Friday, March 20, 2015

Meet Locutus, your new organist

I've been having some fun with our church organ's new playback system this year. Around Christmas, I pre-recorded the introduction to the doxology. The piece the choir was singing for the offertory ended quietly, with a melting phrase for solo saxophone. Wanting to preserve the stillness, rather than having to rush pell-mell from my seat at the piano which was in the choir loft thirty feet to the organ bench, past the altar, toss on my organ shoes and hope they stayed on, or to allow plenty of dead space which I would destroy even by walking through the front of the church, I decided to buy some time by way of the playback system. I asked my liturgist wife to press a button which began my pre-recorded introduction to the doxology. After about five seconds of silence, the music began softly and over the next 45 seconds swelled to the majestic proportions typical of the doxology. That gave me time to saunter through the sacristy instead of rushing past the altar, and get my shoes on and laced up with plenty of time as I slid onto the bench. The introduction concluded, I played the last phrase live, during with the congregation is trained to stand up, and the doxology proceeded as usual.

This spooked a few members of the choir, who had either not been at my organ recital to see a demonstration of this system, or had had six weeks to forget about it. It was not intended to be a prank, but apparently it had that effect for those who noticed that I was not at the organ when it began to play.

I've done the same thing a time or two since, always to buy time when moving from one instrument to another, and to preserve the mood of the service. One thing I haven't done yet is to play an organ duet with my pre-recorded self. I'll get to that after Easter when the atmosphere is more jovial.

On Thursday I recorded the offertory I'll be playing this Sunday. It is a short choral-prelude by a German composer 20-years older than Bach. I came across it this week on Vidas Pinkevicius' Youtube Channel, which was quite useful for me, since I've had a busy and stressful month or two (as has the entire staff of our church) and didn't really have any idea what I was going to play this week. The piece was easy enough to learn in the half-hour before staff meeting on Tuesday. By Thursday morning I had practiced it less than an hour altogether; enough to feel comfortable with the notes, but not necessarily so that my interpretation would have time to settle.

Here it is:  [listen]

Since my first chance to listen to it without also playing it was after I made the recording, I got to second-guess it after the fact, which is often the problem I have when I am making recordings of pieces for church every week: there doesn't seem to be enough time to really think through something interpretively. It seemed to me at the time that I was playing the piece too fast.

Interestingly, when I went back and listen to Vidas' interpretation, I noticed that the time it took me to play the piece was virtually identical, as was the tempo. But I think he has a better sense of rubato and fantasy (not to mention I like the ornamentation). My rendering is too robotic, and thus, even though it is the same tempo, it seems too fast. So I thought I'd slow it down.

There is something very useful about feedback. I hadn't realized the tempo was that fast when I was playing it (being too preoccupied with getting all the details right, no doubt). How would I feel about a new tempo? And how could I experience it without being too busy playing it myself ?--just listening could help me decide. As I listened to what I had played I could wander around the sanctuary and hear the organ as somebody else might.

Using the playback system I was able to do something new. I took the exact same performance I'd recorded at the console and played it for the microphones again. Since it is all MIDI data, there are ways to affect the tempo that I hadn't tried before. In this version the same performance of the same piece is about 30 ticks slower than it was previously. I wanted a chance to listen to it at that tempo and see if it worked.


It seems to work, though at this point I am still wandering between the two and we'll see which one prevails on Sunday. Now, artificially slowing down the tempo is dangerous for the recording. Speeding it up can hide all kinds of faults; slowing it down does just the opposite. There is one spot with a late pedal note which is exacerbated in the slower version. Otherwise, the attacks are still together and the articulation is still pretty good. Not bad, I think! It tells you something about my rhythmic accuracy.

It may also make some of us uncomfortable about distorting the human element in a recording with post-production technology. I haven't done this before and don't plan to "cheat" like this again, but it is not an irrelevant tool to have as it turns out. The organ is also equipped with transposer buttons I'll never use (I've got a story about that sometime) which are conveniently not located where they can accidentally be depressed when you are going for a registration setting and miss.
The title refers to an episode in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" when Captain Jon-Luc Picard is kidnapped by a race of half-machine, half-organ beings called The Borg (as in cyborgs) and becomes one of them. His name is "Locutus." My reliance on a machine to manipulate the second performance suggested the interesting relationship.

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