Fritz Noack

Former Fisk Apprentice, now Visual Design Consultant

My first job after coming to this country was with the Estey Organ Company in Brattleboro in beautiful Vermont. This firm had once been one of the world’s largest but was never artistically significant. Now it was in the process of dying a deserved death. Its seven large workshop buildings were such a dilapidated mess that I found it hard to believe how anyone would wish to work there. Some of the old folks who had spent their best years at Estey’s told me about this Fisk fellow who, they sensed, was about to make his mark. Before I join the chorus of grateful Charlie-alumni, I should thank the old fellows in Brattleboro for telling me about him.

Charlie looked frail when I met him, recovering from one of the many operations to “rearrange that Flexhaust in the tummy.” If Estey’s factory looked way past its prime, Charlie’s Andover Organ Co. in Methuen looked like an abandoned rattrap. In spite of my somewhat outrageous wage request I was hired on the spot. Perhaps he hoped I could transmit some of the established European ways to his team, ways I had been taught well at von Beckerath’s workshop in Hamburg.

The year I spent at the old shop under the waterfall (we never knew if the pipes we voiced or the water made the noise one usually cures by nicking) turned out to be a true turning point in my life. Contrary to appearances, in this shop there was a glow of love, hope and intellect that in the decades hence, of course, has become obvious. In retrospect, I probably should have paid Charlie for teaching me. Even though his low physical energy meant that he conducted much of the work from an old army cot under the drafting table, there was always time to explore a thought about organs (all kinds) or to explain a word to me, as I struggled to learn English.

There was one particular small scene, where Charlie unwittingly converted me to the truly free American way of doing things. I was busy making some doodad, in the proper manner. He just stood there and asked “Why this way?” Like the Eurofool I still was, I countered “Don’t you think this is a good way?,” to which he only repeated the original question. So now we do not just something because that is the way it is always done, but we constantly ask why. Freedom-empowering but also scary.

We both enjoyed playing with the languages, including some cute bilingual puns and occasionally a good new word. Even though coined some time after I had started my own shop in Lawrence, the best of those must have been “Singerei.” This is what we called the monthly get-togethers, alternating between his and our workshop, in which a bunch of friends joined to sing madrigals. Here Charlie’s deep understanding and love of early vocal music turned simple reading sessions into sheer magic. And even though, with typical absurd humor, he would refer to the “theme song” as “Das Silberschwein,” most of his friends will immediately recognize: “The Silver Swan, who living had no voice…” Oh well, our good friend, living, already had a mighty voice, indeed.

Charles Fisk working at Wellesley College, Opus 72

Charles Fisk working at Wellesley College, Opus 72

Photo: Paul Foley