In the wind...

February 2, 2015

The Ugly Duckling”

I am a hopelessly besotted fan of Patrick O’Brien’s magnificent series of novels about the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Through twenty-one novels, O’Brien carries his cast of characters from exuberant youth to deep old age, hardened by the experiences of more than twenty years at war. The main characters are “Lucky Jack” Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. We first meet Aubrey as an unruly lieutenant, who matures into one of the most illustrious post captains in the Navy. Captain Aubrey is impossibly unlucky and foolish when ashore, exposing himself to scams, cuckolding his superior officers, and occasionally winding up in prison for debt. When at sea, he is universally admired for his seamanship, leadership, intuition, courage, and cheerful demeanor.  

His close friend is Stephen Maturin, a complicated and curmudgeonly character, who is a physician and “natural philosopher” (biological researcher). When we meet him he is flat broke because his wealthy patient died, and a servant made off with all the money. But as the story progresses, we learn that he is not only widely recognized as a brilliant scientist, but is one of the most important members of the British Naval Intelligence Service. Stephen is responsible for much of Jack’s seagoing success as he cooks up secret missions, insisting that Jack sail as captain with him.

In the opening paragraphs of Master and Commander, the first novel in the series, Jack and Stephen meet at a concert, and the first days of their friendship are based on music, the one thing they have in common. Jack convinces Stephen to sail with him in his first command to serve as ship’s surgeon, allowing him to take advantage of world travel to fuel his scientific studies. 

Stephen plays the cello and spends a lot of time during long voyages, between battles, arranging various masterpieces for them to play together. Jack plays the violin, well enough that having received a “fortune in prize money” for capturing an enemy vessel, he indulges himself in the purchase of an Amati violin. (Stephen goes to the shop with him to offer his opinion about the instrument.)

They both play quite well for amateurs, often sharing a game of improvisation and finding relief in blasting through their favorite pieces, such as the “often played, yet ever fresh Corelli in C Major.” Night after night in the captain’s cabin, Aubrey’s steward, Preserved Killick, prepares toasted parmesan cheese in a silver chafing dish, complaining to his mate about the horrible noise of the tuning, “There they go again, screech, screech, scrape, scrape . . . and never a tune you could sing to, not if you were drunk as Davie’s sow . . . “

The musical subplot is always bubbling through this massive tale. It’s accurate and learned, and often very funny. One afternoon while in London, Jack takes refuge in a church where he is delighted to find that the organ is being played, but halfway through the piece, it whimpers to a stop mid-phrase and a surly teenager lurches out of the loft and onto the street. The priest who was playing comes down, apologizes for the sudden stop (the teenager was pumping the organ and the hour was up), and Jack compliments the beautiful playing, “Händel, wasn’t it?” The priest mentions that the organ was built by Father Willis. Jack offers to pump the organ himself so he can hear the end of the piece. As the music continues, Jack starts chuckling as he thinks, “it would be a pity to leave Händel (handle) up in the air for lack of wind.”

The many passages that describe the handling of those great nineteenth-century ships are equally colorful and accurate, making two passions of mine that are nurtured as I re-read these books.

Early on, Jack gets by on his innate seamanship alone, relying on others for the advanced mathematics necessary for navigation. But when Stephen is away on a mission and there’s no music, Jack listens in to the on-board schoolroom of his midshipmen (who are young teenagers), one of whom is so gifted that Jack is shamed into joining in. He is enchanted by spherical trigonometry (whatever that is!), and quickly adds deep scientific skills to his toolbox. That student, whose first name is Richard, is “horribly disfigured” by acne and is given the nickname of Spotted Dick, which is a dessert dish of custard and currants, popular among the officers.

Several novels later we meet up with Spotted Dick again, acne long past, who has matured into a “seagoing Apollo, perfectly unaware of his beauty.” He is serving as flag lieutenant under Admiral William Pellew, also a musician who “never sailed with anything less than a clavichord,” and “required his steward to take tuning lessons” in a long series of unlikely foreign ports, and who was known for “his appreciation of beautiful young men.”

The transformation from “Spotted Dick” to “A Seagoing Apollo” reminds me of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Ugly Duckling, in which all the farmyard creatures make fun of the clumsy, unsightly little black bird and receive their comeuppance when he matures into a beautiful swan.


There’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Over the years working in the organ business, I’ve enjoyed it when our projects have attracted the attention of the local press. When a little weekly country newspaper gets wind of an organ project in a church, they show up flannel-shirted with camera hanging from a strap and ask ridiculous, ubiquitous questions. As we answer, we can tell that they don’t understand what we’re talking about, and invariably, when the story is published it’s full of inaccuracies. I remember a front-page photo of my teenaged self proudly holding up a stenciled façade pipe, bearing the caption, “Organbuilder John Bishop voices an organ pipe.” That made two promotions for me—to organbuilder and voicer—and my co-workers bowed and scraped appropriately, tongue in cheek, dope-slaps included.

As I grew into my newly acquired “in name only” skills (I’m still not much of a voicer—I rely on my smarter colleagues for that), I learned to understand that the pipe organ is an arcane subject. I received an important lesson from a member of a church where the Organ Clearing House was delivering a rebuilt organ. We had organized an “Open House” in the nave of the church the evening after unloading the truck. Some fifty people showed up, and I walked about through the heaps of bewildering parts, picking things up and explaining their purpose, trying to give the group a general idea of the assortment of components it takes to make up a working pipe organ. One gentleman spoke up, saying that now he understood why it all cost so much.

When an organbuilder is selling or planning a project with a committee of a client church, he may be the only person in the room who understands the subject. Through those experiences, I realize what a responsibility it is to carry the trust of the client, who nods his head, signs the contract, and hopes for the best.

I often hear comments from parishioners indicating that it had never occurred to them that the organ was separate from the building, that it required maintenance, and was in any way sensitive to what goes on around it. How often have we finished a project, only to learn that the floors of the church would be sanded and refinished the next month? How could that have failed to come up as we neared the end of the project, BEFORE we put the reeds in?


A shuttered view

It’s easy enough to understand innocent ignorance regarding the organ as a musical instrument, but it troubles me to realize that more than a few prominent symphony conductors consider the pipe organ to be expressionless. I think this notion comes from the concept that a violinist, clarinetist, or trumpeter can alter the volume and timbre within the duration of a note, while a single organ pipe can only play a single note at a single volume level. Also, the classical idea of terraced dynamics, which has played such an important role in our study of historically informed performance, enforces the idea of the uninitiated that the pipe organ is unexpressive. 

These are simplistic views. Organists know that expression comes from the manipulation of stops and shutters. It’s a physical and mechanical fact that any accent, crescendo or decrescendo, “soloed out” melody, change of timbre—in short, any alteration of dynamics at all—is accomplished by the organist manipulating “the machine” by pushing buttons, operating pedals, drawing stops, each motion in addition to the simple playing of notes. The uninitiated may focus on the machine, but the effect is all art.

The apparent ugly duckling blossoms into the dramatic and beautiful expressive instrument.

I believe that the modern pipe organ, with its sophisticated combination actions and efficient and effective expression enclosures, is the most expressive of musical instruments. The skillful organist can take the listener smoothly from a distant whisper to a heroic roar in a few seconds—and today’s large instruments have a greater dynamic range than a full symphony orchestra.

There’s an apocryphal story that I believe is true about the first rehearsal of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra with the brand-new Fisk organ in the Meyerson Center. The orchestra was preparing (of course) Camille Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. When the last movement started with the monumental C-major chord from the organ, a trombone player raised a white flag with his slide.

The Meyerson Fisk is a landmark in my opinion, as it was the first of a new wave of brilliant concert instruments with tracker key action. 

And let’s not forget that early in the twentieth century, a tribe of brilliant concert organists, many of whom as municipal organists were city employees, played with just as a great a dynamic and expressive range, as they explored the extraordinary, newly conceived electro-pneumatic instruments being produced by such innovators as Ernest Skinner.

Perhaps twenty years ago, I was having a conversation with organ historian and consultant Barbara Owen, during which she asserted, “We need to get the organ out of the church.” At first I thought that was ridiculous. After all, without the long illustrious history of the organ in church, we wouldn’t have the pipe organ today. But reflecting on the (let’s face it) diminishing role of organized religion in American society, it’s true that if we would only find organs in churches, most people would never hear an organ.


How ordinawy

So says Madeline Kahn as Lily von Shtupp as she receives a gift of flowers in Mel Brooks’s zany 1974 movie, Blazing Saddles.

When we think of the pipe organ, we might be thinking of the grand and glorious instruments that knock our socks off in church and in the concert hall. But we have to admit that for every inspiring and beautiful organ, there are at least two dowdy old tubs lurking in dusty balconies. Through decades of working in and around organs, I’ve been aware that thousands of people think of the organ as a wheezy, murky thing that utters incomprehensible sounds at unexpected moments. (I suppose that some of this may be operator error.)

I’ve written many times that it was the corporate assessment of these dull cousins that inspired the revival of classic styles of organbuilding that ultimately led to the further revival of interest in the spectacular electro-pneumatic instruments that dominated the early twentieth-century. Many people defined this movement as “organ wars,” known as the battle between electric and mechanical actions. But it was deeper than that—I think it was the battle between good and bad organs. Something had to be done in response to the content-lacking factory-produced organs of post-World War II America. 

There’s that ugly duckling again.


The best of both worlds

Last Thursday night, one of Wendy’s clients treated us to fancy “down front” seats at Paul Winter’s “Winter Solstice Celebration.” The venue was New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, affectionately known as St. John the Unfinished. It’s a grand Gothic structure on Amsterdam Avenue, unfinished as the West End façade and towers are not complete, transepts haven’t been built, and interior stonework is incomplete. We understand that it will remain in this state of perpetual incompletion. The six-hundred-foot-long interior is breathtaking, and it has all the functions, chapels, and memorial spaces needed for majestic worship and pageant. As an unfinished edifice, it’s a metaphor for Work in Progress, symbolizing the state of religious celebration and thought.

I am well aware that many colleagues disagree with the frequent secular use of that most grand of sacred spaces. Since the twelfth century, worshippers have been building Gothic spaces out of stone—spaces that are so lofty and massive as to be inspirations to us before the introduction of any content, whether religious or secular. The Episcopal Diocese of New York has condoned and promoted the liberal use of its landmark space for decades.

On August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit surreptitiously strung a high-wire between the two towers of New York’s World Trade Center and famously spent forty-five minutes walking back and forth, saluting, kneeling, even lying on the wire. New Yorkers were transfixed and the police were baffled by the spectacle. That incredible feat and the years of planning that preceded it are documented in the award-winning documentary film, Man on Wire. To commemorate that singular public expression of self-confidence, theater, and the human spirit, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine includes Petit on a long list of Artists in Residence and has installed permanent fittings in the fabric of the building that allow him to hang a high-wire across the nave.

For thirty-five consecutive years, the cathedral has hosted the Paul Winter Consort’s celebration of the winter solstice. The heavily amplified instruments of the Consort (saxophones, oboe, cello, bass, keyboards, percussion) and the Latino night-club style of Puerto Rican headliner Danny Rivera are not the usual fare of Episcopal cathedrals, but the production standards, the choreography, and the iconography combined to provide a deeply moving spiritual experience.

We were especially moved by the depiction of the sunrise that ended the first half of the three-hour production. A procession down the length of the seemingly endless nave, up the steps to the chancel, and all the way to the great granite columns that define the apse was accompanied by brilliant music dominated by the sounds of more than a dozen great bronze gongs. Dramatic lighting and smoky effects focused on the distant front of the church as the sun, depicted as the mother of all gongs in polished, spotlighted brass, rose out the depths and ascended to a dizzying height. The thing must have been ten feet in diameter, big enough to look dramatic in that vast place. It was accompanied toward the heavens by a safety-harnessed “Gonger,” wielding a mallet of suitable heroic size in a slow rhythm that produced a crescendo of earth-shaking tones that echoed throughout the cathedral.

Wendy and I have visited the site of the quarry where those fifty-foot high columns were made on a specially built lathe. It’s in Maine on the island of Vinalhaven in Penobscot Bay. As the spectacle of the sunrise unfolded, I remembered that visit and marveled at the role those columns were playing in that glorious theater.

In 2008, Quimby Pipe Organs completed a comprehensive rebuilding and renovation of the cathedral’s great Skinner/Aeolian-Skinner organ. The Organ Clearing House was privileged to play a role in that herculean job, providing scaffolding and rigging and assisting the staff of QPO with the installation of the completed organ. It was a thrill for us to experience that building “up close and personal,” learning the legends of the place and experiencing the singular acoustics when the space was empty.

The organ was used heavily during the Paul Winter extravaganza, and I wept as we were enveloped by its gorgeous tones. The emotions generated by the scope of the sound were enhanced by memories of the spooky heights of the hoisting scaffolding, the difficulties of getting four semi-trailers full of organ parts into the hundred-feet-up organ chambers, and the incongruity of logistics meetings held while sitting in folding chairs surrounding the bronze medallion in the chancel floor.

Through the miracle of concert technology, the instrumentalists on the stage in the Great Crossing were effortlessly accompanied by the organ, more than a hundred feet away. I pointed out to our hosts that the organ was the only instrument that was not amplified, and while Paul Winter’s soprano saxophone was much nearer to us, and the speakers through which he played were almost directly in front of us, the organ was by far the more present—a triumph for acoustic music.

The majesty of the room, the creativity of the music and the production, the energy of the instrumentalists, singers, and dancers, and the enthusiasm of the vast audience (must have been over three thousand people) combined to create a beautiful artistic and spiritual experience. What’s wrong with that?