On Thursday morning, University of Montana organ professor Nancy Cooper stood in the school's Music Recital Hall, cleaning a wooden board pierced with a neat row of graduated holes. As the scent of Murphy's Oil Soap wafted through the air, she held the board at arm's length, flipped it over and examined it.
"This is the ... ah ... toe board?" she mused.
"Rack board," organ builder Joe O'Donnell corrected her.
Cooper laughed and shrugged. "We never had to learn these technicalities," she said.
The past two days have offered plenty of lessons for Cooper and other area organists, who converged in Bozeman and Missoula to disassemble, move and then rebuild a 1960s-era tracker organ originally built by August Laukhuff of Weikersheim, Germany. The small, mostly mechanical pipe organ was gifted to UM by Robert and Annette Evans of Bozeman, with the seemingly simple caveat that the school would need to be responsible for moving it.
Doing so has been an adventure unlike any that Cooper has experienced in her diverse career as organ professor and organist at Missoula's Holy Spirit Episcopal Church.
"It's not a simple proposition to move an organ of this type," she said, noting that once it is reassembled, the organ can't even be cleaned - much less moved more than a few feet across the flat wooden floor - lest it fall out of tune. "We're committed that it will live here in its new home forever."
The new organ won't be lonely. Near where it will sit in a corner of the Music Recital Hall stage, a much larger organ sits on the hall's floor, connected by electrical controls to a massive array of pipes behind the stage curtain.
The two instruments offer a lesson in sonic contrasts and technological evolution.
The school's older Moller organ, installed when the Music Building was constructed in 1954, is a thoroughly modern instrument, with two full-sized keyboards and more than 40 stops to control its tone.
The new tracker organ features just a single keyboard of 56 keys, a set of pedals, four "ranks" of pipes attached directly to the top of the organ, and two sets of four stops. Other than an electrically controlled bellows, the instrument is entirely mechanical, following the design principles and resulting sound of organs built in the Baroque era of more than 250 years ago.
"To have this on the stage means that whenever anyone plays Baroque music by Bach or Vivaldi or Handel, they can use this for the (accompaniment)," she said. "It'll be infinitely more appropriate for that than our big Moller, which is too big for that type of music. It takes us away from the fact that we otherwise have to use our one harpsichord for (accompaniment), which is getting beaten to death from all the use."
Though hardly newly constructed, the school's "new" organ looks barely used. In fact, that's why the Evanses decided to donate it to the school, said Cooper.
"They originally got this organ because Bob wanted (Annette) to learn to play, but she never really did," said Cooper. "So they decided it was time to give it to someone who wanted it."
The Evanses originally contacted Montana State University, but that school turned down the donation, as did an area church - facts that make Cooper's eyes grow wide with amazement still.
"They eventually called Maxine (Ramey, dean of UM's School of Music), who immediately called me and I immediately called the Evanses and said ‘yes please-please-please,'" said Cooper, noting that the instrument is valued at approximately $80,000. "It's incredibly exciting. It's a phenomenal gift. We're very lucky to have it."
For the two-day moving process, UM called in O'Donnell, who works for Bond Organ Builders of Portland, Ore. Together with Missoula piano tuner and organist Jeff Stickney and a number of volunteers, the group converged at the Evans residence on Wednesday, where they carefully disassembled the organ, packed it into a truck and drove it to Missoula.
Throughout the day Thursday, they reversed the process.
As he carefully reattached the rack board to the top of the organ in the Music Recital Hall, O'Donnell said that moving an organ of this type reflects at once the cleverness of its design, and the challenges faced by earlier generations of organ specialists.
"It's definitely very helpful to disassemble and reassemble an organ like this in the same day so you can remember how everything goes back together," he said. "It's all in our respective heads, because there's no instruction manual."
A few minutes later, O'Donnell gingerly placed a metal pipe into its hole in the rack board, adjusted its position, and pecked a key on the keyboard. A soft, low, flute-like sound filled the air.
"That sounds perfectly respectable," beamed Cooper.
"When I got there and first saw the organ, I thought, ‘I don't even care how it sounds, it's so incredibly beautiful and it's free,'" she added. "So the fact that it sounds good is even better."
Diane Griffith, a Bozeman organist and former student of Cooper's, said she was simply pleased to be a part of the moving process.
"It's really a treat to be able to see it come apart and go back together," she said. "Usually we organists don't get that opportunity. It's very educational."