Recording the Stalacpipe Organ – Composer Residency at the University of Virginia

I’ve just returned from an inspiring visit to Charlottesville, where I’ve been hosted by the amazing music department at the University of Virginia. Whilst I was there, I continued my research into ringing stones and lithophones. Virginia is home to the Stalacpipe Organ, which was designed and built by Leland Sprinkle between 1954 – 1957. It’s the world’s largest instrument, spanning over 3.5 acres underground in the Luray Caverns very near to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The stalactites in the caverns ring when struck, and Sprinkle spent 3 years choosing a number of them, and tuning them to a chromatic scale. He then linked them to an organ console via copper wires. Each key on the console is linked to a different wire, which in turn is linked to a solenoid attached to each chosen stalactite. The result is a beautiful, spacious sound with stalactites being spaced all around the listener. You literally play the cavern.


I spent a day there playing and recording the instrument in ambisonics, along with Matthew Burtner, in order to capture the sound in 3D. These recordings are being worked into a new composition inspired by the instrument and the different geological processes which have made it. Many thanks to John Shaffer and his team at the Luray caverns for allowing us to record, and many thanks to Matthew Burtner for inviting me, as well as putting me up in his home. Thanks also to Noel Lobley for letting me speak to his undergraduate students, and to Travis Thatcher for having me as a guest artist, performing two of my compositions, as well as putting on my interactive lithophone installation at his Telemetry night in downtown Charlottesville.


About robflute

Rob Mackay is a composer, sound artist and performer. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Hull. Recent projects have moved towards a cross-disciplinary approach, including geology, soundscape ecology, theatre, audiovisual installation work, and human-computer interaction. His work has been performed in 18 countries (including several performances on BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 1 and Radio France), and a number of his pieces have received international awards (Bourges (1997 and 2001), EAR (1999), La Muse en Circuit (2007)). He has held composer residencies at Slovak Radio (Bratislava), La Muse en Circuit (Paris), the Tyrone Guthrie Arts Centre (Ireland), Habitación del Ruido (Mexico City), and CMMAS (Morelia). He has collaborated with a number of poets, including Martin Daws (Young People’s Poet Laureate for Wales, 2013 – 2015) and John Wedgwood Clarke (for the Arts Council funded Dictionary of Stone and Sea Swim with Lara Goodband). This was a natural progression from working on a number of projects based on the theme of geology, including a collaboration with percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie on the Natural England funded Ruskin Rocks project, led by a team of scientists and musicians at the University of Leeds who created two stone instruments (lithophones). He has also created a Jurassic soundscape for Scarborough’s Rotunda museum which is currently installed. Rob has been a reviewer for numerous international conferences, including ICMC (International Computer Music Conference), NIME (New Instruments for Musical Expression), DHRN (Digital Humanities Research Network), and journals (Organised Sound, Cambridge University Press) and is editor for Interference, a Journal of Audio Cultures. He has played, written and produced in a number of bands including the Welsh Hip-Hop collective Tystion with whom he collaborated alongside John Cale on the film A Beautiful Mistake (Film 4), as well as recording two John Peel sessions on BBC Radio 1 and supporting PJ Harvey. The band have a chapter devoted to them in Sarah Hill’s book ‘Blerwytirhwng?’ The Place of Welsh Pop Music (Ashgate 2007). Rob has done session work for Super Furry Animals producer Gorwel Owen, songwriter Euros Childs, and Hip-Hop producer Kista. He is currently enjoying playing in the Welsh Afro-tropical collective Drymbago, having supported Quantic and Tony Allen. More information and pieces at: University of Hull Profile Page
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