis Lanson's documentary about Harvard's Opus 139, built by Gloucester organ makers C.B. Fisk Inc. When: 7 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 19. Where: Shalin Liu Performance Center, Main Street, Rockport. How: Admission is free. For information, visit Lanson will present the film and host a question-and-answer after the screening. To buy the film: Visit


(c)2013 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.)

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