Friday, November 14, 2014

Finale (wrapping it up)

George Lucas has said that movies aren't ever finished, they just escape. So it seems with all large projects. In the case of this particular blog series, which has run to 24 installments and run parts of seven months, it seems time to end. The blog itself will continue, and so will thoughts about the organ and organ playing, but I'm getting tired of updating the table of contents every week!

Let's review where we've been with our "Faith UMC organ project" series:

In May I explained what was going to happen to our organ console over the summer, why we needed to fix it, and asked for donations. Then you got to see the organ console being removed, got to visit it in the "hospital," and rejoice in its return. Finally I gave a re-dedicatory organ recital with a little help from my friends.

Along the way, we delved into the history of this amazing instrument, from its beginnings in the days of the Roman Empire, to the thunderous, completely unsubtle Medieval instrument, and stopped just short of getting around to what makes the modern instrument so interesting. I'll fill in that gap in a moment.

We also explored the workings of the instrument itself--how different sounds are the results of different types of pipes, and how the organist can call forth all of them singly or in combination, how he or she can add octaves above and below, move sounds from one division to another, suddenly change dozens of settings with a flick of the foot or the finger.

What I didn't get around to is the difference between a mechanical action and what happened to the organ as a result of electrification. Many organs, including ours, don't have levers and springs to carry the impulse of the player on the keys to open the airflow to the pipes; instead, this is done via electrical impulses. If an organ console is not close to the pipes, or is at a funny angle so that the organist is not facing the pipes, you are probably not dealing with a mechanical action.

This new approach allowed the console to be located far away from the pipes; it also allowed organs to get larger and larger. Adding stops used to make it harder to depress the keys; now none of that mattered.

In the middle of the last century, however, organists and organ builders began to get interested in mechanical action organs again, just as the musical world became more diligent about adopting historically informed performance practices. Many of the organs in our town, particularly those at the University of Illinois, are mechanical, and the students swear by them. I guess that makes us sort of infidelish. Not as bad as if we had an electronic organ, of course!

I admire our big-little organ, however. It is not enormous, but it has a little of everything, stop-wise, and enough features that you can play a variety of literature on it and it will sound not too bad. A mechanical action organ is often designed for playing Bach and while it sounds great in that corner of the literature, it does not do so well for the grand compositions of the 19th century French organists. Our organ, by contrast, while being a bit small for such an undertaking, still handles itself pretty well.

Which is perhaps a small miracle, or the result of foresight on the part of the builders (I was told a University professor was involved in the early plans for our organ). It is particularly suited to music for the Baroque, but it can do other things. It is large enough (too large, some of my congregations would probably say) for the building, and it has a variety of sounds, none of which are bad; some of which sound quite nice by themselves. And they blend well. Our organ, made possible by a very generous donation 30 years ago, cost 150,000 dollars to install, and today would cost nearly a million dollars. So in that context, the cost of the project was not so large after all. And it shows off one more facet of our organ; and indeed, organs in general.

It can adapt. It can adjust to new technology. We added a new stop (sort of) and a digital interface with a lot of interesting features. And the organ, far from being diminished, plays on into its fourth decade. I am proud to say that before I leave this church I had a hand in making sure of that. Longstanding problem with the relay system solved, organ improved, new features added, and away we go, 55 years after the church began, three sanctuaries later.

Thanks, everybody.

I still mean to post some of the music from the recital. Watch this space the week of Thanksgiving when I may finally have the time to do it!

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