Interview with Wilhelmy

I sent Xaver Wilhelmy a series of questions about the American Flag Sound Sculpture.  I've posted his comments here.  ~Carmen Shenk

Where were you when you heard the news of 9/11?
Across the street from our shop on Springhill Road, getting veggies from the market. It was close to 11AM. Gorgeous day.

When did you visit Ground Zero and what was that experience like for you?
I think, it was in the summer of 2002. It was solemn, quiet, and the most dominant images at ground zero were the large painted heart on the side of one building, the steel cross they found on site, and the amount of construction workers, quietly working, indefatigable. The weather was gorgeous - just like when the attacks happened...

What inspired you to try to build a pipe out of glass?
I love glass and its attributes of translucency, color, texture, perceived frailty yet tough strength. The mere fact, that all materials are incorporated in organ building in a meaningful way, respectful of their strenghts, and yet glass had been included in the past only like a step child, as clear swell shutters made of plain float glass. The aha-moment came after September 11, 2001, when reading Revelation 21 about beauty of the Heavenly Jerusalem, paralleled with a desire to remember the voices of the individual victims in music and interaction.

What were early prototypes like?
Supercool! Had a heck of a time to rethink voicing, but once I let go of adjusting the languid with a hammer, it all was kinda simple :-)

How long did it take you to achieve your first glass working prototype?
About two weeks...maybe three. Had to get the right tools and machines together plus make a bit of scrap first :-)

I understand that there are now additional pipes of glass, made in a different technique than the first. Can you tell us more about the innovations involved as you made the second and third ranks of glass pipes?
A technical design engineer in Austria wondered, if glass pipes needed to be polygonal, or if they could also be made round, like their tin-lead counter-parts. So I said to him, that if somebody wants them round, we build them round. I learned pipe making during my apprenticeship, trained people and built machinery and casting equipment in the past. As long as its in the budget, we can make it :-) It's all rather basic.

What were some of the challenges in building the American Flag Sound Sculpture?
Directing my colleagues to think glass while working out the design details. We had all the skills in the shop, but they had never been focused on one large, innovative project. Finding the right fusing temperatures. Assembling the pipes! What is not too obvious is, that the cloudy glass parts are made of single large sheets, so the cloud patterns wrap around the pipe feet and the bodies similar to matching veneer on furniture. If one piece cracked, we cut and prepped an entire new section! The parts for the pipe feet are 18" tall and taper down to 1/2 or 3/8". Additionally, they have to be precision-ground, angled edges to fit tight together. Accidents happen...

Who was encouraging you along the way?
The excitement of my colleagues!

What are some of the questions people have about the instrument?
Does it really sound? Does it rattle? You can't possibly tune it - can you? Why is it not in NYC or Washington DC?
(Editor's note:  Yes, it does sound.  No, it does not rattle.  Yes, it can be tuned.  Good question.)

What have been some of the more intriguing responses to the instrument?
The owner of the largest pipe organ company in Germany looked at them in person, and said, they had tried three times to make organ pipes out of glass to fulfill a daring design, but couldn't make it work, and had to give up.

People gravitate towards it when it is set up in public spaces.  They have their photos taken in front of it.

Please briefly summarize some of your other innovations in the world of pipe organ building.
Briefly? You're kiddin', right?
Bellows doubling up as volume control, space saving square metal pipes with foot lengths as little as 6mm for 4' pitched pipes, frequency-insensitive reed boots, streamlined production of high lead organ metal (based on input of six other organ companies as well), introduction of ceramic board to extend the life of casting equipment indefinitely, etc.

Are there other problems or challenges you'd like to find solutions to?
Yes! Make the pipe organ relevant and desirable for contemporary music composition (rock, pop, jazz), primarily by developing a lightweight, hip, tough, all mechanical cool instrument!