Familiar and Strange: Organs and Oysters

Some thoughts about the organ and participation projects

by Duncan Chapman

Project Animateur


Organ-Restoration-Project-Workshop-(26) Organ-Restoration-Project-Workshop-(27)






For those of us who grew up going to church and singing in choirs the organ is a familiar part of our childhood musical landscape. Its presence often hardly merits a mention — but it was there all the time, at significant moments: weddings, funerals, Christmas, Easter, and as an accompaniment to the singing of hymns and carols, as well as belting out the Hallelujah Chorus, in the occasional performance of Messiah. Even though the instrument in Colchester Moot Hall was created for a secular space, it is what many of us would expect to see at a public event — awaiting the moment when ‘musical glue’ is needed while registers are signed or ready to sing out a concluding celebratory voluntary.

This expectation isn’t the case for many of the young people I work with. Although the sound of the organ is familiar from movie soundtracks and TV, the instrument itself remains something of a mystery, and these days the musical landscape of childhood has more connection with movie soundtracks and computer games than Sunday mornings spent in church.

In setting out to engage young people in a participatory process involving the organ, one might imagine that this could be a somewhat problematic background from which to start — but the opposite is often the case. Instead of having an association with adult authority or long sermons, the organ is genuinely a Pandora’s Box of extraordinary sounds and ingenious mechanical devices — as engaging as anything that can be created in Minecraft! The way in which a seemingly innocuous wooden box can conjure up all sorts of sounds and new associations is a great asset when working with young peoples’ creativity and curiosity.

Photographs taken of some of the workshops
held at Moot Hall as part of the Moot Hall
Restoration Project


At Firstsite (working with artists Willow Mitchell and Rachel McGivern, musician Tim Phillips and various volunteers) we have explored how the organ is constructed; we built an instrument out of old pipes and a giant inflatable mattress, created artwork in response to the sounds of the pipes and composed music by performing together.

What is most exciting about much of this work is the way that it links together different areas of education which are usually seen as separate disciplines: whether moving from mathematics to acoustics, providing a visual-art response to sound, or an entrée into local, national and international history and music, the pipe organ provides a series of seamless educational connections.

A Sense of Sound and Place

One of the things which defines Colchester is its relationship with the oyster. The long history of the town is intrinsically tied up with the oyster fisheries, and it seems an obvious thing to explore this in the participatory projects associated with the restoration of the organ.

Coupled with this history is an interest in what is now often referred to as ‘Acoustic Ecology’ — a discipline studying the relationship between living beings and their environment, all mediated through sound. What makes the ‘sound of Colchester’ unique? What sounds associated with the oyster fishery can we combine with the unique sounds of the Moot Hall organ to create original music that reflects this?

In the summer term of 2015 we are going to run a project with A-level music students. Starting with a trip to the oyster fishery on Mersea Island where we will make a series of ‘field recordings’ as well as visiting the Moot Hall to record the organ. We will then use these to create original music featuring both the sounds of the oyster and the organ.

Images from Duncan Chapman’s
‘Build an Organ’ project


There is a long tradition of composers using the sounds of the environment both as inspiration and as actual elements in composition— well-known examples include Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony or Respighi’s Pines of Rome, which famously features a recording of a nightingale. More recently, the collecting of recorded sounds and the incorporation of these into musical composition has been the mainstay of much contemporary electro-acoustic music, as well as hip-hop and dance forms.

Some of what we create might emerge as live performance (with voices and instruments), or it might form a sound installation that audiences can encounter — in much the same way as when they visit an art exhibition; using the collected material for movie soundtracks is yet another possibility.

In an age of increasing uniformity it would seem to me that it is even more important to find ways of recognising and celebrating sonic uniqueness — whether it is in the sounds of a magnificent instrument like the Moot Hall organ or the sounds we will find at the oyster fishery on Mersea Island.

Some feedback from children who took part in the project

What was your favourite part, or what did you find most interesting?

  • My favourite part was when we laid on the inflatable.
  • Laying down on the airbed and drawing.
  • Laying down to make more noise.
  • Blowing the pipes.
  • Sitting on the inflatable mattress.
  • I like it when I blow the instrument.
  • I found blowing on the pipes the best.
  • Me sitting on the bouncy mattress.
  • The organ sounds are like a room full of rain.
  • The organ sounds are like being in a dark forest.
  • The organ sounds are made of dark and light.

What did you learn?

  • That there are 3000 pipes in there.
  • How to blow the pipes.
  • Making a sound.
  • About storing air.
  • That the vibration can go 440Hz through the pipes.
  • I learnt what’s inside the organ.
  • I learnt that blowing up the mattress could hold Connor.
  • I learned how to float.
  • What an organ looks like.

Was there anything you wanted to know more about?

  • What are all the pictures and who they are?
  • What it sounds like when it works?
  • The organ pipes themselves? How do they work?
  • Yes — who made it?
  • What the organ sounds like?
  • What sound does an organ make?

What did the teachers think?

  • Hands on, real experience of their home town.
  • Most of the children had never been in the Town Hall.
  • Amazing practical activities.