Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Even more cool buttons

If you weren't at my organ concert on the 26th, you missed a startling revelation. Taking a page from Bilbo Baggins at his birthday party, I astonished the gathering with one of the organ's new features.

By the way, if you haven't read or seen The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo has a magic ring which renders him invisible. He gives a speech in front of the assembled company in which he tells them he is going away for good, and just as he says "farewell" he pops on the ring and vanishes from their sight. Actually, the trick doesn't go over that well. Most of his relatives find this behavior annoying.

At the concert, however, my startling revelation was received much more cordially. On the DVD (still in processing) you can hear various startled murmurs, some applause, laughter, etc., and this demonstration goes on for about 30 seconds. They were clearly impressed.

What was the cause of all of this?

As part of our console repair, we got a new Peterson-4000 digital system, which does several things we hadn't actually asked for, and all of them are additions to the organ as it existed last spring. One of them is a playback system. What that means is you can hit a record button, play a piece of music, and it will play it back for you when you later hit the play button. During recording, all the data from the console gets stored digitally: every note, every change of registration, the swell pedals, and so on. It's a handy little system, with many uses which I'll save for discussion until next week.

Since our organ does not have a mechanical action, all of the keys and the stop pistons and so on are connected by wires to the pipe room. When you strike a note, an electric impulse travels to the pipe room and opens the pallet(s) on that particular pipe or group of pipes. And since everything is done via electric impulse, it doesn't really matter to the pipes whether the signals commanding their behavior are coming directly from the console or from that black box in the pipe room. The black box's job is to store the data from the recording and then, when activated, become the originator of all of those commands you have 'programmed' when you played the piece in the first place. A clever idea. And it works very well. Note that the keys themselves do not go down when you hit play under those conditions, but the organ (meaning the pipe room) does play back the piece just as you played it when you made the recording.

The first piece on the concert served as an introduction to the organ; a set of variations by Mozart on a children's tune, originally written for piano, and transcribed by yours truly for the organ, which allowed me to show off any number of stop combinations, some rather comic, including the pedal tuba. For the last variation, however, I did a bit of "finger-syncing."

When our narrator told me to "take it away!" I secretly hit the play button on the console, and then proceeded to "play." This took a bit of figuring out, since the console, as I discovered, is still in operation during playback; in other words, any notes you strike will also be heard along with the recorded ones. Since my intention was to back away in the middle of the piece and surprise the audience with the fact that I wasn't really playing, I had to look like I was playing for a while, even though that wasn't true. So I recorded the piece using the organ's lower manual, and kept the upper one empty. A perceptive person who knew the organ well and had good eyesight might have noticed that as I started to play something was wrong, that something being that there were no stops set on the upper keyboard and thus, nothing I played on that keyboard would make any noise beyond key clicking. Meanwhile, the pre-recorded music proceeded apace and I could back away any time I wanted to admit the ruse and let the organ keep doing its thing.

In order to make it look convincing, I had started the recording exactly one measure after I hit the record button. When you hit the playback button, you hear a little pfft as the stops used for the recording all pop out together. That served as the downbeat of the preparatory measure. When I heard that, I started to count off, as follows:

pfft--two---three--- play!

With the result that I was exactly in sync with the recording. It wasn't until I backed away from the console a page later that the trick was discovered. And the audience loved it. I walked leisurely down to a table I had set up, poured myself a glass of water, and proceeded to drink it while the organ continued to play. This is in homage to the old ventriloquist trick of drinking a glass of water while still making the dummy talk (how does he do it?). I conducted the last few measures and led the applause. Then I tried to get the console to take a bow, but it was a bit shy.

People have been talking about it now for a week-and-a-half. It was a good joke. And I don't mind having some fun now and then. And if you thought, that sounds like it was fun, but now what?, keep reading this blog. You'll find out what.

Later in the same concert, I used the same feature to play a piano/organ duet with myself.

But as you'll see next week, I'm just getting started.

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