Monday, June 30, 2014

You say goodbye, I say hello

We said farewell to our pipe organ yesterday.

If you're not in the loop, what's happening is that the pipe organ at Faith United Methodist Church in Champaign, Illinois, USA, where I am organist, is getting a new console and extensive work is being done to essentially correct a problem with the electronic relay system that has been an issue since the organ was installed in 1984 and has been growing steadily worse. Digitizing the console will fix the problems (among which are the distressing random appearances of notes that won't play across several ranks of pipes) and add some new features (like 100 memory levels! woohoo!).

This means, however, that our organ is going to be out of commission for the entire month of July and probably most or all of August.

No problem, says our mild mannered organist, dashing into the nearest phone booth (if he can still find one--maybe the cell phone dealer down the street will do). He emerges just moments later as....a pianist!


I know. It's a real shocker. The author of Pianonoise: the blog (the breakfast cereal is still in negotations, and the movie is in contract disputes) is actually a pianist. I don't blame you for forgetting about that since I've spent the last month almost exclusively at the organ, trying to spend as much time with it as possible while I still could. But, truth be told, I'm a little relieved, because now I have an excuse to give the piano some attention. All of it, actually.

Yesterday, we sent the organ out with a blazing finale. I played the D major Fugue of Bach (Bwv 532) which has a very exciting pedal part which no one was able to see with the console tucked away in the corner away from the congregation (hint hint, guys, you can still pitch in for the dolly that will let us move the new console out onto the floor). But it was thrilling nonetheless. While I was procuring the score for the fugue I came across this recording of the work on the piano. It also includes the prelude, which I played on Palm Sunday 2013, as well as the fugue which follows, which I meant to get around to last year but was just a little too busy preparing a piano recital at the same time (which was a year ago tomorrow, and featured the works of civil war-era touring virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk. You can check out the current pianonoise radio program to hear the music at (right hand side below the "new on the blog" box) and read blogs about the experience in the menu on the left, all on the homepage of this week.)

Another year has come--this time no June recital, so I've gotten around to the fugue. Here are my recordings of both of those works:


Now, I am not a large fan of transcription, although, for occasional fun and frolic, I have indulged in a few of them on pianonoise. Mostly, though, I prefer to play works written for the organ on the organ, works written for the piano (or the harpsichord) on the piano, and works written for the banjo I leave well enough alone.

But it can also be interesting to hear someone reinterpret a work in a different medium, particularly if they do it well. Here is a link to the International Score Library Project page which features a recording by pianist Martha Goldstein. It is interesting to here all of the Romantic grandeur from her performance: the octave bass to give the piece more gravity (and after all, an organist would probably be using stops in different octaves anyway). the lavish rubato, leaning on certain notes to give them expressive properties, and then dashing away in a shower of sound. One thing I find particularly interesting is the very opening, when the pianist, probably realizing that the opening flourish is played with the organist's feet, assumes that that would mean it would have to be played slowly! Of course, in the recording above, I actually use my feet and that doesn't slow me down a bit. There are other spots after that when the pianist seems to be trying to evoke a particular feeling of grandeur to compensate for the piano not actually being (her idea of ?) an organ. It is, at times, the complete opposite approach to the one I took--but then, I didn't have to worry about communicating grandeur so much on an actual pipe organ! Well, you listen:,_BWV_532_(Bach,_Johann_Sebastian)

Scroll down the page under "recordings" until you get to the one on the piano.

Friday, June 27, 2014

X marks the Bombard!

After years of playing the organ at Faith UMC in Champaign, Illinois, I discovered an incredible secret. Dan Brown has yet to write a book about this but, (hold your breath) inside a crevice in the console of our organ was an amazing find. It was a the organ! (It may have been left by a secret French brotherhood in the 5th century--or our organ builder; I'm not sure).

Most musical instruments do not take up several rooms, and thus, it is not so important to have a map. Our organ tuner doesn't seem to need one because he knows the make-up of the organ quite well and can guess expertly at what he can't remember, if there is anything in that category. He knows our organ well. I'm learning it also.

What you see on Sunday morning as you look above the altar are only a few of the pipes which belong to the organ. It's probably about a quarter of the instrument. These pipes are "on display" which is where the french got the term "montre," but the Germans call them "principles" and the English "foundations." They make up the basic, foundational sound of the organ. Loud enough to carry a congregation, but rather plain and flutelike in tone, the foundation stops were not intended to whisper, so their pipes are out in front and cannot be made softer (or louder) through any means except choosing not to play them!

But behind those pipes, some of which belong to the upper keyboard, some to the lower, and some to the pedal (particularly those really tall pipes on the right, the tallest of which is 16 feet), there are three rooms filled with pipes that you've never gotten to see...until now. They are all behind shutters, which can be opened and closed by depressing the "gas" pedal on the console. Full throttle means they are wide open and allow the sound of the pipes behind them to escape into the sanctuary. When the shutters are closed, the pipes are doing their same fine job of making sound, but it is now being muffled by the wooden shutters. We organists call these "under expression" meaning we have dynamic control over those groups of pipes.

Just what is back there? I estimate there are over a thousand pipes on our organ. I'll have to ask our technicians for a closer guess. We've got around 20 stops, which means there are over twenty sets of pipes, each set of which would have to have about 60 pipes, one for each note on the keyboard, though a couple of stops don't go down the whole way. And there are a few with more than one pipe per note (I'll explain in a few weeks).

In order to get to these, you have to ascend a ladder. At the top, if you aren't careful, you'll bump into the chimes. Once in the pipe room you are greeted by this:

An assortment of pipes, large and small, in groups, each of which is responsible for a particular sound on the organ. The are pipes are made of metal or wood. Some are capped at the top, most are open. The wooden pipes are square, the metal ones round. They range in size from 16 feet tall to only an inch or so. A few look like rockets and look like they have dipsticks.

There isn't much room to walk around so you have to be careful not to trip or fall; that could be one expensive trip!

It is on overwhelming experience to see a pipe room for the first time, but that is what our map is for. The organ's designer has found a place for everything, and that design is logical and fascinating. In future installments, we'll find out what some of these specific groups of pipes are for and how they combine to make the organ such an awesome instrument.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Thinking outside the page turn

I was inspired to reveal some of my secrets involving unorthodox page turning by a recent blog I read in which it was suggested that one simply leave out some notes in the left hand in order to turn a page. This is a simple way to do it, although I am rarely given to simple answers when a more complicated one will produce better results (even when hardly anyone will notice). Also not one to leave out any notes whenever possible, I have often resorted to some fairly drastic measures in order to keep the musical flow smooth and unhindered; over time I have built up a fairly large repertoire of page turning schemes, involving at times a good deal of creativity.

First, we scan the work at hand for place where the player can safely manipulate the score without having to leave out notes. These may not coincide with the ends of pages at all, and may be anywhere on the page: near the top, the middle, the end, and so forth. This is made possible by a revolutionary technique, which we may refer to as that "one weird trick" which music publishers don't want you to know about (it is not, however, illegal).

Photocopying one or more pages of a piece you have already purchased. That way, you do not have to make the page turns where the publisher has put them; you can decide their placement yourself. These additional pages will in all probably be unbound which allows for more than a simple turn, but will also allow you to slide, add, remove, or flip that page out of the way when needed. Thus armed with these additional options, you may scan the entire piece for friendly places (such as passages for only one hand) in which a page turn might be made easily. If there are only two places among the seven pages where the composer has allowed you to play with one hand, divide the entire piece into three units so that the page turn may be made at those places. You may then 1) add a page or pages that were previously not on the music rack, such as on the bench next to you, on the horizontal part of the music stand or on top of the instrument, 2) take one or more pages away to reveal others positioned beneath them, 3) having taped several pages together, send them all to the floor with one heroic tumbling action, to reveal others, so long as the breeze created by your vehement action hasn't dislodged them too, 4) play one of the pages from memory, or from someplace other than the music rack, such as positioning it behind you and playing it by looking in a rear view mirror. This last I have never actually tried. Let me know how it goes.

I am also a proponent of memorizing a few measures (or lines) for those places where the publisher is obviously laughing at you by placing a dense forest of notes from the beginning of the last line of the page to the end of the first line of the next page.

We'll begin with something simple: the removal method. This week's postlude contains 8 pages. Four pages tall (and not in that annoying "organ" format in which the pages are so wide that it takes five Medieval "page-boys" to turn them)--four pages in standard format will fit on my music rack. This makes it easy to have the entire piece in front of me, in two parts. I have arranged the pages so that the first four, loose and single, are each facing me directly so that I can play them all left to right without doing anything, and the last four are likewise in order behind them. It is only necessary to remove each of the first four pages as it is finished, or sometime before the page behind it will have to be played. Many times I can do that myself, although this week I may have a page "turner" do it. Sometimes a single friendly passage for one hand alone will allow me to remove multiple pages using this method. The charm of this style of page turning is that if there is at least one passage for a single hand anywhere in the first four pages I can remove several at once; there need not be more than one or two such places in the music in which one hand is free, since it is not necessary to turn each page separately. This also means that a page turner does not need to be timely about removing the pages; just as long as the first page has been removed some time after I have played it and before I get to page five and the second page is gone before I get to page six everything will be fine.

Now for the slide method: Another way to assemble pages is to have them in two columns: an inbox and an outbox. As you begin playing a page in the right hand column, have the page turner slide the page across to the left hand column slowly so that you can follow its progress as it is moved, and then will have the ease of playing the following page when you are ready. The advantages of this are that if the pages are loose you do not have to worry about a violent turn upsetting your pages; your page turner does not have to be quick about it either, so if you have a slow page turner (mine always are) you will not need them to get you to the next page on time. This is particularly useful if you are virtually sight-reading for a concert (which happens to me regularly) and are worried that a tardy page turn will leave you with no idea what to play while it dawns on your page turner that all your hissing and spluttering is a gentle reminder that you are already two and a half lines into the next page.

If you have to do this yourself, of course, this is one solid way to deal with a situation in which it is quite simple to "turn" the page while you are playing a passage in the middle of the page, and next to impossible by the time you have gotten to the end.

To sum up: page "turning" really consists of four basic types:

Often a satisfyingly difficult problem can be gotten over by a combination of just two of these. To wit:

Last week's go at Bach's "St. Anne" fugue involved a plan where I played the first two pages (the first section), and then, while starting the second section with my left hand alone, slid that page to the left while I was playing it with my free right hand (which requires some dexterity) to expose the page following. I had made an extra copy of that page so there was nothing on the back side of that page. Having positioned the page which followed to that page's right, I could then play all of the three following pages without any further adjustment, until I got to the beginning of the third section where Bach again gives us a few measures with a single voice. At that point I turned the page I was currently playing, having memorized the last line of it, and was able to play that page and the two following it until the conclusion of the entire fugue, all by making two quick moves when the music allowed it.

Since there are places for four pages on my music rack, the opening placement of the pages looked like this:


After sliding page 3 to the left, which had page 4 behind it:


And finally, having turned page 4 over so that page 5, which was on its back, was visible, and also page 6, which was behind it:


It isn't easy to get through an entire Bach fugue without having to leave out any notes and being able to turn all the pages by yourself. But the results were worth it. Plus, if you have any strange corner of your brain that likes logic problems, this is a good way to give it exercise. And once you get started in the area of page-turnology there are really infinite solutions. And you will be a big hit at parties. Just check with the host about when they want everyone to leave.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Keep in front of it and don't bail out!

Call it just another exciting afternoon of organ practice.

I'm out of town for a few days visiting my folks and needed a place to practice this coming Sunday's organistic extravaganza (we're losing the use of the console for two months this summer if you hadn't heard and this week is the finale).  As a resourceful fellow I had asked my parents if it would be ok to practice at their church. They asked the organist, who said it was ok, and then checked with the office, who put me on the schedule for a couple of hours in the afternoon. So I headed out there to give their organ a workout.

I had been warned that this might be a tough week to get any practice. It is Vacation Bible School week for the kids all morning every day this week, and there is a funeral tomorrow afternoon of a beloved pastor. But things looked promising.

As I got to the sanctuary, however, it turned out that one of their staff was assembling the multimedia for tomorrow's memorial service, which is going to be quite involved (and was planned by the deceased pastor who died of cancer; I met her a few times and she seemed just like the vivacious, lovely person everybody else says she was. Apparently she would have loved the fact that the VBS decorations were festooning the sanctuary for her funeral service.) I had a nice chat with the guy in the sound booth; a very nice fellow. I told him I worked in a church and knew what it was like to have lots of things going on at the same time and to have to adjust to them. He was sympathetic and suggested I try back in the evening; I said I would check with the office to see if the sanctuary was free then. Then I tried to find my way out of the building to go home and practice piano instead (one should always have a plan B).

On my way through the building (I'm still trying to figure the place out since the recent construction and additions) I met the secretary again; then the pastor, who happened to mention that there was an electronic organ in the chapel. Of course! Our own church has three worship spaces, each with an instrument, and sometimes I have to duck into one of the others when the first one doesn't pan out. We only have one organ, though; they have two. Well, kind of. It was electronic, and I wasn't sure it would work out but a voice inside told me to try it anyhow.

It had two full manuals and a full pedal board, so despite the tinny sound and some keys that stuck, I logged about 90 minutes of practice. The organ was back in the corner and felt a little constricted so the extensive pedal work in the piece was an additional challenge, or to put it another way, I had the privilege of figuring out how to deal with an additional challenge.

While I was practicing, the guy from the sanctuary (Jack, the equivalent of our Doug, the business manager) popped his head in and said he'd be done sooner than he had thought, so I got to spend the last half hour on the sanctuary organ.

This provided an additional challenge. That organ has three manuals, rather than the two I play in Illinois (the one I regularly played in Baltimore had three but that's been nearly a decade) so the dimensions were different. The pipes were also on the other side of the church, about 40 feet away, so there was some delay between hitting the keys and hearing the sound. I adjusted to that rather well, which is a useful thing for an organist to be able to do, and because of the wet acoustics I took a slower tempo, probably also useful as a practice strategy five days before the service on a piece that it is tempting to try to fly through. For an organist, being able to adjust to a different instrument and a different acoustic is particularly important because there is a wide range in both; any appearance in somebody else's church for a service or a concert is going to require figuring out a new situation fast and dealing with it well.

So what did we learn? Despite the unpromising beginnings I had a very useful day of practice. It always helps to

be flexible
be cheerful
be ready for anything
talk to people and find things out
be ready to adjust to new acoustic situations and different angles

Or, as our friend Dr. Craig Jessop likes to say, "work hard; be nice."

On my way to the church this afternoon I heard someone on the radio talking about seeing frustration as a tool rather than an obstacle. It turned out to be the theme for the day. Just the right combination of being ready to adjust and being ready to take advantage of any opportunity (persistence) paid off. Plus I met or re-met several of the really friendly folks at Sycamore Presbyterian, and got the kind of practice that you only get in unusual situations, which is a rare and valuable kind of practice. You can't practice dealing with tricky situations except when you are in them!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Everything old is new again

If you were a pipe organ (now that Barbara Walters is retired I get to ask the silly questions*)--you would, naturally, be a very complicated instrument with a very elaborate maintenance schedule of regular tunings, occasional repairs large and small to pipes and wind-related accessories alike, and perhaps the electronic switches that sometimes accompany them. And, hopefully, all of this would proceed on schedule and with regular diligence.

But there are many times when a pipe organ suffers from years of neglect. Often there simply isn't the money. Or the public concern, which is really saying the same thing, isn't it?

In our town, the "mighty" Wurlitzer in our Virginia Theater limped along for years with the help of one dedicated individual who--they say--used rubber bands, duct tape, and whatever else he could to keep the old organ up and running. He passed away a few years ago, and as a great restoration project was under way to restore the old Vaudeville theater to a new luster (every town in America has an old abandoned theater from the 1920s, and everyone has either undertaken a restoration project or demolished their theater; otherwise it just sits there and looks forlorn and ugly.) the organ, also, got a significant overhaul from our own Buzard organ builders, headquartered in Champaign, Illinois. They did a fine job. It was great fun to play the beast before the New Year's Eve show this past year; much more enjoyable than when half of the notes didn't work! (I remember naively transposing pieces into every key I could think of and finally giving up because there were so many notes missing that it didn't matter.) Here's a page about that organ.

That organ dates from 1921 which makes it historic for America. But here's a site about a much older organ than that. It dates from 1776, and is currently being completely restored.

This is, you can imagine, a much larger project than the one we are engaged in at Faith UMC. There, we are only replacing the console and the electronic relay system. The pipes will not be touched, nor does the instrument stand in need of major repair outside of the electronic parts. It is an expensive project nonetheless, but the project at the Holy Ghost Church in Vilnius, Lithuania has been proceeding in stages for nearly a decade and at a cost of over half a million dollars. There the organ had to be rescued from a state of complete unplayability, it seems, and is receiving a complete overhaul. Funding is coming in large part from the Lithuanian government and there is also an ongoing fundraising campaign.

Why go to all that trouble and expense? Organists like to quote Mozart, who said that to his eyes and ears "the organ is the king of instruments." He didn't trouble to write anything for it, but he gave us a nicely authoritative quote. Not only is it the king, each organ is unique to the builder and usually represents the work of many months (or years). A master builder may produce an instrument revered the world over. Organists know their Shnitgers and Silbermanns and Cavaille-Colls and Flentrops and Bekeraths, their Harrison and Harrisons and their Willises and their Clicquots and Trosts and--got the point?

And their Casparinis. Mr. Casparini hasn't left behind too many surviving organs (neither did Gottfried Silbermann, which is just a darned shame because we'd get to play Bach on a "Bach instrument" more often--unfortunately Europeans also like to have things called wars every so often, which are vastly more expensive than organ restoration projects and--get this--do quite the opposite!--so there are fewer historic instruments than there might be.

In any case, you might find those pages an interesting read, unless perhaps I am simply so much of a nerd that I wax enthusiastically about things that you find a snooze. But it is worth a try. One reason people don't often rush out and donate to the arts in general, and projects like this in particular is that they have so little encounter with, and knowledge of, the subject matter. In future installments of this blog we're going to take a little tour through the history of this amazing instrument and visit the parts of it that you don't get to see on Sunday morning.

In the meanwhile, we can be glad our organ still works and is not in need of something more serious--and that, with proper maintenance and the occasional course correction--it never will be.

*You'll note, however, that I refrained from asking "what pipe organ would you be?" Due to the immense buzz that would generate it will have to wait for a future post. Meanwhile, you can be thinking about that at your leisure. Don't all want to be the grand organ at St. Sulpice, now.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

piano vs. organ, round two

First, the obvious. We know that an organ can easily out-shout a piano, so if sheer volume is your thing the organ is the clear winner--at least if your particular model has any size on it. The one at Faith church can hold its own with a 40 piece brass band and even a dozen bagpipes (frankly, I could have blown either of them away if I'd pulled out all the stops, although I'll admit the bagpipes did give me some pause!)

The organ can, under other circumstances, whisper as well, though the organ at Faith finds this a challenge, one which is exacerbated by the fact that the softest string stop is not complete--if you want access to the lowest octave you have to use the louder of the two string stops on the Great manual--not a thunderstorm, exactly, but less of a zephyr than otherwise.

However, the piano purrs in a way that the organ does not, and, having been raised as a pianist, I still admit to preferring the basic tone of the piano. I will state frankly that I think most congregants do as well, for better and worse. There is a lot one can do with it; it dies as it speaks, it varies ever so slightly with each note, it is intimate and friendly (and familiar--there used to be one in every home). By contrast many people find the basic organ sound disagreeable. A pity, especially with so many fascinating sounds to choose from--an organist is basically commanding the sound of an orchestra. But it is an orchestra that is missing a piano.

The piano is also the better instrument if you have an inferiority complex. These days I am mainly "reduced" to practicing on a 7 foot Steinway, which is two feet shorter than the instruments concert artists prefer and most concert halls have. There is a difference between those Steinway D's that festoon the concert hall and the model B of pianonoise fame, but it is not nearly so great as the difference between the organ at Faith church and the organ at St. Paul's cathedral. A piano's size does matter, but there is only a two foot difference between our B and the largest pianos in the world (o.k., at least one firm makes a 10 foot piano but it doesn't seem to be considered an improvement), whereas some of the grand organs in European cathedrals are many, many times larger than our organ, and feature pipes that you can actually walk through they are so large.

Large, and complicated. As I've mentioned before, the organ is a great instrument for problem solving. It has a large number of switches, knobs and buttons which allow not only for all manner of different ranks of pipes to be activate, producing different sounds, but it allows the player to manipulate and mix those sounds together by either transferring those sounds from one keyboard to another or to add sounds an octave above or below without actually having to play those notes. If the organ has an electric action, you can pre-program combinations of stops and activate them with the touch of a finger or the swift (friendly) kick of the toe. This gives the organist lots of power, not only in volume but in variety; however, it also frightens people with its complexity. My pastor sent me this comic the other day that illustrates the problem:

(that's from which you should check out if you found that funny)

This may be why organists don't seem to have as many friends. It is a very specialized instrument. Organ enthusiasts share their love for the organ with other organ enthusiasts. At least with a piano there is a chance you will find someone from outside the ranks willing to listen. A partial shame there, too. Whenever I am in a room with lovers of the piano I feel like an organ apologist, but when confronted with the bigotry of organists I assume the same defensive posture with regard to the piano. Why not have both?

A piano, of course, cannot hold it own in a large cathedral, but most of our churches are not such monuments of stone, and have pianos as well. Ours has both and I wander easily from one to the other. Acoustically it is a little wet for the piano, and a touch dry for the organ, but it is not a bad compromise (Methodists tend to be in the middle of the road in a lot of other ways, also.)

That allows for a lot of variety both for me and our congregants, and allows me to draw from a very rich heritage. The organ goes back to before written music, and has about 7 centuries from which to select it. Most of its contemporary repertoire seems to be limited to Europe and America, though--the organ may be catching on in other parts of the world, but it is too expensive to be enjoyed everywhere. The piano only goes back to 1700; playing Bach on one is still a controversial decision, but it has a vibrant present and future in terms of the size and scope of the literature. Still the quality and quantity of works produced for either instrument is enormous. Another draw.

It is nice to be able to fight over something that does not draw blood or result in massive property damage, and so you won't hear partisans squabbling over the superiority of their favorite musical instrument on the evening news ("hey! hey! equal time for the banjo!" somebody yells from the back). The woods are full of secretly overwhelmed pianists sniffing that the organ isn't a worthwhile pursuit anyway, and organists looking down their spectacles at an instrument that doesn't even take up an entire room, and with a pedigree than doesn't go back to the English Civil War (can you believe it?!). Meanwhile, I am on both sides of the line, which is a great way to get shot by both sides.

But I get to have a lot more fun than either of you. So there.

Monday, June 16, 2014

So which is it?

This week I'm finally officially cataloging Mendelssohn's second Organ Sonata, part of a project I had this spring to play three of them at my church (in nine separate movements--truly my congregation has had enough Mendelssohn to last a little). I couldn't let it go by without interpretive comment, however. It all has to do with that little phrase in Italian affixed to the head of the movement; that being the tempo marking. It reads: Allegro maestoso e vivace.

Now I love a good musical mystery as much as the next guy. And this certainly is one. We've all got allegro figured out: Italian for fast (actually Italian for happy, but musicians have decided one means the other). But Mendelssohn couldn't leave such a pedestrian description well enough alone and appended two additional prescriptive adjectives, and it is these last two adjective that get me.

Maestoso, meaning majestic, which ordinarily makes one think of proceeding more slowly. I remember observing to a student, "you've never seen a king run, have you?" It's undignified. It's something the peasants do, when they're being chased by the king's enforcers.

Vivace, meaning lively. Just the opposite. Speed that up a little, will, you? Give it some juice.

So what we seem to have here is fast, but a slower shade of fast, but with plenty of movement.

Oye veh.

This is a candidate to be one of my favorite tempo markings, along with Molto Moderato, which I think hails from the Schubert Bb piano sonata. "Very middle of the road" is how I interpret that one. Extremely not very extreme at all.

Anyhow, you can hear the results of my confusion here. I've tried to take what seemed a good tempo, though I think I might have taken it a bit faster if the composer hadn't hamstrung me with the maestoso in there, and also if I'd been playing the piece for more than a few days.

It underlines how hard it is to communicate something as tricky as art, and reminds me as a composer how easily you can confuse your interpreters. If only he'd made a recording for posterity to ignore. That would have been easier.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The end is possibly a little bit near and will come eventually

I've never been much for apocalyptic doom. Nevertheless, I hear it is a good way to get people's attention.

If you don't do this very important thing right away WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!!

Push that button a little too hard or too often, though, and things tend to backfire.

But here's the situation:

Two weeks ago on this blog I announced the organ renovation project at Faith church this summer. I told how the electronic relay system wasn't doing its job and was started to cause some real problems with notes that wouldn't play in addition to the chronic problem we've had getting replacement parts when the circuit boards that control some of the functions in the console get burned out (one nearly every year). Last week I mentioned that this was going to cost money, and that if you wished to donate to the fund now rather than waiting for the Autumnal Capital Project to start, we wouldn't mind that at all. (Call the church office)

Now before I get to the good stuff, all the exciting new features that digitizing the console will bring to the organ, let's take a walk on the dire side of things. What happens if we don't do this fix now?

Organists can tell you any number of sad stories about churches that have lost their pipe organs, either through neglect, or just not wanting organ music anymore. They do cost a lot to maintain, and for some folks they just aren't worth it. The reason we are even able to get replacement parts for the circuit cards when they stop working is because somewhere another organ has been demolished and we are getting the part from it.  Our organ builder stopped making new parts decades ago.

But I have a personal story to relate. You may have heard pastor Brad talk about the church he had to close right out of seminary. Well, I nearly had to "close" an organ. When I left the organ at my church in Baltimore was still playable but major problems were starting to surface. The church itself was in trouble though as of this writing they are still open. We thought it might close ten years ago. One thing was evident: there wasn't any money to do major repairs to the organ. A couple of years after my move to Illinois, the organ developed too many problems and couldn't be played anymore. Now it just sits there and nobody uses it. A mighty voice has fallen silent.

This makes me personally aware of what might happen eventually if an organ isn't taken care of when it needs to be. And, once in a while, it needs more than a simple tuning and the occasional adjustment. Several years ago the folks at the Buzard organ company warned us that eventually the organ might cease to function properly. The question was how eventually. After a little scare this Christmas when three dead notes developed in the same week, I proposed to Doug that we get the Buzard organ company to submit their proposal with estimate now. After that the organ behaved itself for about a month, but with a record number of phantom dead notes developing this semester, some during Sunday services, I am wondering just how borrowed our time was. I am also particularly glad we are taking action now rather than waiting for the organ to stop working and THEN try to sound the alarm, raise funds, all the while having a non-functioning organ for a year or two while we get our ducks in a row and the organ is repaired.

One way to illustrate this problem might be with last week's offertory.  What you won't hear are the twenty minutes before this recording I spent in frustration trying to coax one of the recalcitrant notes to life before they finally began to work properly. If you want to hear what a passage can sound like with a very important note missing, here is a blog from last Christmas.

It's not pretty. So how concerned should you be? Well, you shouldn't. We are taking care of the problems this summer, possibly just in time. We might have been able to risk another year with an increasingly frustrated organist as issues kept developing without warning. Instead, without needing to preach that the sky is falling, without histrionics, we're doing what Doug and I agreed needed to be done: taking care of the problem once and for all rather than continuing as we had been for the last decade or so: to put band-aids on it and hope we could keep going for a few more years. The necessary committees agreed to the proposal. They should all be congratulated for being so proactive. As a result we will have a healthy, magnificent instrument to help lead worship at Faith for years to come.

Monday, June 9, 2014

piano vs. organ

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) will have noticed an alarming trend. The blog is called pianonoise, and yet it seems to increasingly concern itself with the organ, which is a different instrument entirely. All of the topics entertained here lately are for the older instrument, and a glance at the new recordings in the audio index show that nothing but organ recordings have been posted for the last month. What gives?

It is a little embarrassing, I'll give you that. For the second time in the site's history the piano side of the catalog was running neck and neck with the organ side and then the organ portion did the same thing it did last year and took off with the prize. I do have an explanation for all this, however.

Mainly it is that this summer at our church the organ is undergoing some major renovations, and will be completely out of service for the months of July and August. Therefore, if the organ and I are going to spend any quality time together it had better be now. As a result of which the piano is being almost completely ignored. But a month from now that situation will be reversed.

The other reason for the predominance of the organ is however, that I am also an organist. Not just a guy who plays the organ. I love the instrument. I've become pretty good at playing it. I want to play all the great literature for it, explore all the registrational possibilities, shake the roof with its magnificence, and I don't care who knows it. Even if that is pretty much a ticket to musical geekdom of the first order. Too bad.

And what is most interesting over the past couple of years when my interest in the musical behemoth really took off is that I can see, from the heights of my enthusiasm, why organists are so dismissive of the piano whenever they condescend to even think about it in print. I don't share their smugness or their opinion, but I can see why.

Because when you are engaged in one of the glories of the organ, during those times when that is all I am playing, I think: why could I possibly want to play the piano, anyway?

But, as it happens, I always come back to the piano, eventually, and when I do, I think: what did I ever see in that other instrument?

The two live only a few feet apart from one another in our church sanctuary, and yet their history, and the music written for them, is so different. So is the approach. So is the effect on the listener.

And yet, if I were stranded on a desert island with only a computer and an internet connection (of course--how else could I post my effusions for you?) I'd want both a piano and an organ. The second one would be damnably hard to take care of on a desert island, with the reeds going out of tune every five minutes, and the piano wouldn't be all that maintenance-free either, but all the same, I don't think I could exist without both of them.

The same cannot be said for adherents of the two instruments. In fact, in a room full of everybody except organists I end up being an organ apologist. But I think organists who don't care at all for the piano are really missing out.

I can wax eloquent about each instrument in future installments. In the meantime, here are two pieces of music, as if to say, how, when you listen to this one, can you not love the piano? And how, when you hear this one, can you possibly not love the organ?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Looking for organ donors

This is the second in a series of Friday posts about the reconstruction of our organ console at Faith UMC. A full index is on the home page of this blog.

Here is the "press release" that is going into the bulletin for this Sunday (June 8th) and the church email for next week:

As you read last week, our organ console will be undergoing extensive reconstruction during July and August in order to fix some longstanding issues with its electronic relay system (connecting the keys with the pipes). That is a rather expensive project, though it is only a fraction of what the organ itself would cost if installed today (if you are sitting down I will tell you). The money for the work is to come from Faith's capital campaign which will be launched in the fall, and will also cover a new boiler for the south sanctuary and replacing lights in the worship and life center. In the meantime, however, we are borrowing money to cover the organ repairs which simply could not wait another year. We would welcome donations to the "organ fund."

In addition, persons interested in helping to purchase a dolly for the organ should see Doug Abbott in the church office ( Because the new system will replace the morass of cables with a single CAT-5 cable to connect the console with the pipes, it will be possible to render the console portable, which would mean it could be moved to the center of the floor for organ concerts. This dolly comes at an additional cost of $2,750 and is not part of the current budget. But if you are so moved, we would love to make the organist's feet visible at an organ re-dedication concert in September!

Dr. Michael Hammer, organist

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Rank Amateur

I'm a professional musician. I even have degrees in it. I've played at Carnegie Hall. But that doesn't mean I'm an expert in everything.

My degrees are in piano performance. All three of them (including a doctorate). But in matters of playing the organ I have no training at all. Which has made my life very interesting these last few years, since my major source of income involves playing a keyboard instrument for which I am not officially prepared. It's like getting paid for your hobby.

Not that I don't have a head start. But the two instruments aren't really all that much alike. I've always been able to play the pedals, however. I've been playing the organ in churches since I was a teenager, and I do a lot of improvisation, so I could always get a congregation to believe that I was a qualified organist even though I've always thought of myself as a fake one.

This isn't rare. A lot of church organists are actually pianists in disguise. Some of them don't play the pedals at all, or seldom. Many or most have no idea what all those knobs are for and don't use those much either. I have spent a lot of time in years past using boring or ineffective organ registrations.

When I finished school I started to spend a lot more time on the organ, learning the great literature written for the instrument. Since I had progressed so far on the piano and had friends who were world class organists I was well aware of my deficiencies. But I love a challenge. And the organ is a glorious instrument.

And there was the internet. At first I used to walk to the library at the university to check out books of organ music, but in recent years I can discover new pieces, download the music, hear lots of people play them, and learn all sorts of things about organs without leaving my living room. Some day that is going to seem routine, but I can remember the days before you could do that. Way back near the dawn of the century. Nearly a whole decade ago. Before Youtube, even. Or Wikipedia. Or even, before Google. I think dinosaurs may have roamed the earth.

I've watched fine organists play and watched their pedal technique. I've read (and asked) about registration. I've spent hours experimenting on our church's instrument. I've read about organ building and the properties of pipes. I'm a slow learner in this area and need to hear some of these things again until they start to make sense. That's usually how things work at first--slowly. Then the pace of learning accelerates because you have some context for the information you are receiving and are more heavily invested in it, are passionate, and also because not only do you know what you know but you are really able to focus on what you don't know (because finally you are aware of that, too).

A number of beginner organists, recently converted from the piano, have started blogs chronicling their adventures. Even though I'm up the tracks a bit given my pianistic ability and long history with the organ, I can feel the enthusiasm of the amateur when I take on the organ, each time there is something I didn't know yesterday, or I tackle a new part of the repertoire. This week I'm giving my congregation my first de Grigny.

de Grigny was part of the classical French school, which means there are a lot of rules regarding organ registration. I was afraid I had run afoul of one of them the other day when I recorded the following piece, but it turns out I was right, though I can't always distinguish a plein jeu from a grand plain jeu in the dark without thinking about it--yet. For most of you, who are thinking, sure, whatever, this is obviously of no particular excitement to you. It is a matter of specialized knowledge--nerd adrenaline. My third-year medical student wife didn't know about ideopathic relapsing febrile non-superative panniculitis until recently either. But's it enriched both our lives. Well, trying to remember how to say it has. I'm no doctor. But it sure sounds cool (and happens to be a rather nasty disease).

Anyway, I've got lots of folks on the internet to help keep me in line, and I'm still trying to improve my craft. And having some fun along the way.

Here's a bit of Pentecost music: de Grigny's "Come, Creator Spirit" -- part one.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Who really wrote the 8 short preludes and fugues? (part three)

Youtube can be a nasty place. Most of you already know this, and my pointing it out is rather like telling you that dogs have been known to bite people. People can bite people, too, in the comments section.

People get easily frustrated with other people who don't see things their way, particularly when they badly want something to be true and someone tells them that it isn't. As it happens, I've finally gotten around to finishing the 8 short preludes and fugues that I started recording back in the fall. It was a purely extracurricular activity fighting for time and space in and around other obligations and desires, so it got sidetracked for a while, but last week I got around to the last two. The last one's a charming little piece, even if the fugue needs a little help to make it go.

As I sometimes do, after, and only after, I had recorded my own version, I went online to see what someone else's version sounded like. This is where I ran into the Youtube wars. Anytime someone posts one of these pieces someone has to point out that there are people who believe J. S. Bach didn't write them. Usually this is done simply as a statement of (apparent) fact. This is then met with angry comments about musicologists, the dogmatism of the comment posters, and various other things.

I mentioned last fall (when I promised another installment a week later!) that I, also, am a heretic, in that I think it is unlikely that Bach wrote these pieces. Having not played these pieces for almost three decades, since I was a teenage organist, I've only come to that opinion recently, and I don't hold it as a matter of unshakeable belief. I am willing to listen to argument, and I am particularly interested to read what scholars have had to say about this, though as of yet I still haven't gotten around to the library to do some research into the matter. I have, of course, already let fly with some of the thoughts I've had while playing the pieces and what leads me in the direction of Krebs', rather than Bach's, authorship.

I think it is important to note that I am not dismissive of those who spend their lives studying these sorts of things (musicologists) and that I don't believe being an expert makes you an idiot whom any regular person could best with superior logic (ie, common sense). Nevertheless, musicologists are not gods, either, and they do have biases and do make mistakes, sometimes even egregious ones. I will want to know what they are saying.

For now, it is easy to see what uninformed people on Youtube are saying, because their comments are available without going to the library or signing on to read a journal article. Here is one--it is typical. One of the commenters, one David White, had to point out that musicologists believe Bach didn't write the piece being played in the video, to which another person responded with attempted sarcasm:

Amazing! Another musical genius lived in the same time as J. S. Bach, and we've never heard of him, yet we have his music, and it comes to us ascribed to J. S. Bach and sounds like his music... yet we somehow KNOW it wasn't Bach?

This is some comment. Not on its merits, however. While I can sympathize with the emotional state of ccoraxfan, I think that it is mostly emotion that speaks here, rather than knowledge. ccoraxfan doesn't like it at all that David White has suggested that Bach is not the composer, (without, I should add, saying anything to back it up) and, when challenged, as many of us do, lets fly with what he or she thinks is a pretty fine example of logic. But let's take the clauses one at a time. There are a lot of incorrect assumptions here, all clustered together. ccoraxfan and I are a long way apart in the way we see the universe. My 42 year old self who is writing to you and my teenage self who first played (and enjoyed) some of these pieces are also at a great distance from each other. Maybe there is a chance to bridge some of it. There are risks associated with my strategy. Of course, when you don't agree with someone you can shout at them, which makes you a jerk, or you can patiently try to explain things to them, which may make you seem patronizing. Also a jerk, perhaps. In which case, I apologize. At least I tried.

"Another musical genius lived in the time of Bach, and we've never heard of him..."

Actually, quite a few other composers lived in the time of Bach, and people who study music in this time period, as well as top rank musicians performing this music, have heard of them. Persons who are not expert in this area often have not. When a professional academic challenges the authorship of someone they usually have in mind someone else who could have been the author, based on a close comparison of stylistic traits in the known music of the author and the unknown piece. This is what led to the theory that it was Johann Ludwig Krebs (or his father Tobias) who actually wrote these pieces. There is no manuscript in Bach's writing, either, and the works do exist among Krebs papers. That doesn't make them automatically his, though. Composers did copy one another's works for study by hand. It is mainly the stylistic characteristics of the pieces that make the case for this lesser known composer. Now if it makes you feel any better, ccoraxfan, other than the name, I myself knew next to nothing about Johann Ludwig Krebs until about a year ago, when I played some of his music and saw for myself that there were some similarities between those pieces and the 8 little preludes and fugues. I do not consider this opinion fully formed--I am not an expert on this--but it was enough to peak my interest and to consider his authorship might make sense. As to him being a musical genius, that is actually part of the point. I don't consider these pieces to be works of genius; I don't consider Krebs to be a genius, either, so we have a match. You may feel otherwise, which is where we will have to leave the matter.

"...and yet we have his music and it comes to us ascribed to J. S. Bach and sounds like his music..."

In fairness to ccoraxfan this music was once thought to have been the music of Bach himself. By at least one expert. But then, early Bach biographers did tend to make mistakes, most embarrassingly in the case of Phillip Spitta, who showed how superior certain pieces which Bach had written were to the inferior efforts of some of his contemporaries. It later turned out that some of those pieces which were too good to have been written by those lesser composers actually were the work of said lesser composers.

But when ccoraxfan asserts that the music "comes to us ascribed to J. S. Bach" what he's apparently unaware of is that that was then. There has been more research and more thinking on the subject since then. Sometimes "we" (collectively) change our minds. That is confusing for the population at large, who grew up being taught to walk against traffic and then somebody comes along and says you should walk with traffic and then they change their minds again, or a glass of wine  a day turns out to be good for your heart but then it can lead to various forms of cancer....

I sympathize. I also realize that musicological journals are not distributed to everybody, and that we can't all possibly know the latest findings in all branches of knowledge. On the other hand, most of us probably wouldn't pay attention even if these things were readily available in snack-sized broadcasts on our favorite media outlet. And having an attitude of contempt toward all those "pinheads" who come forth with challenges to what we thought we knew doesn't make it likely we're going to care either. It would be nice it people were kinder toward musicologists and the musicologists tried harder to disseminate and explain their findings. As it is, it is like most things. Lack of understanding and lack of good will breeds wars. But at least nobody is getting shot over it, that I know of.

Then ccoraxfan claims that it "sounds like Bach" which is also at issue. Of course it doesn't sound like Sondheim. It sounds like music written in the Baroque period by a German. It has the stamp of the time and place on it. But it does not necessarily have Bach's individual character in it. Someone else in his time and place, say a student of his, perhaps (which is exactly what Krebs was) could have written it. But unless you know the "Bach circle"--and most non-experts won't have heard of most of their names--you will certainly feel it sounds like Bach, particularly if you can't think of anyone else whose music sounds at all similar. Once you know the contemporaries of, say, Mozart, you realize that a lot of what Mozart was doing is not unique to him; it is part of how composers in general worked at the time in his part of the world. Could you tell, for instance, if I played you some Salieri? So with Bach, and other people who were not J. S. Bach but lived at the same time and wrote similar music.

"...yet somehow we KNOW it wasn't Bach?"

The final part of this sentiment is designed to paint ccoraxfan's opponents as inflexible dogmatists who are just SO CERTAIN of themselves, when, as far as I can tell, we aren't. Maybe some people are. I am not. Scholars tend not to be, because they are particularly aware of how a change in evidence can produce a change in results. But it shows that a person whose certainty is challenged often accuses others of that very thing. And, quite often, it is the other person's burden to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that they are correct in their assertion, namely that Bach did not write those pieces, because otherwise, without needing any proof of it themselves, they will assume that he did. As I have stated, the critical assumption here in the minds of the frustrated comment-leavers is that Bach is great, these pieces are great, and to deny Bach's authorship is basically to cast aspersions on great pieces. One really cannot win against an ironclad belief like that.

It is not, however, my intention to win, but simply to try to explain what kinds of things musicologists know about music that other people frequently do not, and why they might come to the strange conclusions that seem to upset everybody.

What to read more? On to part four....