The Art and Industry of Pipework


A new work for the restored
Moot Hall organ

by Julia Usher


PIPEWORK: the perfect word to describe the reconstruction project of the grand organ. Colchester New Music became involved with The Moot Hall Organ Project in September 2014, after we created an Open Heritage Organ Trail round six churches of Colchester. This recognised individual organists: the great variety of their instruments, differing from one another in sound, history, and appearance. We aimed to bring together the musical expertise of a number of churches and to draw attention to such magnificent resources. CNM invited East Anglian composers to contribute new pieces of organ music that could bring fresh approaches to writing for the organ. The completion of the refurbishment of the Moot Hall Organ seemed a wonderful coincidence.

Interior of the Moot Hall From the Drawing by Mr. John Belcher, A.R.A.
Interior of the Moot Hall
From the Drawing by
Mr. John Belcher, A.R.A.

When I was asked to compose a large-scale new piece for these celebrations, I thought of Pipework. You can see a few pipes on the wall at the end of this Great Hall: cleaned, tuned, repaired and repainted. A large organ like this one offers seemingly unlimited potential for making music. The Art of pipework is to amaze, awe, move, celebrate and delight; yet the making and mending of these pipes involves the artistry of engineering. The organ is a great machine.

A year ago I was researching the New Town area of Colchester for a project: especially the influence of the great factory built by James Paxman in 1876. His workforce came to the forefront in engineering steam engines and boilers, which powered many of the great locomotives of Britain. In the 20th century Paxman’s joined with English Electric to make diesel engines. The remaining large hangar factory on Port Lane has operated under Man Diesel & Turbo UK Ltd since 2000. It was a privilege to visit the shopfloor, take photographs, and record the heavenly mechanical orchestra of all these ‘process landscapes’. I particularly liked the sound of the pipe-bending machine. I have woven this industrious music into my piece using sound diffusion.


Photos taken with permission of MAN Diesel & Turbo UK Ltd and in the presence of the Managing Director.
Photos taken with permission of MAN Diesel & Turbo UK Ltd and in the presence of the Managing Director.

The Moot Hall is built on more than 1000 years of archaeological history. Boudica’s Burnt Layer was covered by Saxon and then medieval rebuildings. The basement always contained prisons and detention cells; the Moot Hall was both a place of public debate and coming together: the local Parliament, but also a place of correction, suffering and intolerance. The glorious new Moot Hall, which opened in 1902 to the sound of this very organ, rose as a new vision of philanthropy and benevolence towards all the residents of Colchester. James Paxman was one of its benefactors; he donated the cost of building the Victoria Tower, our own Campanile.

My piece begins with Fanfares and celebration, starting at the basement in sadness and difficulty; rising gradually throughout the piece by way of each splendid staircase, measuring each step. On the way, I imagine features from the magnificent council chamber: a list of 44 names of Colchester through-out the ages permeates the piece; there is a circular Dance of the Seasons on the ceiling; and the strange Chronogram for 1901 which I have converted into tonic sol-fa for a fanfare. As the tour progresses, the sounds of Paxman’s industry infiltrate and colour the music of the organ’s pipework. A final ascent of the Tower itself ends the work with its spiral stair to the statue of St. Helena on the pinnacle.

The statue of St Helena
The statue of St Helena