Plano’s May Artfest brought sounds of children laughing. It brought pop covers from local live bands and the rumble of local stalls selling homemade work. But wafting over that was another sound reminiscent of older times.
Hidden between Haggard Park and the sidewalk chalk area, a large truck projected the sound of a pipe organ.
Event patrons walked by on their way to get cotton candy, or perhaps to watch the live creation of a painting nearby. But their eyes, their ears, and eventually their legs were stopped by the sound.
Perhaps they had heard it from a movie, or perhaps from church. Perhaps they’d turned the radio station to something classical one day and heard air rushing through reeds.
It came from the self-playing pipe organ built by Plano resident Steven Reed.
The pipes travel all over to share the sound they were created for. It’s a sound of charming reminiscence and a reminder of the cheerful tunes that used to fill public spaces. It’s a sound that fills churches and that connects us to the old greats like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.
But most of what the pipes play is folk songs ranging from French to Irish to American.
Inside the truck, it may not look like the glorious organs from a church, but the sound is still there. The red and blue lights hitting the curiosity inside add a theatrical ambiance to the lined prisms of tanned wood. These are usually the pipes that would hide behind walls while their prettier Victorian-painted superiors rested outside.
Now, these wooden blocks are the showstoppers.
“No one cared about them except me,” Steven says.
The whole vessel’s manifestation comes from an off-the-cuff remark he had made to a friend one day.
“I could make a bunch of these different sizes of pipes, and I could run them on the computer and make it play itself. It’d be kind of fun,” he had said.
It just so happened that his friend’s wife was a lawyer. And it just so happened that she’d worked on a case regarding a musician who had collected a set of Opus 1891 Wurlitzer organ pipes from an old silent movie theater. It just so happened that Steven got those pipes and started to work on them as soon as possible. He’d always wanted to build a pipe organ, and now he didn’t have to start from scratch.
“I was born building things,” he says. “Ever since I was in grade school, I always had to have a project.”
He got the pipes in 1998. He rehabilitated them, found newer wood to surround the reeds, and even aged the wood over the weekend in a chip eraser at work to give it 90 years’ worth of exposure for a visual effect. Some pipes were missing and had to be made, but the majority are the originals.
Most of the overall organ’s development came from learning on the job. At the time, Steven didn’t have the internet to help him, so he depended on himself or on those who could connect him with the right materials. The majority of the organ is made of reused material. One console comes from wood used in an old salad bar. Other bits come from pitched crates from Steven’s workplace or old carpet donated by a coworker.
Every piece of the organ has seen some love and care—and innovation.
An electronics technologist at Precision Technology Inc., Steven designs and builds electronic test equipment and tests the products that the company builds. He used the chip eraser at work to give the homemade pipes an aged look.
The entire sound runs on an analog transistor system developed by Steven himself. It also runs on its own waste energy. The system avoids wasting energy so it can handle the trills and fast note changes that Steven enjoys composing in his music.
“It was designed to make music the way I like to write music,” he says.
One video shows the organ playing at Steven’s workplace. It’s surrounded by fluorescent lights and heavy modern machines. The sound of Steven’s variation on a tune written in 1901 dances through the space. Trills skip around a sustained drive of chords that carry no other message than “please enjoy.”
Today it all rests in a green antique military trailer that was used for rapid runway repair in the Air Force, meant to hold at most 4,000 pounds of rebar and concrete.
But now it hosts organ pipes, a computer, a keyboard saved from the dumpster, showlights and the entire handmade system that brings it to life.
Complete with a mattress and fold-out bed for traveling purposes, the trailer now carries the organ to public events. Some pieces are old folk tunes. Others are Steven’s own compositions.
It’s tangible proof that those archived times were once living and breathing as this organ does today. But the organ isn’t meant to be sobering. It’s meant to fill listeners with something not felt in perhaps a long time—the ages-old value of leaning back and soaking it in.
It even happened at a solar eclipse watch party in Kentucky. As people prepared for the darkening of the sun in the middle of the day, Steven’s organ drew a lot of attention from people who appreciated it—including some organists who excitedly rushed to grab the organ sheet music in their cars to perform.
“I said ‘Go get your music, if it’s Bach that’s fine,’” he remembers. “‘But you’ve got 49 real actual pipe organ notes with an air-breathing pipe organ to play out here in the boonies.’”
As the eclipse drew nearer, the crowd quieted and Steven turned the organ off to preserve the sacredness of a total eclipse. Darkness fell and the crowd became entranced.
But once everyone started “breathing again,” Steven knew exactly how he wanted to cap off the moment. He went into the truck and found the right song.
Moments later, the organ began playing the national anthem.