News Archive: April 2006
This is an archive of news articles from April 2006. Current news articles can be found here and an archive index can be found here. Information in this archive may no longer be valid.
Mixed governmental news for organs
The last month has seen both potentially good and bad news for pipe organs. There was good news in the 2006 Budget, with the listed building exemption from VAT on repair work being extended to organs in listed buildings. While unlikely that this would extend to new organs, it represents a very real financial benefit, reducing the cost of repair and restoration by nearly 15%. This will not apply to organs of historic merit that are not in listed buildings, so will only benefit some organs, but any such measure is to be welcomed.
Readers cannot have failed to notice the emerging debacle over a forthcoming European Union directive, which risks unintentionally outlawing production of pipe organs with any electronic components. As this is a serious threat to Europe-wide organbuilding, we have examined the issue in more depth and attempted to summarise developments thus far.
Lead, like many other substances in our world, is poisonous to humans if ingested in sufficient quantities. This has led to the banning of lead water pipes, children's toys with lead-based paint and leaded petrol. As electronic items are increasingly becoming disposable, many are ending up in landfill where it is feared that the lead in their solder and other components may eventually leach into the water table, thus polluting future generations' water supplies.
Lead is also used in the manufacture of most organ pipes, usually in alloy with tin. While other materials such as wood can be used in some circumstances, most organ pipes are made of lead alloys because of its ideal compromise between rigidity and flexibility. Pipes need to both support their own weight and permit fine adjustments during voicing. Organ pipes should never end up in landfill, as they can be re-used and ultimately melted down to create new pipes.
Quite reasonably, the European Union has sought to minimise the level of lead in products likely to end up in landfill, and the UK government is implementing the European Directive commonly known as RoHS (Risk of Hazardous Substances). The legislation covers all products with electronic components. Pipe organs almost invariably contain electronic components, even if only a blower, and thus come under the remit of this legislation. While it is again reasonable for electronic organ control systems to comply with this requirement, it would also apply to organ pipes. The requirement for products to contain no more than 0.5% lead by weight means that if the legislation proceeds unamended, new pipe organs as currently built will become illegal to produce with the exception of those without any electrical components, i.e. mechanical action hand-blown instruments.
Responses from both the European Union and the British Government have shown some confusion over the problem. EU spokespeople have stated both that the legislation is not intended to cover organ pipes, and encouraged organbuilders to apply for an exemption. However it appears that some exemptions are intended only to delay implementation for a limited time while alternatives are researched. Another EU spokesperson has confirmed this by likening lead in organs to asbestos in buildings and ships, showing an astounding lack of understanding. Unlike asbestos, which can be airborne and dangerous in its natural fibrous form, lead in organ pipes poses no threat to anyone unless deliberately ingested. In our increasingly litigeous society, there have been no alleged cases of lead poisoning from those who manufacture, handle, voice or just listen to organ pipes.
The UK government has given some hope by indicating that restoration of organs is outwith the scope of this legislation. However their House of Commons statement on the problem showed some confusion between electronic and pipe organs. Electronic organ manufacturers are applying for exemptions due partly to the limited turnover of their business, resulting in stocks of non-compliant electronic equipment needing to be used up. As many pipe organ restorations involve some alterations, it is unclear to what extent these would fall under the remit of this legislation.
Ultimately even an approved exemption could be an unsatisfactory solution if it was seen as a temporary measure. Recently Margot Wallstrm, European Commissioners' Vice-President, specifically stated that the legislation did not apply to organ pipes, which contrasts both with previous announcements and the letter of the directive as currently written.
This issue has been brought to international attention largely through the efforts of the IBO, who have set up a website at www.pipes4organs.org. Some European organbuilders initially wrote this campaign off as being simply anti-EU in motivation, but now that it has become clear that pipe organs are unlikely to receive exemption as "large-scale stationary industrial tools" as some had expected, support for the IBO's campaign is becoming more universal. That website has regular news updates on the issue, and we will summarise developments here as events progress.
In brief this month, as several less immediate items have been postponed until May's news.
Geraint Bowen, organist & director of music at Hereford Cathedral (pictured right) will be swapping his cassock and surplice for running kit when he attempts the London Marathon in aid of Oxfam on Sunday 23 April. You can support him via the web here.
On Monday 17th April, between 2pm and 5pm, children of 16 and under get the chance to play Ripon Cathedral's pipe organ - no musical experience necessary! The event includes a free organ concert at 3pm. See their website for more details.
We sadly note the untimely passing away of Lucius Weathersby, organist, scholar and contributor to The Organ. Lucius had moved from his native New Orleans to Springfield, Massachusetts following Hurricane Katrina, and had taken up a post as Director of Music at South Church. An obituary will appear in the next issue of The Organ. March also saw the passing of Tom Hazleton, the prominent American organist equally at home with cinema and classical organ playing.
And finally... Austin's Opus 690 is a modest organ made notable by its location: the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility near Saratoga Springs, New York. For those not familiar with American terminology, it's in a prison. The organ survives with its 1916 specification intact, and a remarkably modest appeal to restore it for the benefit of inmates has been launched. More details and pictures here.