Thursday, December 10, 2009

Organists as Musicians

A fascinating thread -- that is, a so-so thread that evoked a fascinating answer -- has appeared on a popular pipe organ listserv.

The poster was seeking ideas on "organ recitals with a twist." Another poster replied in part:

Organ with other solo instruments, besides brass, opens up a whole different range of repertoire, especially for 19th-21st century pieces. What you get may not be the big, splashy, all-stops-out organ fireworks, but you will get real chamber music with organ, which can draw interest from music lovers who might not otherwise attend an organ concert.

Or organ concertos with smaller, or unusual ensembles. Lots of those around from the 18th century on.

Whatever the antonym of a "can of worms" would be ("can of ... gold?"), that is what was opened up in that response.

Pianists, violinists, cellists, they all have the opportunity to make music with OTHER MUSICIANS! Fancy that: to actually leave one's practice room and make music with ANOTHER PERSON! It's not the fault of us organists: we simply don't have the chamber music repertoire that pianists, string players, woodwind players, etc. have.

This is something I thought a lot about during my teens, but I never knew how to overcome the problem of writing a work -- say, an "organ quartet" (organ, vln, vla, vc) -- that could be played on "most organs" and in "most situations."

That is: what good is writing such a piece if it would work only on 10% of organs or in 10% of choir lofts?

Many parish organists will read what I wrote about "making music with other musicians" and take great umbrage. They will hastily point out that they work regularly with their volunteer choir (heavy on the word "volunteer") or with their parishioner who happens to play the oboe (heavy on the word "parishioner"). Don't misunderstand what I'm saying: working with musicians within a parish is a great Christian opportunity, great cultural opportunity, and great community opportunity. Unfortunately, it is not always a great musical opportunity. I'm not talking about spiritual nourishment -- I have always loved working in the church. But for musical nourishment, we need to work with other musicians.

And so, I do not believe that organists will ever be as respected as other musicians unless we find a way to make chamber music viable.

So, how do we achieve that, and with what type of instruments?

Organs without pipes are not conducive to chamber music. Large, electro-pneumatic instruments (which I often enjoy) are not conducive to chamber music. Yet their movable consoles solve the basic problem of how to position the players. Therefore, the only way, in my opinion, to promote chamber music with organs is to have tracker instruments built in a way that four or five musicians can position themselves near the console and still project their sound to the audience.

However, because that would involve cooperation between organbuilders and architects -- which will never happen -- the only solution that I can see for promoting organ chamber music is the construction of small, two-manual-and-pedal pipe organs that are made to be portable.

An organbuilder should build a stock model, with Bourdons 16 & 8 in the pedal, Great Flute 8-String 8-Principal 4-Flute 2, Swell (under expression) Flute 8-Flute 4-Nazard-Principal 2-Tierce-Reed 8. The specs can be tweaked, but this instrument should be designed and mass-produced.

Yes, it would be an artistic compromise, just like the ubiquitous Steinway is an artistic compromise. But how nice to be able to compose a Piano Quintet and know, more or less, what the piano will sound like. How am I to compose an Organ Quintet if 90% of the consumers will not be able to adapt it to their instrument?