Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The insomniac's guide to organ improvisation

It's Sunday morning, and the Communion procession is beginning. You have to play something on the organ, but your mind is utterly blank. There was a great special on PBS the night before on Winston Churchill, and you just couldn't stop watching it, and it went until 4am. Or you tossed and turned thinking about choir politics. Either way, your brain is fried, and you have to play right now, and you can't think of a single good idea. What now?

Try this. Think of a text--any sacred text, really. As you play, make up music that goes along with this text. I like to use O Salutaris a lot. No need to use a pre-existing melody. In fact, for post-Churchill marathon days, it's best not to try to remember how this or that melody goes. Just use the text. As you play, employ nothing but seventh chords. (Messiaen did this, I believe, in his O Sacrum Convivium, but I'm an insomniac, so I might be mistaken about that.) The effect is utterly thrilling, and relatively painless for the organist in terms of the required effort. I find that in this harmonic structure, it's best to move in seconds and thirds. So, for instance, a d-minor seventh would be followed by a B-flat seventh or an F seventh chord, or maybe a C-7 chord, etc. Don't be afraid to use the major seventh interval, either. The band Chicago may have used these, but fear not: your improvisation will not sound like them.

I like to play such improvisations at a slow tempo (in mostly long note values reminiscent of Josquin's O Salutaris), using 16' flute, 8' flute, 8' string, and voix celeste, with the swell box closed, of course. All of this is coupled to the pedal, which would also have a soft 16' stop and possibly a soft 32' stop engaged. One might wish to have some sort of clear 4' sound on another manual that could be used for little recitative-like interruptions of the main theme.

If it becomes apparent that there will be a long interval during which to play, break this texture up with some manual playing on a flute or something light and easy on the ears, then go back to the original scheme for an A-B-A form. At the end of the improvisation, you might wish to make a dramatic crescendo by opening the swell box slowly, and then closing it again, while resolving some tense chords.

And there you have it. 7. Perfection!

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: