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The musical legacy of Latvian history: «It let out a silent sound!»

Aleksandra Line

VEF produced the Hammond organ as a world-class hymn to mechanics and electronics

From the authors' personal archive

The name of the «Hammond» organ is a well-known brand in the musical world, especially among jazz and rock musicians. It is still a surprise for fellow Latvians and beyond, but the electronic organ of the famous brand has earlier on been produced right here in Riga, at the State Electrotechnical factory VEF, with all the local design and Latvian wood. In one of the JAZZin.lv magazine issues, together with the VEF Culture House project manager Antra Dreģe we investigated the history of the Latvian-produced «Hammond» instruments and concluded that only three instruments still exist to this day. One is the organ in the Liepāja Luther church, once gifted by the state head Kārlis Ulmanis. The instrument in Liepāja is the best preserved, so Antra decided to fight for its restoration so that the listener could listen to it at the masses and concerts again. So the charity concerts in Riga and Liepāja were organized, project applications were finished, and fundraising began.

So the inventor of the «Hammond» electronic organ Laurence Hammond was an American engineer and entrepreneur. His interest in technical things began in his childhood — while he was living in Europe with his mother; in his teenage years, he even offered his ideas for «Renault» car factories; meanwhile, at the age of 17, he already got a patent for a barometer of his own. He graduated from the university where he was studying machinery with the highest degrees, and toughened his personality during the First world war, then invented a clock that worked without any sound in 1920. Later on, it let him create his clock factory in Chicago. Hammond spoke English, French, and German, was an active businessman and creative engineer, worked on the synchronic engine, gyroscope, and different combat weapons, and even created an electronic bridge game table.

Hammond wasn’t a musician, nevertheless liked experimenting with different sound-generating methods, and as a result, created a sensational electric organ that he patented in 1934. One of the first people who appreciated his new invention was the «conveyor father» Henry Ford and composer George Gershwin. Three years later, Latvians found out about the «Hammond» organ — and in 1937, the State Electrotechnical factory began producing it, using local wood for finish and unique design by an artist constructor Ādolfs Irbīte. The VEF organ became very sought after in Latvia.

The fact that this cult instrument has also been produced in our country has evoked resonance and interest among Latvian musicians. Unfortunately, a great part of authentic «Hammond» organs has been destroyed, and Liepāja’s «Hammond», which was played at masses and concerts at the beginning of this century, doesn’t make any sound for more than 15 years. In order to restore the instrument, its condition had to be explored first — Antra Dreģe here was helped by the jazz pianist, teacher, and «Hammond» organ player Atis Andersons, as well as the head of the Electroacoustic laboratory of the Electronics and telecommunications faculty of the Riga Technical University, docent Vitālijs Aišpurs who is also an author of the book «Elektroakustika», published in 2022.

So Vitālijs Aišpurs did an in-depth study of mechanical damage to the organ, discovered tone generator mechanic rotation problems, damaged details of the preamplifier, power amplifier damages, absence of original speakers, and afterward proceeded with the more precise diagnostics, fully reassembling the organ. After that, a master from the Netherlands, Gandert de Bo, with a great experience in «Hammond» organ restoration, joined the process. He has already restored more than 10 instruments, although none of them was such a treasure because the Liepāja Luther church «Hammond» is a rare find, produced in the end of the 1930s.

I’m not experienced in technical details, so I called Vitālijs Aišpurs to ask why he decided to take part in this project and why he considered it a challenge. It appeared that a couple of years ago, he came to one of the «VEF Jazz Club» series concerts at the VEF Culture House, after which Antra Dreģe addressed the listeners with a message about instrument restoration: «After the concert, I came to Antra and told her I have enough knowledge, skills, and interest, and I can be of use. A year later, a phone call followed — Antra wanted to meet me and offered to take a look at the Liepāja’s organ».

«So we helped Liepāja’s «Hammond» make the first sound. Weakly, but it did!», — are Vitālijs’ happy words about the result. He was keen on music since his early childhood when this electronic organ began to be used by bands throughout the whole world, so he had quite an interest in organs himself. So he is really happy about the project: «Back then, VEF was producing world-class things, and this instrument, in my opinion, is a hymn to mechanics and electronics». In his daily life, Vitālijs is an active jazz and blues listener, sometimes, he also listens to avant-guard and classical music; he has renovated the electroacoustic laboratory of the Riga Technical University that he still maintains and develops.

A day before translating this article, the Dutch master had done even more than that: a video had been published with the instrument that can play way more than one weak sound. His words were, «It’s been quite an adventure, but managed to revive this very unique Hammond after decades of being unused. After restoring and adding a TREKII percussion unit and a Leslie 122, this Hammond is ready for the next 86 years».

This story is to be continued: project manager Antra is sure that this year Latvian-produced «Hammond» organ will shine bright and loud.