Friday, November 6, 2015

The speed of scary (part two)

Organist can be a cranky lot.

If you go listen to any of the numerous videos organists have posted on Youtube and scan the comments, there be invariably somebody there complaining about the tempo the organist took. This seems to be unique to organists. Pianists will complain instead, when confronted with some outstanding recording by some great pianist of their time, that some OTHER great pianist played the piece infinitely better. Pianistic partisanship is a cult of personality; for organists it comes down to the metronome.

I don't usually post to Youtube (I have my own index of nearly 500 mp3 files on my own site without an accompanying comment board) so I am not often eaten for lunch by fellow organists whenever I put up a recording, but the other week when I posted a short piece in preparation for last Friday's recital, I imagined what they would say.

It was just too darned fast.

Actually, it probably was. I had a teacher in college (I was a piano major) who would get out her metronome the first week my violinist partner and I brought in a new piece and tell us it needed to be faster. Since we'd only been playing the piece for a few days at that point, that was natural. It was also natural that, given a little more time, the notes would become gestures, and our comprehension of the piece would allow us to speed up. Her strategy may have made that natural acceleration process worse: the second week when we brought the piece in it was always too fast! By the third week even baby bear would have enjoyed it.

I often have a very narrow window to record pieces before I have to turn my attention to something else. The Toccata by Gigout was not a particularly difficult piece, so about 3 days into the process I made my first recording, by which time I was just able to play the piece competently, but was also pretty nervous, and, I will maintain, didn't know the piece well enough to slow down.

This argument flies in the face of what every teacher ever told me (it probably belongs with the old "this sounded better at home" which I usually answer by telling my students "of course it did" and then explaining why that is entirely likely but ultimately won't work as an excuse during a concert) which was to play everything slowly and gradually speed up, or that, if you can't play the piece slowly you can't play it quickly, to which I say, nonsense.

You have to be a pretty advanced musician for the "nonsense" to stick, however. Most amateur musicians play too fast and too sloppily. You'll notice that the recording I'm about to share with you is pretty articulate. The reason it is so fast is that I was thinking in gestures. For me, whole groups of about eight notes played in one hand position often feels as if I am standing still. They are not eight distinct bits of information, they are like eight syllables in a sentence in my native language which I can spit out in a unit without thinking about it (so can you). Like a major league hitter, who can slow down a fast pitch in his mind in order to key on it and hit it, there is very little effort required to execute groups of notes taking up a beat or two of space; they are all part of one grouping. This allows me to go very fast. It actually takes more effort to slow everything down and think in terms of individual notes.

I tried that a week later, unsuccessfully. I found that the tempo wasn't completely constant because as of yet I couldn't accurately maintain a complete evenness of notes, and at the slower speed, any slight variation would jump out at you. The tempo speeds up at times, particularly toward the end. This is too bad; I might have been able to highlight some of the majesty of the grand sonorities at the slower speed, and, given a few more days to get used to it might have worked.  I've posted it below anyhow to compare it to the others, and so you can hear that I don't get things right all the time (consider it an outtake!).

Just days before the concert, I tried again, and this is the recording that made the catalogue. It is probably still too fast for many organists, but I think it is just about right. The challenge of finding the right tempo, for me, is to find something that is just slow enough that the long notes have time to build, and that the crescendi are suspenseful. It takes time to anticipate; if you deliver right away the impact is gone. But some of the recordings I've heard sound too much like finger exercises, a symptom of too slow a speed.

Organists, being a group of people, tend to be very doctrinaire in their pronouncements; they don't seem to be willing to entertain a real discussion about the proper tempo rather than just passing judgment and quitting the field. But I find the subject far more interesting. There are many things to consider, like the acoustic environment or the mechanics of the organ. What will it permit in terms of key action, and is a church with a 20 second reverb going to reward the same tempo as one that is completely dry? Not likely.

And then there are philosophical considerations. How does the piece unfold; how does it speak to us? I've often found great performers can find very different tempi and yet still make the piece very much alive.

And in that sense, we all should aspire to the words of Dr. Frankenstein when we play a piece. The words, and, of course, the results.

It's alive!

Gigout: Toccata in b minor (too fast version)

Gigout: Toccata in b minor (too slow?)

Gigout: Toccata in b minor (just right?)

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