Paul Wall on how new technology is transforming traditional church fittings and fixtures.
EVERY year thousands of pounds of parishioners' money is prudently dispensed on their behalf in creating the environment and providing the accessories which give life and vibrancy to the act of worship. Everything from candle oil to palm leaves, altar wine to vestments, baptismal fonts to deaf-aid loops have to be chosen, ordered and paid for by hard-working priests and church administrators all over the
country. Sometimes, in consultation with others, they have to make decisions about more important purchases that will be a legacy for future generations a new set of bells, or a new organ. But times are changing, and the advance of technology has meant that they have to be that much more hightech to make the right choice.
Organs are a case in point. No longer do huge pipes open with a clatter and mechanically-pumped air go whooshing up them in a mighty column, to result a good second or so after the key has been pressed in a throaty, breathy rumble of sound. Nowadays it is a matter of neat, clean (and cheap) electronics. Today's advertising catchphrases bristle with talk of wave-sampled sound, digital tone replication and MIDI compatability.
"There are very few pipe organs being built these days," says David Cuttill, managing director of Viscount Organs. "The problem is really money. You just can't put a pipe organ in for less than £50,000, and you can do a digital classically-voiced one for about .E10,000." He insists that the sound the result of digitallyrecorded samples taken from England's finest organs is just as good, however. "You can now have a near-perfect 16-foot bourdon in your living room," says David Cuttill.
Electronics has even found its way into bell-ringing, that great call to worship which unites the family of the Christian church in every land and clime. On the continent, where the tradition has been the hanging of bells "dead" not swinging the introduction of electrically-powered mechanisms has been a natural development. Continental bell-practice is to hang "carillons" or chimes which arc struck by hammers operated from a clavier, and the old mechanisms have adapted easily to motors.
The British, however, continue to do things with good old fashioned elbow grease: the ancient English art is of change ringing, where the bells are swung full-circle, each being controlled by one ringer.
New technology has also altered the manufacturing techniques of the bells themselves. The actual process of founding portrayed in the famous medieval bellfounder's window at York Minster is much the same: molten copper-tin alloy is poured into a speciallyprepared mould. But there have been dramatic advances during the twentieth century in the field of bell-tuning, which have made possible a degree of harmonic sophistication that York's medieval bellfounders could only have dreamed of.
The complex jumble of tones "partial tones" which give bells their unique quality used to be left to chance, but now electronic sensors can give frequency readouts of great accuracy and precision machining equipment can shave bits of metal from the inside of the bell until the desired tones and overtones have been achieved.