, Gloucester, MA

September 12, 2013

Film follows organ from pouring of pipes to performance

By Gail McCarthy
Staff Writer

---- — When the late Charles B. Fisk, a Harvard-educated physicist turned organ maker, installed the first organ in Memorial Church at his alma mater, he wanted it in the back. But for various reasons, it was installed in the front of the church in 1967.

However, when C.B. Fisk Inc. built an updated organ for the Harvard church, Opus 139 was installed last year in the back of the church.

Now this story, and the legacy of the Gloucester organ building shop, is the subject of the documentary “To Hear the Music,” by Dennis Lanson, which will have its first screenings over the next week in Gloucester and Rockport. The business card for the film states that it is a documentary film “about making a quality product in an age of ersatz.”

The film tells the tale of Opus 139, from the pipe organ’s conception to its inaugural concert on Easter after it was installed in 2012 at Harvard’s Memorial Church.

Fisk (1925-1983) founded the C.B. Fisk shop in 1961 on Cape Ann, where he had summered since he was a child.

“The first organ was very important to him, and the second one was important to us as a company to revisit this venue,” said Greg Bover, the project manager and C.B. Fisk’s vice president of operations.

More than 40,000 hours went into the creation of Opus 139.

Over the years, the Gloucester organ-building company has been featured on television programs such as “Charles Kuralt” and “Chronicle,” as well as being filmed on an informal level. But this is first professional high quality film about the unique shop and its founder.

“With plans for a career in nuclear physics, Charles began studying at Harvard University, but World War II intervened and he enlisted in the Army. Soon after, at the age of 19, he began working under Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos as a minor technician on the detonator team for the Manhattan Project. After the war he resumed his studies at Harvard and after graduation continued at Stanford University,” according to the website.

Like others so close to the creation of the atomic bombs that ended World War II, Fisk changed career paths and followed his passion for music.

Lanson, a Gloucester resident, is a neighbor to David Pike, a Fisk employee, and began to learn more about this one-of-a-kind shop. Larson described the work that goes on at the Fisk organ business as a “wonderful marriage of art and craft.”

“The people at Fisk are musicians, so they have this incredible erudition. There are people who have studied at conservatories, who are organ players, and more, and they all work in this shop together. It’s an unusual environment and it’s unlike any business environment I’ve seen, almost like the guilds of the past,” said Lanson. “It’s as much a community as a workplace — it’s an impressive model.”

Bover said the documentary the development of the organ from the initial design meetings with Harvard’s late Rev. Peter J. Gomes, and continues through every aspect of building and testing, to the Easter 2012 inaugural concert..

“It’s such a beautiful documentary,” he said, “and we are all very excited about it.”

Besides the process, “ the documentary ... addresses the creation of a product built to last in today’s world of disposability. It tells the story of a model workplace, where every craftsman’s voice is heard,” according to a press release. “It explores the Organ Wars of the early 20th century, that pitted electro-pneumatic advocates against the pure mechanical tracker connection between the finger’s touch and the speech of the pipe.”

Lanson, the producer-director, has taught film for years at Boston-area colleges, most recently as a professor at Endicott College in Beverly. The director of photography is Austin de Besche, a Boston-based cinematographer for more than 35 years. His credits include John Sayles’ first two films “On Thin Ice,” an Emmy-winning anti-drug documentary, and “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” about director Nicholas Ray. Co-producers Rob Cooper and Pam Pacelli are co-owners of Somerville-based Verissima Productions.

The organ, Opus 46, that was removed with the installation of the new Opus 139 will have a new home in a new building designed for acoustics at the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.

Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3445, or

If you go What: "To Hear The Music," Gloucester filmmaker Dennis Lanson's documentary about Harvard's Opus 139 built by Gloucester's organ maker, C.B. Fisk Inc. When and where: Saturday, Sept. 14, at 2:30 and 5 p.m., at Cape Ann Cinema, Main Street. For information, visit Encore: Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, Main Street in Rockport. Free. For information, visit Detail: Lanson will present the film and host a question and answer after the all the screenings.