Little Local Joys: Modern Meets Medieval in Basement Build

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Kepler Domurat-Sousa built a pipe organ from scratch, as it allowed him to combine interests in engineering and classical music.

The Phantom of the Opera played one, deep within the labyrinth under the Paris Opera House. Kepler Domurat-Sousa plays one too, although it’s relatively portable, perpetually evolving, and currently lodged within the basement of his East Lansing home on Sunset Lane.

An ELHS graduate of 2018, Domurat-Sousa was inspired to build a pipe organ after soaking up the full orchestral sound of the E.M. Skinner Pipe Organ at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago.

As a student majoring in physics there, Domurat-Sousa took an occasional break his freshman and now sophomore years to attend concerts of the 90-year-old instrument. Made with more than 8,500 large-scale pipes, UC’s organ is fully integrated into the chapel, and considered among the finest of 20th century romantic organs made in America.

Domurat-Sousa’s pipe organ, by comparison, is relatively small and moveable. Once completely built, the organ will consist of about 40 pipes made from paper—ranging in height from 5 inches to 4 feet. A 5-by-5-by-2-foot fiberboard wind box houses the valves and whistles that Domurat-Sousa made with a 3-D printer, as well as meticulously placed electromagnets and microprocessors. A small MIDI controller controls the organ, sending pre-programmed signals to the electronically-powered valves that open and close the pipes.

“It works very much like fairground organs that were like player pianos,” said Domurat-Sousa. “Those organs ran on compressed air and vacuums to get sound to the pipes. In this case, the MIDI file is like the scroll.”

Have a listen, and note you may hear the blower and valves clicking open and shut:

Domurat-Sousa began his pipe organ project in 2018 when home from college on Thanksgiving break. It’s been an on-again, off-again endeavor, with the pace picking up speed now that he is studying virtually from home this year during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Although he doesn’t consider himself a musician, he admits he did spend eight years in the band program through East Lansing Public Schools. He says he’s known to play clarinet on occasion, but he is not super capable on a keyboard.

“That’s one nice thing about the MIDI,” he said. “It’s been around since the ‘80s, so there are a lot of things already programmed that I can input directly to the pipe organ.”

“Honestly, I have no idea what do with this project,” he said. “It’s been interesting since it involves different things I enjoy doing or learning. There’s about 100 soldering connections I did, plus I designed and built the software and electronics. I doubt it will ever really be finished, since there will always be something I will want to change.”

For his first basement concert on an instrument that merges the modern with the Middle Ages, Domurat-Sousa chose Bach. But now he feeds it a variety of music to play for him while he works on building it more pipes to expand its range.

ELi’s “Little Local Joys” series is sharing small things that bring us joy and hope during the coronavirus outbreak. Do you have a little local story of joy or a tale of hope you would like to share? Click here for details. We would love to hear from you!

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