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Sean Koreski builds wooden organs like those played in the Middle Ages but with a modern component

PMG PHOTOS: BILL GALLAGHER - Sean Koreski standing next to the $20,000 putative wooden organ he made by hand, while holding one of the pan flutes he also made.The Organ Grinder Restaurant, which served pizza and featured what was purported to be the largest theater pipe organ of its kind in the world, thrived on Southeast 82nd Avenue in Portland from 1973 to 1995.

Besides pies and pipes, there was a mechanical monkey that played the cymbals along with that grand organ. A real monkey (Pizza Pete) worked the crowd for tips, accompanied by a real hurdy gurdy man.

Unlikely as it may seem, this is where Sean Koreski fell in love with the pipe organ.

"You remember the Organ Grinder on Southeast 82nd?" he asked. "They had a big pipe organ there and I learned a lot as a little kid just looking through the glass at the pipes. Then I would actually check out books from the library on organ building while the other kids were getting books on hot rods and motorcycles," he said.

Koreski now builds organs. His work was on display in late April at the Northwest Handmade Musical Instrument Exhibit, held for the first time on the Portland Community College Sylvania Campus in Southwest Portland.

He says he attended PCC twenty years ago, taking courses in computer science.

"That convinced me to get into building instruments. I just didn't like computer science and realized I was in the wrong field. But I like music so I put the two fields together," he recalled.

At an exhibition overflowing with handmade string instruments and a few woodwinds, his creation stood out. It's called a portative organ, is made of four kinds of wood, sits on a table top and is about 4 feet high and 5 feet wide. Its electronics sit below the table top behind a curtain.

"It has 61 wooden pipes — flute pipes — made of cedar. The case is Australian pine along with some fir and hemlock," he explained.

What separates his work from the portative organs of the Middle Ages is that, "It's self-playing with a MIDI — musical instrument digital interface," Koreski said.

Sean Koreski shows off the electronics for his organ that make it function like 'his personal orchestra.'The MIDI works like the perforated music rolls on old player pianos, more or less.

"Basically, with this, we're taking the paper rolls with all the holes in it and replacing that with MIDI," Koreski said. "That's the only part of this organ that's high tech. A friend of mine calls it Amish tech."

The organ also has a five-octave, detachable keyboard. Koreski performed at the exhibition playing one of the pan flutes he makes while accompanying himself on the organ.

"It's my personal orchestra," he said.

Koreski also makes smaller portative organs that are about the size of a microwave oven. They are played in the traditional way, where the organist works the bellows to push air through the pipes with one hand and plays the keyboard with the other hand. In medeival times, musicians would walk while playing these small organs, also known then as organettos. Koreski calls them laptop organs.

He estimates he makes three or four of the smaller organs a year. He sells them for $6,500. The larger putative organ takes a year to build. It sells for $20,000.

The one on display at the exhibition is the largest organ Koreski has built and the first large organ he's built.

"How does it sound?" he said. "It sounds like twenty thousand dollars. This is as large as I go. I'll make the laptop portative organs more frequently. The one I'm finishing up now is going to Brazil when I'm done."

As for customers for his larger work, Koreski said, "It could be part of a carousel, installed in a concert hall, used in a church or chapel and even played in your living room."

Playing it, he says, brings back memories of that legendary instrument at the Organ Grinder.

"The experience, the sound, the look of it, the knowledge that we brought to this, it's just a beautiful mix of old and new," Koreski said. "That little bit of tech makes for a new way of enjoying a very old sound,"

For more information, visit www.portativeorgan.com

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