Loud Pipes Save Lives

Mainstream is attending the Episcopal Church. Non-mainstream is practicing Zoroastrianism. Mainstream is owning a golden retriever. Non-mainstream is breeding Rhodesian ridgebacks. In the universe of non-mainstream things, it’s hard to conceive of two things more arcane than Michael Barone’s passions: pipe organs and Citroën automobiles.

The host and producer of public radio’s Pipedreams, Michael Barone is also the past president of the Citroën Club of Minnesota. On a typical workday morning, the bearded and amiable Barone leaves home and climbs into the front seat of his 1978 Citroen 2CV, a tiny, growling, twenty-eight-horsepower French imported model that is sometimes nicknamed “the Tin Snail” and “the Duck” by the collectible car community. Vulgar persons say it is reminiscent of a pre-1974 Volkswagen. The 2CV has paper-thin metal doors just slightly thicker than a double layer of heavy-duty Reynolds Wrap, a canvas umbrella for a roof, side windows that fold in half rather than retract, and a tiny, flat windshield. A two-minute spin in this automobile is enough to tell even the most careless person that this is, hands down, the least crashworthy car ever made.

Once he parks the Citroën on one of the lower floors of the garage at the Minnesota Public Radio studios in downtown St. Paul, he sets about his work for the day. His cluttered office is located deep within the cavernous stacks of compact discs and vinyl records that compose MPR’s on-air music library. There, inside the vault and surrounded by millions of classical music tracks, he produces the two weekly radio programs he hosts: Pipedreams, a classical music program focused on organ music, and a show called New Releases, for which he fastidiously selects the latest in classical music.

Radio production can be mentally exhausting, so Barone occasionally takes a break by playing his own, personal pipe organ, which he keeps in the apse of the Catholic church next door to MPR’s headquarters. It’s an arrangement that works out for both Barone and the church—the parish has access to a fine instrument and Barone has a nearby place to play it.

Besides being odd anachronisms, do Citroëns and Wurlitzers share something else in common? Perhaps the link is that both were once the state of the art in mechanical engineering. “The Citroën is an auto that has always encapsulated a higher degree of engineering ingenuity than the average car,” Barone told me. “Citroën had the first front-wheel drive cars, the first unibody construction, the first torsion bars, and, at one time, they handled better than any other car on the road. Similarly, pipe organs are curious mechanical devices, simple and complex at once. They were, before the industrial revolution, the most complex engineering construct in the human imagination.”

Barone said that each organ has its own distinct sound, a consequence of its construction, its material composition, and its location. When I asked him where to find some of his favorite instruments, he rattled off several local organs.

“The Fisk Organ at the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul is, for me, the most intellectual and satisfying instrument around. Another great organ is the one at the Catholic Church of the Maternity of Mary in St. Paul. It is a small organ with just twenty-two ranks of pipes. But it has an energetic, powerful, and scintillating tone.”

The biggest organ in the Twin Cities, and one of the largest in the world, is at Wooddale Church (sometimes called the “rocketship church” for its modern steeple) in Eden Prairie. Nearly as large as the instruments at Westminster Abbey in London and Notre Dame in Paris, Wooddale’s Visser-Rowland organ is enormous. Enormity in a pipe organ is often measured by how low you can go. “It has thirty-two-foot-long pipes that sound a sixteen-hertz tone that is felt or sensed rather than heard,” Barone said. Other organs worth hearing include the theater organs at the Phipps Auditorium in Hudson, Wisconsin, and at the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights. Barone also recommends the organs at the University of St. Thomas and at St. Andrew’s Church in Mahtomedi. As for catching a glimpse of a Citroën, you may have no choice but to camp outside the studios of MPR.

Barone said, “The idea of something being complex, intricate, and having a beautifully coordinated disparity of energy is marvelous, astonishing, and delightful.”—William Gurstelle