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Playing the organs


The pipe organ in my living room
Donald Knuth Scientist
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Since then I...I decided... okay, I got royalties from my books so I can use this to... to acquire an organ in my home and also when we... when we built this house we told the organist [sic] of this dream that... that, you know, I would like to have a music room in the house where we could have a pipe organ. And so even though we didn't have the money to pay for it at the time we... we put it into the plans so that it would support three tons of weight in that... in the... in the front room. And I went round talking to organ builders.  The finest organ builders that I knew at the time were in Denmark and a friend of mine, Peter Naur at the University of Copenhagen, I... I visited him during the year we were in Norway and spent a week talking to different organ builders in Denmark. And boy, the gorgeous instruments that they built... very few in America. If you're interested in anecdotes, I... I... this is... this is the only time in my life I drank a cup of coffee and maybe [that] was the wrong country in which to drink a cup of coffee, but that was the only time... but after that I didn't want to try again. But the... the story is this, I... I was at this organ builder and he didn't speak English very well and I didn't speak German very well, we tried to communicate in German and he served me coffee. I didn't know how to refuse so I took the coffee. And every time he... but it tasted awful to me so every time he would... he would be looking at me though I... I either took a sip a little bit or I'd, at least, rattled it in my cup so that he would know, that I, you know... that I was paying attention to the coffee. But then I... I did pour it into a plant at the end when he wasn't looking, but... but that was my experience.  Well anyway... but he's a great organ builder in... in Hillerød [sic] near... near Copenhagen. Well, I... I didn't wind up though with a Danish organ because although I got a proposal from the... the man that I liked the best it turned out that the way the Dan... the labor laws are set that you can't set a fixed price for... for anything, it depends if... if inflation occurs then you have to pay more. And it was going to be two years in advance so I... so I would have to give... give, you know, saying well, no matter what happens to the economy I'm... I'm obliged to pay the current salary in... in Danish currency. And there's, you know, big problems about shipping, and so on... so it turns out that... that the Danish solution wasn't the best. I... I did though meet... meet up with Larry Abbott and Pete Sieker, who... who have a shop near UCLA, on one of my trips to southern California, and... and they built four organs a year very fine and I had known, in fact they had built one of the ones that I had seen in Pasadena when I was... previously. And so... so I worked with... with them and came back to Stanford and meanwhile here I had worked with our... our own church and our church in Menlo Park had... had gotten a new organ and so I was on that committee and... and visited a lot of American organ builders at the time and learned something about the... the process of... of specifying an organ. I got lots of books from the library and saw what the specifications were of the organs that Bach had played on and many organs from the Netherlands and different parts of the world. That was... that was good background and at Stanford we have four organs and I could play on each one and listen carefully to the different notes, take... get a feel for how they balanced and then communicate as well as I could to Abbott and Sieker down in... in Los Angeles. So finally they... they finished the... the design, their... their shop didn't... their shop isn't tall enough to hold... hold the organ.  It was in three pieces, they brought it in a truck up here and installed it. It's... it's only lived in my... in... here in my home but it's a... it's a... quite a nice... quite a fine organ for... for... in... in a person's home. Usually a... a home organ has to be so small that you can't get very many different kinds of tone quality on it but... but we... they were able to make it so that... that I have dozens and dozens of different combinations that work well.

Born in 1938, American computing pioneer Donald Knuth is known for his greatly influential multi-volume work, 'The Art of Computer Programming', his novel 'Surreal Numbers', his invention of TeX and METAFONT electronic publishing tools and his quirky sense of humor.

Listeners: Dikran Karagueuzian

Trained as a journalist, Dikran Karagueuzian is the director of CSLI Publications, publisher of seven books by Donald Knuth. He has known Knuth since the late seventies when Knuth was developing TeX and Metafont, the typesetting and type designing computer programs, respectively.

Tags: Denmark, University of Copenhagen, Norway, English, German, Hillerød, Copenhagen, University of California, Los Angeles, California, Pasadena, Stanford University, Menlo Park, Netherlands, Peter Naur, Larry Abbott, Pete Sieker, Johann Sebastian Bach

Duration: 5 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008