Monday, July 29, 2013

Noteworthy Instruments: The Stalacpipe Organ (Stone Celesta)

Me and the "organ" console in the cave. It's dark, because it's a cave.
This week, I had an unexpected musical experience while visiting the very touristy Luray Caverns in Luray, Virginia. Near the end of our tour, an organ console appeared in front of us. Apparently, a Mr. Leland Sprinkle (I am not making this up), a Pentagon scientist, got the idea to create a musical instrument out of the surrounding stalactites, and spent his spare time for 36 years hitting them with hammers and trimming until he had 37 usable notes. Then, he hooked up an organ console to small electric hammers that hit the stalactites when the keys were pressed. The folks at the caverns call it (dubiously) the world's largest musical instrument because some of the stalactites are very far away from the console. Here's a picture of the mechanism:

The "stalacpipe" mechanism, with hammer on top.
They called the instrument the "stalacpipe organ." Some of you might be wondering, can this instrument really be an organ, since it does not use air vibrating through pipes to create sound? Well, those of you wondering this might be right. While an organ doesn't necessarily need pipes, it does need air (not counting the electronic ones that imitate naturally-occurring sounds). The "stalacpipe organ" is really more like a celesta, an idiophone that uses mechanical mallets to strike stone instead of metal. But I guess the stalacelesta doesn't really sound as cute. Also, if there were only 37 notes, there is probably no need for the 4 manuals and many stops (much less foot pedals) shown here; they are really just for show.

We did not hear a live performance of the instrument, only a playerless program of "A Mightly Fortress is Our God." While I could tell the instrument sorely needed some repairs, the sound was eerie and cool (which I guess I could say about the caves as a whole...). It was also very quiet, but that fit the atmosphere of the caves. While in modern times, we have basically stopped using stone to make music, there is a long history of stone musical instruments, and I could see (or hear) why. Click here for a recording of the instrument (I assume the loud pops are drops of water hitting the ground).

Have any of you seen the stalacpipe organ, and what did you think? Have you seen any other instruments like this made out of naturally-occurring objects? Please leave comments below, as opposed to the Face
book post!

Vocab: organ, celesta, idiophone, organ manuals and stops, mallets


  1. I heard a stone xylophone while in Iceland--made by the same hermit who made the much larger (more octaves) xylophone used by Sigur Ros. I loved the sound of it--especially played outside at ├×ingvellir as it was. (├×ingvellir is the site of the first parliament, and is also the place where the two continental plates meet. And it also is a lovely venue for musical performances.)

  2. I see stone instruments are still (somewhat) alive and well. Thanks for sharing, Myrna!

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