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Meet First Free’s one-woman band
Organist Karen Anderson controls a warehouse full of electronic relays, pneumatic tubes, wall-sized louvers and *literally* almost 2,000 bells and whistles.
Jim Killam
July 13, 2021

You wouldn’t know it by watching her play, but First Free organist Karen Anderson controls a warehouse full of electronic relays, pneumatic tubes, wall-sized louvers and — literally — almost 2,000 bells and whistles.

The organ’s offi cial name is Opus 1329, which is appropriate for something that would look equally at home in an opera hall or a mad scientist’s lab. First Free had it custom built in 1961 by the Reuter Organ Company of Lawrence, Kansas. The purchase price was $32,905 — which equals $284,000 in 2020 dollars. When the church relocated in 1980 from Fourth Avenue and Sixth Street to our current campus, the organ came, too.

We’ve got almost as much
space dedicated to our
organ as we do to Student

The familiar console is impressive
enough, with four manuals
(organ terminology for keyboards)
including the pedals played with the
feet. Opus 1329 contains 27 stops
and 36 registers; those buttons
and knobs trigger different sound
combinations. It’s all controlled

electronically from the console via wires and a relay board beneath the stage.But that’s all just the driver’s seat. The bigger story hides behind those black fabric walls at the back of the stage.“People see the organ and they understandably think that’s it — that’s where the sound comes from,” says David Peterson, Technical Arts Director. “We’ve got almost as much space dedicated to our organ as we do to Student Ministries.”Opus 1329’s business end is accessed from a dark, narrow hallway leading from the balcony all the way behind the stage. Three doors open to steel ladders which descend into separate rooms full of pipes, air blowers and louvers. You don’t want to be in one of these chambers when Karen pulls out the stops and plays a hymn at “blastissimo” Volume

Karen Anderson accompanies the choir and orchestra during First Free’s Classic service. Photo by Catalyst Photography.

Behind the curtain

Opus 1329 features 1,852 pipes, each a diff erent size. The largest are about 13 feet tall, made of zinc or copper and look like upside-down rockets. The smallest are made of a tin-lead alloy and are the size of drill bits. Inside each pipe, air enters at the bottom and exits through slits near the top. Basically, it’s a giant set of whistles. Depending on which settings she has employed, Karen might be playing dozens of pipes at the

same time by pressing one key.

“That’s the beauty of the organ,” she says. “You can get so many absolutely incredible. I thought, Oh! That’s what it’s supposed to sound like!”

Forget the arguments about volume in the Contemporary service. Music critic Alex Ross once wrote in The New Yorker: “There is no louder sound in the musical realm than a pipe organ at full throttle.” Decibel levels from some organs have exceeded 1970s rock concerts by The Who or Led Zeppelin.

Karen doesn’t often play as loudly as she could.

“It would really overpower everything,” she says. “Occasionally I will, like on Easter. I’ll open it up.”

She smiles. “And some bats fly out.”

Depending on the style of music being performed, Karen will move over to electronic keyboard at times.

“But for the hymns,” she says, “there’s a majesty to this. It just fi lls the whole sanctuary. There is something about the sound of it”

What did I just hear?

There’s majesty, and then there’s football.

When Sunday morning services included a meet-and-greet time, and it happened to be an NFL Sunday, Karen would betray her Chicago roots and subtly slip into Bear Down, Chicago Bears Most people never noticed.

“I make it like a hymn,” she says. “I disguised it. When you slow it down and play with the four chords, it really does sound like a hymn. It’s amazing.”

Listen to Karen Anderson play “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” on organ.

“I’d start out with generic stuff , maybe the key we were in with the last hymn,” Karen says. “Then I’d just kind of mosey into it. And

“If the pastors have people standing around for prayer afterwards, I am not going to be playing Bear Down, Chicago Bears.”

Jim Killam
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.


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