On Sunday, five Obies packed themselves into a car and rode through the Catskills. The first act of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera flooded the stereo before switching over to NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Sitting shotgun, a soprano was studying her score of Rigoletto. A composer in the back seat was revising a new piece. The driver’s seat was occupied by a baritone salivating over kayaks atop other cars and identifying the foliage and wildlife around us. I admit had David Sedaris in hand, but I wasn’t reading too closely. As we drove, I was taking in the familiar sights of the mountains, through which I had driven and walked many times in dating a resident of those parts. It’s beautiful, peaceful, conducive to reflection, the likes of which might fill a second-rate music blog.
We had just come from a friend’s wedding, a sweet occasion, yes, but also a fantastic reunion of friends separated since graduation day last year. For me, the reunion began last Friday morning on 69th Street. Walking out of the office, my friends M and G awaited me, coffee in hand, ready to whisk me away to Albany for the rehearsal dinner. Of course, the three of us are musicians, so there was no rush. Before taking off, we grabbed kebabs and stopped by the Juilliard Store so M (a soprano) could get a copy of Rigoletto and a second, hard-bound copy of L’Elisir D’Amore (because her paperback copy isn’t nice enough, duh). But as we ate and shopped, it became apparent that a year’s distance from Oberlin days had wrought new preoccupations. Where we used to talk about x-soprano, y-pianist and zed-co-op tofu recipes, we found ourselves discussing salaries, rents, bills, credit histories, etc. – adult things that our embryonic Obie-selves would not have thought about a year ago.
The car ride to Albany got us back on track. It was a total bitch-fest about musicians, our old classmates, and all the the ins-and-outs of our sordid personal lives (TMI never bothered us particularly). We arrived at the hotel to drop our things off, only to find that the bride and groom knew their guests a bit too well. When handed our goody bags at the front desks, we looked inside to find some carefully chosen items: a bottle of water, a bag of pretzels, three breath mints, two chocolates and 1000mg of ibuprofen. Oh boy. If that wasn’t enough, we arrived in our rooms to find that our wing of the hotel was also inhabited by some rather severe characters.
We got to the rehearsal on time (ok, so 5 minutes late) and I headed upstairs to have a look at the organ. But a few a minutes before arriving, a slight sense of dread had come over me as the church we pulled up to did not resemble the church I had researched on the internet. After all, I wanted to see what the organ was like ahead of time, so I did a bit of Googling. I had looked up the wrong St. John’s Lutheran Church – there are at least 3 in Albany and the surrounding suburbs. This wouldn’t have been a huge problem, except the organ was literally the exact opposite of what I was expecting.
**TW: ORGAN CHAT**
I was anticipating a bog standard American church organ, complete with a few buttons and knobs to help change the sounds smoothly. After all, that’s what I found on the internet at the other St. John’s Lutheran. The organ at this St. John’s Lutheran was not American at all in style, but French. No buttons. No knobs. A real authentic old school French romantic instrument. Most organists would be delighted, as the average American organist has a Francophilic element to his musical psyche, comparable only to his Anglophilic tendency towards drinking gin and posting Queen memes on Facebook. I wasn’t too hot on it, I have to say. When I sat down at the bench, the keyboards were not located at my waist, but at my chest. The sensation of sitting was that of a toddler sitting at dinner without a high chair. In switching the organ on, I found that the organ’s action was not only heavy but unmanageable. This organ was really designed to play hymns, chants and sluggish French liturgical music – not the slew of happy-campy-tinkly-weddingy music I packed in my bag. Then there was the tuning: it was French Romantic style instrument, but for some reason it was tuned in temperament (God only knows why). That means that some key centers (C Major, F major, etc.) are actually intended to sound better (or worse!) than others. My rendition of “Here Comes the Bride” in B-Major was the musical equivalent of eating an entire block 20 year aged cheddar with a pint of Sriracha to wash it down. As we had to get to the rehearsal dinner, there really wasn’t time to figure out what the hell I was going to do with this instrument. I still hadn’t gone over G’s piece yet either, leaving me with but a three window the next day to sort this all out.
Awaking the next morning, G and I scarfed down some pretty terrible eggs benedict from the hotel restaurant before heading down to the church. Sitting down to go through the piece, more problems became apparent. An editing session ensued. G had written some loud twiddly passages that weren’t quite going to work on this instrument. The action was so heavy and sluggish that there wasn’t time for the air to physically make it through the pipes at the speed needed for the piece. Then there were some mechanical snafus, shall we say. Overnight, the lowest and loudest pipes on the organ had gone completely out of tune, to the point where their pitch did not resemble the their placement on the keyboards. Then at the top of the organ, two keys stopped working which were pivotal to the dramatic ending of the piece.
It was a comedy of errors, but it was also rather typical of what organists deal with when traveling to play instruments unseen. An organ is like a Mercedes: it’s a status symbol. It’s beautiful. It’s expensive. It’s impossible to maintain. It’s a money pit. Hence, the organist sometimes has to keep an open mind, going so far as to resign certain thoughts and opinions as to what an organ ought to sound like or the way a piece ought to go. Such philosophical elegance can prove more frustrating in praxis. In touring with King’s College Choir as an undergrad, there were some challenging days at the office.
December, 2010 – Groningen, Netherlands. Organ is tuned a 1/2 step sharp. Cleobury wants everything at pitch, even if the temperament is wrong (“the boys will sing out of tune either way”). It’s 43°F inside the church. Fingerless gloves and G-flat major do not mix well.
July, 2012 – Mulhouse, France. Church is in the hood. Organ situated 400 feet away from choir. One organ scholar serves as intermediary conductor and messenger between organ scholar and Director of Music. Messenger shot numerous times. At least the kebabs in the neighborhood are decent?
Sept, 2012 – Ghent, Belgium. No practice time available on instrument. 4 hours til showtime. The organ is in fact three organs, placed at different parts of the church, combined into a single console. Other organ scholar still stoned from night before. Extra organ assistant assigned. New assistant cannot read music or speak English. Parker Ramsay contemplates anger management.
In retrospect, it’s not all that bad, as “pulling it off” under pressure means that when the stakes are lower, all the whimsicality, fun and joy of music making starts to happen. One of the great things about being an organist is that the instruments are so different from one another. Yes, there are general principles of construction, similarities between them etc. that one learns to navigate, but I don’t know of another instrument where the conditions are so potentially unknowable.
Even with an organ that’s not in great shape, one can happen upon some unexpected surprises. Another warning: the following content is absurdly nerdy and I apologize in advance. At the end of the wedding, I decide to play the Fantasia in G (BWV 572) by Bach. It’s more commonly known as Pièce d’orgue (literally “piece for organ”) as many of Bach’s students copied the piece and placed that title on their manuscripts.
If you’re wondering how it got it’s name, it’s a big fat French pastiche smorgasbord. It’s in three sections, but the first and last sections are spritely and evocative of the earlier organ style that Bach studied in his teens and early twenties. The middle section is where the action’s at. It’s not particularly virtuosic or showy at all, but evokes the slow French liturgical playing style. There are crunchy chords everywhere, using harmonic suspensions like those annoying linguistic elisions you could never quite master in French 101. Yet the style is matter-of-fact, almost arrogant, like your Parisian cab driver who offers unsolicited opinions on European fiscal policy while skimming 20 Euros off you to drive you less than a mile. But the sheer length of the middle section is striking as well: it’s really long, but satisfying, oozing the same decadence as a trashy dinner in Paris consisting of steak tartare, cheap red wine and smelly cheese fit for a masochistic podiatrist.
But as Bach often did in his pieces, he winked at the performer. He wrote a note in the score that doesn’t actually exist. It’s too low for most organs… unless you’re playing a French organ built in the early 1700s (it was one of their novelty features). Bach calls for a low B – organs normally only go down to C. There were certainly no organs in Germany at this time with this single extra note. Even now, French organs don’t have this note, as instruments have become slightly more standardized.
BUT, if the lowest notes on the organ are significantly out of tune, then there’s a shot that you might get to play “that note.” And that’s exactly what I got to do. The lowest stop on the lowest note of the organ was exactly a half-step flat. For the first time, I didn’t have cop out of that note, transpose it up an octave, or pull out and extra stop to make it sound lower, etc. I just got to play it, even if I had spend a good portion of the rest of the piece trying to figure out how to play the pedal part without hitting the other out-of-tune notes inappropriately. I realize that the satisfaction that I derived from this single note is totally out of proportion to its relatively slight significance. But mention “that note” to an organist and you’ll see a little smile. It’s one of the few times where the organ gets elevated out of mundane, liturgical functionality and into something fanciful, fun and REALLY geeky.
In reality, situations like these are ones where organists get sick little rewards for their flexibility. Flexibility is one of the many facets that differentiates the organist’s mindset when they practice and perform, as they have to be prepared to change things out of need for a weird necessity-as-aesthetics approach. In our day to day lives, we organists don’t often memorize music so much as speed learn on the surface, plunging to different musical depths each time as an instrument or acoustic might demand. I became all too aware of this at the wedding when I had to play the piano for my friend A, who was singing a song by Brahms for the ceremony. The left hand jumps around a lot (as is usually the case with Brahms) and I found myself having to practice with an unusual amount of repetition to remember just where the left hand should go.
G is also a pianist, and in discussing this with him, he just laughed and said, “you’re such an organist. Pianists just know where the notes are without looking.” That’s the thing with organs – you don’t actually know exactly where the notes are going to be, how deep the key bed might feel, what shape the pedal board might take, or even much less the sounds the instrument will produce! It’s in no way way superior to the piano or any other instrument, but it is a different mindset. Organ music doesn’t tend to jump around to create big textures like in the Brahms lied – it does that already as the organist is using four limbs. Organists instead have to work on clarity and momentum, as the the enveloping constancy of sound can be oppressive sometimes – organs can just feel like a wall of sound. Pianos are so consistent and beautiful in their uniformity that pianists have a certain privilege in getting to the bottom of a piece more quickly. Each time I play the piano and get comfortable with it after an hour or so, I admit to envying that sensation of immediacy.
I’m talking in music lingo again. If you’re struggling to imagine an organist’s thought processes, think of it this way: it’s like going to Trader Joes’s.
I was out at TJs yesterday, trying to get my groceries at 5pm on a weekday (bad idea). The beauty of grocery stores is their consistency, right? You always know where things are. Celery is on the second floor, right in the middle of the produce section. Hummus is in the next mega-fridge directly to the right. At 8am on Sunday morning, when there is nobody at Trader Joe’s but you and the staff, this isn’t an issue. You just go and grab it. But when it’s 5pm and there are two queues of shoppers between you and the celery, you have to strategize how and when you’re going to get the celery, what other plants you’re going grab (broccolini, leeks, alfalfa sprouts) and even what you’re going to dip it into, as the hummus and kale dip is nearby and you don’t want to cross the queues of ravenous yuppies more than once.
Patiently standing next to some rather pathetic naval oranges, and a hole came open in the queues. I dashed to the wall of green, narrowly avoiding an octogenarian prune addict about to trip me with her walking cane. Crisis averted, yes, but I there was not organic celery to be found and and the cheap celery was already brown and aesthetically unpleasing. In the midst of the fray, I had to find something else to dip my hummus or kale dip into (yes, my purchase of vegetables in fact conditional upon the consumption of quasi-Mediterranean accoutrement). I settled for baby bell peppers. I wormed my way only to find that they’re out everything except the roasted red pepper or beet hummus (ew). Hummus should not taste like borscht, and peppers with red pepper hummus is a lot of pepper. There’s no kale dip either. This simply will not do. As I pondered my peppery predicament, a smell wafted to my nose. It was the free samples table. They were offering apple chicken sausages with dijon mustard. I took a bite. AMAZING. I proceeded to buy three packs of sausage and a jar of mustard. Fuck the celery.
Pianists get to shop at Trader Joe’s at 8AM on Sundays. Organists go during rush hour (guess where we are on Sunday mornings). There’s nothing wrong in keeping with the celery of course, if you can get it – you can chop it, sauté it, dip it, lather it in peanut butter, or simply let it wilt in your fridge, allowing to feel that particular sense self-righteousness having simply bought it. But there are times you have to be flexible, open to the possibility that you’ll come for celery and leave with sausage.