Monday, March 28, 2016

Dancing the Walk

For a couple of weeks I've been obsessed with the term praeambulum, as it relates to walking, or coming before, or an emergency vehicle that isn't ready yet---

wait, that's a pre-ambulance.

You see how confusing these terms can get?

Terms that have been in use for several centuries can really lose their flavor as well. Once there was a logical connection to something; then, they lost that connection. Now nobody knows why it is called that.

The term praeambulum has been around for quite some time. In fact, when I mentioned that the term was in vogue during the 18th century in Germany, and played an example, I forgot about another praeambulum I also recorded last summer from the Buxheimer Organ Book, which dates from about a century after the earliest keyboard music known to exist.

But we'll get to that next week. Instead, this week, I want to leap forward to the early 20th century for another piece about walking. Well, not really walking so much as dancing.

Ever seen a cakewalk?

Debussy: Golliwog's Cakewalk

The custom was in vogue in the late 19th century in America, among its African-American population. Unfortunately it was also appropriated into minstrel shows and the like, another of those fads that was adored and yet associated with various racial stereotypes, hijacked and made grotesque. Knowing what I know now it is hard to approach this piece with the same innocence as when I was a kid.

I'd like to think that Debussy had only harmless fun in mind when he wrote "Golliwog's Cakewalk" as the last piece in his "Children's Corner Suite" (which he dedicated to his 3- year old child). There may be a bit of buffoonery in it, but it is not necessarily meant to mock a dance craze that James. P Johnson claimed was considered by "some Parisian critics to be the acme of poetic motion." Parisians loved ragtime and all things coming from African American traditions around the turn of the century, and they don't seem to have been burden by our horrible track record of treating its practitioners.Then again, the Golliwog dolls that were in fashion at the time and from which the piece gets its name suggest that they may not have been very enlightened after all. (then again, who really was around the turn of the century, anyhow?)*

When it came to outright mockery, though, the target our composer had in mind was a white European by the name of Richard Wagner. Wagner had come in for a great deal of criticism for his approach to music and his high priestly scorn for everyone and everything else, and the middle section, where the music slows down considerably in my rendering, contains quotes from the opening of Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde"--it is a very famous passage, actually. Debussy mocks it by holding its seriousness up against some fun-loving asides, rapido. Wagner would have been the last guy to take a joke like that.

Something to remember: if you find yourself annoyed by some composer or piece of classical music, and wish to make fun of it, it is quite likely that some other composer of classical music has already beaten you to it.

I hope you've been enjoying our walks, even if they are somewhat disturbing. The trouble is, we have been dealing with human beings, complex animals with multifarious attitudes which may call forth a chuckle or a frown. Or both. I suppose we could take a walk in a garden by ourselves to escape from it. The weather's getting warmer around here. Or perhaps, next week, we can try to take refuge in a church.


*or now, for that matter...

Friday, March 25, 2016


In three days, Easter will be here. If you are an organist, however, you get stuck in a time warp. Easter has already been here. The instant the Holy Thursday service ended in darkness and silence, you ran across the hall and started to rehearse Easter music with the assembled company. And on Good Friday morning, you finally got around to dusting off the Widor Toccata for another year.

If you're me, that is. I don't know what your schedule is like.

Fortunately, the Widor came back pretty fast. A couple of run throughs and it felt ready. One more for good measure. I play most of it from memory so I don't have to have 80 pages crowding the music rack with tiny font. Only the first and last two pages are up--it just makes me feel better to start with the music, for some reason, and the last page is where all the gymnastic hand crossings are. I've been playing the piece every Easter for over a decade to conclude the service, and this is the first year I've been particularly worried about it. But about that later.

We have a tradition at Faith of starting the service in darkness, just where the passion service left off. The choir sings an introit which begins quietly, and as the lights come up, the pastors remove the black sheet and the crown of thorns from the altar; then replace the Bible, add some flowers, put back the white paraments, and as the music swells and the faint glow becomes a blazing light, the choir begins to process from the back of the sanctuary. At the conclusion of the introit, the organist improvises an introduction to the opening hymn, Christ the Lord is Risen Today, in which we usually feature trumpets.

All of that is at the start of the service. Then welcomes and announcements. "Christ is Risen!" shouts the pastor. "He is Risen Indeed!" shout all the people. Except the year that the pastor shouted the second line and the people couldn't figure out what to do. At least he didn't wish everybody a Merry Christmas, like a pastor at my mother's church.

Everybody is excited, and if you aren't touched by the emotions of the moment, your nose is running anyhow from all the flowers. Boy are they pungent!

An anthem from the choir. A reading from the scripture. A sermon. A choral offertory. The choir gets up early on Easter morning and sings at the 8 o'clock service as well as the 10:30. And it is a full service. Full enough that I am not likely to make it on time for the second service, which begins at 9. But after the offertory, and the doxology, in which we bring back the one with all the "alleluias" for the first time in seven weeks (feels good!), it is time for the closing hymn about resurrection, in which I sneak in references to the Widor Toccata, and then, of course, the piece itself, which the choir always stays to hear, and, if the pastor reminds them, most of the congregation as well. Afterward, someone comes up to me with tears in her eyes and thanks me for playing the Widor. Others remember it from their wedding or a loved one's funeral.

It is a real privilege to be an organist on Easter. The choir director wants it to "sound like a cathedral" and of course, it is hard not to just let loose with the torrents of sound and a phalanx of notes, on this most joyous of days, and the climax of the church year. The organ is never louder than the final peroration of the Toccata, a festival shout of Alleluia! The general enthusiasm is quite evident.

Faith has three services on Easter morning. When they are finished their will be Easter dinner (I'm famished, despite meeting my wife in the church kitchen during the 9am sermon for a quick repast of cinnamon rolls and that Easter egg I pilfered on the way out of the house). I started my day at 6am. By 2 I will be horizontal again, as the traditional Easter excitement is followed by the traditional Easter Nap. Later on there is the Traditional Easter Choir Practice by a community choir that doesn't stop rehearsing for anything. On Monday it may seem like I will never rise again. But you organists know how it goes.

Sunday's coming!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The right notes at the right time

"with regard to organ playing, there is nothing to it. You simply strike the right notes at the right time and the instrument plays itself."
                                                             --J. S. Bach

When it comes to accompanying, it is necessary to multi-task. Of course, you have to be able to turn pages and play simultaneously, often finding clever ways to play the entire passage with one hand while doing so. But more to the point you have to be able to listen to your choir (or soloist) as well as listening to yourself.

As soon as somebody needs help, you've got to be able to provide it. In the course of a standard choir rehearsal, I almost never play the written out accompaniment. This is because generally I am helping one section or another with their notes. I may be playing the voice parts instead of the accompaniment, or some combination of each.

But even if the choir is singing alone, without the aid of the piano, I may step in to help at any time. We encourage the choir to do as much singing alone as possible, even in places where the piano would be there for them in the performance of the music. This is to help strengthen their sense of their own notes, and so that the director and I can listen more carefully to the sound they are making. The point, after all, is to make sure they can do it. They are mostly amateurs, and they don't spend several hours every day practicing. But they can sound quite good when they work at it.

As they are singing "a cappella," I am following along in the score, and, at a nod from the director, or a whispered "help the tenors" (by which point I am probably already poised to do that because I can also hear that they aren't finding their notes) suddenly out pop a few piano notes. I don't play their entire line--they don't need it, and I am not there to hand-hold, just to offer aid when necessary. That may mean I only play a few notes every 30 seconds or so. But they have to be the ones that are needed. The right ones, at the right time.

There are also situations in which I leave out notes. If the accompaniment features an occasional clash between the piano and what the sopranos are singing, during an early rehearsal I may leave those notes out in order not to lead the sopranos astray, because they will think they are supposed to match the piano. Once they know their part well, I'll put those notes back in. This requires me to understand the relationships of the notes at a glance, to categorize not only the important notes in a phrase, but to see the notes that will be helpful (if the composer has written the baritone note in the accompaniment a beat before they come in, for instance) from those that will not be.

I didn't major in accompaniment at the conservatory, and only took a class or two, so I don't know if this is ever taught in music school, but it is certainly important. And it is a case when it helps to be able to improvise and score read, enabling one to play a few beats of accompaniment, a beat or two of some voice combination, back to the accompaniment, just the sopranos---the situation dictates it, what one hears, and no preconceived plan. It is all done in reaction to where the group is, and what they need. In concert as well as in rehearsal.

"....If you could see him...not only...singing with one voice and playing his own parts, but watching over everything and bringing back to the rhythm and the beat, out of thirty or forty musicians the one with a nod, another by tapping with his foot, the third with a warning finger, giving the right note to one from the top of this voice, to another from the bottom, and to a third from the middle of it--all alone, in the midst of the greatest din made by all the participants, and, although he is executing the most difficult parts himself, noticing at once whenever and wherever a mistake occurs, holding everyone together, taking precautions everywhere, and repairing any unsteadiness, full of rhythm in every part of his body--this one man taking in all these harmonies with his keen ear and emitting with his voice alone the tone of all the voices..."

                             ---Johann Matthias Gesner on J. S. Bach in rehearsal!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Match Results

Friday I mentioned on my blog that I would be sharing with you in this space what happened as a result of the match. If you have no idea what this is or don't care, my apologies. The regularly scheduled blog will be back Wednesday.

In the meantime, my wife has learned that she will be doing her residency in Pittsburgh, PA, so we will be moving there in June.

This is not fun news for the people of Champaign, who have been telling us all year they are going to miss us, and we them, but we look forward to lots of interesting opportunities and happenings in Pittsburgh, and feel that somehow the folks in Illinois will manage to get by without us. Until then, we are busy with the various things that make up moving and preparing for this next step in our lives.

One of the pictures I got from a river cruise during a conference in Pittsburgh a few years ago.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Functional church (CCC part 8)

Thank you for bearing with me during our four week "digression." Part of that was indulgent on my part: as I prepare to leave I wanted to tell you something about what makes this church so special. But I think that may have been instructive as well, even in a roundabout way.

Next week we'll get down to the nitty gritty. What are the issues that organists frequently have with their churches that makes them unhappy, and what, if anything, can be done about them? There will be observations and potential plans of action you might undertake to improve the situation in your church.

But part of the time will be spent, not in how to fix problems, but discussing how we react to them. When is discussion useful? What are ways to master the 'soft' answer, the firm but not aggressive stance, or is it necessary to be confrontational? Or should you just leave and go somewhere else?

Since I am not a bridge-burning kind of individual, I will rarely counsel anyone to just leave a situation without trying to work things out. But there is one area in which it seems to me that the answer to a serious problem, or a plethora of serious problems, may be to do just that. And that is the reason for our slow buildup.

The answer has to do more with the staff around you. And the church as a whole. There is really no situation on earth where an artistically inclined person can 'just be an artist,' just live for the music, or high standards, or their own education, or whatever. That never happens entirely. Beethoven had to manage to sell something to feed himself, so he couldn't exist entirely by writing Symphonies and Sonatas, even though he had rich patrons.

And when you are talking about the church, that is even more true. Most of the people around you will have different aims than you. If you have families, they will want to find something that their kids think is fun, which is not likely to include listening to Bach. If you have older people, they will have their own set ideas about what they enjoy. Most of them are not likely to be great fans of organ music, or piano music, particularly if you are more advanced in technique and taste than most of your congregation. There is a great potential for a genuine mismatch. And, since the enlightenment, many musicians have stopped working in the church altogether because they either do not feel that they are welcome to do what they do well, or because they don't believe in the mission of the church. It has not been an amicable divorce.

Organists, as in so many other things, are in a unique situation. Most organs are physically housed in churches, making almost impossible to avoid playing in church if that is your instrument, like it or not. Churches come in a great deal of variety, depending on the size, location, denominational practices, and character of an individual congregation. Some of them will welcome, even demand, great organ music, some will put up with it, some will resist. Some will prefer everything to be quaintly old fashioned, others will try to be modern. Some people will love what you do, others will try to get you to do things that you either do not want to do or do not even know how to do. And that assumes they are even able to adequately communicate their intentions. Or whether they simply assume what they like is what is right and should be self evident.

When I came to Faith church a decade ago, there were things that I did not feel happy with. These have changed over time, much for the better, which is one big reason I am writing this series. But before you make the determination to stay and try to change something about the church, one question needs to be answered. Is this a functional church?

Does the staff quarrel or get along? Do people protect their own turf or try to solve problems as they inevitably arise? Are people willing to work around unexpected obstacles so that other persons ministries can be encouraged? Are the solutions both/and or either/or? Does someone in leadership see your role as getting in the way of something they are trying to do, and why? Is compromise possible, or not?

There are churches that get into huge fights over small things. One of the stereotypical items is the color of the carpet. We changed ours a couple of years ago, and nobody raised a peep. Another big one is a fight over the style of worship. That has affected Faith, more in its past than in its present. Hardly anyone can escape that skirmish. But as diverse as Faith is in many ways, it continues to function, and, while some of its members engage in long or short-running feuds with other members or their pastors, most of the time, most of the people some reasonably happy, and most the the time Faith is an active place, in worship, in missions, in outreach, and in the community. It's something worth noting about your church, because not only does it go to the value of things that are larger than you and your issues, but it is also worth noting the practicality of trying to slowly, subtly change the views and appreciations of your congregation, and in some cases, make room for something that nobody thought they really needed before, but someday, will wonder how they ever got along without it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Match (part two)

This hasn't been the easiest year in some ways. After more than a decade in Champaign-Urbana, I am heavily embedded in the community. My church is very happy with me, the two choral organizations for which I regularly accompany and their members are also pleased with our relationship, personal as well as professional, and nobody wants to see us go.

But for the better part of the last year, that's just what we've been preparing for. I've already detailed the mechanics of the match program Kristen is a part of in which she will find, once she graduates in May with an MD, where she will spend the next four or five years in residency to learn her specialty. It is certainly going to be in another location, and will almost certainly require a move there in June, at which point I'll be looking for new jobs in a new community. In the meantime, people have been asking me, individually, sometimes cheerfully, as this must be so much fun for us (!) where we are going to move to and have we heard anything yet.

The answer has always been the same. March 18th. They won't tell us before then. It doesn't matter how often you ask, or how much we wish we knew. It is just going to be that way. And don't you think we'll make an announcement when we know something?

But that hasn't stopped people from asking, over and over, and getting the same answer. And people being in various shades of denial and hope that we'll either find a way to stay, or at least commute. The first is a very outside possibility, and would only involve one year in a 'prelim' program which is the way of the one specialty that Kristen has decided against--with a single exception, way down the rank order list. As for the second--well, sure, I wouldn't mind coming back occasionally, but even commuting regularly from Indianapolis, the closest possibility, is not very realistic. And from the east coast?

In the meantime, everything is speculation. But it all comes to an end at 11am on Friday. Two days from now we will finally have an answer to a very important question, and when I am stupid enough to mention to a stranger that we are moving and get the inevitable follow-up "where to?" I'll actually be able to answer.

The Match ceremony will actually involve envelopes, which are opened apparently on some signal from the host, and en masse, rather than the more drawn out method some schools employ wherein each candidate is called to the stage one at a time, opens the envelope and announces to everybody "I'm taking my talents to South Beach!"*

I've joked that it will be broadcast on ESPN 7, but there really will be live web streaming involved, so if you happen to know us and want to get the 5 minute jump before Kristen puts it on Facebook, you can tune in to the college of medicine's youtube channel right HERE.
I'll post it to the blog Friday also, so whether you wanted to know or not, after the regular column gets its post at 8am Friday it will be followed by a short announcement some three or four hours later stating laconically where we are going to move. I'll put it on Facebook also. And for those who aren't connected, there will be live announcements at my church this weekend (all services) and Chorale rehearsal Sunday evening. Just so we can cover as may of the 5 or 600 people that we run into on a weekly basis as possible.

*If you grew up in the Cleveland area, that phrase really stings.

Monday, March 14, 2016

In which I give my congregation the Byrd

Listen to William Byrd's Pavane

One of the two most received compliments I get from my congregation, at least of the non-generic variety ("enjoyed the music this morning, Michael!"), is that people really appreciate having notes in the bulletin, in which I tell them something about the music I'm playing on the organ or piano that morning and why I chose it for that service. I think communication with the congregation is important, and while music itself is an effective means of communication in some very special ways, it is also a foreign language to many, and, in particular, people don't know the organ literature at all, so it is nice for them to learn something about it. I'm told, for instance, that it makes the music "more meaningful." That's a direct quote from a woman yesterday.

It reminds my of something Paul wrote, when he said he'd rather "speak five words of instruction than 10,000 in a tongue" which could apply to music, at least as far as many people are concerned. So it helps to be an intermediary. That's what the pastor does with the scriptures, after all. Why shouldn't the organist also have a homiletic function?

Yesterday, however, I fell down on the job. Actually, I've had a busy and involved schedule lately, and the piece I chose to play for the start of the service required very little practice, and while it seemed that it might fit the situation (Jesus' farewell discourse, deep into Lent) I wasn't sure how well it would fit.

Then I started to investigate.

A pavane is generally a slow, somber dance. But the term itself, though of uncertain origin, has, among its possible meanings, a resemblance to the Spanish term for "peacock."

Peacock, huh? Funny, we were talking this morning about the Holy Spirit being a parakeet. Wrong bird, but pretty close, and...

[uh, Michael? That's Paracleete, with an L. It means "comforter" or "helper." A parakeet is just a bird that says back to you what you've told it to say. Not the same thing.]

Right. So, now that I've gotten Mr. Byrd's bird to be of the proper species, what does it matter? Well, birds mean things. Actually, practically everything means something, if you know something about the Middle Ages and/or religious symbolism. I had a suspicion about that, so I looked it up. Do you know what a peacock is associated with?


It is pretty interesting that this slow, solemn, sad sounding dance has an association that seems 180 degrees away. And, given that that relationship seems to be purely etymological and symbolic, it is a very subtle relationship. In other words, what you hear is sorrow, and the presence of death, but if you listen beneath the surface, and know the hidden meanings of things, you find something very different.

I like subtle, personally. After my discovery I even wondered if I should keep it to myself. That does seem out of touch with our chosen gospel writer for the season of Lent, however. Whereas Mark shows a Jesus who is very secretive about his purpose and doings, John's Jesus likes to spell everything out with long discourses about himself and his mission and what his disciples need to know and to do.

So I'm spelling it out. But if you listen to the piece again, you won't hear it. It still sounds like melancholy--Jesus saying farewell to his disciples, preparing for a difficult journey to a place where they cannot go. But, for those who know, all is not exactly what it seems to be. Only very silently and without announcing its presence does that nugget reveal itself--if you notice it.

We are less than two weeks from Easter now. But deep inside the belly of Lent. And, if you know your liturgy, the way forward is going to get very rough. There's Palm/passion Sunday, and Holy Week, and candles and darkness and crucifixion. It is the way of sorrow.


listen again to William Byrd's Pavane

Friday, March 11, 2016

The pastors and I (CCC part 7)

This is the 7th part in a very long series that runs on Fridays for organists about constructive ways to deal with issues between you and your church. I'm off on what appears to be a four-week tangent in which I brag about our staff members, but I promise this is the last time I do that for a while. Next week we get to the issues themselves.

When they're not trying to blow up or burn down the church* to make a point about miracles to the children of the church, Faith's two new pastors do a bang up job.

They're enthusiastic, hard working, and even listen well. Sometimes, I'm sure, they get an earful from members of the congregation. It can't be easy dealing with that many people in a position of leadership. And we are a pretty easy going congregation, relatively speaking.

And, like the other folks I've mentioned in past weeks, they are very supportive of their organist, and everyone else.

Actually, most of the pastors I've worked with have been supportive, and not too controlling about what their organist plays for the morning offertory, or how he plays the hymns, or what instruments he uses when--perhaps they've all learned, the easy way or the hard way, that as long as someone is doing their job with devotion and passion it is just as well to leave them to do it as they wish without much interference. This is not, of course, the same thing as having no collaboration or input, but then, most pastors have noticed that what I choose to play is usually tied to the sermon and the hymns, and I imagine that since they realize they are getting support from me, it is natural to return it. Just a thought.

It is also a reflection of a management style. In a church our size, not enormous, but with around 400 worshipers a Sunday, and an unusually large number of people involved in ministries and missions around the church, a collaborative spirit helps set the tone for a place in which many people are able to use their gifts and ideas to make things happen. You'd have to be here to experience it all, and fortunately, when the new pastors arrived in July, they spent a good deal of time listening to what made this church run rather than diving in to fix things that were not broken. However, the time comes when a new leader leads, and having been here for several months, Shane and Sheryl and putting their stamp on the church as well.

Sheryl, our lead pastor, regularly preaches the two largest services, with their different styles and worship spaces. This helps to unify a church that has sometimes threatened to pull apart. Our associate, Shane, preaches the two other services, though occasionally they will switch services for a weekend or preach all the services when the other is away. Frequently referencing each other in sermons so that one is constantly reminded we have a pastoral team rather than just two individuals, they also praise other worship leaders often and speak well of lay leaders in our congregation. And, of course, they go to lunch with the rest of the staff on Tuesdays after our meeting, which is, obviously, for the sole purpose of being able to go to lunch afterward and feel like we've earned it. I think a 90 minute meeting is worth some buffalo wings, don't you?

*I'm referring here to two "magic" tricks that had startling results, but, no harm was done and the incidents were pretty funny, as most of those things afterward!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Having a great time! Wish you were hear!

I love some of these recordings of mine. They're such liars!

They sound like I was having a great time playing all this wonderful music. They are full of bold gestures, the joy of life...when maybe....

the truth is I was sick that morning. I didn't know if I could get through the take. I managed to. Then again, I may have had to stitch together two takes that did manage to go well. Then I went home and stared at the wall and tried to get over my virus, or headache, or whatever was ailing me. Or...

...I was in the middle of a busy schedule. I thought if I don't do this now, I'm not going to have time later, either. (Many of these recordings are things I was playing in concert or for church services at the time, and others were what I call extra-curricular, meaning I was trying to jam them in between obligations). I flipped on the microphone, and despite being tired after lunch, or in haste because I had another rehearsal in half an hour, I did my best to get it on tape fast. Maybe I was practically sight-reading the piece into the microphone, trying to make musical interpretive decisions about something I hadn't had a chance to digest. Or....

I was several variations into a set. Then the door opened and a staff member walked in to see me about something. On the original tape you can hear us having a twenty minute conversation about some church business. When I got home I edited that out and what you hear now is a continuous performance that gives no sign of having been interrupted. Or...

It was a noisy afternoon. Several trucks went by during recording. The roof settled a number of times, making a racket. Or I spent several minutes trying to locate and kill a cricket that was singing in the wrong key. Somehow most of it got erased through the editing process. The music, serene and beautiful, spoke louder than all the chaos around it. After the fact, anyway.

 One of my favorite recordings was made while recovering from an energy sapping illness that had lasted all week. I only had enough strength to do one take. The piece is 15 minutes long. You'd never know I was under the weather.

Another involves playing the piece out of order. It was a single, 4 minute piece, but the back third of it was the trickiest, and I wanted to make sure, on limited energy, and with little preparation time, I could nail the thing down technically. So I made a few takes of the last two pages. Then I started at the beginning and recorded to that point. Without using a metronome, my tempo was entirely consistent, so that it is impossible to tell that at a particular measure (well edited also) you are now listening to me playing twenty minutes earlier.

Such is the magic of recording. Some people don't find it very magical, however, and may even find it offensive.  There is a powerful drive toward the 'authentic' which is supposed to be the unfiltered witness of whatever is happening at the time. It is rare to non-existent in reality (particular reality television) but as long as people can't see the script or notice the manipulation, they are happy.

In a live concert, of course, there is no editing. For me, recording and concerts are quite different from one another. In a recording, I assume you would like to hear Brahms with the correct notes, and if I've missed a few, I feel it is more important to fix them than to be 'in the moment.' You would also like to hear me playing Brahms, that is, what I think or feel about the music, but if you want to be assured of getting a particular moment in time, you should come to a live concert. There is a magic that happens there that can't be preserved in a recording, even a live recording. Even then you are hearing the net result of hours in the practice room and my accumulated thoughts on how I planned to play each passage, although I usually find that once I've done all that homework, I am free to interpret the music as I am feeling it at the time, so there is indeed some element of spontaneity. And frankly, I usually find myself more relaxed at a concert in front of a microphone. A missed note or two doesn't seem to matter in the midst of good music making so long as it isn't preserved forever. Which ironically makes it less likely to miss notes in the first place.

That may be true of a recording too, actually. And there are many recordings on pianonoise that have no editing whatsoever--you are hearing exactly what I played, beginning to end, no fiddling involved. I just don't feel the need to advertise which ones.

If you are looking for complete spontaneity, improvisations are good ways to get it. The other week, our resident saxophonist and I created a piece on the spot, and the recordings I posted on this blog are records of exactly what happened in those moments.

It's just that, like all of society's gods, I'm a bit skeptical. Authenticity as spontaneity has a place, but doesn't planning what you want to say, or choosing the strongest material rather than just accepting whatever comes to you as gold not have at least as much value?

And when it comes to the material I'm recording, improvisations aside, we are dealing with compositions written down. We don't know how these came to be. The composer may have written it beginning to end in one fit of inspiration, but it is not likely (despite popular notions by people who aren't composers about how the process works). What is more likely is that he or she wrote a few lines, crossed out a measure or two, changed their mind a few times, paced around, had to answer the doorbell five times between measures six and seven, finally gave up, resumed composition the next day, and what you and I possess as a finished piece of music was actually written out of order and over several days or weeks. And if it seems like the composer was in a particularly somber or elated mood based on the affect of the music, there are plenty of historical rebuttals to this idea as well. That doesn't make the composition unrelated to mental or spiritual states of the creator's soul, but not on a particular day at a particular hour. It should argue for something more permanent; a kind of experience, rather than a one-off. Something that translates to us because it lasts, rather than being an ephemeral moment that comes and goes and is not worth the preservation.

I've often said that if something is only important today, and will be unimportant next week (much of the day's news falls into this category) I'd like to get a jump on ignoring it a few days ahead of time. If it is only the day's trivia, why not be ahead of the curve and forget about it before everyone else does. It is a time saver.

But there are times when the moment is pregnant with meaning and that means it will live on. Improvisations captured on tape that we relish again and again. An interpretive gesture that I didn't even realize I was going to make until it happened. Even those moment, however, rely on those moments that came before. Ideas accumulate in us until they find expression in the moment.

In one sense, that moment is all we have. We are creatures bounded by time. And yet, we have access to so much more.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Let's go for another walk

I owe this morning's post to Vidas Pinkevicius. Last week he had guest Peter Dirksen on his podcast to talk about the organ music of Sweelinck and Scheidemann. Oh, yes, I thought. Scheidemann. I've recorded something of his. A little praeambulum.

(if you were here last week you got a little meditation on etymology. A parambulation of sorts.)

What I forgot about was that I had forgotten about it. Even as I was discoursing last Monday about how 18th century German organists seemed to enjoy using the strange term praeambulum to describe their efforts, a term connected to one that describes the act of walking, this little Scheidemann piece was in the back of my head somewhere, and yet, it turns out that after recording it last June I had forgotten to share it with you. I could have even sworn I played it in church, but my records show that I didn't do that, either. What I did play was an offering by Franz Tunder, another piece in the same key, and a not too dissimilar style. Apparently I was saving the Scheidemann for later. Which is going to be today!

I don't want to give it too much of a buildup. It's only two minutes long, and it won't change your life (probably). 

It is also very different in character from the Bach piece we heard last week. But given it's rather generic title, I suppose that is to be expected. The eternal question seem to be, if this is a "before" piece (pre) what is it supposed to go before? It doesn't always seem to be a worship service. Or anything else.

Maybe it is simply the beginning of the rest of your life!

Scheidemann: Praeambulum in F

Friday, March 4, 2016

Charmian and I (CCC part 6)

The parenthetical acronym in the title refers to the larger series within which this is an installment. That is "For Organists: changing the culture at your church, part six." I am off on an apparent tangent wherein I praise my colleagues at Faith UMC. Be patient; not only is it deserved, it will make sense to you later on. More sense. Some of it should be clicking already!

I don't relish job auditions normally. I imagine most people don't. But this one was different.

I was asked to play a standard hymn, which I could have done with my eyes closed (having difficultly with the requirements of the audition is not the issue). I was asked to improvise an interlude leading into the last verse, modulating to a new key. I did that. And as the last verse began, the choir director began to conduct, broadening the tempo. I followed. Next she happily announced to everyone in the room, "he takes direction well."  Thank God for Charmian!

It was my first encounter with Charmian Bulley, the choir director at Faith United Methodist Church, and it was a pretty good indicator. I've known her for over a decade now, and she is a very supportive colleague.

During that interview, she said a number of positive things about me, and once I was hired, that continued. When I was at my church in Baltimore, I had been the choir director and organist. Here at Faith, the position was split. Not having to wave my arms from across the chancel was helpful, but it also felt a bit like a demotion, since the folks who plan and who work with groups of people tend to form the "administrative" end--in other words, I basically lost the "director" title. (During a recent staff meeting, talking about my position, which may not to be filled in a few months, I described myself as the 'assistant to the everybody!' since I also work with the "contemporary worship director" but am not him either...) But here is something important to note about Faith. Technically there is a hierarchy, just as in any church. But like Doug and I, Charmian and I are really a team. We've got our areas, but ideas are welcome, and nobody gets treated like a subordinate.

A few months into my tenure, during Advent, I had an idea. I wanted to play a series of chorale preludes based on a particular advent hymn, one that we Methodists don't regularly sing. I wondered whether the men of the choir could sing the chant before the organ prelude, and the second week, the whole choir sing the chorale it became next. This would require taking some time out of choir practice. Now I had, of course, been attentive to our director all along--she runs rehearsals, chooses hymns, and comes up with many creative ideas for worship which I support--but here was a situation when I asked for something of her, and she was quite willing to do it. In other words, this was not a one-way street! That early situation stands for a number of other things she has been willing to do since, and of course, I hope I am returning the favor by helping her to make the choir sound good and lead effective worship.

Charmian is extremely patient. She works with a large group of volunteers, after all, and while they sing well and show up every week, some of them have occasional difficulty paying attention. If you've ever been the choir director and had this happen to you, you too should be up for sainthood: you want to begin at a particular measure on a particular page. You try to talk over the din about 5 times. A few tenors keep talking. You finally raise your hands to start the section and somebody asks very irritated, "where are we starting?!?" in the kind of voice that has the underlying tone of "hey, stupid, why didn't you tell us where you wanted to start before you raised your arms?" and of course you just did, over and over, and the person being snotty with you was talking over it. You aren't feeling very "Christian" at that point!

I didn't want to give the impression that every moment at Faith was beautiful. People are people, after all, and everything doesn't always go swimmingly. Sometimes the dumb organist can't find his music, either! She's always got extra copies.

Charmian is a lover of organ music, too. She sometimes asks that is "sound like a cathedral" on high holy days and enjoys me improvisations on hymns. It is always nice to have someone who appreciates the classical organ literature--most churches have very few of these folks, even though at Faith most people enjoy my offerings in general, but outside the Widor Toccata don't know much about the music I'm drawing from. Over the years she has made a few suggestions to me, just as I occasionally suggest hymns. Charmian has a few favorites, including the one I'm going to conclude with, which I most recently played last year when she had health issues, for aural support.
It's the

Prelude on "Rhosymedre" by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and it is "lovely."

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

ok, a little further back now....good.....keep going......

Historian Will Durant said he first set out to write a history of the 19th century. Then he decided that if he wanted to be able to understand what happened in the 19th century, he'd have to back up a bit and find out what led to the cultural and political situations he encountered then. At which point he realized that that too was caused by what had happened before and that he'd need to back up even more.

Which is how he got all the way back to the dawn of recorded history, and ended up writing The Story of Civilization in 11 volumes of 600-1000 pages, trying to tell the story of human history (Euro-centered, of course, but with an attempt to deal with every culture around the world to some degree and grapple with its entire recorded history at least in passing).

It took Durant and his wife, Ariel, most of their long lives to finish the task, and by finish, we mean they ended up in about 1815, which was still a good century and a half before their last book was published in 1975. Before that, they had planned the ultimate cliff-hanger and decided to finish with volume 10 on the eve of the French Revolution. (We weren't even going to get to find out how it ends!)

It's even a monumental task to read it all, and, having begun the series just after moving to Champaign 11 years ago, I'm about 150 pages from the end of the final volume with just a few months left until our move. I think I'll make it.

My connection to Durant may not be just as reader. In some ways, we are engaged in a similar task, what he would call the ridiculous and ultimately doomed effort to see things whole, to understand all of it. In the past five years, just in the area of sound recording, I've posted nearly 30 hours of organ and piano music stretching all the way back to the earliest surviving organ music from the late Middle Ages, including some piece based on chants that go back even further (often we have no better than a good guess as to when). It encompasses many countries, mostly in Europe and America, with some contributions from other places in the world, and includes improvisations and compositions of my own vintage and those of a few others who have written their pieces in the last few years, showing that the tradition is alive and continuing to forge ahead.

This survey of mine will hopefully grow to include every major school of musical thought and composition and every major voice who has spoken in a written musical dialect. But it cannot possibly be thorough. There simply is not enough time to get to everything that has been written, no matter how long or short life is. It will never be long enough. Rachmaninoff knew that. He said "music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music." Durant knew that about history, too.

And why should it be possible? Me vs. every important contribution from thousands of members, past and present, of my own species? How can I possibly represent all of that? And who says I have to?

One of the amazing things about human beings is their ability to fling their voices far across space and time. To continue being part of the conversation long after their physical voices have ceased; to influence people who could never know them personally. We will never even know who wrote those organ pieces from the Robertsbridge Codex, c. 1360. Maybe he died of the plague. Maybe he was not a nice person at all. Or perhaps I would have enjoyed having lunch with him. Or, just possibly, her.

Maybe I'm approaching his or her music all wrong. I try to do my best for these honored dead as well as make the music live and breathe for today, as well as the future which might still get to hear it. Frankly, as all-inclusive as the catalogue is I'd like to be able to play music from the future, too, but it's a little difficult.

It feels like skimming the surface. And it is. If I have more time perhaps I can get back to the days when I spent two years on Brahms. Perhaps. But in five years I've made a pretty good start. It's probably as much as most artists previously recorded in their entire artistic lives.

It still isn't a dent. And what difference has it made for me (and perhaps you?) It is the glorious inheritance of our species, the accumulated thought and wisdom of those who could speak and be heard. We cannot hear it all and not be changed. It is hard to imagine we could not be bettered for the experiences. How can we not share these gifts? "Let us," said Durant, "before we die, gather up our heritage, and offer it to our children."