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.