A tuned mechanical cave developed by a ’50s Pentagon programmer
The Great Stalacpipe Organ - Created By Leyland W. Sprinkle

This 3.5 acre ‘Stalacpipe Organ’ was built in the Luray Caves in the US. Here, thirty-seven stalactites have been tuned then fitted with solenoid-actuated rubber hammers by Leland W. Sprinkle, a maverick Pentagon programmer who also honed the first generation of computers in the ’50s. Despite the Organ being operational by 1956 it wasn’t until 2011 that the first original song ‘In the Cave’, composed for it by Finnish / Swedish music-explorers Pepe Deluxé, emerged from the darkness.

How did you find out about the Stalacpipe?
I found about it on the “365 Days Project”: it’s a music blog of incredibly strange music with these different home made recordings and weird instruments. Each day of the year was dedicated to one record or recording and I went through all of them and found out about the organ.

The inventor Leland Sprinkle is not alive anymore.
Nope, he died in the nineties.

When was the Stalacpipe Organ actually built?
It was in the mid fifties. Mr. Sprinkle couldn’t be there in the cave playing the organ for all the tourists so he actually built a mechanical sequencer to play the organ automatically. The original system had tube amplifiers and mechanical technology in a damp, cold in the cave that was not conducive to such delicate equipment; so it soon fell into disrepair. It’s strange that it didn’t get renovated until the late nineties for the first time.

What does it actually sound like?
You’re playing something that’s really quiet in this massive cave. There’s a speaker system that enables you to hear the stalactite sounds a bit better. You’re surrounded by the sounds of the cave echoes, also the water’s dripping and tourists filing by; it’s like listening to a classical music concert while being in the centre of the orchestra.

Can you describe how it actually works?
You have this custom made console, a type of an organ keyboard that’s connected to these solenoids, each of the keys is connected to one solenoid that has a rubber tipped hammer and when you press the key the hammer strikes a stalactite. Leland went through all these stalactites that have stood for thousands of years and slowly tuned them, listening to them until they were perfectly in tune and because of the area is now rather dry, will be in tune for the next thousand years.

How many of the stalactites have been tuned?
Three and a half octaves. Each one was filed by hand to create the correct size and pitch.

When did he finish it?
I think he finished it in ’56. It was immediately turned into a tourist attraction so he only spent like 2 or 3 years building it.

How difficult is it to play?
Technically it’s really easy to play; the difficult thing is the sound of the organ, the glass like tones and lots of reverb that rings for a long time. It’s a massive, one-of-a kind instrument and needs to be treated with respect.

What’s its most attractive attribute?
I have to say size does matter, but even if it hadn’t have been be the biggest instrument in the world then it’s the concept that’s amazing. You’re basically sort of playing a mountain so it really takes a magnificent mind to come up with something like that.

What would you say its biggest flaw is?
The conditions in the cave are impossible for electronics. I don’t think any modern electronics would survive as time will slowly destroy it.

Who would you say would be the best legend to play it? Who would it suit the best?
People are suggesting things like what about DJ Shadow’s ‘Organ Donor’. I’d love to know what someone like the Dalai Lama could do with it!

Which song would you advise us to listen to, to hear it the best?
I think our composition “In the Cave” from our upcoming album ‘Queen of the Wave’ is one of the best because it’s the only one that’s composed for that instrument.

What did it teach you about yourself as a musician?
Patience. We waited 6 years to be able to finally record the tune on the organ and the results were definitely worth it!

Does it surprise you that so few musicians make their own instruments?
Yeah, I think that it could currently be changing. Most people have been happy to play by the same old rules, and now that sales of albums seem to be dropping there’s got to be some huge changes, maybe in the roles of musicians. We need more inspiration and originality. Nothing compares to the uniqueness of something you made yourself or a strange, beautiful instrument that people have forgotten about bought back to light.

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Listen to 'In The Cave', Pepe Deluxe's track featuring the stalacpipe organ.



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