Clay Couri

By Scott MacClelland Couri

EVERY TWO OR THREE DECADES organ fever infects area churches inspiring them to launch capital campaigns to acquire replacement instruments. We are currently in the middle of such a paroxysm. St. Dunstan’s Episcopal in Carmel Valley lately installed a modest 18-rank digital instrument. Carmel Presbyterian recently debuted a new pipe organ. All Saints Episcopal in Carmel acquired a 16-year-old Allen console. And First Pres in Monterey is lusting after a new instrument. (No, I haven’t investigated Santa Cruz County for this article.)

Last week I caught up with Clay Couri. He talked so fast during our phone interview that I had to slow him down in order to let my typing catch up, something I almost never need to do. He’s also intense and boundlessly enthusiastic. Couri looms large in Monterey Bay organ circles as the go-to guy when it comes to church organ maintenance and appraisals. His latest squeeze is the newly acquired 105-rank Allen four-manual Renaissance model console at All Saints in Carmel. “It offers limitless variety,” he says.

Allen organPart of his enthusiasm is based on his role in acquiring it. The instrument was owned privately by a gentleman who lived in Hawaii. On relocating to California, he found his new home simply could not accommodate the bulky console, and consigned it for sale with Allen’s representative in the upper West Coast region. The asking price was $75,000. By pure serendipity, someone had lately made a donation in that exact amount to All Saints, with no strings attached (so to say.)

Couri, who has played and serviced church organs in Monterey and Carmel—and elsewhere—for years had come to realize that the old Allen at All Saints was deteriorating faster than he could keep up during his every-two-weeks maintenance visit there. With news from the Allen rep, Couri went to Livermore to evaluate the instrument, found it ideal for All Saints and that another church was in line to buy it, and procured a five-day right of first refusal. On returning to the All Saints vestry, he got in their faces and demanded that they go for it without hesitation. Though a little black and blue from his onslaught, they did.

The instrument is four generations younger than its predecessor at All Saints, whose regular organist is Richard Wilson (a former Monterey Herald editor and author of the greatly-mourned weekly Gimlet Eye column.) Like Couri, Wilson now lives in San Francisco. The new-to-All Saints instrument offers so many possibilities—Couri says, “It can do anything”—that he and Wilson are still discovering its capabilities on a fairly steep learning curve.

Who knows, maybe they’ll actually discover Arthur Sullivan’s Lost Chord.

But they are not yet entirely on the same page. If money were no object, Wilson still favors a true pipe organ, with the pipes right in the room and totally visible in all their sonic glory. Couri takes the pragmatic view: a new pipe organ is fantastically (my word) expensive and needs a half-million dollar endowment just to maintain it. Additionally, Couri argues, All Saints would require a major acoustic renovation to justify the expense.

To make his point, he invited me to join him there last Friday morning for a demonstration. Instead of pipes in sight, the console fulfills its musical potential through three large “new state of the art” loudspeaker assemblies, two on opposite sides of the chancel (up front) and one antiphonal in the back of the church. For nearly two hours, he played samples from Renaissance and Baroque to Romantic 19th century character, from tunings between Pythagorean, just intonation, Kirnberger 3—Kirnberger was a pupil of Bach and a tuning theorist—to 20th century Wurlitzer “schmaltz.” It was a private one-on-one concert that seduced me with Bach’s harmonization of Heinrich Stölzel’s profound lovesong Bist du bei mir in Baroque tracker style and slathered me with string stops in Wurlitzer rafter-shaking cotton candy. I loved every note and minute of it.

He’s right: It can do anything. And the reason is digital technology—like it or not conceptually. The Allen Company has recorded digital samples of two of the great American-made Aeolian-Skinner pipe organs, and using MIDI digital, amends its 105 ranks with an additional 100 in MIDI. The instrument is identical to the organ at San Francisco’s historic Mission Dolores.

So, is the true pipe organ still the gold standard? “It’s becoming less so,” Couri told me. “If I close my eyes I’m playing an Aeolian-Skinner.” He showed me that in tracker style you can now hear the ‘chf’ that articulates the opening of pipes already under air pressure and the release of harpsichord plectra when the player withdraws his fingers from the keys. “At any time, we can download new voices.” Ask me if I am amazed.
Clay Couri grew up in rural Connecticut, learning early on how to drive farm equipment. He taught himself how to play the organ starting in 1990. In between, he was chef, geologist, paleogeologist, piano tuner and master clock maker—all professionally. He and his partner—now spouse—James Durham have been together for 43 years. While full-time residents of Carmel Highlands, they were regular entertainers and entertainees of next-door-neighbor Joan Fontaine. His one complaint now is that he has not kept up with his keyboard practice and is, therefore, out of shape.

But he does promise that, right after Easter, he and Richard will make good on a full demonstration concert on All Saints’ new organ.