Organists face a problem in programming recitals, especially when they travel: every pipe organ, no matter where, is totally and completely unique. The number of keyboards can be different, as can the quantity of pipes and stops, and even the quality of their toots and squeaks. Noises that sound like the dulcet tones of muffled constipated ducks on one organ can sound like foghorns on another. The keys could be operating fully mechanically, or could be using electronic signals to tell pipes to let air pass through them. Oh, and there’s tuning as well. Any given organ could be tuned in totally equal temperament (like modern pianos) or could be based on some historical theory or treatise. What this all means is that the quantity of music that organists have to keep under their fingers can sometimes be daunting, as they have to be able to cater not just according to their own taste, but to the specificities of the instrument they’ll be playing.
And yet, despite knowledge and experience, every organist will make a fundamental miscalculation at some point in their career. Even if we get all the info, certain important details may fly by us, the information itself may be misleading or inaccurate, or in the worst-case scenario, there’s no information at all and we have to wing it. This is no more true in Europe, where a 400 year history of construction has rendered an inestimable variety of instruments. While on tour of France with King’s College Choir in 2012, I had one such case where I had to wing it. I could only find a little bit of info about the organ online and had to make an educated guess about what it would look/sound/or feel like. On the day of the concert, I arrived to play on what was supposed to be a 19th century romantic instrument, the likes of which you could play flashy virtuoso showpieces on. What I was confronted with was in fact an instrument 200 years prior, that didn’t even have enough notes on the keyboard to even try the piece I intended to play. Ooooooops.
An organist’s number one rule on the road? Always have a backup.
However, in the United States, it’s rare that organists get the pleasure to devise programs around certain historical “limitations.” Let’s be real: our country is young and there aren’t too many Gothic or Romanesque cathedrals filled with instruments built for Bach and his buds to tinker on. But increasingly, we have started to see more and more historically “inspired” instruments come around, constructed on the same principles as organs of a bygone era. Ok, so I know I’m a weirdo, but for me, designing programs for such instruments is a real treat. For my recital in Cleveland this week, I got the chance to play some of my favorite music, composed with such historical instruments in mind. The organ was tuned in temperament (meaning that it sounds “better” in certain keys and “worse” in others), the wind supply is flexible (under duress, it starts to wheeze a little, like the human breath supply) and the keys are smaller than piano keys (they don’t require the weights inside them as modern pianos do). The irony is, in playing on an instrument with these supposed limitations and defects, older music comes to life; chord changes start to take on expressive qualities as the tuning is fixed in such a way to favor certain harmonies over others. On top of that, the more notes you add, the more the organ builds in intensity and tension as the bellows to physically produce more air to push through the pipes. It’s exhilarating. You can literally feel it breathe.
I guess it’s a little ironic. Far too often we assume that what we’ve got with us today is somehow better equipped than what we’ve had in the past. (I mean have you seen how huge iPhones have gotten now? I thought they were supposed to be small. My bad.) But if I were to play Scheidt (what an unfortunate name, no?), Byrd, Sweelinck, Praetorius and other “obscure” composers on these more modern instruments, they would once again start living up to their reputation as sounding about as interesting as a discussion about your grandmother’s lace table doilies. Playing in Cleveland this week, the Richards, Fowkes & Co. organ at the Church of Covenant reminded me once again that the reliance on older instruments to perform music of our musical ancestors is not bad, but a real chance to communicate with these composers on their terms, and to learn alternate modes of expression.
The number of classical musicians even who would enthusiastically play Praetorius in any recital is slim, admittedly. Scheidt may receive a few more performances, but not many (come on! his name IS pretty hilarious, you have to admit). And yet, every year, some of America’s finest young organists transplant themselves to the cornfields of Ohio for nine months at a time to learn about these composers, their forbearers and successors and how the manner in which we humans have thought about expressing ourselves in music has always been subtle, transient and changing. In Oberlin, four large concert instruments on campus are built according to a variety of historical precepts, so students can get as close as possible to confronting music on the terms set down by those who put pen to paper. One can think of it less as an exercise in ancestor worship, but rather an exploration of empathy through music. What is more powerful than the human capacity not just to talk at one other, but to listen, understand, and talk with each other?
If you’ve ever met an Obie, you probably will have confronted the fact they cannot and will not shut up about their alma mater. Allow me to reinforce the stereotype, if you will. On Monday, I returned to Oberlin for the first time since my graduation 17 months ago. To say the experience was deep and emotional would be a pretty severe understatement – I’ll openly admit that as I drove towards the airport today, I cried uncontrollably for a solid twenty minutes. I didn’t want to leave the sight of Tappan Square, the sounds of innumerable discussions about students’ dreams for the future, tots at the Feve, coffee at Slow Train, and strolling through the Allen Art Museum. Of the places I’ve travelled to and studied, nothing hits me in the gut so hard as Oberlin.
In thinking about my visit, I suppose what I appreciated most about coming back was learning about how it is that Oberlin keeps itself transient and fresh. The libraries at Oberlin were incredible, constantly updated and stocked with the latest editions of scores and academic literature. This is a duty of libraries I suppose, but the extent to which the conservatory score collection is continually refreshing was a relatively new experience. For instance, at King’s College, Cambridge, (my undergraduate alma mater) one of the great pleasures of walking through the libraries and the archives is literally seeing your classmates of times past, displaced by as much as 80 years. As an undergrad I came across everything from some of Salman Rushdie’s notes scrawled in an edition of Shakespeare, E.M. Forster’s personal score of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, and some of Sir Andrew Davis’s markings of in editions of Messiaen. These are not kept in archives, preserved for posterity, but part of the living and breathing accumulation of knowledge of students past as well as imprints left behind by students.
On the last day of semester in 2015, I returned a score of Bach’s Goldberg Variations to the library at the Conservatory. I had performed it that same day on my master’s recital marking the completion of my degree. Perpetually low on cash while at school, I hadn’t bought my own score, instead marking and scrawling fingerings and performance instructions in a clean library copy (tut-tut, I know). In returning it to the library, I had somehow expected to be able to return to Oberlin one day and find it, reminisce, remember, even take it into a practice room.
Last night I headed to the library to look for it. It was gone. Three fresh Bärenreiter scores sat in its place. A certain sense of frustration had come over me at that point – I had spent months with that missing score. I had set alarms at all hours of day or night to practice playing individual variations at the drop of the hat. I had refused to record my own recital for fear of having any sonic record of any potential imperfections. I’d lost countless hours of sleep, going through the variations in my head every night, over and over and over again.
At first, I was sad that any physical evidence of those long practice hours at Oberlin was seemingly lost. But later, I got dragged back to reality. Still giddy about just being there, I spoke with a faculty member, flippantly mentioning how great it would be to move back, even study again at the conservatory for a post-graduate diploma. His his face fell a little, telling me “that’s not what Oberlin is about.” It’s not what I expected to hear, but he was right. Scores, recordings, notes from classes aren’t what make Oberlin manifest in the outside world. It’s the fact that we leave and take our experiences with us in whatever we do. Oberlin may be really special in that the legacy of its students lies not in what they leave behind, but what they take with them.
Returning to Oberlin was lovely, but that missing score was a real kick in the pants. It was revitalizing to be reminded that I didn’t study at Oberlin just so I could return and do it over again. I didn’t practice all those hours just to build up a memory. I didn’t spend two years reading and thinking critically simply to take pride in the act of contemplation. I went to Oberlin because a student’s passion could be preparing an organ recital, a sporting match, an anthropology essay, a computer program – whatever, it doesn’t really matter. It’s what you do with it. I remembered that I chose Oberlin over other schools because of an almost terrifying nervous energy on campus that tells students that they have to make a difference to how people communicate with one another.
On Monday, I returned to Oberlin expecting to relive memories, but what I got was better: a reminder to move on.
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