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Flavour conductor

Arp Schnitger

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Guest Geoff McMahon

Happy to and here is a transcript of an article due to appear in The Diapason shortly. The Diapason has also used some rather good pictures, so make sure you get a copy! Articles are also due to appear in the IBO Journal and the ISO Journal.




The Flavour Conductor


Mander Organs has recently completed a most unusual commission, an organ to promote a premium brand whisky.


Research into the perception of taste and how it can be influenced by other senses has built on the idea of a flavour organ as referred to occasionally in literature, specifically by . J K Heysmans in his novel A Rebours and Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World both contained references to a flavour organ, which gave taste to music. More recently, Oxford professor Charles Spence had researched taste and pitch, as well as sound quality to match particular tastes in whisky to certain musical sounds. Whisky producer Johnny Walker appointed Bompas & Parr, a group which engages in flavour-based experience design, culinary research, architectural installations and contemporary food design, to bring these senses together in the promotion of Blue Label whisky in a novel way. The centrepiece was to be a real pipe organ, for which they approached and engaged Mander Organs to complete. Very little about the organ relates to Mander’s usual work. The instrument had to be suitable for the especially composed music, it had to be played half by an organist and half by computer, work as a model for a light show produced by computer mapping and above had to be transportable anywhere in the world and fully assembled and tuned within 12 hours of arrival at site. This dictated an instrument with electric action and built on the unit extension principle. The organ has five ranks of pipes:


A Bourdon/Flute rank 16ft to 1ft

A Diapason/Principal rank 8ft to 2ft

A Nazard/Twelfth rank 2 2/3ft to 1 1/3ft

A Tierce rank 1 3/5ft to 4/5ft

A Trumpet Rank 16ft to 8ft


The specification had to afford the composer as much flexibility as possible and was settled at:


Manuals I and II (identical)


Double Diapason 16

Open Diapason 8

Stopped Diapason 8

Principal 4

Open Flute 4

Nazard 2 2/3

Fifteenth 2

Piccolo 2

Tierce 1 3/5

Larigot 1 1/3

Flageolet 1

Octave Tierce 4/5

Trumpet 8


Pedal Organ


Bourdon 16

Principal 8

Bass Flute 8

Fifteenth 4

Octave Flute 4

Trombone 16

Trumpet 8




The Master Blender had identified six distinct flavours of the whisky being Fresh, Fruity, Malty, Peaty, Spicy and Woody and whilst a master of ceremonies would introduce these flavours, the music with electronic sound effects and the light show would seek to enhance, describe and reflect the tasting experience.


In addition, the organ was to contain a secret bar, which opened on drawing a stop engraved with the Johnny Walker seal, revealing a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label, a carafe of iced water and six whisky glasses.


It was a different and interesting project, but also a challenging one, working between a rock musician who had never composed for a pipe organ and the visionaries at Bompas and Parr, who had no idea of the inner workings of an organ. As the piggy-in-the-middle, Mander Organs had to inform the composer of what an organ was capable of, and almost as importantly, what it was not capable of. The designers at Bompas and Parr had to be informed of the workings and practicalities of a pipe organ, which required turning their inspired design ideas into something that would work as a pipe organ. Pulling these sometimes impractical ambitions and the compositional flights of fancy together in one instrument required a degree of resourcefulness and not a little diplomacy.


There were however compensations. Members of Mander Organs were, on a number of occasions, required to take part in whisky-tasting sessions, in order that they could understand what was being asked of the firm in creating a whisky organ.


The organ has already featured in London, New York and Malaysia and further tours are anticipated over the next months and years.


The musical presentation of the six flavours can be seen and heard here:


The full blend can be seen and heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8blMT7JEPKk&feature=youtu.be

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Every cathedral and parish church should have one ! That would certainly enliven Choral Evensong - and could the wine be substituted in the Communion ?


Presumably, similar sound combinations are already possible on organs with digital 'features'.


Not sure about the lighting, tho': would not work at Matins. (Curtains/blinds on the clerestory ?) And it's expensive. After dark, perhaps the verger could be persuaded to flick them on-and-off, as a completely inadequate alternative. Danger, there, of blowing the fuses.


On the stop knob, does it have 'Proof 80%', too - instead of 16', etc. ?


Departing from my customary levity: anything that brings the organ to a wider public can only a 'good thing' and, judging by the YouTube clips, there are things of great beauty and excitement here. A sound designer/composer worth their salt could easily arrange suitable Swingle tracks, too. (That's just a first thought.)






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One aspect of this is particularly interesting to me. There must be very few extension organs (in fact I know of none apart from that above, though my knowledge is far from encyclopaedic) in which all the stops are the same on all divisions. Yet this was originally the concept bruited by Robert Hope-Jones in his lecture to the College of Organists (they were not 'Royal' then) in 1891. It was merely a paper concept at that time as he had yet to build a fully extended (unified) organ, and he did not do so for many years, mainly because of power supply difficulties for the huge number of action magnets.


I recalled HJ's idea only a few days ago when looking at an analysis of a meduim sized extension organ by John Compton in the mid-twentieth century (it's actually in Sumner's book 'The Organ' in the Specifications Appendix at the back). There's quite a reasonable amount of 'real' pipework, including four independent principal-toned flue ranks (named diapason, principal, prestant and gemshorn), yet the actual stoplist spread over two manuals and pedals seemed somehow a bit contrived, as though he was trying to prove a point rather than make a musical instrument. It occurred to me to ask myself - wouldn't it have been better just to have all stops the same on both divisions rather than strive to build more traditional-looking but necessarily incomplete pseudo- choruses?


At the risk of being thrown off the forum, I'll reveal that I've decided to do this by simulating such an instrument digitally, starting with the same basic material that Compton described. So thanks to Messrs Manders for making me feel slightly less daft about such an outrageous idea!



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"There must be very few extension organs ... in which all the stops are the same on all divisions."




Excuse me, I couldn't resist it! Although extreme, it isn't unique.


As for expressing stops in percentages, I haven't seen that but I do know of an Oberlinger organ that has a mixture stop Riesling II.



I don't know whether this is representative of regional variations for communion wine - when I was young, the preferred fruit of the vine was Harvey's Bristol Cream ....

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I've seen descriptions of a couple of extension organs where the stops on both manuals are the same - including one, if my memory is correct, built as a touring organ for Rick Wakeman by our hosts here. It certainly makes some sense if the organist(s) are prepared to understand the concept and not try and make it perform like a conventional 2 manual instrument.


Every Blessing



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Fascinating. That would appear to combine two of my most ardent interests, although I prefer single malts.

So do I. But there is still that brand of organists who first engage Swell to Great and then choose the music (who was it again who found those out?) – perhaps because it seems the safer choice.


Then there were those unfortunate changes that compromised the pungency of the product – like abandoning meantone tuning, the result of which in a historic instrument painfully reminds one on what has become of, e. g., Laphroaig. Oh the days when opening the bottle reminded you of your upcoming visit at the dentist only, rather than of some product more likely to please the sensitive gum of some Japanese executive …

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Davies of Northampton produced a number of instruments with the same stops on both manuals. Probably a result of the firm having been associated with Aeolian residence organs in their early days.


I noticed a bottle of Japanese whisky behind the bar at the Brown Trout Hotel, Watten, Caithness the other week when we were on our way to the Orkney ferry. Apparently, it's pretty good. Rather like several New World countries producing wine that's better than the equivalent French product, I suppose.


Highland Park is the stuff! And their manager used to sing in St. Magnus Cathedral Choir....

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...reminds one on what has become of, e. g., Laphroaig. Oh the days when opening the bottle reminded you of your upcoming visit at the dentist only...

You mean the smell and taste of iodine? An 'acquired taste' as they say!

Nevertheless, Laphroaig is one of my favourites.

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Oh the days when opening the bottle reminded you of your upcoming visit at the dentist only, rather than of some product more likely to please the sensitive gum of some Japanese executive …


Don't knock the Japanese! https://blog.thewhiskyexchange.com/2014/11/jim-murrays-whisky-bible015-the-winners/


Mind you, I agree that you really can't beat the Islay malts (but it's Ardbeg for me - I've a bottle of the 10-year-old and the Corryvreckan lined up for Christmas :) ).

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Reviewing what answers the thread has produced until now, I believe this commission went exactly the way it was intended to go. Apart from the, presumably excellent as well as original, instrument, members open up about their beverage predilections, discussing brands and flavours etc., probably re-discovering their own thirst for the product itself (as I have) …


I daresay this provides interesting, if not representative, insights into the nature of public relations. Now if this worked in reverse – rising people’s taste for organs old and new by the way of offering premium beverages, then perhaps a lot could be won.


“One-Hour Recital plus two-hour Single Malt tasting”?* Count me in.


Best wishes,



* “Participants are kindly asked to try out and visit the organ before, not after, the tasting, however to provide voluntary donations to the organ fund after, not before, the tasting.”

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