Friday, April 27, 2018


Last week it seemed like a good idea to play one of the nastiest pieces in the organ literature for a bunch of organists on an unfamiliar organ after sitting on my hands (and feet) for an hour. Like I said, that was last week.

At any rate, the performance this past Monday went fairly decently, occasional mishaps aside, and, since it was a meeting of the American Guild of Organists in Pittsburgh, there were people to talk to afterwards. I'm still fairly new to Pittsburgh, and this pretty much counts as my debut as far as most members of the organ playing community were concerned. Most were impressed. Then there was the professor at one of our universities who had studied in France with the composer in question and wanted me to be aware that I wasn't approaching the piece properly. Which brings up the conundrum.

Marcel Dupre, and as far as I can make out, most French organists of the 19th century, loved legato. Long limpid lines of unbroken sounds. It was, you might say, the fashion. Dupre didn't mark that in his score because he didn't think he'd have to. It was the way it was done.

My approach was much more staccato. You might explain this as a result of my pedigree. For instance, when asked who my teachers were, I give out names like McDonald, Hahn, and Fleischer, teachers at the Peabody Conservatory were I got my graduate degrees. All pianists. This is usually an interesting development for the organist asking the question because I have no background on this instrument at all. However, I do plenty of reading so I should point out that when the professor made her observation I was not unaware. I knew what I was doing. I knew it was not the norm.

That clear, articulate, staccato-esque approach seems to be my natural accent. It may be a result of simply being a pianist. It might have something to do with the Fleischer school. Although I didn't take that many lessons with the man himself, I spent four years studying with a student of his who took so much of his teaching from his master that the first time I had a lesson with Fleischer I felt an enormous case of deja-vu. So I think it is safe to say that his system is embedded in my system.

This puts my natural accent and Dupre's natural accent at odds with one another. And the question might be, should I adjust? After all, he is the composer. The professor naturally believed that I should, and that one should play a composer's music the way the composer himself played it.

It occurred to me that I could actually resist and be quite blunt about it. In fact, if you know the ways of the world, you know that this is a far better way to build a career. You want to be noticed, and that means being controversial. The thing to do is to double down, insist you are right, insist on doing it your way, whether or not you want to admit that it is your way being optional (Wanda Landowska famously insisted she alone was playing Bach HIS way), and after you've gotten enough people talking about you in tones of both outrage and admiration, you found your own movement and change what is fashionable. Then everybody else has to do it your way. Strong personalities do this. Maybe this is where the legato came from in the first place.

The irony being that Dupre's generation, when it came to playing Bach, applied their same natural musical accent, and in the process played his music in a manner which we know today to be completely inaccurate historically. One wonders to what extent they knew they were misrepresenting Bach. But I had a theory for the professor, having to do with succeeding generations almost being impelled to take a different approach, and it should be noted that Dupre and his colleagues were about as far removed from Bach (about a half century more, in fact) than I am from the early works of Marcel Dupre.

The reason I did this is that I am that rare self-reflective type, and also one who does not like to be irreversibly certain about anything. I took the harder path, not to defend my position, but to consider it from many angles. I will admit, first of all, to knowing that my approach is not the composer's own. I will also submit that this bothers me, because, as a composer myself, I would like persons playing my music to consider my wishes for the music that I wrote. Not only does the composer assume authority in our tradition, it is also bad form to simply remake everyone else in your musical image because you can't, or won't, consider anything from outside yourself. It also inhibits growth. Striving requires you to become more than you already are, rather than trying to shrink the universe down to what already appeals to you.

In fact, after our conversation I was thinking that perhaps I ought to try a smoother inflection across the board. However, I have listened to others play it this way, generally taking the fugue slower than the composer's own tempo marking to boot, and I have to say I find the piece pretty dull this way. I also have trouble imagining that unbroken lines in reverberate churches sound like anything less than mud. I am left having to mostly wonder about this for the present, however. Perhaps in future years I'll find out. To me, an articulate touch (which does, by the way, include connected groups of notes) not only makes the music less muddy in a wet acoustic environment, it also helps the composer's ideas stand out in the mind of the listener, just as diacritical marks on a page keep our eyes from glazing over and having to work harder than should be necessary to extract the meaning of the words. Breaks are important. In my experience those who won't use them often indulge in sloppy playing generally, and show little understanding of the linguistic or structural properties of the music. Maybe that's another reason for my reluctance. Not that a good legato approach can't work, but that I have so few good role models among that "school."

I suppose the first thing I ought to do is to hear Dupre play it himself. These days that shouldn't be too difficult. Of, course, with all the qualifiers swimming around in my head I will want to know how old he was at the time and whether his playing changed over his lifetime. Whither could I find that out?

Most of us are simpler animals. There is correct, and incorrect. I'm willing to inhabit space between the two. And, considering the piece is fairly new (it was only my second public airing) and I'm still reasonably not-old, there is time to evaluate, re-evaluate, and, in any case, not to worry too much about wrecking Dupre single-handedly, even if people in general, and the organ community, find it distasteful. Actually, I don't think most of them cared. But that doesn't let me off the hook.

There are always torchbearers for tradition. I want to respect that, but also to leave room for the living. As if life really were an ever evolving process rather than a perfect sculpture, frozen in time.

And as long as we are able, that means...stay tuned.

The piece in question was Marcel Dupre's Prelude and Fugue in B major, op. 7 no. 1, which I've recorded last fall when the piece was even newer than it is now. Here it is.

Also, you should check out this week's edition of, which has more music and abstruse commentary like the ramblings above. Also, a recording of Mendelssohn on my old organ in Champaign which is where I'm hanging out this weekend. Cheers!

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.