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In the wind...

August 4, 2014

Creative freedom

Last Wednesday I was doing a service call at a church in New Jersey, where the Organ Clearing House installed a relocated organ a couple years ago. The pastor was holding keys as I tuned the reeds—a little unusual perhaps, except that this pastor was an organist before he was ordained. It was he who conceived and drove the acquisition of the organ, and we’ve enjoyed a friendly relationship since.

It’s a real pleasure for an organbuilder when a parish appreciates an instrument he has provided and uses it well. Along with the pastor’s affinity for the instrument, that church’s organist is doing a wonderful job finding his way around the organ, and using it creatively as he leads worship for the parish.

An organ tuner can tell a lot about a local organist by the character and quality of the list left on the console, and this organist’s lists are concise, accurate, and correct. When I commented on that, the pastor waxed enthusiastic about the organist’s work, and said something to the effect that although once in a while he disagreed with a choice, he knew he had to stay out of it and let his organist be creative. Terrific. How many organists out there would quail at the idea of working with (or for) an organist-pastor?


Yes, chef

A couple days later, Wendy and I went to the movies followed by a light supper at the friendly bar at the end of the block. While Wendy’s literary pull often draws us toward weighty films, this time we saw Chef. It included some personally painful scenes about divorced parents struggling to do right by their son, but otherwise it was fun, funny, and scintillating.

Carl Casper (John Favreau) is chef of a popular and prominent restaurant in Los Angeles owned by Riva (Dustin Hoffman). They learn that the big-shot restaurant critic (played by Oliver Platt) is coming to review the place, and Casper drums up excitement among the kitchen staff planning a special knockout menu. There are fantastic scenes involving a whole pig arriving in the kitchen in a big plastic bag, and a lot of mouth-watering test cooking. When Riva gets wind of this, he storms into the kitchen brandishing the regular menu and essentially orders Casper to present the usual fare. “It’s what we’re known for.” Casper protests, referring to their agreement that Riva wouldn’t interfere in the kitchen, but to no avail.

Predictably, the critic pans the place. Enter Casper’s son, the quintessential smarty-pants kid with a smart phone, who shares the resulting Twitter traffic with his dad. The critic has thousands of followers. Casper, the quintessential social-media newbie, pours fuel on the fire by mouthing off, thinking he was tweeting to the critic, and only the critic, and the fun really starts as Casper challenges the critic to return for a “real meal.” Hearing that news, Riva repeats his insistence, adds an ultimatum, and Casper storms out of the kitchen to find himself in an adventure that includes some mouth-watering food scenes and a hilarious caper with his ex-wife’s first husband. It’s all about creative freedom.


For all the saints

Fifth Avenue in New York City is a classy address, but with the Disney Store between 55th and 56th Streets, and the NBA (National Basketball Association) store between 47th and 48th Streets, it’s not quite as elegant as it once was. It’s hard to imagine Mrs. Astor or Mrs. Vanderbilt stopping in to buy an eight-foot-tall Mickey Mouse, even though either of them would have had help to carry it home. We’ll not discuss the Dennis Rodman sunglasses.

Halfway between these two tacky icons you’ll find St. Thomas Church. It’s a wonderful place for worship, a legendary place to hear music, and a refreshing respite from the million-dollar huckstering going on elsewhere in the neighborhood. (People routinely spend more on handbags in that neighborhood than I will ever spend to buy a car!) Walk into the nave and allow your breath to be taken away.

The reredos behind the high altar includes sixty figures of carved stone. I wonder if the artist proposed sixty-five, and the vestry voted to limit the project? People often refer to the “price per stop” of pipe organs. Do you suppose there’s a “price per saint” for a reredos?

In 1499, the 24-year-old Michelangelo completed Pietà, commissioned as the funeral monument to a French cardinal who was a representative to Rome. It’s a little over 68 inches tall and nearly 77 inches wide, and it weighs about 6,600 pounds. I did a Google search and learned that the current price of Carrara marble is $2.25 per pound. (Believe it or not, even though it’s prone to stains, people use it for kitchen counters. You shouldn’t carry coffee in paper cups inside St. Peter’s.) Looking at photos of Pietà, it’s hard to tell just how much of the original block of marble is left, but let’s guess that Michelangelo took away two thirds of the material to reveal his masterpiece. If so, the original block would have weighed 19,800 pounds. At today’s price, that’s $44,550. (I don’t know if that includes shipping.) Did Michelangelo’s commission specify the maximum weight and cost of the marble? Or did they simply provide him with a block? I wonder if Michelangelo tried to hold out for a larger block? Given cost-saving devices such as laser cutting tools, hydraulic cranes, diesel engines, and railroads, I bet the cost of marble relative to other consumer items is lower than it was in 1500. Just imagine the effort involved in bringing a 20,000-pound block down a mountain and 400 kilometers to Rome using technology available in 1500 AD.

A few years later, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo worked on that project from 1508 until 1512. I wonder if the Pope established a budget. I wonder if he put a limit on the number of scenes depicted. Did Michelangelo provide sketches for the client’s approval? I wonder if Julius II stopped in once in a while to check on the progress, and if so, did he ever put in his two cents’ worth about color choices? Did he pay attention to the vibrancy of the colors? “Mickey, that blue looks pretty rich. What’s the price per tube?” Did he fuss about how slow it was going? Or did he say, “Knock yourself out. Have a blast. Don’t worry about the cost.” I doubt it.  

A related thought: We have just finished dismantling an organ in a church where the pastor was downright unfriendly. I wonder if Julius II and Michelangelo liked each other? Early in the movie, the kitchen staff spreads the word to Chef Casper that “Riva is coming,” in sharp, explosive whispers. Think of Michelangelo’s young assistant hissing, “The Pope is coming . . . ”


You say you want a revolution…

In the early 1960s, the Beatles turned the music world upside down. The radical messages in the lyrics of their songs thrilled some people and terrified others. Old-timers fretted about the end of civilization, what with those hippie hairstyles and all. Funny, because looking at photos of the Fab Four from those days with dark jackets buttoned up, and skinny dark ties with white button-down shirts, they might as well be a quartet of congressmen—except they were too creative for that.  

Those songs were innovative and provocative. Millions of young people were influenced by them. And each of those millions has experienced the moment of hearing the Beatles for the first time in an elevator soundtrack—the music that changed the world reduced to twinkling away in the background. And what a gold mine is that twinkling. After pop-music icon Michael Jackson recorded a couple songs with former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney, Jackson seized an opportunity to incense McCartney by outbidding him to purchase the rights to the Beatles’ catalogue, putting McCartney in the position of having to pay licensing fees every time he wanted to sing Hey Jude.

According to the website Mail Online (of the British newspaper Daily Mail), following Jackson’s death, copyright laws allow the rights to return piecemeal to McCartney.  A revolution at what price?


Leave the driving to us

A week ago, I was waiting for a bus in the teeming New York Port Authority Bus Terminal, listening to a nondescript Vivaldi concerto for strings over tinny public speakers. I’ve been present for plenty of serious recording sessions where microphones and music stands are set about on a wood floor. There are open instrument cases strewn about along with half-finished bottles of water. A small group of musicians is playing their hearts out to the microphones for posterity. Together they listen to playbacks of each take, discuss, and start again. Do you suppose they realize that all that effort is destined for broadcast in a bus station? Does that define commercial success for a musical ensemble? Artistic fulfillment?

The parish organist spends all day Saturday at the console preparing a blockbuster postlude for the next morning. The recessional hymn is finished, benediction and response checked off, and he launches into it. Ten minutes later, with a paper cup of coffee in the narthex, the smiling congregants tell him, “The music was beautiful, as always.” I once appreciated that feedback, but when the same person says the same words with the same inflections week after week, year after year, it gets a little hollow. Was she listening? Did she notice anything special about it this week? Or does “as always” cover it for her, taking away the responsibility to listen critically?

Classical radio stations love listener surveys, inviting their audiences to vote on their favorite music. It’s like a sprawling focus group and allows the stations’ librarians to cull all that complicated overbearing music that no one likes from their record collections. No votes for Alban Berg? Out it goes. As a teenager listening faithfully to WCRB in Boston in the 1970s, I was already aware that it was a pretty short list of music they played: a Mozart symphony (number 40 in G minor), a Vivaldi concerto (Four Seasons), something by Respighi (Ancient Airs and Dances), another Vivaldi concerto (another season down, two to go).

The Louvre in Paris is one of the world’s largest museums with over 650,000 square feet of exhibit space. It’s the most visited in the world with nearly ten million visitors a year. There are more than 35,000 objects on display, but for most visitors only one is a focus point. It’s a painting about the size of a coffee-table book, thirty inches by twenty-one inches. Because it’s so very iconic and valuable it’s pretty much buried, concealed in a transparent vault. So many people throng to see it that most only get a quick glimpse. Of course it’s an essential artwork—enigmatic, mysterious, beautiful, wistful. But you can make more of your time in those hallowed halls if you simply don’t bother. Miss Mona will be fine without you. Go the other way and see all the rest of that glorious art at your own pace.


The art of organ building

It’s fun to wax poetic about organbuilding from the point of view of the humanities. The Greek physicist and inventor, Ctesibius (ca. 285–222 BC) created the hydraulis, widely considered to be not only a forerunner to the organ, but the actual first example of one. The remains of a primitive pipe organ were found in the ruins of Pompeii, the ancient Italian city destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. The organ in the Basilica of Valère in Switzerland, made famous by E. Power Biggs’s 1967 recording, Historic Organs of Switzerland, is accepted as the oldest playable organ in the world. Biggs’s jacket notes stated that the organ was built in 1390. Others now think it was more like 1435. But whether or not we need to quibble about a difference of 45 years, that’s a mighty old organ.

Twentieth-century organbuilders used sixteenth-century models as the basis for contemporary instruments around which developed a revolution in the trade. And many of those original sixteenth-century instruments survive and are played regularly, proof that such ancient ideals remain vital and relevant to modern musicians.

Organs built in the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries all combine the fruits of many skills. Take a close look at a metal organ pipe and marvel at the precision of the hand-drawn solder seams that join the various pieces of metal. Inspect the edges of leather gussets on a pipe organ bellows and see how the craftsman’s knife tapered the edge to microscopic thickness, just to ensure that there was no loose edge to get snagged and delaminate.

See the precision of the playing actions (either electro-pneumatic or mechanical)—how fast the notes repeat, how uniform is the touch and feel of the keys. And marvel at the glorious architectural casework, beautifully designed, built, and decorated to promote and project the instrument it contains, and to enhance its surroundings.

The company that built that organ is surely a collection of high-minded individuals, capable of the creation of such a masterpiece. But wait. You have no idea how many cooks might have been involved.


Art by committee

A church invites an organbuilder to present a proposal for a new instrument. He delivers a drawing or a model. Using blue tape, someone in the church marks off the space to be occupied by the proposed organ. That Saturday, the women of the altar guild arrive to prepare the sanctuary for tomorrow’s services. They see the tape outline—to them it looks like a police photo of a crime scene. They storm the rector’s office, demanding that the organ not cross a specified but imaginary line. Please don’t take offense, all you members of altar guilds. You do wonderful work and we’re grateful. But I know of one fine organ that was sorely compromised in the design stage by exactly this scenario.  

The same rector reviews the proposal. It looks a little imposing. Too fancy, too shiny. That organist has enough of an ego problem. Let’s tone it down a little.

The organist reviews the proposal. There’s no Larigot, there’s only one soft solo reed, and nothing at 32-foot. I’m not sure I can manage without a third (or fourth) keyboard. Can we beef it up a little?

The vestry/board of trustees/finance committee/session (your choice) reviews the proposal. No, our data suggests that we will not be able to raise more than…

And if the architect is still around, “How can you do this to my building?”

In the 1960s, comedian Allan Sherman (Hello muddah, hello fadduh . . .) produced a hilarious parody of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf in collaboration with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. The recording of Peter and the Commissar was released in 1964, at the height of the Cold War—it was just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis—and using the familiar tunes and orchestrations of Prokofiev’s score (apparently no one had gotten their hands on those rights!), Sherman told in outrageous verse of how the fictional Peter had written a new tune, but had to obtain approval from the Commissars of Music before releasing it.

The Commissars had all sorts of ideas about how to improve it, including giving it the beat of a bossa nova—and gave Peter examples of their alterations to previous applications from famous composers like “Beethoven’s Fifth Cha-cha-cha,” “Brahms’ Lullaby Rock-n-Roll,” and “Pete Tschaikovsky’s Blues.” This kind of buffoonery was perfect for Fiedler and the Boston Pops. You can hear this terrific and biting romp online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFseskG8JTY.

Allan Sherman’s poetry reminds us of the stories of Julius II and Michelangelo, Riva and Chef Casper, Paul McCartney and his struggle to retain control of the artistic output of the combo that changed the world, and countless other examples in which a creator is disappointed by the influence of outside forces.  

One memorable line from Peter and the Commissar stands out: 


We all have heard the saying that is true as well as witty, 

A camel is a horse that was designed by a committee. 

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