Friday, December 28, 2012

Look what I got you for Christmas...a faux pax!

I've heard it said that "nothing is as over as Christmas." Despite that, and despite the fact that it is already December 28th, it is still Christmas on this blog. There are two reasons for that. One is that now that the Christmas rush is over, all (but one of) the concerts, productions, church services, parties, and so forth, I can relax and feel a bit of peace on my own bit of earth. I am calling it "musician's Christmas"--it's kind of like Boxing Day except I plan to give it about a week (I'll still be working, but I'm going to stare at the Christmas tree a lot and knock back some egg nog) and it hasn't started yet.

The other reason, which our hurried culture has forgotten about, is that Christmas used to start on the 25th (of December, not October) and last 12 days, through January 6th. Thus, there actually were 12 days of Christmas (not 280) and by my count, we're only on the fourth day.

This past summer I discovered twelve delightful little organ pieces by an 18th century French composer named Daquin (pinch your nose and say "da--caaahhhh"). If I'd really been industrious and planned ahead, I could have played one each day for twelve days. Did anybody request a set of French Noels for Christmas? Oh well, you can put them on your list for next year.

One of the two I've so far committed to the wax cylinder is number seven, a delightful little number that, as soon as I heard it back in July, I promptly downloaded from everybody's favorite public domain resource ( and rushed out to learn and record so it would be ready during the Christmas madness. One small problem. Or a large one, depending on your makeup.

I was never trained formally as an organist, and have only recently learned a lot of things I would have learned in school if I had been an organist instead of (or in addition to) a pianist. One of these involves the fascinating subject of registration. The organ, unlike practically any other instrument, allows the player to use, or not use, many different groups of pipes which make different sounds, either alone, or in combination. This means the organ can really sound like a variety of instruments on demand. And it helps to have a little imagination and a good ear for those times when the composer hasn't left any clues as to how you should, or might wish to, employ all of those colors. It would be like staring at a symphonic score in which the composer left all the notes, but didn't tell us which instruments should play what. It makes sort of a difference, you know?

Now very often you get to (or have to) make these sorts of decisions yourself, within certain stylistic limits sets by the time and place of the music. And then there are limits set by tradition, which is the most difficult thing to master because it isn't written down anywhere, and written evidence often contradicts it. For instance, you read through a song that is to be played "Adagio" (very slow) and when you get to rehearsal you find out the singer wants to take it at more of what you would consider "allegro moderato" (moderately fast) because they are primarily concerned with getting all the way through a phrase without running out of breath. I call it "singer's adagio" and it is much quicker than instrumentalist adagio. It is just one of a million things you just learn by doing it because it isn't written down anywhere and nobody tells you about it.

As it happens, those French Baroque composers were pretty picky about what you could and could not do regarding organ registration. This summer I read a very interesting (:cough::geek::) 300-page book about organ registration, and while most of it involved suggestions, historical guesses, and general directives based on a few writings from organists and listings of what sorts of things they had available on their organs, when you got to the section on French Baroque music it suddenly got very detailed and left no room for guessing.

In my hurry to get the piece ready (I think either recorded it the same day or the day after I first saw it) you might say I didn't exactly read the instructions. Still, I liked the piece well enough that I didn't really let that bother me, for a few hours:

Daquin: Noel VII (with a very horrible registrational wrongness perpetrated by yours truly)

After I brought it home I thought I would find somebody else's record on the interwebs to see what they'd done with the music and that was when le sheet hit le fan.

Some organ student had posted a recording of this and the first comment that had been left was "ummm..nice registration." To which the student responded, "what was wrong with it?" but apparently the assailants (there were actually two of them) preferred snark to information, so neither the student nor I found out what the matter was. Then I went to my music dictionary. Now, the french term "Gran Jeu" means "full organ." But when the French Baroque composers wrote "full organ" they meant "without mixture stops." Sort of full, but not technically everything.

Mixture stops are interesting. A mixture is a group of pipes banded together, usually 3, 4, or 5. If you play a C, the stop will also play a G using a different group of pipes, and possibly an E using yet another group, perhaps an octave higher C, and so on--the recipe varies depending on the makeup of the stop itself. The stops are usually high-pitched, and the additional notes are quiet enough that it doesn't sound like a chord organ, (where you can distinctly hear a full chord when you play one note) but rather it has a shimmering, bright sound that gives the organ its full grandeur when used in combination with all the other stops. However, instead of this brilliant sound, what these fellows seemed to prefer (the composers) was the nasally sound of reeds (hold your nose and say "hahaha"). This is what I learned in time to make the second recording, a mere six months later when I got around to it right before Christmas.

Daquin: Noel VII

You might not notice a great deal of difference if you've got low-end speakers or are listening through your computer's external speaker. Also, the change effects the loud parts. The soft ones are mostly the same. On the other hand, if you are in the mood, you can play one of those games where you try to spot a handful of differences between two versions of the same thing. One may be faster, or the touch is different, or the dynamics are different, or...whatever.

As for the registrational change, is this a picky detail, or not? Being a composer myself, perhaps, I am more disposed to try to respect what the originator of the music wanted me to do with it, even if it takes more time and effort to find out. I am also a product of a conservatory, where I was schooled in the idea of taking the composer's directions seriously. That doesn't necessarily mean cramping your creativity, although I'll admit this group of composers seems to have been much more set in their ways than I would be. There is another angle here, though, and that is the behavior of the fellows who decided to criticize the student who dared to post the piece on Youtube. There is merit in pointing out a mistake, and I hope to have the grace to accept such correction whenever it is offered to me. But you don't have to be a jerk about it.

Meanwhile, between those two recordings stands half a year, summer and winter, and even a change in sanctuary carpet. Boy, you can really hear the bright orangeness of the carpet in the first recording, can't you? And the light grey, by contrast, sounds...well, it's hard to put my finger on it, but wow.

p.s. I'm kidding. Nobody can hear the color of the carpet on a recording. Some of you are too easy.   :)   Merry 4th day of Christmas

p.p.s. Anybody notice that last sentence is missing a period?

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