love the music and I love to make what makes the music”, says Halbert Gober. What Hal makes are organs…Tracker organs, to be precise. Hal comes from Texas, and it was at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baytown, Texas, that his infatuation with organs began when he was in his early teens.
Hal started to study organ building in 1976, apprenticing in Regensburg, Germany with Georg Jann, in the classical tradition. Upon coming to Canada in 1981, he worked in Mont-St-Hilaire, Québec for an established builder who had played a role in re-introducing the art of building tracker, or purely mechanical organs. Tracker action, the original form of organ action, was utilized from the dawn of the instrument’s history in the Middle Ages, until the early 20th century, when it was eclipsed by electric action, especially in North America. Tracker action refers to the slender strips of wood that connect the keys to the pipe valves, assuring the most direct, sensitive, and dependable link between the musician and the instrument.
In 1991, Hal set up shop in Toronto and started building handcrafted historical tracker organs. His work is on the cutting edge of design concepts, incorporating the best of the old and the new. “Our instruments draw on the full heritage of historical organ building.” He is quick to note, however, that blind adherence to historical principles does not make great organs; he does not make copies. Hal says with justifiable pride: “Some people assemble parts. We build from scratch.
“The challenge is to go into a church and conceive and build an organ which maximises the luscious beauty of the flutes and the vigour and gutsiness of the principals and reed…always within the setting of mainstream music…always within the setting of the specific church.”
The location of an organ and the acoustical environment of the space constitute essential parts of the sound system, so Hal’s skill in the proper placement of the instrument is as important as his skill in its construction.
Hal’s practical approach to tonal design is based on a synthesis of classical, symphonic, and modern principles. It has allowed him to develop a tonal palette of great variety, in which the colour of individual stops is developed to the fullest extent.
Hal met an especially interesting architectural and engineering challenge when he designed the organ for the Church of the Good Shepherd in Brooklyn, Ohio. The church has a high ceiling but no balcony, so “We took full advantage of the height of the church by placing a majestically tall, free-standing case over the aisle just inside the double entry doors of the church. This placed the pipes of all three divisions near the ceiling for optimal sound propagation.” Hal made this organ as visually dramatic as its sound. Photos of this organ bring Schelling’s famous words to mind: “Architecture is frozen music…since it is music in space.”
Not only does Hal build organs; he also consults on organ pipemaking and voices tracker organs in North America and Europe. In addition, he is the curator of the celebrated collection of more than two dozen organs at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio.
Our community is fortunate to have Hal building his magnificent instruments in Elora, at his facility next to Jefferson Elora Corporation plant. This is where Hal melts ingots of tin and casts them into metal sheets, which are then fashioned into pipes. This is where the rough wood is worked and crafted into organ components, where every piece is handcrafted and tested for musicality and dependability.
Hal and his wife Laurette Larocque moved to this area five years ago. The polyphonic music of nature surrounds their home, perched on the banks of the Grand River in Fergus. What made Hal choose the area? While working in Quebec two decades ago, a Toronto friend mentioned a beautiful small Ontario town and its arts community. When the time came that he no longer enjoyed being in Toronto, he and Laurette started looking around Elora and soon found a house to their liking…though Hal travels a lot in his work.
The location of an organ and the acoustical environment of the space constitute essential parts of the sound system.
The boy from Texas who builds organs is soft-spoken. He hides a Cheshire cat smile under his beard. Hal is reluctant to speak about himself, but the words flow when he has a chance to expound on the organs he so loves. He plays the organ just well enough to voice it, and has a special affection for that all-important process.
Who is Hal’s favourite composer for the organ? Johann Sebastian Bach, of course. As a youth, Hal liked the most robust and energetic pieces, but he has come to appreciate the more subtle works. It is fitting that this perfectionist organ builder should love Bach’s organ music, of which it has been said that it blends science with poetry, technique with emotion, virtuosity with nobility of thought, as no other music has, before or since.
by Riki Weiland, Winter 2001
UPDATE – 2005
Hal’s most recent, and, to date, largest organ, has just been completed for First Church in Oberlin, joining that distinguished collection as a teaching organ of the renowned Conservatory.
Another just-completed project is the restoration of a 19th century organ for an historic preservation society for St. Patrick’s Church in Lagro, Indiana. That organ had stood unplayed for more than 50 years – vandalized, its pipes sold for scrap and recovered as a pile of twisted metal. All of the skills needed to build a new organ were brought to bear in bringing that instrument back to life.