Friday, September 26, 2014

Some more cool buttons

But wait! There's more!

.....buttons, that is.

In my last post, we talked about memory pistons: buttons (or studs) that could be operated with the hands or feet, which would instantly recall a pattern of stops programmed ahead of time, allowing the organist to change the sound of one or both keyboards and the pedal-board all at once. This has unfortunately put some organist assistants out of work, though I don't hear any complaining.

Today, I thought we'd investigate the couplers.

There are three divisions on our organ, an upper keyboard called the "swell," a lower keyboard called the "great," and a two-and-a-half octave pedal-board, which features thirty-two notes you can play with your feet. From this we get the old adage "Bach wrote lots of swell and great music."

Each of these divisions has its own set of stops, which, you recall, means that the various families of sound on an organ, flutes, foundations, reeds, strings, mixtures, and mutations, are available to be used on a particular keyboard. Our organ is large enough to have some of each type on each division, except that the mutations are only available on the swell.

But those divisions don't have to be kept completely separate. It is possible to "couple" one keyboard to another. The swell, and every sound presently on it, can be connected to the great. That means if you have the swell trumpet stop on, it will sound both on the swell and also on the great keyboard. This is in addition to any stops you've got on the great itself. You can do the same thing by coupling either the swell or the great to the pedal, and play the swell mutation stops with your feet if you feel like it.

There's more fun. Besides simply coupling the swell to the great at regular pitch, that is, the eight-foot rank, you can also do this at the 4-foot or the 16-foot level. These are known as super-couplers and sub-couplers.  A super-coupler would take that same swell trumpet and put it on the great anb octave higher, so when you played middle c it would now be up and octave. A sub-coupler does the opposite. Note that any stops that were on the great original would not be affected. A creative use of these couplers means that you could play a single note and have up to three octaves sounding at once.

You can do the same thing within divisions--that is, you can couple the swell to the swell and the great to the great an octave higher and/or lower. That would double the entire output of that keyboard to include the upper and/or lower octave.

And if that isn't enough fun, you can eliminate that middle octave, the note you are actually playing, leaving only the octave above and/or below, by deploying the "unison off" knob, which cancels any stops deployed on that keyboard and leaves only the results of the sub- and super-couplers.

A word about that little item.

Over the summer I was asked to play a wedding at another church. This organ happened to be the first one built (or re-incarnated) by the firm in town that was refurbishing our organ at Faith. As organs all tend to be different, this one placed this unison off with the other couplers on the front of the console right above the keyboard. At Faith this feature is placed with the stop knobs to the right and left of the keyboard.

the couplers are right above the keyboards

These couplers offer very little resistance and are easy to accidentally switch on, especially if you have long fingers or pianistic training and are at all inclined to travel forward into the back of the key as you play/follow through. A few days before the wedding I was practicing when suddenly the organ went silent. I was still playing notes but nothing was happening. I knew the power had not gone off. It took a few seconds to realize that the unison off switch had been accidentally flipped on.

A couple of days later, about an hour before the wedding, the same thing happened while practicing, and I made sure to remind myself to watch those levers like a hawk. Fortunately this didn't happen at the wedding itself. But when I see Jean-Paul Buzard next I'll ask him if he still puts the unison off switch above the keyboard and if he does ask him not too!

not recommended

Couplers like this not only increase the organ's flexibility, they provide a lot more sound. 

I once had an experience with some bagpipes. They were giving a concert in the sanctuary around Christmas, and they asked me to join them. I had never accompanied 8 bagpipes on the organ before. I think we played Highland Cathedral. It was the one time I wasn't sure I could completely drown my ensemble partners if I wanted to! That's a little bit of an odd feeling for an organist. I had all the stops pulled out on the great and the balance was pretty good.

But then I remembered that I still had all the couplers in reserve, which would have more than doubled the organ's volume--combining the two keyboards and adding upper and lower octaves to them both, so I was really still holding back.

Because an organist knows: "Pulling out all the stops" really is only about half of it.

Friday, September 19, 2014

She's Back!

A couple of weeks ago the organ console returned to Faith UMC. This, of course, gives me an excuse to post a few pictures of the return, in lieu of a more thoughtfully written post on matters of great importance. I'm still hanging on to my "summer" vacation!

Next week we'll examine "more cool buttons."

one last, nostalgic look at the wires sticking out of the ground where the console should be!

 bringing it up the stairs.......

final adjustments.....

One small problem--a single note was giving us two for the price of one. The keyboard was raised, and a wire was pinched back into place. Problem solved.

The  'new' console!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Some Cool Buttons

Before I get into some of the buttons that are on our new console, I want to talk about all of the buttons that were there already.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there are lots of intriguing sounds that can be made on an organ. There are six basic families of sound (flutes, foundations, reeds, strings, mutations, and mixtures) and within those families lots of different kinds of specific ranks of pipes, some wooden, some metal, some long, some short, and having a number of different properties that contribute a specific sound to the organ. Each organ is different--no two diapason stops sound quite alike, even though you can find diapason stops on just about every organ, since that is a basic foundation stop (though it might be labelled principle or montre).

Some of those stops don't sound very good by themselves, and need to be combined with others for full effect. This is where the art of organ registration comes in; the knowledge of how to combine different sounds effectively takes practice, and practical knowledge, some trial and error, historical awareness, and so on.

And what if you want to change your registration in the middle of a piece, like between verses of a hymn, or between sections of a piece, or in the middle of a tricky page turn?

If you've ever seen a Youtube video of an organist playing with a person or two standing beside her pulling knobs and turning pages, you've seen one of the solutions.

I don't usually employ an assistant; part of the reason for that is that the organ is relatively small and all of the stop knobs are close enough I can get to the them from the bench. I have pretty fast reflexes so I can grab a couple of them during the pause between verses of a hymn, reaching out to snag them like a frog catches flies. However, if there is a major change to be made, involving the turning on or off of several stops, particularly if the change involves both keyboards and the pedals all at once, there is another solution on most modern organs.

They are called pistons. Below each keyboard is a row of buttons--we have six of them. Each of those buttons can be programmed with the combination of stops I want to use, and, if I have a free hand, I can reach over and press the button and all of the stops will be changed instantly. This is quite a bit better than having to pull 15 stops out manually, as I once saw in a video from St. Sulpice in France where they have an amazing and venerable old organ which apparently does not have this system. As the organist reached the end of the first section there was a long pause while both assistants frantically pulled and pushed dozens of stops while the reverberation slowly died away. It was fun to watch. It's too bad I can't find that video anymore so you can watch it.

Now, below each keyboard on our organ is a group of pistons for that particular division of the organ: the upper keyboard (the swell) has one, the lower keyboard (the great) has one, and the pedals have one row--six pistons each. And, the entire organ all at once has a row of six, called generals, which will change all three of those divisions of the organ, swell, great, and pedal all at once, as pre-programmed.

Now suppose you don't have a free hand.

They've already thought of that. They are called toe studs, and there are just as many of those as there are buttons. In fact, they are a duplicate set, so that every button I've just mentioned has an equivalent toe stud so that you can perform all of the same operations with whatever appendage happens to be available. If you are an organist, you know that it may be all you can do to buy half a second with any hand or foot. I've even push a stop in with my nose, which I don't recommend for several reasons!

By my count we've just covered 48 buttons and toe studs on the console. There are more buttons, knobs, and levers, of course, but we'll get to them next time.

Friday, September 5, 2014

It's coming!

Talk about a first world problem.

I'm having some conflicting thoughts about the return of our organ console sometime next week. It has been nice to spend time with our piano, and only the piano. It feels a bit relaxing not to feel like one needs to simultaneously be a proficient organist and pianist, to take on the massive repertoire for both instruments at once, and to compose, improvise, and continually be learning new music for both instruments. Not to mention that the poor piano has suffered so much neglect lately at the hands of this so-called pianist that it was probably starting to wonder if I even cared anymore. So I've been enjoying the feeling of sitting at the piano every day, both because I get to reconnect with my musical instrument "roots" and also because it feels like a bit of a vacation.

Not that you'd notice that, I realize. There is the fact that the current state of the pianonoise sound archive is such that there are several more organ recordings than those for the piano, and the fact that I've blogged about nothing but the organ all summer. But this month I've made several piano recordings which you won't get to hear until I start rolling them out in October, and I promise to spend most of my forthcoming blogs, once the year gets rolling at the end of September, on the piano.

There was a time, not so long ago, when I was so excited by playing the organ I wondered what I had even seen in that instrument a few feet away with the single keyboard and only one type of sound. But then, I have the privilege of being able to wax hot and cold over both instruments. I get paid to play both of them, and, at the same time, both seem like a hobby.

It's just now that, making a luxury out of a necessity, I'm enjoying the sound, and the ease of operating, the piano. Recently I discovered a few 20th century pieces to tickle my congregation with. The voices of Rachmaninoff, Poulenc, Villa-Lobos and Leo Ornstein have echoed through the church. I think there was a little Marteau in there, too.

Several people in my congregation prefer the piano, and have told me so. They usually have the manners to add, "but I like it when you play the organ, too." It does seem, somehow, that the organ is a little harder for most folks to find friendly.

And yet one can find organ enthusiasts. They are frequently among the most enthusiastic enthusiasts anywhere. They have to be. It's an uphill climb. But I always liked mountain climbing (metaphorically speaking, anyway).

There is at least one fellow who much prefers the organ. He's been waiting patiently all summer. Next week we'll both get a dose of the sound that only comes when a fellow named Bach writes a piece for an instrument called the pipe organ. The rest of you poor slobs just don't know what you are missing!

This week we'll have one more crack at the piano, and some good old hymn tunes from our Methodist, piano-loving forebears. Then, next week, suddenly, in a twinkling, the majestic sound of the king of instruments returns.

It's really a wondrous machine.