I had heard about this years ago but in 2004 I had the good fortune to find myself driving through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with time to stop at Luray Caverns to experience the worlds only “Stalacpipe” organ. This is the worlds largest musical instrument, according to Ripleys Believe it or Not!
Developed in the mid 1950s by one Leland W. Sprinkle, the basic concept is that a custom organ was created which triggers special sensors — solenoid-actuated rubber mallets, according to the Wiki– that have been attached to stalactites of different sizes around the cavern. When struck, the stalactites produce tones.
Walking outside the cavern, I was a tad dubious as the place felt very commercial, with all manner of tourist chotchke being sold along the way.
When we got down into the Caverns, that world melted away as we were transported to an spectacular alien underworld that was hauntingly lit and beautifully maintained. Once we got to the heart of the cavern, there was the organ and we received a demonstration of it.
The music played was forgettable but the experience was anything but that. On our way out I made a beeline for the bustling gift shop to see if they had a recording available. There I bought my memento of the visit in the form of Midnight in the Caverns with Monty Maxwell.
With no disrespect to Mr. Maxwell and the producers of the CD, my heart sank when I finally sat down to listen to the album, which presents perfectly fine and decently recorded stereo performances of mainstream favorites from “Amazing Grace” and “Danny Boy” to “Beautiful Dreamer.”
Yes, “Beautiful Dreamer.” Replete with the drips and drops of water around the cavern blurping, doinking and plopping randomly in the background.
I put the CD away, thinking that one day I might want to write about it with a broader appeal to musicians to try and do some more progressive recordings down in the Caverns.
I forgot about the album until I recently rediscovered it in a corner of my collection and I realized now was in fact that time to finally write about this.
Now, I have not researched the possibility but it seems to me that the Stalacpipe Organ at Luray Caverns is a magical musical opportunity waiting to happen. Pairing the right musician or musicians who might have the sensibility to embrace the Cavern for all its sonic worth could be a stroke of genius. Someone needs to get their musical heart and soul around the fairly astounding sonic presence that is in that room.
I have discovered that a Finnish electronic duo by the name of Pepe Deluxe did do some recording down in the cavern, issued on their 2011 release Queen of the Wave. I have not heard the whole album but you can find it up on iTunes.
This is a step in the right direction.
I still feel, however, that the cavern would be a wonderful surround sound recording opportunity!
I mean, it would be so so cool to hear Brian Eno tinkling the stalactites with his ambient tones while Robert Fripp accompanied him on trippy-pretty Frippertonics tones ‘n textures. Or perhaps Bill Frisell could perform down there with someone compelling, maybe Kit Watkins for example. Or maybe Neil Young or Beck even. Flaming Lips go underground?
How about inviting original Yes lead vocalist Jon Anderson to perform down there along with Rick Wakeman on arrangements of many of their famous tunes, realigned for the acoustics and ambiance of the Cavern. Again, while it could be cool in stereo, it could be majestic in surround sound!
So there you have it. A piece of nature that has been modded with technology with the potential for staging some amazing music.
I think if done right, something really interesting could be created. We just need the right artist to step up to the plate to make it happen.
What do you think?
You can find the Midnight in the Caverns CD up on Amazon used for under $10. Unless you really need it new, I can’t recommend you spending the $35 some are selling new copies for, however. For under $10 it is worth owning as a curio — apparently it was made with samples of the Stalacpipe organ, not an actual recording in the cavern, per se — until we hopefully get some more modern looking musician creating new music down there for the ages.
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.