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No longer a pipe dream, Elon's organ plays across campus

The organ featured at Commencement ceremonies can now be performed using a portable console that allows music from Whitley Auditorium to be carried online for broadcast at special events in Alumni Gym and McCrary Theatre.

Fabien Tremblay of Casavant (seated) and software engineer Steve Miller of Solid State Organ Systems Corporation work in Whitley Auditorium on Jan. 22, 2014, to install new technology that will allow the Alyse Smith Cooper pipe organ to be performed for events around parts of Elon University's campus.

More than 2,500 pipes, ranging in length from 6 inches to 16 feet, make up the Alyse Smith Cooper pipe organ, an instrument designed and installed by Casavant Frères organ builders during Whitley Auditorium renovations at the turn of the millennium.

Organ pipes serve as the auditorium backdrop and have been part of outdoor Commencement ceremonies since 2001, with music broadcast through hardwired sound systems in a nearby oak grove where Elon University graduates and their families gather.

Now, because of new music software and hardware technology, the university’s organist can bring a portable console around parts of campus to perform live music piped from Whitley Auditorium. Convocations in Alumni Gym. Performances in McCrary Theatre. Soon, the Call to Honor in the Academic Village. Even special programs at the School of Law in downtown Greensboro may one day feature the instrument.

“It’s exciting to think that from any appropriate connection on the Elon network, we can broadcast in real time,” said organist Mary Alice Bragg, noting the inherent difficulties in performing live organ music out of sight from intended audiences. “We see lots of possibilities, not just with the organ, but with the technology. This has never been done in this way.”

Casavant conceived and built for Elon a three-piece portable console that requires only minutes to assemble. The console taps into the university’s computer network to route signals to the organ, which plays in Whitley Auditorium before transmitting music back through the event’s speaker system.

A portable console can be taken to Alumni Gym and McCrary Theatre - and possibly other locations on campus in the future - to have music from Whitley Auditorium's organ piped directly to events there.

The concept for remote organ performances originated last year when Bragg worked with Rick Earl, technical director for the Office of Cultural and Special Programs, and Chris Fulkerson, assistant vice president for technology and chief information officer, to devise new ways for Bragg to view ceremonies in real time as she performed on the instrument.

Casavant designers told the university that such a method had never before been attempted but they were intrigued by the idea. The end result of those efforts is now in place, and the Whitley organ will make its debut in Alumni Gym in April when the university hosts Spring Convocation featuring Elon President Emeritus J. Earl Danieley ‘46.

“Elon strives to have the highest level of professionalism,” Bragg said, “and this allows us to do just that.”

The university’s organ was made possible by a gift from the J. Harold Smith family of Burlington, N.C., and it is named in honor of his sister, Alyse Smith Cooper. Harold Smith was a former member of the Elon board of trustees and his son, William H. Smith, is a current member of the board. The organ was part of the renovation project on Whitley completed during the spring of 2001.

Eric Townsend,
1/31/2014 9:00 AM