It tends to get pigeonholed as a worship instrument, its grand volume sweeping over weak or silent voices in sleepy congregations. Or else it evokes the ballpark, or a creepy haunted house. Truth be told, for 90 percent of the population, the pipe organ exists as an evocation to sing "Amen," shout "Charge" or shriek "Eeeeeek!"

One might even dare to assume those 90 percent are unaware we are on the cusp of "The International Year of the Organ." The catalyst for this 12-month recognition is the American Guild of Organists convention, a biennial event that has returned to the Twin Cities for the first time since 1980.

Nearly 2,000 pipe organists gather this weekend for a nine-day confab to share notes on when and when not to use the Cymbalstern, when to pedal and when to pull out the stops. The group also intends to unveil five new commissioned works from Judith Bingham, Aaron Jay Kernis, Libby Larsen, Steve Stucky and Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. The final concert will feature the U.S. premiere of "Te Deum," composed by Siegried Matthus for the reconsecration of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, and a piece by Minnesotan Stephen Paulus, who is being honored by the group as its composer of the year.

Along with the commissions, six Minnesota composers have been invited to write pieces that will be premiered during one of the four planned worship services. That group consists of Carol Barnett, Cary John Franklin, Linda Tutas Haugen, Monte Mason, David Evan Thomas and Janika Vandervelde.

Beyond that, several internationally recognized organists will be featured on the contraption termed "The King of Instruments" by the medieval French composer Guillaume de Machaut.

"Of all the instruments, the organ is still the most complex analog music-producing device," said Michael Barone, host of American Public Media's "Pipedreams," the nationally distributed show produced in St. Paul. "Before the industrial revolution, the organ and the astronomical clock were the two most extraordinary creations of the human imagination."

Further, even though a new pipe organ can cost $500,000 to $1 million, the basic technology -- wind blowing through pipes -- has remained unchanged for more than 2,000 years.

"Unfortunately, organs are huge and complex and very expensive," Barone said. "But the authenticity of the real sound is something the discriminating listener can hear and the discriminating audience should demand."

Coliseum and Wanamaker's

The organ dates to antiquity, when it was used to jazz up crowds at Roman gladiatorial spectacles -- as if the blood and mayhem seemed boring. Barone said that during the Dark Ages, monastic study and fascination with its many tones kept the organ alive. Its journey into the church makes sense, he said, because "the church was the place where the most extravagant art and the most intense expression of humankind was brought to contribute to the honoring of the deity."

Pipe organs later became prominent in community centers and in commercial establishments, the most famous being Wanamaker's department store in Philadelphia, where the Grand Court Organ has more than 28,000 pipes and six manuals (keyboards). It is the largest operational pipe organ in the world. Minneapolis and St. Paul had civic organs at one time, and many concert halls feature them.

"Which raises the question of why the Minneapolis Orchestra Hall does not," said Barone. "It's a mystery and a -- I have to choose the right word -- misfortune."

One of the many performance events during the conference is a taping session of "Pipedreams" that will be open to the public at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie. The organ there is the largest in Minnesota, with 114 ranks of pipes.

"That will be a showcase for young performing talent and new compositions," Barone said.

Another highlight Barone recommends is the performance of Cameron Carpenter, artist in residence at Middle Collegiate Church in New York. If organ playing has a superstar it is Cameron, who has been lauded for his virtuosic capability and a flair that is unusual for classical musicians.

"As a result, he's a little controversial," said Barone. "If you show too much show biz you're thought to have sold out, but Cameron can do things. He opens with a Chopin etude that has a running left-hand part, but he plays that with his feet with no diminution of tempo."

Indeed, critics have noted Carpenter's "Astaire-like footwork."

Not at all surprising, Philip Brunelle is deeply involved with the festival. The peripatetic artistic director of VocalEssence headed the World Choral Symposium in the Twin Cities a few years ago, so he was asked to help here.

"People know the Twin Cities is a great music area," said Brunelle, who knows where the Kimball organ from the old Minneapolis Auditorium is being stored. "I hope I can find a place large enough to re-install it. A prestigious event like this [the convention] reminds people of the heritage we have here."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299