Friday, July 03, 2009

What is the Organ?

You hear something all your life and then suddenly it is like you have heard it for the first time. Has that happened to you? This is what I experienced with the remarkable new organ installed at Loyola University. Built by Goulding and Wood Pipe Organ Builders of Indianapolis, it has 53 stops, 70 ranks, and 3,747 pipes, an instrument so powerful that it made me appreciate the entire class of pipe organs in all times and all places in a completely new way.

As you sit there in the pew listening to the astonishing range and variety of which that instrument is capable, a revelation hits: this is the most incredible musical experience one can have, even if only considered from the point of view of what you hear and feel. It's not such much this particular instrument itself or that it is being played by a master. It is the apparatus of the organ itself. It wholly deserves its special status in the Church and in human history.

As long as I can remember, manufacturers of audio equipment have been trying to give us the ultimate sound experience: all enveloping, endlessly flexible, a completely physical experience that is overwhelming in all its parts. I've lived through many rounds of innovations in sound reproduction, and just as many media innovations from LPs to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs to MP3 plays, and an equal number of listening systems from stereo to quad to surround sound.

And look at this: it had all been figured out many hundreds of years ago. The pipe organ does all of this and much more, and adds something extra that no other media has been able to replicate. I can only sum it up in the word authenticity, which I surmise relates to the existence of vast amounts of wind that make it possible and diffusion of sound in all directions that results.

There is something about the combination that penetrates beyond merely listening. It is music in three dimensions, something you experience in all parts of your body and so deeply that it borrows straight into the heart as well. It can't be captured on a recording. It is perhaps the most obvious case of music that absolutely must be heard live because only in this setting do you experience that mystical dimensions of omni-directional sound that is burrowed within the physically created wind of the building itself.

Again, this is not a modern innovation. The first organs might have come into use in the 3rd century, but by the early middle ages they were in common use, with the wind effects created by people manipulating bellows blowing through pipes to make the sound – in the same manner as the human voice itself. It is no wonder that people would walk many miles to hear the organ, and no wonder that it became such a wonderful tool of evangelism in mission territories. Its voice carries with it a kind of divine authority that compels assent.

At the sacred music Colloquim this year, the organ was featured mainly as a solo instrument, which is the setting in which its glories are really permitted to shine. How sad that so many think of it as nothing but an accompaniment instrument used to "support singing," a kind of crutch for everyone. The organ can both walk and fly and should not be contained within this role.

Setting the organ free as a solo instrument provides additional benefits. It permits the organist a surprising degree of freedom of expression, even to the extent that every organist is a kind of composer in his or her own right, by virtue of the tempos and stops chosen for each piece. For this reason, every time you hear Bach you are likely to hear it in a different way, an expression of the creativity of both the original composer and of the current artist. Their talents mix and merge to create a new piece of music each time it is played. Therefore, embedded in the performance of organ itself is an overt bow to transtemporality that takes out of the mundane march of history as we know it in daily affairs.

Perhaps for this reason, I've detected that listeners adopt a broadness of the musical mind that they would otherwise not adopt at the symphony or in private listening on an MP3 player. For example, at the Colloquium this year, we heard some very modern pieces by Jean Langlais (1907-1991), Larry King (1932-1990), Max Reger (1873-1916), Gaston Litaize (1909-1991), and Jehan Alain (1911-1940) – many of them filled with dissonances of incredible power and rhythms that challenge any ear.

If the same music were sung by a choir or played by an orchestra in concert, listeners would internally protest and wait for crowd-pleasers that offer less that challenges our sense. But on the organ, we are more likely to accept the challenge and let it lead us to new places. And so the work of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) has become standard organ repertoire despite the astonishing dissonance of his work. His music has experienced a success that similar harmonic experiments from contemporaries have not enjoyed.

This again takes us back to that capacity of the organ to compel assent. It is not just another instrument. It is special, the "king of instruments" according to Guillaume de Machaut. I find it striking that within the culture of organists themselves, there is an internal culture that rallies around their own composers and repertoire that is not part of the broader conventional wisdom of music. There is a special language, a special list of great composers and performers. Because of this, the sector of organists themselves has a development that is all its own.

I personally know very little about organ construction but I know enough to speculate that no amount of electronic wizardry is going to replace the physical sound and experience of the authentic pipes themselves. Even that which the modern ear experiences as a delay in the sound or a limit to its capacity to render passages with the agility of an electronic instrument offer a sound that is irreplaceably real and affecting.

People complain about the cost associated with pipe organs. In times of economic squeeze, there are always temptations to cut and seek substitutes. But is there really any substitute? I doubt it there exists one now. I doubt that one will ever exist, for the pipe organ employs a form of breath to create its sound that has its analogy with the source of life in all of us, which in turn recalls the breath that gave us life in the beginning. Therein we find its timeless quality. The organ may go and out of fashion but there can be no doubt that both its heritage and long future are assured so long as we seek the very sound of eternity.

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