I’m sat at Oren’s on 112th and Broadway, drinking an espresso, hunched over my iPad, snuggled in the comfort that Morningside Heights affords me. I really don’t make it up here as often as I ought, even though Columbia University’s environs contain all I require to chill out: one independent bookstore, two coffeehouses, dogs innumerable leading their bedraggled and hungover Upper West Side owners through snow and slush, and the slightly buzzy atmosphere that one gets in an area packed with college kids. A local café will inevitably contain a number of overdressed students discussing queer theory, class politics, university policy, essays on consciousness – all the things that undergraduates live and breathe in their exciting but stiflingly nucleic existence.
An often overlooked artifact of the neighborhood sits on Amsterdam Avenue, just behind the slew of graduate apartments down West 112th Street. Despite its size (roughly that of a large football field) The Cathedral of St. John is barely visible from Broadway. I confess that I only noticed as I came out of the bookstore a couple of years ago, struck by the beauty and size of a church down the street. If one looks down 112th, one might think the façade to be no different from any number of Gothic Revival churches around Manhattan. But the closer you get, you see that the building isn’t really faux-gothic at all, nor a copy. There are several architectural styles apparent around the building, associated with various trends from before and after the Norman conquest in England. There’s Romanesque, early gothic, ornamented gothic – everything. The hodgepodge of the building is no accident, but is literally built to look like an English cathedral would be: over the course of several hundred years.
Despite being in an American building not even 150 years old, I got exactly the intended sensation of this pretend English Cathedral. As I practiced last night, I felt like I was back at the Cathedral in Ely (UK) where I finished out high school as an organ scholar. Going from back to front, Ely’s architecture goes from 10th-Century Romanesque to 14th Century gothic. It’s got a tower from the 16th century, and an extra chapel with a vaulted ceiling style imported from Spain. Both cathedrals feel vast, cold and overwhelming. They’re also both a total pain in the ass to play a recital in.
What nobody tells you about building organs to fill such large spaces is that they often get spread out. One part of the organ may be 40 feet above your head, another might 90 feet away, another might be next to your ear. Some sounds that sound inaudible at the console can send a geriatric parishioner’s hearing aid into a conniption fit. With the varying distances come inevitable issues of time delay: your hands may be perfectly in time, but the pipes that your feet are playing are located so far away that you can’t really tell if you’re actually playing together. There comes a point where you have to ignore the differential between the speeds of light and sound, shut your ears, revel in the indeterminate musical soup-noise you’re creating. In the end, it’s just an exercise in trust. A lot of musicians (organists included) spend a great deal of time in small rooms, working out the intricate issues of coordination and ensemble that make your playing tight, impressive and virtuosic. Coming to a place like St. John the Divine or Ely, one learns to let go, trusting not so much that the room will cover up irregularities, but will guide you as to how to insert space, time, breath – intentional irregularity.
Between practice sessions over the last week, I’ve been getting into the essays of Nicholson Baker. Included in his collection entitled The Size of Thoughts is an essay all about the history of punctuation, and specifically the comma. Pointing to the stylistic whims of Virgil, Joyce, Nabokov, Proust, Salman Rushdie and Emily Dickinson, Baker’s investigation outlines a near disintegration of systematized intra-syntactical punctuation (smattered with a tone of contempt for the Chicago Manual of Style). Clausulae, virgulae, commas, semicolons, dashes, slashes – points of breath and pause are just that: place at which one can express numerous ideas at once, literally inserting space for the inference of meaning. Perhaps most convincing in Baker’s review of punctuation is his observation that children naturally begin to write without spaces or pause, and that the guidance of punctuation and writing style is in essence the guidance of expression and embellishment. As we mature, we learn to add space and breath in ways that are most effective both for ourselves and for those reading the letters we write.
The first time I really learned this lesson was when I moved to the UK when I was 16. Packed up and entrusted into the care of my two loving and supportive guardians J and D, all my previous academic training, organ practice, socialization skills had to reacclimatize into a state of expansion. The experience of playing a monstrously large organ at Ely was fantastic – it’s where I first learned to play Messiaen, Duruflé and great of the French organ tradition. But it went hand in hand with the experience learning to live abroad: went from living on 10 acres in Tennessee to a 13th Century boarding house inhabited by 40 teenagers from 14 countries. I went from practicing my crappy German in workbooks to using it in classrooms to translate (kind of) for some of the other international students in history lessons. I had to abandon the American use of pencils and learn to do calculus problems with a fountain pen.
Overall, I learned I had to slow down. Big buildings aren’t conducive to fast tempi, and I felt as if I every piece I learned there ended up being 25% longer than I had previously imagined it would be. But living with so many peers in a tight space doesn’t allow for an officious or unnecessarily fast-paced existence, and a history class wasn’t just about reading books on your own. But most of all, erasing your mistakes in your homework doesn’t help you learn about your thought processes. A simple line through an improper problem set can nullify it and let you use it to learn from later. In opening up my score of Olivier Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur last night, I was a little annoyed that my it’s littered with markings past performances, as well as some fairly crappy fingerings in pen (having almost completely abandoned the use of pencils altogether due to my near obsession with my calculus homework at the time). I add in new markings, wedging them in around old ones, and an old conundrum comes up again: how fast do I take the last section?
Naturally there opposing schools of thought, as with any great work of art. One says to honor the element of virtuosity and let it rip, while another says to hold back and let the kaleidoscopic harmonies change at a more intelligible pace. Brilliant as he was, Messiaen was also crazy. The entire 90-minutes of his La Nativité du Seigneur is based on a system of scales which contain repetitions every two notes. Every scale within an octave, instead of being divided into seven notes, is divided into eight. Given the title “limited modes of transposition” the intense internal repetition of tonal relationships and pitch sets is such that one has to decide whether the kaleidoscope’s beauty derives from blending of all the different colors and textures or from the intricacy of their minute delineations. Debate further abounds as to the types of colors one should create; Messiaen suffered from synesthesia but often discussed color within less than determinate parameters. His own performances are available, but his own struggles with severe arthritis (a product of his time in a Nazi camp) are evident. He himself admitted to his own struggle to perform his own works as he aged.
Last night, just as I did in high school, I sought the great YouTube oracle in search of a similarly zany and difficult artist: Gertrude Stein. Like Messiaen, Gertrude Stein’s poetry on paper and in delivery seem apparently different from one another. A tutor in my boarding house had sent me in her direction when I was describing Messsiaen to him. He was a public speaking and debating coach, amateur novelist, professional classicist, and an Elgar fanatic (in retrospect, I’m not surprised in the least that he was a fan of Gertrude Stein). But what he encouraged me to do was to read and listen at the same time to her poetry. At first glance, there’s an aggressively infantile and simultaneously clinical style. But then there’s her voice. She breathes and punctuates where she has to, she lifts and lilts where it’s natural, and nothing about the essential nature of the repetition is lost. I tussled, tussled, thought, practiced, experimented, flopped, tried again, “nope,” round and round until I realized once again that an active, affirmative decision really wasn’t mine to make. Just like learning to punctuate, beautify my calculus problems in high school (did I mention I was terrible at algebra?), I sought the comfort zone between my ears an my hands, negotiating the uncomfortable trust that I had to place in hours of practice.
My recital down the block is in an hour, and I admit it only hit me last night that I had put down a program of music I had learned in Ely. The music itself was familiar to play in such a large space yes, but the sensation of recalibration was what was most noticeable. Practicing last night presented problems yes, but the act of trusting that the room guided the solutions. It’s such a profoundly different exercise from what we’re trained to do in our college and conservatory atmospheres. Yes we’re trained to “listen to ourselves” but we rarely get the chance to expand a quasi-out of body experience that playing in a great hall or cathedral affords. It’s unnerving in a way, as it forces you to relinquish a certain amount of control that you’ve spent years garnering. It’s an old truism, but letting go is the hardest thing.
Nine years on from my arrival in Ely, letting go of these pieces isn’t as hard as it once was. But I’m aware that the tendency to get stuck, mired and worked up is still deeply engrained as I spend days on end in Lincoln Center with my scores and a metronome. I don’t have a spare cathedral at my disposal. I think I’ll just come to Oren’s more often.
Parker Ramsay is an organist and harpist studying at the Juilliard School in New York City. Read more posts of his at www.harpingon.live and follow his page on Facebook!
Check out his next post, ‘Stumptown, 29th Street’.