Friday, September 27, 2019

Do go on! Or perhaps not....

Quick! What do you do when you are in the middle of a concert and a note on the organ ciphers?

If you are lucky, you happen to be playing a passage for one hand, and you can use the other one to try to tease out the cipher by rapidly playing the affected note again and again until, miraculously, the slider closes, and the cipher goes away.

For those of you quite lost at the moment (which includes everyone except organ nerds), a cipher is a pipe that will not stop sounding when you take your finger off the key because the mechanism that blows the air through the pipe has gotten stuck in the open position. Sometimes the only thing you can do about it is to turn the organ completely off, and then, if the problem is still there when you reboot, try to find the ciphering pipe and stick a piece of paper in between the toe of the pipe (at the bottom) and the wind supply, which will disable the pipe, meaning it will not be able to play, but it will at least stop droning on and on. In the middle of a concert those last options aren't really available--not the last one, at least--but I did spend part of a sermon once crawling around a pipe room trying to fix a cipher. I got it, eventually.

That's part of the fun when you play the organ. Not that the piano can't have its challenges. I was once in the middle of a performance of Scriabin's Fifth Sonata, which is a tricky piece, and the F# above middle C just did not want to go down. I kept trying to unstick it whenever I had a hand free, which was only fleetingly, and required some serious acrobatics. Eventually I got it to cooperate. It must have taken the entire exposition and about half of the development to get there.

With the organ, though, there are all manner of intricate details in the way it is operated, and these vary from instrument to instrument, which is why it is such a useful opportunity to be asked to play concerts in different locations.

Yesterday, when I was at the cathedral, I noted with dismay that the trumpet I was going to use toward the end of the opening piece wouldn't sound at all. Given that an unfortunately large percentage of the organ is in disrepair at the moment, I assumed the stop had somehow given up just in time for the concert. I told the organist, and he was also dismayed, and assumed it was not working. Fortunately there was another trumpet on the same division that I employed instead. After the concert he realized that the rear gallery of the cathedral, generally known as "west" (whether a church faces east or not the altar is still considered to be on the east end of the church in liturgical parlance) had not been turned on. On this organ, each division (or at least three of them) have their own keys and must be turned on separately. It is something to file away for the next time something doesn't go according to plan. I've also come across three different locations for manual transfer switches recently.

I have written that the organ is a great instrument for problem solvers. And the more often I go "on location" the better I get. I can now register an entire concert pretty fast. If one stop isn't working, or the reed just doesn't sound right, or is too soft or too loud, I can find a synonym (alternate reigstration) quickly and move on.

Of course, one shouldn't discount the importance of dumb luck. This summer, at a large cathedral with lots of reverberation, I joked to some people who had missed my concert that if they went to the cathedral in the next few days, they might still be able to hear some of the previous week's concert before the sounds completely died away. Yesterday's cathedral was smaller and drier, and the long held soft reed was not at all intentional. But after a few desperate attempts to get it to stop, it did. Things could have been worse.

Of course, that wouldn't have been the end of the world, either. Maybe next time I'll take along some piano literature, just in case. Or improvise on a drone note for a while!

Now that could be interesting.
It is the last week of September at where you will soon be able to hear the music for the concert I gave at Trinity Cathedral on Wednesday. In the meantime, you can hear the Mel Bonis Toccata, the featured recording of the week, and....I forget what else.

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