Friday, July 25, 2014

There she goes!

A couple of weeks ago, it happened. Five people from the Buzard organ company came and took away our organ console.

When you see a truck this big parked outside of your
 church, you know something is going on!

On the left, that is an action shot of a guy moving a small board for some reason. He is not clubbing our old console to death--we are going to need it again!

After removing the top of the console, and the board below the keyboard, I had a nice view of the circuitry inside. Some of it goes back technologically 100 years.

Those solinoids aren't the problem, however. It is the more recent, 1980s technology that has been causing the problems with our relay system. 

Those guys are a lot like the cards inside your computer. They burn out any time we take a lightning strike (which happens every summer) and need to be replaced by cards that have to be gotten from somebody else's defunct organ--new ones are no longer being made. They are a major reason behind this repair.

We are also hoping to lose a few of those cables in the big bundles inside. I had been joking that you practically needed to call Julie (the utility company's phone line that can tell where all the underground cables are) before you moved the organ console.

Before he cut the bundle of cables, irrevocably rendering the console inoperable, he said, dramatically, "are you sure you want to do this?"

I gulped. I had heard the stories about how the largest organ in the world couldn't be played because some workmen had accidentally cut through a thick wad of cables. Yikes.

But it had to be done. So we did. After we spent some time turning off all three circuit boxes potentially sending current in the direction of the organ console and calling in an electrician because the connection was hardwired in and nobody wanted to get electrocuted guessing wrong about how to disconnect it.

The all six of us gingerly guided it down the stairs of the altar area and into the aisle, where it was rolled on dollies out of the church. It left behind this connection out of the floor:

I rolled the piano over top so nobody trips over all of this stuff. Then they put it in a truck and drove away. " ::sob:: I miss my organ console!

I'll visit you in the organ hospital, ok, buddy?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Catching the Flue

The organ at Faith UMC consists of some 1000 or so pipes. Most of them are "flue" pipes. The rest are reeds. Reed pipes are by far the oddest looking, as you can see here. They appear to have little drinking straws protruding from the bottom sections of the pipes. Actually, those tiny pipe cleaners are how you adjust the tuning on those notoriously touchy pipes:

Reed pipes have actual reeds inside them which vibrate when air goes through the pipe, just like a clarinet or a bassoon. Reed pipes supply the "trumpet" and clarinet/oboe sounds on an organ, which I realize is a bit confusing, since a trumpet is not a reed instrument--but on an organ it is. Reeds have a wonderfully nasal sound, as in this french carol I played a couple of Christmases ago. If you hold your nose and say hao hao hao in an exaggerated English-imitating-French manner, you get a vague idea why the French prefer reed stops--they sound a bit like the organ holding its nose, or having a cold, or--but I'm not being very kind to the French. Let's just say they sound delightful.

Daquin: Noel VII

The remaining pipes have no such reeds, and simply make sound as the column of air moving through the pipes vibrates, and the sound escapes out of the aperture at the other end (wherever that is). These are known as "flue" pipes. The first time I saw that term I thought it was a typo. Don't you mean "flute?" I thought.

But flute pipes are something else. They are, in fact, composed of "flue" pipes, but they are only one kind of "flue" pipe. Chimney flutes, for instance, are from the "flute" family of the organ, but they, not being reeds, are composed of simple "flue" pipes.

Hmmm.....flue.....chimney.....I wonder if there's a connection.

Indeed, "chimney flute" pipes (charming name for one particular flute stop on an English organ)--chimney flute pipes do have little chimneys on top--causing the pipes to be partially capped, and forcing the air out through a small hole in the middle:

Unless I'm mistaken, I think the wooden pipes above with those little chimney extensions qualify. On the other hand, chimney flutes can be made of either metal or wood, and the chimney extensions can sometimes actually go down into the pipe instead (so says the encyclopedia of organ stops). So the pipes below may also be them. I'm not the expert, here. I'm just your friendly neighborhood organist. But I'll ask our organ people....

Actually, our organ speaks German, and so the 8 foot flute stop which the English give the rustic appellation chimney flute is instead known as the rohr flute.

It's a lovely sounding stop, although I have to say I actually prefer the "covered" flute--not half covered, but covered completely. Our organ has an 8 foot flute stop on each manual, and the one on the upper manual is a "bourdon" (from the French for "buzzing," apparently) which has a similar sound to the rohr flute, but because the pipe is capped, the air travels up the pipe and then back down---travelling 8 feet when in fact the pipe is only 4 feet tall. It has a slightly darker sound.

Both of these stops can be heard in this little piece by Pietro Yon, who is most famous for the song "Jesu, Bambino" which you hear a lot at Christmas. Mr. Yon wrote this "Toccata" for the "primitive organ" which, you'll recall from earlier installments, basically just consisted of a flute stop or two. In this piece, the only sound you hear is a simple flute stop--well, that and a truck going by near the end. Mr. Yon wrote into the score a pause big enough to drive a truck through and, well, I still have thoughts about throttling that guy for barreling down Prospect Avenue at just the wrong time.

Anyway, have a listen.

Yon, Pietro.  Humoresque l'organ primitiva: Toccatina for Flute

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

blog vacation

For most of my life my yearly schedule has been determined by the school year. Public school, then college, then grad school, all encourage efforts that begin in September, continue through part of May or June, and then allow a sabbatical for a few months before doing it all over again. In college and particularly in graduate school, that rhythm got especially intense: even though the fall semester was only 13 weeks long, it seemed to take at least two weeks at Christmas just to feel like a normal human being again. As the semester rolled on, one fell into the seven day, 18-hour work week, with plenty of stress, constant deadlines and performance pressures of one kind and another.  The second semester picked up right where the first one left off, and by May we were all walking dead. And then came the recitals and the juries. Oh my.

Even since that time, even though I don't teach at the university, I still run on that schedule. The choral organizations I work for run September through May, and the church, which has four services a weekend, a choir, a band, soloists, pageants and performances and all church events, powers up in September and down in June. In July it is practically a ghost town some days.

All of which is to explain to you, reader, why I'm going to take some time off from my hectic three-day a week blogging routine once again. I've been at it now for 2 years, October through the fourth of July. And where last year I had to take an unscheduled absence because my computer died just before I was going to publish my last blog, this year I've already overstayed my welcome and just need the rest. If you need something to read, I'll bet you haven't seen all 200 blogs I've written in the last two years. That should keep you busy.

There is a slight change, though, this time around. I'm in the middle of a weekly blog series on Fridays about the pipe organ, while we at Faith UMC are getting ours repaired and updated. I'll continue to write that 20 part series every Friday, and simply leave off blogging on Mondays and Wednesdays. And I'll resume my normal blogging activities around the first of October.

I'll be using the time to rest, and organize the website and blog. I've also got a project or two up my sleeve (as always). Enjoy your summer, too, before it slips away.

Don't say I didn't warn you!

Monday, July 14, 2014

1001 themes

From theory class to theory class, every professor who wants to be worth his salt always makes this brilliant observation: it's about economy of material.

A gifted composer, taking just four little notes (three of them the same) makes an entire symphonic movement out of just that little theme and no more. Hardly a note exists anywhere on those pages that can't be traced back to the main theme. That's economy.

It isn't easy to do, either. To constantly keep the 'purpose' in view, and not to just wander off whenever you can't concentrate anymore; furthermore, to be able to see a wealth of characteristic possibilities in such a tiny musical idea, to see it from all sides and envision it travelling in all directions: it's still what it was in the beginning, but it has also become something else.

Maybe the rhythm is kept, and the melody is changed. Or just one little interval. Or it's been turned upside down, played backwards, inside out, both upside down AND backwards, elongated, shortened, made to fit a new harmony, tried in a new register (high or low) or a new tone color (on the bassoon instead of the clarinet). It involved experimentation, and innovation, and yet at the same time, being able to never lose sight of that little theme.

It's an amazing way to compose.

Today's little sonata isn't about that method. At all.

Instead, Mr. Haydn pretty much gives us something new to think about every two measures, as if he couldn't stop coming up with new, incongruous little ideas, and festooning his happy little piece with them. Joy, profusion, excitement, and a complete lack of discipline. Which is really odd for Haydn, who is known for making his entire sonata movements be about ONE theme, when nearly everybody else, even the most gifted, would give it at least two.

And yet, eventually, during the traditional "development" section, our prodigious composer does develop a couple of themes. Most of his ideas come and go, replaced by others as fast as he can think of them. But a few stick around and begin to germinate into something else. All the more interesting, then, because the occasion for my recent performance of this work was a church service on the morning when the scripture lesson was Jesus' "parable of the sower." The sower scatters his seed indiscriminately, flinging them everywhere, and most of them fail to grow. But a few do, and produce an amazing crop. My very bright composition student, sitting behind me, caught on to this without my having to tell him.

I think Haydn must have had fun writing this, even if it isn't his best work. A few people pointed out afterward that I seemed to enjoy playing it. I think they enjoyed listening to it, too.

Now it's your turn.

Haydn: Sonata in G, Hob. 6: I. Allegro

Friday, July 11, 2014

All or nothing

When the organ began, it wasn't much larger than my laptop. Able to be placed on a desk, it was a single octave or so of keys attached to a single row of pipes which sounded like flutes. Rich people with time for leisure could play them at home for entertainment. And the organ began to be used for religious festivals and circuses. This was in the days of the Roman Empire, however. When Christianity began to flourish, its practitioners wanted nothing to do with the pipe organ, seeing it as a pagan instrument.

Which is a shame, but it tells you something about humanity. Most people didn't have the vision to think that this instrument could be put to new uses; they were hung up on the associations they already had and couldn't see past them. Even today, most people who don't attend traditional services at churches where the organ is played regularly often think of the instrument only in connection with "the Phantom of the Opera" or some Halloween movies they've seen that feature the organ at full blast playing something awesome and scary.

Full blast--the only organ sound that is available on most synthesizers as representing the sound of an organ. Which is in itself interesting. Interesting, and very outdated, just like the notions of many people alive today. It isn't that people don't often share the very same opinions and ideas about the way things work with the top experts in the field, it's that those notions were held by those experts a few hundred years ago, and they've since moved on. Some of us haven't gotten the updates yet.

For nearly a thousand years the organ wasn't considered worthy of being a sacred instrument. But it grew, nonetheless--it had, too. When, around the tenth century, the organ made its move into the church, the architects had created massive edifi of stone; a huge, resonant space. In order to project in there you needed a bit more power than a simple row of flute pipes. And eventually, medieval organ builders began to create groups of pipes that didn't sound like flutes at all. They began to experiment: If you covered the pipes on the ends, you got a different sound, If you shaped the pipes like cones or added reeds which could vibrate when the air flowed through the pipes you got a different sound. Smaller pipes would make higher notes, and smaller groups of pipes would sound higher octaves. Wooden, instead of metal, pipes presented more possibilities. However, with metal you could experiment with different alloys, and you could bend the pipes so you could get longer pipes to fit in shorter spaces. All of these experiments began to take place because, while many people are out not getting the memo, a few restless inventors are always trying to see what would happen if...

But in the middle ages, independence--individuality--wasn't a concept that had caught hold. People didn't think or speak freely on their own, they acted at the behest of their ruler, and they believed what the church told them--or at least they kept quiet about it! So too when music began to be written down it consisted of a single part. Everybody sang the same notes, the same melody. There is no written evidence that there was anyone else singing or playing something different at the same time. No independently moving parts.

Which might explain why, even when several different kinds of pipes, with their several different kinds of sounds, created an organ that was much larger, more powerful, and potentially more various, the first thing they did was to join everything together in one universal full blast, and everything--every note you played on that organ--featured all of the stops going, all of the time. They called it blockwerk.

Today, we can call up any one group of pipes, any flute sounds, reeds, strings, mutations, or mixtures, and have only that single sound. Or we can combine them with others--two, three, four, or everything. The organ can be loud, soft, or in between. Not so in the middle ages. Poets of the times wrote about how the organs sounded like thunder; one tells of how, with the Cathedral doors open, the whole town was filled with sound, which was apparently standard operating procedure.

In an age without jetplanes, factories, rockbands, or anything else that makes a considerable racket, you can imagine how loudly these instruments must have seemed, even if they were no louder than a middle-sized organ playing at full blast would be today. One thing is certain: they were not subtle. And they probably weren't effective playing partners in alternation with the mystery of chant, except by contrast.

None of these instruments survives today. The earliest organ that still plays is from the early 15th century, and most of the pipes on that instrument aren't original anymore.

It would be fascinating to hear an organ from the Middle Ages, but alas, this is one of the mysteries of history. Besides, to hear contemporary accounts, you wouldn't have needed to travel far to hear one. You could simply open your window!

I've found some videos of that "oldest organ"--in Sion, Switzerland. The series is in German, but very entertaining even if you don't speak the language (there are a few Dutch subtitles to help you!)
It is divided into three 8-10 minute segments

part one this is mostly buildup, but you eventually get to see the organ

part two features a trio for two alpenhorns and organ

part three a bit of history of the organ in between numbers including an explanation of how the ancient hydraulis worked (which you remember from my post last week, of course) and a duet for -- well, you should watch it.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

You've come to the right place...I guess

The other day I made an astonishing discovery that should rock the scientific community. You remember how some computer was supposed to have passed the Turing Test last week?

Ok, I'll back up. If you didn't hear about this, the Turing Test was proposed by a computer scientist named Alan Turing in 1950 in  a paper in which he discussed the possibility that computers would one day possess (or be able to "fake") artificial intelligence. He proposed a test. Put somebody on one side of a wall and have them ask questions of two different parties. One of them will be a computer. Based on the computer's answers to the questions (written out and passed on to the person doing the "judging") if that person is fooled into thinking that they are conversing with an actual person, then the computer has passed the Turing Test. Last week, it was claimed (some say rather weakly) that a computer actually had, finally, passed this test, for the first time.

Onward. What transpired on Monday was that, viewing the statistics for, which I had been monitoring more closely than usual after I noticed a distinct upsurge in traffic, was that a number of "bots" were account for most of the traffic. That's not the least bit new, or the least bit odd. It happens to everybody with a website or blog, all the time.

What did seem odd was that a few of my sound files, in particular, the Mendelssohn organ sonatas, which I have posted rather recently, were using up enough memory to suggest that someone, some few, dedicated persons, were listening to the entire sound file, beginning to end. This is what was new.

I therefore concluded that these "bots" have started to listen to Mendelssohn. Also my recordings of it. If that isn't a wise, and intelligent choice, what is?

Ok, I'll stop the goofing around now. (I'm also getting ready to ban the bots)

However, one thing lead to another, and I happened to notice the questions actual people (one can only assume) were asking that lead them to my site. Some of them were no doubt answered, others....

It's early in the month so there are only fifteen of them so far. Here are my favorite few:

"How difficult is Moszkowski piano concertos?"

There is only one. I'll have to get back to you when I've learned to play it, which will probably be never.  My guess is somewhere between Tchaikovsky 1 on the easy end, and Rach 3 on the hard end.

"How to do human on the piano"

Wha.........    I mean   [captch wha]

"Mozart plays another composer's music better than the original"

I'll bet you're thinking of that scene from the movie "Amadeus" (1984). I'll be doing some blogs about that movie in the fall (since it turns 30 this year). That is a great scene. It is also entirely made up. What the script writer(s?) chose to do there was very clever. Instead of taking a piece by Salieri, the "other composer" who was so jealous of Mozart, and then trying to "improve" it and make it sound like Mozart would have written it (a tall order, no?), they started with a piece that Mozart wrote, and wrecked it so it would sound like "Salieri" (who wasn't half as bad a composer as his music sounds in the movie, but after all, they had to make the contrast really obvious for all ears to be able to detect). The actual piece is "non piu andrei" from the opera "The Marriage of Figaro" (Le Nozze di Figaro).

The scene occurs about a third of the way into the movie when Salieri and Mozart officially meet for the first time at the court of the emperor. Salieri has composed a march of welcome which Mozart then sits down and plays from memory, adding ornaments and changing some harmonies when he doesn't like something ("that doesn't really work, does it? Have you tried...."), and finally launches into an inspired "improvisation. Also in the scene Mozart mentions a theme of Salieri's on which he wrote some variations, something that actually happened (we know because we have the variations.) I'll play them for you in the fall.

 "Last piano key sound"

Are you perhaps referring to the one on the extreme right? That very very high C?

Ok, here it is. [listen]

Probably not a bad idea that the piano's range stopped there about 150 years ago and nobody much has bothered stretching it in that direction since. Or in the other one. There are a few extra bass notes on Bosendorfer pianos, but they sound like helicopters taking off, trust me.

"piano gross noises"

No thanks. Not making an audio file of that. No idea what they are anyway (although to me having a pedal squeak during recording qualifies).

"the metal part of the string are struck with two hammers"

You might be thinking of the fact that in the upper part of the piano there are three "strings" (two of them actually belong to the same piano wire loop back around, but never mind) struck by one hammer. In the tenor ranger of the piano the hammer only strikes two strings (thicker, and individually strung this time) and in the bass, only one string. Or you might just be confused.

"organ registration no. 3"

Is that anything like love potion number nine? Seriously, you might want to check with somebody familiar with Hammond or home theater organs; that sounds like one of their terms. A pipe organ doesn't have set registration numbers.

"online reputation management"

Ok. That's all we have time for. See you on Friday!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Pieces in Dialogue: Buxtehude and Bach

A few years ago I wrote a short article about Bach's visit to meet Buxtehude. This wasn't just a small effort Bach put out; it was a journey of well over 250 miles (I just checked it with the Google and it puts it at 293, or 472.3 km if you'd prefer). Bach's visit must have borne fruit in the influence he got from perhaps the greatest organist/composer in Europe at the time. I've read just enough of the Bach literature to know that connections have been drawn between pieces of Buxtehude's and pieces by Bach, but I am a performing musician, and busy in all kinds of directions; I am not a musicologist, so I haven't made the time to go into the subject in detail. But recently I stumbled over an example so obvious I had to share it with you.

It's Bach's wonderful Fugue in D Major, Bwv 532. I planned to play it last spring, but I was preparing a piano recital at the same time so I put it off until this year. It is a fun and sprightly fugue, with a virtuous pedal part that has the feet dancing away in a paroxysm of joy. (I'm allowed to use that word once a year, aren't I?)

Last spring I played Buxtehude's Praeludium in F, which contains a fugue (it is basically a prelude and fugue, though Buxthude calls all of his concoctions praeludia no matter how many sections there are and no matter what type). I wrote about it last year on this blog, calling it my "new favorite fugue."

One of the things I pointed out then was just how stupid the fugue subject is:


I don't mean to disparage the music. It is perfect for the occasion, and for what the composer does with it. But the actual makeup of that opening it just mindless. It is two notes trilling back and forth. It is almost as if Buxtehude's point was to show us how he could make such a terrific piece out of such unpromising materials.

At least, that may be how Bach read the situation. Now listen to the opening of Bach's Fugue in D:


Now that sounds even more pedestrian than his model. In fact, Buxtehude's bird-call opening gets more points for charm; it is possible not to particularly notice its lack of inventiveness simply because it has the naive charm of a bird in springtime. Bach doesn't do that. He tries to make his fugue subject sound like a finger exercise for the organist!

But there is something else. Notice how both fugue subjects have long pauses in them. Here's the Buxtehude:

ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta  (pause)  ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta  (pause) ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta (pause) tum-tum-tum-tahh-tahh-ti (here we dissolve into a profusion of rapid notes rushing down a scale)

And the Bach:

da-di-da-di-da-di-da-di-dah    (pause)     twi-dle-twi-dle-twi-dle-twi-dle etc etc very long stream of notes also rapid and heading in a downward trajectory

Now into those pauses, both composers are later going to be able to insert other material once the fugue gets going. In fact, when two or three voices are sounding at once in a fugue, it can often sound like the musical strands are talking over each other, albeit harmoniously. This is in fact typical for a fugue. But leave a hole in your theme, and instead of a harmonious blend, you end up with a dialogue--a conversation which quickly shifts from one voice to the other and back because they aren't "talking at once." In Buxtehude's case, he often has the other three voices in his four voice texture make this little comment to fill in that gap:


Whereas Bach resorts to this little ditty, even less sophisticated than his fugue subject:


After which, it is time to take care of that profusion of notes they've both written into the ends of their fugue subjects. Now there is only so much rushing around that is going to sound musically attractive. Both gentlemen solve that problem the same way, which is to let the fugue subject prattle on with its shower of notes, and have the other voices which are not stating the fugue subject largely stay out of the way. That concentrates the running activity in one voice at a time.

As I observed when I wrote about the Buxtehude, it seems a bit like cheating, mainly because it requires less compositional dexterity to follow one voice around while it chatters and let the other fill in with rhythmic plunks on the beat, but the effect is charming, and a good (or in this case great) composer knows when to get out of the way, and especially, what is most effective given the natural strengths and weaknesses of the material.

Two other observations: one is that the fugue subjects almost never go away. In most fugues there are places, usually transitions from one key are to another, where the fugue subject disappears completely and can be heard in none of the voices. In both of these fugues that happens only a little; it is almost wall to wall subject area, which means that once you have the opening fugue subject in your head you can hear it in the upper voice, the lower voice, or somewhere in the middle, practically the entire time.

Another observation is that both pieces really give your feet something to do. The pedal parts to these fugues are quite athletic and fun to play. Bach, the younger man, must have felt the need to outdo his predecessor, and he concludes his piece with a rip-roaring pedal solo. Not to mention the burp at the end! (Buxtehude chooses instead a soprano flourish.)

Here are both pieces in their entirety for your fun and profit. Happy listening!

Buxtehude:  Praeludium in F BwxWV145 (the fugue portion begins at 2:26)

Bach:  Fugue in D, Bwv 532

Friday, July 4, 2014

Desktops are nothing new

If something has to be really new in order to be relevant to you then pipe organs probably aren't your thing.

On the other hand, some of them really do have the latest bells and whistles on them which are combined with technologies that go back to the Middle Ages and include several periods in between. That can be pretty cool.

But as someone calling himself "the teacher" said a few thousand years ago, "truly, there is nothing new under the sun." And if you are a dedicated acolyte of this philosophy, not only are you prepared to ignore everything from cell phones to light bulbs to immunization and jet propulsion, you will be able to find something that got there ahead of everything we have today in some way or other, no matter how you may have to stretch to do it.

I submit for your inspection, the laptop computer from which some of you are reading this article. Now where computers began life as gargantuan structures which could fill a house--such as "Eniac," which took nearly 1800 square feet, and could only do a paltry 5,000 addition or subtraction problems a second--where a computer began large and has since shrunk to a fraction of its original size, the organ has gone in completely the opposite direction. It was in fact introduced to the world as a desktop model, albeit with far less dazzling of a sonic palette, and has since exploded to fill several rooms.

The first organ goes all the way back to the 3rd century BCE and is credited to a fellow named Ctesibius. We don't have a picture of it, but I can give you something relatively close. Pull up a chair. I feel a story coming on:

A couple of years ago Kristen and I were in Budapest. We went to a place called Aquincum, which is famous for its Roman ruins. I had particularly wanted to go there because they have what may be the oldest known organ in existence. Can you play on it? No. Does it actually work anymore? No. Thereby hangs a tale.

It seems that a certain citizen of the town, doubtless burdened with money, wanted to give his wife something to play upon, and purchased her a fine little instrument. Unfortunately, though her playing must have worked wonders for the health of those around her, she died anyway, and the distraught fellow naturally donated the organ to the first place that you would have donated an organ had this happened to you: the local firehouse. There is a nice plaque about that at the museum in Aquincum:

The sarcophagus-like object in the picture above is a sarcophagus (for his wife, I think).

It may be a surprise to you that firehouses even existed that far back in time. It certainly seems to have been a surprise to the persons running it; in time there was a great fire, and the entire town burned to the ground. This, alas, included the firehouse itself, and the organ inside. (A strategic blunder that I'm sure that gentleman did not want to repeat: next time he would have to donate his organ to a safer establishment like the local fireworks factory.)

Which is why all that remains of this beloved organ are the pipes, lovingly arranged on a table under some glass.

Off to the left of this is a reconstruction of the organ, also under glass, and they are playing a video on the wall behind so you can hear how it sounds (if you ever go there).

The immolation of this poor organ is made all the more strange when you consider that it was a type of "hydraulis" meaning that it used water power to move the air through the pipes. Perhaps, under the circumstances, the water was being used for other purposes.

The pipe organ seems to have caught on in Rome, in the days of the empire, and was soon a hit at the Roman circus.