Wednesday, December 9, 2015

organ registration survival tips part five

This is the last in a series of five articles discussing organ registration for beginning organists or pianists becoming organists. It is an introduction to the stops on an organ. The first four parts can be had here: 
  (part one)  (part two)  (part three)  (part four)
It's time to introduce you to some of my favorite stops. We've already discussed the basic ones--flutes, foundations, and strings--all of which "speak" at regular pitch level (8) or up an octave (4) or two (2). My point in starting with these is that you could get in less trouble by using them, but along the way we started to experiment with them, using them in different combinations, and found that there are a number of fascinating sound combinations that might result, some of which would be useful in hymn playing, and others for solo work. We'll flesh this out later, but we haven't finished learning about new types of stops yet.

More recently, we started with those "colorful" stops. These have something other than whole numbers below their name because the pipes aren't an even 8 or 4 or 2 feet tall (that is, the lowest pipe in each rank is 8 or 4 or 2 feet tall) and they don't speak at a regular pitch or at the octave.

First came the mixture stops, a compound stop consisting of at least two pipes sounding together for each note played--at pitch, and a fifth higher, and often adding the octave and the octave-and-a-fifth higher than that (if you have a four-rank mixture) to give the organ its majestic, full-throated sound, provided you don't try using it by itself but instead have a full compliment of foundation stops pulled as well. These are the stops with the roman numerals on them to indicate how many pipes are going to sound each time we play a note.

There are two families of stops left. One is the mutation stop--don't you just love the title? I'd like to see some organist horror movies sometime with titles like "The tierce from Tabago" and "Tales of the Nazard." How about "Night of the Sesquialtera" or "It came from Larigot?"

If you didn't find this at all funny, you are well on your way to becoming an organist. Organists, it is well known, do not have a sense of humor. If you have one, it will only get in the way. Have it removed as soon as possible (this is known as a humorectomy). I am trying to suppress mine, but it slips out every once in a while.

In any event, a mutation stop does something really interesting. Try playing middle C using only a flute stop. Now, remove that, and play the same note using only a mutation stop.

It isn't the same note!

That's because a mutation stop sounds the harmonic of the pitch but not the fundamental. I'm sure we'll get around to talking about this a lot later on, so if you don't know what I just said, don't worry about it. Basically, if your stop has a fraction under it, and you play a C, you will hear either a G or an E an octave above instead. Mutation stops are the ones you are least likely to use in general service playing, but, if you combine them with 8 foot flute stops, you can get a really nice sound for a solo line. If you have a piece of music (not for the congregation to sing) with a solo melody which you can play on one manual, and an accompaniment you can play on the other, you can use the mutation-flute combination for your solo line and a soft flute stop alone on the other and sound like you are really an organist. Here's an example:

Buxtehude: Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan jam

Doesn't that sound beautiful?

The last type of stop to discuss is called a reed. Now up to this point every family of stop has had ones basic characteristic which was that it was a pipe which produces sound by having air blown through it, and the column of air made the sound. No moving parts--just a pipe. There are lots of variations--some pipes are made of wood, most of metal. Some are capped on the end, some have holes in the sides, some have little chimneys on top--all of these things affect the sound. But in the end, these pipes have nothing inside them. They are all known as flue pipes (that's not a typo, there is no T in flue--think chimney flue).

A reed pipe is a different matter. It has a reed inside that vibrates, just like in a clarinet or oboe. Unlike the mixture or mutation stops, reed stops speak at regular pitch or an octave above (8 or 4 foot). But they sound quite different. The obvious suspects are stops that are named after reed instruments of the orchestra. But your organ may well have a 'trumpet' stop--which is also a reed stop in an organ, though it is a brass instrument in a band. That's simply because of how the sound is produced--with a vibrating reed. It will still sound like a trumpet.

My favorite reed instruments are the posaune stops (in English, "trombone") on the pedals, which are wonderfully loud and either hugely majestic or terribly funny, depending on how they are used!

Now you know all the different types of organ stops. And you should be able to figure out which ones on your organ belong to which group. The real art of registration consists in combining these possibilities. There may be literally thousands of possible combinations on your organ.

At some point, we'll want to stop just trying to survive and start being creative. Those two things aren't mutually exclusive, actually--creativity can really help a church organist survive. Being able to create music on the fly in whole or in part is a great way to make some of your deadlines. And the ability to quickly digest new materials leads not only to less of a panic when you have to play a lot of music every week, but a sense of discovery and curiosity and joy. This is also true of a topic like organ registration. It is true of anything, from hymn playing to choosing repertoire to accompanying the choir. All this means that this is the last post about organ registration with the word "survival" in it. (We'll see what that does to my blog numbers; the last four weeks every time I post one of these organ registration survival posts there is a spike in my readership). I want to spend the next couple of weeks on some basic principles of organ registration with a few hints for experimentation and creativity. We'll get back to the topic at a more advanced stage later in the year. I hope you've learned enough about the organ to feel comfortable with the various stops and at least some of the buttons.
Don't forget to check the homepage of each week. This week's featured recording holds a hint about the next topic: improvisation.

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