Behind the sounds of Duke Chapel
Oct. 07, 2013 @ 07:02 PM

Liz Paley’s fingers rolled across the top of the organ’s keyboards, quick and calculated as if the keys were hot, and the sturdy Flentrop replied to her with a voice of 5,033 pipes.

It was a Tuesday, midday within Duke Chapel, and a couple holding hands in the nave glanced up, trying to find the mysterious organist behind the booming Bach Gigue Fugue.

Hidden behind the pipes during most weekday lunchtimes are scientists and professors, administrators and alumni. The organ demonstrations aren’t just a pleasant surprise for tourists and students wandering in to take pictures of the stained-glass windows or seeking quiet reflection. It’s a chance for these academics to connect with a hard-earned skill and intense musical passion.

“It’s a real ride,” said Paley, who teaches scientific writing workshops to engineering students at Duke. “I practice on teeny organs with five stops, and this has more than 5,000 pipes. Even when this place is totally empty, there’s adrenaline.”

The main organ is the heart of Duke Chapel. The instrument was originally installed in 1976 and celebrated that December by Duke students with an informal recital. The organ is of Dutch and French construction, controlled by four manual keyboards. Playing the musical beast is similar to playing in the 18th century, minus the installed headlamps and electronic blower, which sends air through the pipes instead of people having to manually control the air flow.

David Arcus, who is the Duke Chapel organist and associate university organist, practices on a small electronic organ in his Divinity School office. But when he thinks nobody’s around, he’ll spend some evening hours on the Flentrop bench.

He’s played for worship services and special Duke events. He’s accompanied the 100-person chapel choir.

But before all that, he started studying the instrument at 13, when his legs were long enough to reach the pedals and when he still likened the organ’s controls to those of an airplane. In the basement of his hometown church, he remembers feeling something, the bassline of his Presbyterian church’s organ pedals, that touched him more than anything he could hear.

“The organ is really a visceral instrument,” Arcus said. “It’s not something that you just hear; it’s something that you feel.”

Now he composes organ music and listens to the “perfection in notes and textures” of Bach and Felix Mendelssohn’s organ improvisations. He said the demonstrations in the chapel share music with those who may have never heard an organ before. He can share the pipes “as quiet as a whisper to quite strong as a trumpet blast.”

That Tuesday, Brian Coggins, an associate research professor in the Duke School of Medicine biochemistry department, helped Paley turn the pages of her music and flip the organ controls on and off as she played. They were a team moving in unison. As the notes picked up in a flurry of black on the page and the sound deepened, Paley’s hands and feet quickened and Coggins darted around her.  

“You get the response from the building with the sound echoing back,” Coggins said.

They take turns playing and running out to the other end of the nave to hear how the sound envelopes the room. It’s a calculated science, coming from people who refuse to be classified purely as Duke scientists or professors. They’re musicians. Creators.

Paley created the opportunity for herself to play the organ back in Madison, Wisc., where the local Catholic church was searching for an organist. She was a keyboard player who got the job without really knowing how to play the organ or read three lines of music at once. But she taught herself along the way.

To Arcus, the organ is clarity. It made him realize what he wanted to do with his life. For Coggins, the organ is a deep, musical journey that alters him spiritually. Paley said she didn’t originally want to work with her hands, but now, besides teaching at Duke, she’s a musician and a potter.

There’s an unknown that comes with playing in Duke Chapel. The organists cannot see who walks in to listen, so they’re always playing for an imaginary audience. There could be a tour group meandering down the aisle or a lone person praying in the pews.

“They feel, inevitably, that their lives have been touched by something special and the organist doesn’t know that,” Arcus said. “It’s not a museum. It’s also part of a living, breathing community.”

And through the organ, they get to reach out without words.

“Sometimes in ways that we can’t just fully imagine,” he said.