Friday, April 20, 2018

Mediocrities, I absolve you!

You can't get your history from Hollywood. Everybody knows that.

But we do anyway.

Drama is so much more memorial than history anyhow. Remember what year the Revolutionary War started? Anything about the Stamp Act? How about Washington flipping a coin across the Delaware River?

The last one didn't happen. Which is why that and some dubious arborcide are exactly what an entire generation knows best about our first president.

When it comes to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, everybody knows he was poisoned by Antonio Salieri. Which, of course, didn't happen either.

What makes the matter so much more intriguing, and fun, however, is that, if you believe accounts of an early biographer--Mozart's wife's second husband, who is supposed to have gotten the story from Mozart's wife--, Mozart did actually entertain the notion that he had been poisoned shortly before he died of rheumatic fever. Also, there was a rumor in Vienna, much later, that Salieri did the poisoning. That doesn't mean it happened, however, and neither was Salieri the man in the mask who commissioned the unfinished Requiem. But the Requiem? unfinished. And a guy with a mask? that story goes back to Mozart's widow also, and has to be at least partially true. Mozart was writing on order from an unknown patron. It wasn't Salieri, but it is still a very strange way to commission a piece of music.

At the intersection of myth and fact is a wonderful movie that was released in 1984 by the name of Amadeus, whose director, Milos Forman, died this week. It is hands down the best movie ever made that isn't really about the life of a composer. If it was a more careful biography it would have been a snooze, just like all of the bad Beethoven movies I've seen. But its writer Peter Schaffer, also deceased, was expert at sifting facts, legends, rumors, and just making stuff up in a way that makes Amadeus a fascinating film. It works wonderfully well as drama. As history, it should be approached with caution. And yet, the man did his homework into the real characters at the film's center so well that there are hundreds of true to life details. Things like Mozart's strange laugh, for which there are contemporaneous letters. Or his interest in fart jokes. Mozart's own letters give away his obsessions with this region of the anatomy. Or Salieri's love of sweets. Or the way Mozart composes while playing billiards. These can all be supported by letters and documents of the time, and by eye-witnesses.

The best parts, of course, the parts you remember, didn't actually happen. I'm still in the process of tracking some of this down, but I can tell you that there were plenty of people who thought that Mozart's music was too learned, too complicated, even if the Emperor himself never accused Mozart of writing "too many notes." And there was a real war going on between those who wanted German opera (which included the Emperor) and those who did "incline to the Italian," though it would be a stretch to paint Mozart as a guy who was striking a blow for democratic ideals in opera and against those stories of gods and goddess who were "so lofty they act as if they shit marble!" And then there is my favorite line in the movie, when Emperor Joseph is watching a bunch of dancers jostling about on stage silently because the accompanying music has been banned (by his own manipulated decree). Confused, he asks, "I don't is modern?" and nails the reaction of a large section of the movie's audience to the most uncompromising art of their own era. It isn't anything Joseph would have actually said, but it is the perfect joke/social commentary, and it says volumes about us.

I'll be participating (as organist) in a concert this weekend in which is presented Mozart's famous last work, the Requiem. It is filled for me with great memories of things cinematic that didn't really happen, such as the scene discussing the Day of Wrath movement, when Salieri's eyes grow wide when asked if he believes in the eternal judgement and wrath to come and he says fervently "oh yes!" turning the knife to torture the dying Mozart some more.

We all have our own interpretations of the movie, and of the Requiem itself. Tim Coles, the concert's conductor, says he find the piece "very honest." This is in distinction to later Requiems by composers like Brahms and Faure, whose music emphasizes comfort and solace, as if they were trying to engage in platitudes and to pull back from death's final punch. But it could be argued that Mozart's account is really colored by a pretty dark theology which was steeped in doctrines that persisted in Catholicism from the Middle Ages on through the Enlightenment, and that his music is really more about the standard grist from the flock-frightening mill than a personal cry of agony when facing grief and loss.

Whatever the case, Mozart did not finish his Requiem. Where he left off is still a mystery: trying to fulfill the commission and earn the money, Mozart's widow conspired with Mozart's student Sussmayer to complete it without letting anyone know who did what exactly. And the result is now anyone's musicological guess.

But judging from the quality of the music I've been practicing this week, I've a hunch that the movie (as well as at least one scholar) got it right when they suggest that Mozart left off during, or after, the Lacrymosa. It is, to me, the last truly gripping piece in the Requiem, right before the general quality abates and the repetition of (earlier) sections begins (my attention always used to start to wander at this point). And, cinematically, it is the perfect place to complete the story of Mozart's life because it contains one great big dramatic AMEN!, the only place in the entire work with such a close.

In any case, I don't find the ending very satisfying. Classical era composers didn't bring back entire movements to close a work the same way they began. Mozart certainly does not. And then, to have the entire piece end on a chord without a third, so inconclusively...

It could say something interesting about death, futility, frustration, knocking at the gates of what we do not know, but it would be borrowing from a vocabulary much later than that of the 18th century.

History does not seem to care about our debate. The movie, which does, chooses to end with that grand amen. And Salieri ends his beef with God by absolving all of the mediocrities who, like him, wanted to be great and just fell short.

Of course, in Salieri's day, he was a great success. And probably not that jealous of Mozart--he seems to have been very kind to him, actually. Mozart, on the other hand, was jealous of just about everybody, including, once in a while, Salieri.

...Salieri, who, it turns out, also wrote a Requiem. We won't be performing it. It is a bit dull, at least those parts I've heard so far. And do you know who he wrote it for?

For himself! For his own funeral!

Now isn't that just spooky? And a great jumping off point for a dramatist.....

Rest in Peace, Milos Forman.

Friday, April 13, 2018

It depends upon your point of audition, I suppose...

A few years ago, I heroically dragged my recording equipment up the long ladder into the pipe room to make a recording. The point I was making was that you could listen to the same piece--same performance, actually--from two points of hearing, the first from within the sanctuary, where you would normally be sitting, and the second from in the pipe chambers themselves, and get a very different sonic experience. If you missed that, here they are (90 seconds each):

Tunder: Canzon in G (sanctuary)
Tunder: Canzon in G (pipe room)

 I've been doing a bit of work on my website lately, trying to update, modernize, centralize, and generally improve vast amounts of material, and in the process it is necessary to see how it looks to the people using it. The difficulty here is that people have got multiple ways of accessing your site, and they all produce quite different results. For instance, if you are at a desktop computer reading this, you are using a browser, like Chrome, or Mozilla. I can't tell which one, but I can tell how many people are using which ones because the google tells me. Chrome usually wins for popularity. This is unfortunate, because my site looks so much better in Mozilla, which puts nice little defining borders around things, and doesn't shrink the pictures and diminish their sharpness and general quality the way Chrome does. But at least they are not too many yards apart. I have to check my pages in both of them to make sure something that looks good in one doesn't look positively stupid in the other. I've also found ways to fix the width of the presentation because, depending on the width of your display (some can be more than twice as wide as others) anything that you would like to display in some kind of relation to something else (like a caption that should be below a picture) could end up on the other side of the screen. Imagine something tall and thin (like a person) suddenly becoming short and squat. Now imagine the internal organs having to move around to accommodate, because this person is now three times as wide as he is tall. Now imagine them trying to get through the metal detector at the airport, and becoming tall and thin again. We can't perform those gymnastics, but a website can and does, without telling us.

Now that we are all using cellphones to browse the internet I have to account for the small screen, too. A lot of what I've been doing has to do with making the site more "cell phone friendly" even though the majority of my users still don't use them. (A sizeable minority does, however.) It's amazing how much adjustment needs to be made for the different situations. The traditional wisdom in these matters is to keep things simple, but then you are being dull across the board.

The same is true for recordings. I found years ago that the same recording could sound considerably different depending upon what you are listening to it on. Something that sounds good in headphones can sound poor on desktop speakers, or (more often) vice versa. Generally my recordings sound decent with good headphones because that is how I listen when I mix them. But even professional CDs are subject to the differences in players, boomboxes, car stereos, and the like.

This is all a very good metaphor for receptivity among people. How various people can react so differently to the same material depends greatly upon the kind of grey matter they have between their ears are well as the personal experiences they've had all their lives. Someone might find this terribly interesting. Somebody else hit the back button on their browser a long time ago.

The world is awash in advice for popular success. One of the formulas is to "be yourself." That only works if you are similar enough to most other people to catch their attention. If not, you can be yourself by yourself. It is also conveniently self-indulgent enough not to concern itself too much with other people. You obviously can't spend your life anxious about how they are going to react (particularly the nasty ones), but failing to care about their perceptions makes you pretty limited. In fact, being able to see things from other points of view is pretty much a basic hallmark of human intelligence. Being particularly good at it, though, is far from basic.

Over-accommodation has its problems as well.  If I were just out to get viewers, and keep them entertained, I would skip the classical music and go straight to kitten videos. Instead, I have something to say and I'm going to say it. I'll try to make it more interesting for a broad audience, but I'm only going to take that so far.

Thus it seems we must strike some sort of balance. And balance is something that is continually in danger of being lost. It has to be revisited constantly, reinvented, repurposed...

But at least it keeps life interesting.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Cave of the Organists

There's an intriguing little verse tucked away somewhere in the Book of Kings, I think, referring to the "cave of the prophets." Most of us would, I think, be surprised to think that they lived in caves, or that there were whole groups of them living together. The picture we get of a prophet is some lonely figure on a mountain with a swirling robe (sort of like Moses in The Ten Commandments). His message is clearly audible, though not popular. He is fearless, and certainly powerful, even if he sometimes has to run for his life to avoid the wrath of the king.

The reality, though, is that there were a whole lot of them, that they served more like political advisers than predictors of future events (although, in some ways those roles collide), and that, apparently, like any other trade, they tended to congregate in large numbers, perhaps learning from, and/or competing with, one another. Whether they generally lived in caves or were just doing that because the current administration was a little too friendly with Baal worship than was optimal for a prophet of Yawheh is a question for an ancient Realtor.

If you've ever seen Monty Python's Life of Brian, where there are many prophets trying to shout their messages into a crowd of walking and talking people who don't seem to care, you probably have a more realistic picture of the situation at large. One that more accords with human nature, anyhow.

I'm mentioning this because the figure of the organist might need some similar rethinking. At your church the organist is off by him or her self in a corner playing a loud instrument, but you might be surprised to learn that organists do have trade organizations (like the American Guild of Organists), do go to conferences and meetings to pry secrets out of one another, do have an impressive online presence featuring scads of Youtube videos and recordings of everything from the week's prelude to tutorials on how an organ works, and participate in online forums where they discuss all things organ.

If you knew this already than you know that organists are clearly not troglodytes (at least, not figuratively), and you may be wondering what organists have to talk about. And you may not be surprised to learn that much of it includes complaints about working conditions, such as priests and pastors who are, shall we say, less than supportive.

I recently joined a large group of organists online. I've read various forum pages over the years so I knew what I was getting into, which probably included a fair amount of such complaining. When you've been practicing your craft on a mountain by yourself, shouting into the prevailing winds, it is nice to come back into the cave and commiserate with your colleagues about how nobody seems to give a --well, you know.

Right out of the box it was a woman who was halfway through her Easter prelude when (would that I were making this up) the priest sent a note that said simply "NO MUSIC!" Now it would have been nice if the priest had mentioned this a little earlier. And it is rather strange that he should want no music on Easter. There is a custom in some churches in which solo organ music is not permitted during Lent, which is a time of fasting and introspection leading up to the celebration of Easter. But on Easter itself? That does seem a bit strange. Still, he's the boss. Albeit, a boss who, like so many priests, unfortunately, does not seem to know or care about music, nor have any training in dealing with people in general.

Sometimes that deluge of complaints in other forums can seem a bit much; still, organ forums must serve as safe zones for people who otherwise aren't getting much sympathy. It can be dangerous to express frustration online: not only are there multitudes who think of sympathy as a weakness, there are many others who think of it as a competitive sport (i.e., you think YOU have a problem. Well, it's nothing like mine. Also, how dare you!).

Although that sort of thing be grab the headline, there is a great deal more that goes on in this cave. Organists mentor other organists. Sometimes there are questions about where to find pieces of music, or about the reliability of various brands of organ (if their church is looking to get one) or postings of preludes, or pictures of where members have played recently. A little strutting may not be out of place sometimes.

And people are just people. Some of them probably exaggerate their problems to elicit sympathy, some are just jerks when confronted with young organists who don't know things, others like to get into fights with other organists over everything from musical style to whether electronic organs are a sign of the Apocalypse. Apparently, on this site, the term "toaster," which seems to be a dismissive term for electronic organ, is banned. One new member used it, and had to apologize.

Then there are the humorists, and the folks who just want to have fun. In short, it is just like your profession, whatever it is, only the technical information is different. The personalities, however, are not. And they go out, Sunday after Sunday, alone, to face a world of persons who are not like them at all, and do not know what it is like to do what they do. And then they come back into the cave to talk about it.

Friday, March 30, 2018

St. Michael of the videos

Some saints would lie on beds of nails, or live in the same tiny crevices for years, unable to move. Or in muck and filth. Or beat themselves with rods.

Then there are the ones who gave up chocolate for Lent. You know who you are.

I chose an even stranger path. Internet videos. So strange that it seems perfectly natural in this day and age. Except for them not starring kittens. Otherwise, what could possibly be Lenten about them at all?

Well, to start with, I had to get up early. The videos went live on Facebook every morning at 8 a.m., which meant I was up by 6:30 and out the door by 7:30. That wasn't all that big a deal, except for the every day part. Every day, for 40 days I improvised on some Lenten hymn or on whatever came to mind from the organ console at Third Church in Pittsburgh, the church where I am organist. Also, Lent takes a break on Sundays, but I didn't. I work that day and have to get up early. And on those days, Sunday mornings, I took a break from improvising to play composed Toccatas, pieces other than the Widor toccata of Easter fame, and to boost the posts to advertise our presence as a church to the people of East Pittsburgh. So, between the two pieces of the plan, Lenten improvisation days, and Sunday Toccata days, there were 6 and a half weeks of continuous getting up early* and going to church, and sitting at the organ, and playing whatever came out, sometimes with no warm up.

I don't think straight at 8 in the morning. That was a problem.

Going live to whoever is out there listening can also do things to one's nervous system, particularly first thing in the morning--Although it turned out that most mornings, nobody was listening, and that, as I saved the videos for later viewing, there might be at most about a dozen viewers--So if you were thinking I was mixing up a Lent discipline with becoming a celebrity, don't worry about it.

Later on, there might be upwards of 40 people (a Lenten number) watching some of the videos. I don't know whether they like them--some of the most watched videos were predictably the loud and fast kind, but more often I was not feeling flashy, particularly as this is Lent, after all. Most of these folks are friends of mine from the place I last lived. Which is really why I'm writing this.

I want to thank you for you encouragement, and for going on this strange Lenten journey with me. A few of year have watched and liked all of the videos, most have dropped in from time to time, but if you are hoping to experience something worth sharing (not that there is any guarantee when you are making it up) you hope that someone will be listening, and, if we are lucky, getting something positive out of the experience. At least I felt some connection to the people of Champaign, more than I have in a while, since a required move and the simultaneous disorientation of cancer treatment rudely removed me from your presence.

Saturday (tomorrow) is the last video. And then, live at the end of the Easter service, I'll play the Widor Toccata for anyone who wants to listen. I know that, due to the time difference, most of the Illinoisians who attend the 10:30 service will not be able to hear it live, unless it is on in the middle of Sheryl's sermon. Please don't. You can listen to it later. My friends in East Pittsburgh have the option of hearing it live, and in person if you would like to attend Third Presbyterian at 5701 Fifth Ave in Pittsburgh. You are very welcome. Come up to the organ and say hi afterward. I may be tired but I'm sure to be in a good mood. The last time I played the Widor Toccata after an Easter service I had an enormous tumor in my chest. I thought it might be my last one. But the Widor goes on. I was actually entertaining the heretical thought of playing a different Toccata his year (the Vierne that I played in last week's Sunday morning video and is this week's featured recording on the homepage) much in the manner that Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White after his near death experience, after cancer I wanted to change up the theme song a little, but I was told there would be much weeping and gnashing of teeth if I didn't play the Widor. So it lives on.

Again, my apologies for the awful sound quality of the videos. I'll get a decent camera one of these days. I did manage a tripod about halfway in, which solved some of my initial problems.

As for the future, I look forward to being able to sleep in just once in a month and half! But for those of you who have kept me company, might I suggest (because I often forget to mention this) that, my website, gets regularly updates with new recordings and articles to the homepage every Friday. All day.

See you around. Next year maybe I'll try the bed of nails. Then I won't mind getting up so early. I don't know about the muck, though.

Happy Easter!

*actually, we where on vacation in Florida one of those weeks, which meant I had to improvise an extra piece every day for a week and prepare them all to auto-post on the days we weren't home.

Friday, March 23, 2018

A Strange Love: or how I stopped complaining and learned to love The Palms

We have a tradition at our church. We sing The Palms as our opening hymn on Palm Sunday.

These are the bare facts. And, as this is a church which does not have that many traditions in worship, it is that much more obvious and important. It is one of the first things that come up when a new pastor wants to know what our inviolable customs are. Liturgically, we are pretty much Christmas and Easter. Ascension Sunday? What's that? Transfiguration of the Lord? Nope. Baptism of the Lord? huh? Pentecost we do. But there we don't do anything differently except sing different hymns-and none, I recall from last year, was specifically related to the Day of Pentecost, or even the Holy Spirit. We are more of a Sunday-go-to-meeting congregation, in which the procedure never varies, and there is a relatively small change in content except to reflect the message of the day.

There are, of course, those festivals in the life of the church. The annual Bazaar, the Rummage Sale, the Seasonal Mice. These things proceed apace every year, and they are sacrosanct. But in worship, there seems to only be one custom. That, and the organist is required to play the Widor Toccata on Easter. I'm used to that--it was the same at my last church. It doesn't bother me much--I like the piece, and I only play it once a year, so, unlike some of my colleagues, you won't get much invective from me.

But The Palms? "Les Rameaux" was written in 1891 by an operatic baritone named Jean-Baptiste Faure. I find it rather mawkish. Of course, mawkish translates to "much beloved" in the Dictionary of the Masses, and this tune has apparently been a part of the Third Church lexicon for some time. Perhaps this summer I'll go find the Old Bulletin Archive and see how far back it goes. The piece itself is not as old as the congregation itself but older than our present building (1903).

Naturally, there have been various attempts over the years to replace the piece with something else, but they have not been successful. Last year, our outgoing pastor thought perhaps it was time to retire it. As a substitute organist I was party to the daily drama of will we or won't we sing The Palms. It was quite entertaining. I threw my hat in the ring as not really a big fan, but when the pastor was overruled, probably by a sobbing (or threatening) parishioner, I played the piece. We sang. It could have been worse. We have a semi-pro choir and they not only can hit the high notes, they are not accustomed to hamming them up. The congregation at large doesn't sing too badly either--they just aren't very loud. But as I was very new last year, I may not have noticed. Perhaps they will sing this with extra enthusiasm. I plan to be on full gusto alert on Sunday to find out.

I hope when we sing the piece on Sunday that the portion of the congregation that can't live without it (I'm guessing they are mostly in their 80s) feel truly blessed and ministered to. And I hope we can minimize any side effect caused by younger persons or persons new to the congregation taking this as a symptom that we have our heads buried in the sands of time and are too hopelessly sentimental to have much to say to the world as it is.  And maybe if anybody who is young and hip (or on their first one) wonders, we can tell them that we do it because it's retro. You know, it's so uncool it is cool again. It's worth a shot.

Anyhow, there may be a virtue in loving things that are old and clunky.

Remember I said that in 30 years.

Friday, March 16, 2018

If you want to get to Carnegie Hall you have to catch a lot of pitas, apparently

It's been a pretty intense week of Pita Catching around here. 

I would have called it an intense week of practicing, but my phone, which knows all about these things, decided to auto-correct "practicing" to "pita catching" when I texted my wife what I was up to, so I've kind of adopted the term. 

Pita catching comes in a variety of forms. It helps to be familiar with all of them, because when you are on a deadline (and you are) you will necessarily experience all of them in a whirlwind of contiguous sensations which are emotionally and physically exhausting enough when you know they are coming. Not to recognize that the valleys of despair are just a normal part of the journey is to succumb completely. And remember, ain't nobody got time for that. 

Palm Sunday is just over a week away now, and for the occasion I've selected a complex piece for organ solo by Jean Langlais (Les Rameaux, or "The Palms").  I've never played it before, and because of my schedule this year so far I've been unable to get a head start on it; so Monday was my first chance to tackle it. I skipped what I call the "introduction phase" which is just looking the piece over, reading through it a time or two, spending 20 minutes practicing bits of it and putting it away for later, given the demands of the calendar. Given the size and difficulty of the piece--nine pages of complex French harmonies and not a single bar of repetition anywhere--my plan was to pounce full out and get as much of the piece familiar and under my fingers at a slow tempo as soon as possible. That first day I managed to practice the entire piece in about four hours.

This meant combining the steps of "discovery" and "the pain." Discovery is obviously fun because you are finding new things, hearing exotic harmonies, enjoying how the composer put the piece together, even sometimes puzzled. It was also mildly intoxication because it reminds me of the Resurrection movement from the Symphonie-Passion by Marcel Dupre which I played years ago in my first year in Illinois, and a flood of associative memories hovered close by without my invitation. The pain comes in when your brain, realizing it is a muscle, and that you have tried to assimilate 9 pages of notes in a single morning, begins to get very tired and bruised. At that point, repeating phrases and whole sections is a lot like bench pressing. Each one is a struggle and leaves you tired. Then you take a short break, brace your courage, and do it again. The longer you practice, the harder it gets. It is an enigma that sometimes practice seems to make a piece worse. This is mainly true in the early stages, and in the first days, when the brain is trying to catch hold of all that new information.

The despair sets in the next day, when, despite four hours of work the day before, you feel as though you have had never seen the piece before, and that nothing you have done is having any impact whatever. This is because it takes the brain a few days to build all of the neuron highways to put it all in storage. Knowing this, you keep practicing, waiting for that eventual day or hour when all of the sudden the piece starts to feel familiar, as if you HAD been practicing all this time.

 I was feeling like a goldfish on Tuesday, with the fabled 3 second memory. Repetitions did little to improve my comfort with the materials. Then I went through a stage where the passages would start to improve after several repetitions, but if I went on to something else and then came back to them I had to start as if from the beginning. On Wednesday the situation was no better--at the start. However, later in the day the piece did assemble itself fairly quickly and I was able to play it from start to finish--a phenomenon I have been aware of for a long time. No results, no results, then suddenly--whoosh. Progress. 

I once had a neighbor who wondered how I practiced and asked if I just played pieces all the way through over and over. Any good musician knows that is not how to practice; however, at this stage in a piece's practice history I will often play through. It gives me an overhead view of the whole, and what it is like to get there. Once I've gotten the piece assembled the first time I am able to see all of the parts that aren't going as well. If I have a close deadline, I also know at this point how close I am to being able to "fake it"--that is, get through it somehow, in case I run out of time to clean and oil all the details. I played through five times before I went to lunch. On Thursday I did more of that. I called it the "fast and sloppy" stage, because I am grasping the whole and even playing it not far from tempo, but am making mistakes. Next I took the piece apart again, and worked each section carefully.  That was Thursday. There was evening, and there was morning.

By Friday the piece is where I wanted it to be at the end of the first week--essentially playable, and in need of more repetition and reinforcement. I've gone from repetition that hurts to repetition that feels great, because my mind, like any mind, enjoys reinforcing what it knows already. My brain is now practicing on its own time, as well, which is a huge supplement. I am no longer afraid of being able to play the piece, having another week to work on it. The second week will be much easier than the first. And a lot more fun. It sounds like music now. I am using a full registration. I know why this man has such a reputation. It is an awesome piece of music.

I am still not done. I can play most of the piece once I've practiced for a while. I can't begin to play it cold, the first time. Nor would I want to do it under nerves, or after a lengthy choir rehearsal and a pancake dinner. This requires much more tightening, and a firm grasp of every measure. I've done this many times before, and I know what it will take, and how long. How a piece seems to accelerate as it is learned, so not to despair in the early days, but to get as much of a head start as possible, and let your head do its part. To work everything carefully, and then try to put it together, to take it apart again, lather, rinse, repeat. And all under constant diagnosis. Because even when a passage sounds fine to a listener, it may not be. If it took too much mental effort to get to a chord, even if there was no hesitation, that part will not withstand pressure later on. The better one can diagnose, the better one can improve. It also makes practice, with all of its ups and downs, much more interesting. I never look at a watch, count repetitions, or wonder when I can be finished. My brain is too busy for that.

 Speaking of which, it is a new day, and I've got more pitas to catch.

Friday, March 9, 2018

If you're just joining us...

I seem to be making a number of new musical friends lately, who may be new to this blog, so I thought I'd give a little introduction.

First, the basics. I'm Michael Hammer. I'm a pianist and organist, composer, teacher, and blogger, and I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This blog is attached to a rather involved website with hundreds of articles and recordings devoted to all kinds of things musical which I've been running since 2002.

When I started pianonoise, I was a graduate student in piano performance at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Once I earned a Masters and Doctorate there, I started spending more time hanging out with the organ, which is why, as I write this, the banner picture at the top of the blog is a shot of me at the organ. It's kind of a running joke (inside my own head, anyway) that there is more organ-noise around here sometimes. I've been keeping a running tally of recordings in each category to find out.

When I started the website back in the Middle Ages, audio files on the internet were just beginning. For a few years I amused myself writing commentary about various things, and making about a hundred awful sounding recordings which I later repented of when I got a better micing system and regular access to a better piano. I spent about ten years in Illinois during this time. Eventually I started this blog (2012). It's mission is to engage regular folks in the experience of listening to and enjoying music--mostly for piano and organ. It also included blogs written for fellow musicians to sharpen their skills, and some blogs about being a church organist.

These days the challenge is to keep track of all of that.

The easiest way to experience Pianonoise is to check out the homepage every week. I update on Fridays with a batch of new articles and recordings. Some of the articles and recordings aren't really new--I recycle things from years past, but their currency isn't as important as it would be if I were writing about politics or the day's news. After all, Bach is still dead. And his music still lives.

The other thing to note is that while I lead a varied existence, at some point I'll shed light on all of the various sections of pianonoise, new and old, by linking to them on the homepage. Or, if you are intrepid, you can go exploring, by way of the site index, or the listening archive. I try to archive everything worth keeping. I can't promise you won't get lost, and as I happen to be in the middle of a major website renovation in 2018, you might not always find things in the same place.

The site is meant to be a digital extension of myself, and what I find valuable (which is often--but not always-- the thoughts and compositions of other people, and the study of our various traditions upon which I build). It can provide a useful counterpoint to a live concert, for example (i.e., you can often hear me play the music before, or after, the concert, right here).

Everything that you hear is something I have recorded myself, and some of it I've even written (or improvised). My thoughts are my responsibility, although, like everything else's, they are largely inherited. I do try to examine them before I give them back to the universe.

Keep an eye on the upcoming events at the top of the homepage when it is active. Or, you can get on my email list (send to michael@pianonoise: subject "email please") and I'll let you know when I'm giving a concert.

See you around the piano!

Friday, March 2, 2018

The organ: from enthusiastic students to tired instructor!

For the past five weeks, 44 of my best friends have gathered in the sanctuary at Third Church every Thursday afternoon to listen to me wax eloquent about the glories of the organ, and occasionally to let some of the instrument's finest composers take a turn. It's been one of the offerings of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of the University of Pittsburgh, which I describe as a kind of college for seniors.

For nearly two hours each week I held forth about the history of the instrument, which begins in the 3rd century BC, demonstrated all the knobs, buttons, manuals, pedals, and special features of the unique instrument at Third Church, and played about a half-hour mini concert. It's been quite a bit of work to put it all together, but quite a lot of fun, too. And these folks have been really enjoying it, and, engaged, have been asking good questions. Alas, all good things come to an end. Yesterday was our last meeting. Five weeks is a short semester, though, given all the preparation, probably long enough for this particular course. Did I mention 30-some slides as well?

Also, I've been yearning to get back to the piano. In fact, when someone asked what I was going to teach the next course about, I suggested that while nothing has been decided yet, that it might involve the piano. In any case, our sanctuary seems to be a good place to meet, even though it is not on the official campus. It's on a major bus line so people can get to it easily, and our staff and congregation really like having it here. It gets people in the building on a week day afternoon, which, after the busy sewing mission in the basement on Wednesdays, means two days a week that aren't Sunday. That seems like a good use of space.

And while it lasted, THE ORGAN: FROM PORTABLE PIPES TO MASSIVE MUSICAL MACHINE, which title is a bit fanciful and alliterative, but don't knock it, it got 44 people to sign up for a 5 week class about the organ!--while it lasted, it was great fun to be able to share the wonderful music and to demonstrate the unique properties of the instrument. I've given organ demonstrations before, but having nearly 10 hours of class time spread over five weeks allowed a depth and detail that I've not been able to go into during those at best hour-long demonstrations. Since I proceeded historically, I could ignore all of the buttons and studs for a couple of weeks since Bach didn't have them, and really get into the different stops and sound families on the organ. We also spent time looking at different pipes and talking about how they are designed, how the pipes are tuned, and so on. We didn't actually go into the pipe room (slides) because that would have involved signing release forms longer than the phone book, but I've been up there and enjoyed describing its awe-inspiring and caution-inducing atmosphere while showing pictures of everything my camera could grasp.

Then electricity came along and the organ became a rather different instrument. We were able to discuss images of the organ in pop culture (more slides) as well as hone in on two major types of pieces written for the organ: fugues and toccatas. Of course I played some of the most familiar, but I also made time for some rarities that I particularly enjoy. And in addition to music from Baroque Germany and Romantic France, we heard music from Italy, Spain, England, and America, from composers living and dead. During the penultimate week we discussed the improviser's art, and I had a go at making the mysteries of making it up seem less unfathomable. There was some participation. We'll leave it at that! (smile)

All in all, a successful venture. Students were asking the next course offering by the second week, the church would like to host it again, and the administration seems pleased. So if I'm a bit tired this morning, it is in the best sense. It is time for a break, then on to other things. But, ah, that was fun. And my online "students" will also reap the benefits. See you back here next week.

Friday, February 23, 2018

And when you're bad, you're awful

There are, it seems to me, two ways to make a positive difference in the world. One is to do something really well. That might, if it were a musical composition, or a work of art, or a figure skating routine, or a well cooked meal, bring joy to the beholders. It might also inspire them to reach new heights in their own endeavors.

The other way is to be really bad at what you are doing. This has the useful effect of making people who might otherwise feel nervous around you and your accomplishments feel relieved that, hey, that sort of failure happens to you, too, that you are a regular person after all, and that maybe they can, perhaps without even trying too hard, do a bit better.

I took the second path this week, and you're welcome.

Well, it wasn't on purpose.

A few weeks ago we had some foul weather in Pittsburgh and I was casting about for ways I might bring a class I was teaching to the people I was teaching on the chance that the snow and ice that was closing schools on Wednesday continued into Thursday and half the students (who are adults and drive themselves or take busses) couldn't show up. I decided to try to figure out how to go live on Facebook. I have a page (www.facebook/pianonoise) if you're interested.

I put up a video of myself playing the organ, and doing some talking to see if the microphone worked for both. Unfortunately you can't really test the system without broadcasting it to the universe (or at least the miniscule part of the universe that is interested). It wasn't a great video for various reasons but I got around a hundred views fairly quickly, which is more attention than most of my posts and recordings get. I thought about it and decided maybe I ought to find some way to do videos and embed them at pianonoise. People are far more interested in things they can see than merely hear. I've got plenty of nice recordings at pianonoise but a lot of them are gathering cyberdust because they aren't videos. So in return for the awful sound quality and the shaking picture, I'd get more traffic.

Then I realized that with the season of Lent coming up, it might be a useful discipline to try to improvise something on the organ every day until Easter and put that out live on Facebook. The only problem with that is that Lent lasts 40 days, which is a lot of daily improvisations. Also, I decided to do them at 8 in the morning, which is when my brain really isn't working very well, creatively or otherwise.

Well, it was supposed to be a Lenten discipline of sorts. And since it didn't involve sleeping on a bed of nails or taking a vow of silence or eating cockroaches on Fridays I'm probably not going to be sainted for it. But it hasn't been too easy. In addition to the vulnerability that comes with trying to make up something on demand in public that is half decent every morning for five minutes, it turns out I am a clutz with a camera.

I knew that already. But now so does everybody else.

The first couple of days weren't so bad. I started by lodging the phone between a couple of stop knobs at the bottom of the console. But my feet weren't visible. It was just my hands playing, close-up. So I tried something new. I got a music stand and put the camera on it, farther away.

Now when you do that you are faced with a problem, which is that you can't see what your camera sees. I thought I would turn the camera around, a la selfie-mode so I could see whether it was getting the organ into the picture, but when you do that it reverses the picture and when your hands are traveling to the right the notes are getting lower, which is disorienting. So I tried to reverse the reverse.

That was a really bad day. Something didn't take and I ended up with a seven-minute video of the front of the music stand. You could hear the sound but there was no picture. That was also the day that the video refused to embed in my website. Bad day all around. Later there was even some funny business with the security on my web site.

 I had a really crummy improvisation or two right after that also. I'm glad not many people were watching (yet).

Next I decided I'd had it with close, error-prone camera work and decided to capture the whole vast tableaux of the church, complete with the massive Tiffany stained glass window that I can see from the console. It looks rather nice, and I may have even played decently. Yesterday I followed up this bit of good luck with another close shot, the first five seconds of which looks like an earthquake while I'm trying to get the camera to sit still at the right angle.

I've always found those first few seconds of amateur videos annoying. When I make audio recordings, I edit out that part when I'm running to the opposite end of the church or adjusting the bench or picking stops. But you can't do that with live video. Actually, maybe you can. I'm currently trying to find out if I could start the video a few seconds in. It might save some seizures.

Anyway, I've got 32 days to learn.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Piano vs. Organ (part 3)

We get tourists, sometimes. Or visitors. In any case, a young woman walked into our sanctuary one afternoon while I was practicing the organ and decided to ask the question that was pressing on her mind: which is harder to play, the piano or the organ?

She did not, it seems, want a complicated answer.

I've become proficient at both instruments, and I don't like to disparage either of them. And I like to get people to think, which usually requires a longer answer, which is something for which patience is required.

The piano, I explained, has a sustaining pedal, and an organ does not. So you can play a group of low notes and hold the sound of them while your hands are in the air leaping to notes far away. This is impossible on the organ where the sound ends the moment your hands quit the keys (depending on the building's reverb, I guess) and generally tends to sound stupid on an organ. Therefore, leaps are one of several things that abound in the piano literature but do not in pieces written for the organ. Also the piano tends to emphasize hand crossings, and rapid runs more than pieces written for the organ do. So in that way, the piano requires something that the organ usually does not. It is also an instrument that rewards or punishes according to the subtlety of the touch, where an organ has a little more room for error. There the articulation matters, but a heavier attack on one note in a group will not produce a distracting bang like it will on the piano, ruining the phrase.

I said all this to set it in counterpoint to the next part, which is what most people would assume I would say, namely that the organ has all kinds of buttons and knobs that the piano does not have, and notes to be played with the feet on top of that, and is therefore a more complicated machine than the piano, case closed.

Actually, I didn't close the case, but my interlocutor did. She decided the organ was way more complicated and that was that. And therefore, I suppose, better. Or more praiseworthy as a pursuit, anyway. After all, the technical difficulty score counts big, just ask the Olympic judges.

And considering that the organ at Third Church has 175 ranks and about 188 knobs, with 4 manuals, two rows of couplers which I haven't counted, probably around 40 toe studs and 50 thumb pistons, 4 expression pedals, two kinds of crescendo, and a magic drawer with multiple features I would need several paragraphs to begin to describe...well, it's a large organ. I don't know that it is really fair comparing it to a piano since it isn't really an average organ. It is complicated. And difficult. And maybe I should get  a gold star for being able to play it. And maybe, when people simply want to be really impressed by something I should leave well enough alone and let them be impressed.

But I still like to think. And I think that life is not about being impressed by something that is difficult if your appreciation stops there. Admiration is only a start. And though I've noticed people at dinner parties would rather hear about the organ than they would the piano that nobody is playing organ music on the radio. Not even the classical station. People aren't lined up to come to organ concerts either. I hope I can do something about that.

Meanwhile, the piano in our sanctuary is out of tune. The tuner comes next week. I'm looking forward to that. I've been missing the piano. It does only have one manual, and only three pedals for the feet, no knobs, no buttons. But it is a wonderful instrument. Many feel a closer connection to it than they do the mighty organ. I can understand that. I'll be making more pianonoise very soon. Until then, Hector and I are going to make some wonderful music together.

What, I can't give the organ a name?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Watch your step

Last week I got another surprise. I'm in the midst of teaching a class on the organ, which includes miniature concerts, and as next week's class is on 19th century French literature (and includes a fun bit about the organ in popular culture; i.e., as an instrument of terror) I decided it was time to learn the Boellmann Toccata. This is probably the easiest of the many flashy toccatas I've already learned to play. I was expecting to have it licked in a day or two.

That didn't quite happen. One of the reasons for it was that it was trickier to memorize than I thought it would be. Although quite repetitive, the phrase endings are all different, so that it is like being on the same section of road and having to take a different exit each time.

Of course, I could have just gotten a page turner for the performance, but that would have meant that every day during practice I still would have to stop every 30 seconds to turn the page. Mr. Boellmann keeps the hands busy the entire length of the piece so there is no way to turn the page without stopping the music altogether. And the music from our church library looks to be from about 1920 and is quite brittle, so every time I did turn a page part of the page would come apart in my hand.

I did eventually get the piece memorized but it took about five days. Most of you are realizing how wonderfully impatient I am. If it had been a more difficult piece like the Vierne Final (from Symphony no. 1) I would have expected it to take a couple of weeks (it did, and that didn't bother me very much). I'm realistic enough to expect some things to take time; it was the mis-diagnosis that threw me.

But there was another issue at hand, an issue of execution.  Once the piece was beginning to function as a piece of music (that is, mostly memorized: the actual playing of the notes while looking at them took very little time at all as the piece is practically sightreadable) I was still having a bit of difficultly getting the thing to work without any hesitations. And that came down to those pedals you see at the top of the page. Not the organ pedals, the several gas pedals. Those are the expression pedals. They make each of the manuals that are under expression (which does not include the loudest of the four) louder or softer according to whether you've got them pedal to the floor, or in the up position, or somewhere in between. The fact that there are four of them is rather new to me, and is a sign that I've got a pretty large organ console to deal with. Simply put, those pedals give the feet something else to do besides play notes and kick toe studs to change registration. Bach's organ didn't have them at all. They are an innovation dating from the 19th century.

Being able to find the correct expression pedal and depress it quickly enough that the musical flow isn't interrupted and I can also get in all the pedal notes and registration changes is a skill in which I am not surprisingly deficient. It is one of the fun things about being an organist. The organ isn't really one instrument. Depending on the size and makeup of the organ it can demand very different things from you. One of the things I learned this week was the ability to arhythmically deploy the expression pedal and to scan the console to make sure that all of the indicator lights were where I wanted them to be, all while the fingers were on autopilot and the memory was feeding them uninterrupted information. If they weren't I would have to make another try as soon as one of my feet was free for a moment. Organists practice the same gestures over and over to make sure that they can play consistently and smoothly, but it is a fine skill to be able to make adjustments to a performance that includes gestures that you have drilled into yourself just in case something goes a bit wrong. And that seems to require dividing one's brain up into more and more pieces, each acting independently.

That may not sound like a lot of fun (it is if you get it right, I suppose) but I did actually have some. Because of a leaky roof, the lights were out in the sanctuary last week. That made for a rather spooky atmosphere as I took on this rather spooky piece. And yes, that is an actual shot of the view from the organ console, not some stock Hollywood horror footage.

I also made this recording you so can enjoy it yourself, in the dark. I'll know if you don't turn off the lights as you listen.

Boellmann: Toccata from Suite Gothic

Friday, February 2, 2018

Februaries I have known

You may have picked up on this, but I am not a fan of February.

The novelty of winter has worn off, and all we have left is the grinding cold, the ice, the snow--I can do snow when it's fluffy and not too deep, it's even charming, but let's not have to spend an hour in the bitter cold trying to dig out one's car, shall we? And have I mentioned the wind? People fight most bitterly when they know they've lost, and the elements take after them. As the cold season draws to a close the wind can sometimes take your face off. Politely, of course.

You would think I would spend the month hibernating, but, it turns out, quite a few Februaries have featured major events. And, even if those events were laden with stress, they gave me something to focus on beside my dreary, Siberian thoughts.

Some of these were concerts. I recall a February when I appeared with orchestra, playing Brahms's Second piano concerto in Bb. This is quite a large piece, and a challenge to the technique and the stamina. I'd won a concerto competition a couple of years earlier and they put me on a subscription concert. I don't know why they picked February, but there it is. I think this was on the 20th of the month, the year I was a senior in college. Six days and several years later, I was on stage at Carnegie Hall (the one in New York, not Pittsburgh!). I remember several pep talks I've given myself and this one was focused on one thing: the music was not so hard, I could play it well, it is only because I am nervous that I am nervous. Just go out and do your thing and it will be fine. It was.

Of course, February is audition month. Curiously, I've forgotten the date of my audition for the Cleveland Institute of Music--it was sometime in late February, I think. I remember the weather at Oberlin pretty well, though--bitterly cold and windy. I chose Cleveland. (No tropical paradise there, either)

My audition for graduate school was actually on the 1st of March. But that still made February the operative month. When I auditioned for my doctorate it was sometime in late February, but I can't remember the date for that, either.

I think that my cousin's wedding, all those many years ago, was in a  February, in Florida. I was 13. It was probably my first wedding reception (that I played for). And to think that I lost my amateur status so young. Actually, I don't remember getting paid. Who knows? Doesn't matter.

In the church calendar, February is often the start of Lent. Having served as a church organist lo these many years I can remember several challenging Februaries which featured some ambitious programming. One year I played two of the three Choral Preludes by Cesar Frank on back-to-back weeks (while I was sick!). I also remember a 15 minute memorized delivery of a sketch by Mark Twain for the Ash Wednesday service (it fit the theme, honest). Lent was often a time for some hefty music, which is odd, because it is an old Catholic practice not to allow the organ to sound during Lent at all.

This year, February will be marked by a class I am teaching for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). This program, run locally by the University of Pittsburgh, allows the 50+ crowd to sign up for classes as if they were in college. There are no degrees granted. My course is off campus at the church which features my new organ friend (see the last two weeks). It is about the history of the instrument, and includes musical performances of pieces representing the different schools and composers that make up the best of the organ literature. It also features an extended organ demonstration. In five weeks, we'll have time to talk about all the buttons, knobs, tabs, and toe studs. Which reminds me, I was going to count all of them to see just how many there were. I imagine my class would like to know.

I am writing this on Wednesday--tomorrow is the first class, and the weather is planning a nice respite from the snow and cold for just one day so I don't have to contemplate cancellation or a drop in attendance. Nice of it. We'll see how things progress--given a choice between two sessions, this nutcase chose February in order to be less busy at Easter.Thus it joins the parade of active Februaries, adding a bit of stress to the cold.  At least it keeps the mind occupied, and the fingers limber. And when it is over, I'll have survived another one.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The new instrument (part two)

As an organist, I've seen a lot of brides come down the aisle. I haven't seen a lot of organ consoles do the same.

One week last March, however, I got to see just that. I was scheduled to substitute at a church in Shadyside (that's a neighborhood in Pittsburgh). Normally you get some notion of the organ you'll be playing on a little ahead of time if you show up to practice, but they were in an unusual situation. The new console was being installed that week. When or if it would be ready in time was a little bit up in the air. So I was either going to play the temporary solution-- a small two manual Allen or a much larger, 4-manual, 100-rank...also Allen.

The church had a 6,800 pipe Moeller in the balcony, but it was out of service. As the church debated what to do about that, someone had decided that maybe it was time to go digital.

I can understand if the pipe organists out there are wincing.

 I've had a few run-ins with electronic organs of various kinds. Sometimes I'll start to play one and wonder why it sounds a little odd. Then I see the speakers where the pipes should be and say...ah. That's why.

Digital organs have come a long way in recent years, however. That's why I use the word digital instead of electronic. For a start, they are now using sampled sound from actual pipe organs. Due to the unvarying nature of organ sound (unlike, say a piano) a recorded sound can sound pretty close to the real thing if it is amplified properly. Digital organs are supposed to be cheaper than pipe organs, but going too cheap makes it pretty obvious. It also helps enormously if there are several speakers and they are spaced throughout a large area as if in several large pipe chambers. The organ at Third Church is laid out this way, taking up the empty chamber left when the Skinner was sold in the 1960s (see the last installment). They've even divided some of the ranks of pipes between channels to mimic the way the pipes would be spaced, which is something I found out when I first tried to play the console. One of the speakers wasn't hooked up properly and every other note wasn't sounding from one of the flute stops.  This reflected a typical arrangement of pipes--that the C and C# would actually be on opposite sides, with alternating pipes on each side until the highest and therefore smallest pipes met in the middle. I found that attention to detail impressive.

Allen is quite proud of this organ, by the way. They use it in advertising (it was in the American Organist magazine in July) and have featured it on the website as their Organ of the Week. They should be proud of it. They've done a good job. People say it sounds good. I have pretty picky ears, and not all of the stop combinations are equally convincing to me, but there is plenty to choose from and I doubt most folks can tell any difference. And being digital means the organ never goes out of tune or ciphers, which isn't a bad deal in itself.

That doesn't stop me from wanting pipes, though. There are still lots of them in the rear balcony, and they are in need of some work. Fortunately, we are in the middle of a restoration project. It will likely take a couple of years, but when it is finished, the organ will once again be equipped with thousands of pipes, AND lots of digital ranks. It will be interesting to see how well they all get along. I've never had that sort of organ. Will it be the best of both worlds?

The Allen already has many features. Not only are there around a hundred stops at a go, the digital organ allows you to switch sound libraries, from a German Baroque organ, to a French Cathedral. There are six in all. You can also experiment with alternate tunings, and raise or lower the pitch. It also has a playback system which is useful for recording yourself.

For me it is a useful continuation in my education as an organist. I haven't had such a large organ in a regular church position before, and, having learned the literature, I now find I have an instrument to play it on. This is particularly fortunate in that Pittsburgh is (truly) the oldest city in the US, demographically, and most people have been in their church jobs for decades and aren't leaving anytime soon, so that in the entire first year after our move here, there were only a couple of jobs open that weren't an hour away in a tiny rural church. This was one of them. It is only five minutes from home, and the organ will let me play anything, from German Baroque to French Romantic, from Contemporary to Medieval.

It is strange to see your new organ coming down the aisle. I almost played it a fanfare (on the temporary one). The day I came to practice for the first time the sanctuary was a little crowded with workers so I went into the chapel to practice on the organ there (also a nice feature, to have a backup!). After an hour or so I decided to go see what was going on in the sanctuary and that was exactly when they were bringing in the console on a dolly. I didn't know it was going to be the organ that I would get to play every week since I hadn't yet been hired. At the time I didn't even know if the large console would be ready for Sunday. All week I wondered, as the workers made the connections. The project wasn't complete until Friday afternoon. And it wasn't until Saturday that I got a chance to try it out for the next day. That was a bit stressful. An organ that size gives you plenty of chances to make mistakes. But I got through the service, and here it is several months later and I know the console pretty well.

That is, the half of it that is hooked up to the front of the church. There are a hundred knobs I won't get to play with for a while. I wonder what those will sound like!

Friday, January 19, 2018

The new instrument (part one)

After what can best be described as a colossal disruption (and if you read the blog regularly you know what I mean) I've gotten settled in a new position as church organist. This is me, and this is the place I am fortunate to get to sit every day.

This is the console of the new instrument at Third Presbyterian Church, Shadyside, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, the earth, Milky Way, the universe. For some reason I look tall enough to see over the music rack in that picture. Must be the perspective.

Speaking of which, there is an enormous Tiffany stained-glass window that is visible from the organ bench and which I gaze upon whenever I'm not looking at the console or the music.

It's the console, though, not the organ. The console is like the cockpit, not the airplane. So where is the organ itself? Well, that's where it starts to get complicated.

This is part of it. You can see the display pipes above the balcony. The French even named their foundation pipes "Montre" which literally means "on display." That is, the ones you can see, which is usually only a fraction of what is actually there, most of which is hidden away in rooms filled with pipes.

Actually, though, these pipes are probably from a couple of organs ago. The sanctuary dates back to 1903, at which point there was an Austin organ. Then in 1935 that was removed to put in a Skinner organ. This one had 4400 pipes, playable from three manuals. I know this because I found it online. There are people who keep track of such things. I happened to be in Scotland doing research on something completely unrelated when I stumbled across it.

 The reason I had to find it online is because the organ isn't there anymore, either. This is Pittsburgh, where, despite the vicissitudes of church attendance, there were fortunes made in steel and industry. And every few decades you could get a shiny new organ. Which they did again, in 1966. This time it was a Moeller, and it had 6800 pipes and occupied the back balcony. Like thus:

The console used to be back there, too. For a while, the church had two organs, one in the front and one in the back. You know, just like a cathedral. Only, however cavernous the church may look in the above photograph, it really isn't a cathedral. It does have certain characteristics of a grand stone church, but it is also smaller, and the wood helps give it a more intimate feel. I call it the intimate cathedral.

So there they were, with over 10,000 organ pipes, playable from two consoles in two parts of the church, and....something happened.

They sold one of them.

The story is that one of my predecessors, two organists ago, didn't really care for the Skinner, nor did he like being asked to play it. So he arranged for it to be sold to a college in Illinois (I also found this out online). And that left the Moeller. Still bigger than some cathedral organs, and only about 700 pipes short of St. Paul's in London. More than enough for most organist's egos, and a bit more weight than the balcony was supposed to hold. But there you go.

Then lightning struck.

Thrice, in fact.

Three times in a decade, and apparently the last time fried the console. There was also plenty of water damage in the pipe room which had been accumulating over time. Enter one completely unplayable organ.

 Many churches wouldn't have had the funds to fix it. In fact, when I first arrived on the scene last winter, it was not clear to me what exactly was going on. There appeared to be three consoles with a total of nine manuals, one of which was surrounded by cones and police tape and warning signs (that was the old Moeller console) and two of which were digital and not nearly as exciting.

One of the them was on lone for a concert, the other was a stop-gap measure, and the old Moeller is still a piece of furniture looking for a good home.

When I found out about the position being open, I signed up to substitute. Since my predecessor had left in October, there had been a steady stream of substitute/applicants. By the time I found out about the position in February it's lucky the position hadn't already been filled.  I was on the docket for a couple of Sundays in April.

Then somebody backed out and I was asked to do a Sunday in March. I wonder who wasn't available. They missed a show.

Specifically what they missed was the installation of the new organ console, which is where I'll pick up next time.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Taking Down Christmas

Each year, my wife and I dutifully assemble in the living room, get out the boxes, put  "Messiah" on backwards, and take down the Christmas tree. Then, for merry measure (follow me here) we stamp out every last vestige of the holiday and all three (or four) nativity sets, tiny wooden Christmas trees and the like, with the possible exception of the stray bits of pine tree that will continue to make periodically unannounced visits through next October.

Most years, despite any shortcomings of the actual event, I am sorry to see it go. But through patient application, I've managed to extend the holiday's end from the middle of Christmas morning until the weekend of or following Epiphany. That is just in case my wife decides we really ought to see whether our credit is good for 10 Lords a Leaping or whatever nonsense those lords have been up to since they got drummed out of parliament.

This year's edition was certainly an improvement on its predecessor. In 2016, so close to the Great Disruption that I was still numb from some of  the side effects, it was hard not to feel in exile. This year there is a new community, and some friends we've known for over a year. It is hard to put down roots in new soil and have it feel deep and satisfying. But this Christmas did what it could. It is hard to imagine it sometimes, but the season can heal.

Viewing it as we can't help doing -- Dickens knew it to be true -- as a node connecting us with seasons past and, more uncertainly, future, we often feel Christmas time more intensely than other times of year, and loss more acutely. I've been trying to process the loss of an entire community, despite most of its citizens still being alive, and reachable on Facebook.

Many of us act as though we simply want the whole thing to be over as soon as possible. I suspect a significant fraction of this to be fashionable complaining (where, if you aren't complaining, you must not be carrying your load), but I have a certain horror of the numbers of people who seem to go through life just doing what they think they are supposed to do because they are supposed to do it and never considering why or getting anything extravagant from it. There  seems to be an emotional deadness there to which I don't want to succumb. Maybe it is because I am an artist, and artists work with meaning and significance. We spend plenty of time just trying to survive, too, but pushing beyond that, we want to feel there is something good about being alive and a reason to share that.

I had a time -- maybe you did too -- when I felt the season hurrying by, and I felt like despite my best efforts, I wasn't going to be able to catch hold of it long enough for it to whisper something meaningful as it rushed past. That it would simply be a series of things done in the proper order but without imparting anything greater than a feeling that it had been done more or less correctly for another year, that 2017 might not have its own face, unique in the crowd of Christmases

It is gone, now. I think the season may have whispered something to me as it flew by, but I'm not sure what it is, yet. Adult Christmases are, of course, always more complicated, and perhaps that complexity increases as you get older, in which case I am finding this out. Old griefs can cause emotional retreat rather than a desire for confrontation, Blue Christmas services or no. But it occurs to me now that maybe this Christmas isn't finished. And maybe it shouldn't be. Old Ebenezer Scrooge may not be the only one who needs to live Christmas 365 days a year.

Given my sense these days of being at the beginning of a new time in life rather than the end of an old one, it is really not strange that I should feel this Christmas communicating with the future, that the gesture really won't be completed until next year, in which case my inner being may be in for a long holiday season after all. As Dickens would have preached, "may that be truly said of all of us.". The lights, the cheer, the music -- all good things, but the impulse, that inner enthusiasm that really makes it a time to rejoice, that is still with us if we search, and cultivate. And with patient striving, and depth of feeling, and a little luck, maybe it will even outlast the pine needles.