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Air apparent: Festival taps surprising sounds from historic organ

Local musicians will have a rare chance to play a historic pipe organ in one of Philadelphia’s iconic churches.

But most have never played a pipe organ before. As a result, the weeklong experimental music festival called Blindspot, at Christ Church in Old City, will feature the organ in ways it wasn’t intended.

The organ — a gift from the Curtis family in the 1930s — is pneumatic; the keyboard triggers valves which release huge amounts of air into pipes towering over the pews.

“None of the mystery of electronic stuff that I always have a hard time remembering how they work,” says Steven Dufala, a visual artist who used to be in the band Man Man. “This is such a great analog thing — it’s air. It’s air being pushed through this thing and making sound.”

Dufala will be accompanied on the organ bench by his brother, Billy. The two of them will simultaneously improvise on the organ’s four keyboards.

“He plays keyboard far better than I,” said Steven. “But we’ve been playing music together for the better part of our lives, so we can read each other really well. If I can hear him going in a direction, I can hop on that and run with it, and vice versa.”

Andrew Thiboldeaux of the local band Pattern is Movement will also be experimenting with the organ, but not through improvisation. He has composed a song suite based on John Adams for the Blindspot performance; he’ll have a drummer and two horns backing him.

“We’re finding ways to make the organ sound wrong, and embracing that sound,” said Thiboldeaux, who normally plays electronic keyboard in his band. “For people like us who are in bands that often do that anyway with instruments, the learning curve isn’t that big.”

Christ Church has given its blessings to these musicians to noodle with the organ and tease sounds out of it that are not found in the usual church repertoire.

“If you think back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the church played the critical role in the support of musicians and artists,” said the Rev. Tim Safford. “That relationship with avant-garde artists has diminished in the 20th century. Artists have found other sources of inspiration and support. Christ Church takes very seriously the idea that we are trying to gain some of that back.”

The Christ Church organist, Parker Kitterman, will perform during Blindspot, too, playing lesser-known, more challenging hymns written for the pipe organ.

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