In the wind. . . .

November 29, 2016

Winds across the prairie

Andy Rooney, long-time curmudgeonly commentator on CBS’s 60 Minutes, once said that he considered the best cities to be those that could only be entered by crossing a bridge or tunnel. He thought the effort of building the bridges proved the value. I live in Manhattan, where you have to cross a river to get in; Google Maps shows twenty bridges and tunnels. Must be a great place. We call our apartment there our island home.

When I visit cities in other regions where geographical borders do not limit the area, I marvel at the space available for things like highway interchanges and church parking lots. In New York, the quickest way to get around is walking or taking the subway. In an expansive city like Dallas, you drive for miles to get places, and there are free parking spaces when you get there. While Manhattan squeezes 1.6 million people into about 30 square miles (53,300 per square mile), Dallas scatters 1.2 million across 386 square miles (3,100 per square mile).

The American Guild of Organists held its national convention in Dallas in 1994. I was both conventioneer and exhibitor, splitting my time between attending concerts and seminars and promoting my Bishop Organ Company in the exhibition hall. The convention was based in the Loews Anatole Hotel (now Hilton). According to the convention-planning article in the January 1994 edition of The American Organist, the hotel boasted more than 1,600 guest rooms, seven restaurants, six tennis courts, eight racquetball courts, a basketball court, two theaters, and a 1,000-seat auditorium. There were 2,000 employees, even the elevators were manned, and 2,000 “complimentary” parking spaces. No hotel in New York City has 2,000 parking spaces. TAO reported that the convention rate for a single room was $85.

The World Cup of soccer was being hosted by the United States that summer, and Dallas’s Cotton Bowl was one of nine venues across the country hosting games. Along with AGO conventioneers, the Brazilian soccer team and legions of their fans were staying at the Anatole. Brazil won the World Cup that summer, and the enthusiastic nationalistic displays in the hotel after the games were worthy of the country that is home to Carnival.

The magnificent organ by C. B. Fisk, Inc., in the Meyerson Symphony Center was just two years old. Most of us were hearing it for the first time, and I remember being dazzled by Bruce Neswick’s playing in the opening convocation and by Jean Guillou’s fiery performance of Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante with the Dallas Symphony. The Meyerson organ was the first of the thrilling succession of imaginative, powerful, and fiery modern concert-hall organs, and it formed a majestic centerpiece to the convention.

The convention exhibition hall was in a huge ballroom with a grand entrance doorway, guarded by two life-sized statues of elephants. Between the elephants, the Schlicker Organ Company had installed a modest two-manual organ as their convention exhibit. I can’t remember the stoplist, but it had something like ten or twelve ranks and a swell box. Giddy and well-oiled conventioneers sat on the bench in their multitudes, boiling down the wealth of organ literature to two flourishes and two rolled chords from Bach’s Toccata in D Minor and eight measures of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. It was as if those were the only choices.

My friends in neighboring booths and I rolled our eyes at each smashed mordent and each flubbed pedal note, until one fiery moment when the simple little organ emitted a righteous roar. Maniacal flourishes ripped across the paisley carpeting, echoing off the drywall. Thunderclaps and lightning bolts shot across the room, and draperies blew through windows. Jaws dropped and heads turned. I raced from my booth to see who it was, and there was Jean Guillou, tousled mane flying, eyes looking skyward, astride a carousel pony of an organ that had suddenly become a furious stallion. It was a remarkable moment, showing how a great artist can transmit energy through an instrument. I remember it vividly twenty-two years later, although I may be making up the image of smoke pouring from the organ as Guillou dismounted. 

That week in Dallas ended with a comical note. As 2,500 organists were leaving the hotel at the close of the convention, a pink-hued mob of Mary Kay representatives were arriving for theirs. When I got on the elevator I commented on the spectacle. The operator rolled his eyes and quipped, “you can’t find an ironing board in this hotel.”


Everybody gets a chance.

I cared for the wonderful Skinner/Aeolian-Skinner organs at Trinity Church, Copley Square in Boston, for about twelve years during the 1980s and 1990s. That was a wonderful era for choral music in that church. During that time, the renowned Trinity Choir, directed by Brian Jones and accompanied by Ross Wood, recorded and released Candlelight Carols, which has sold well over 100,000 copies, and is still featured on Amazon with 4½ stars some thirty years later.

Between Brian and Ross, I heard lots of wonderful organ playing at Trinity, but the recital series, Fridays at Trinity, was an especially important learning experience for me. During the program year, the church hosted a noontime organ recital every Friday. Each week I’d arrive at 8:00 to tune the organ, and the récitaliste du jour would arrive at 10:00 to warm up. It was usual for a rowdy group to retire to House of Siam, a nearby Thai restaurant, for lunch after the recital.

I have fond memories of many conversations at those lunches, both raucous and thoughtful, but the best of it was hearing the same organ played by so many different people. I worked there for about twelve years, I suppose there were 40 recitals a year, and maybe I heard two out of three, over 300 recitals. Of course, there were repeats, but let’s say I heard a hundred different people play the same organ.

There are actually two organs in Trinity Church: a larger Skinner, much modified, with four manual divisions in the rear gallery, and a three-manual Aeolian-Skinner in the chancel. There are about 150 stops in total, and both organs are played from a three-manual console in the chancel. It’s an unusually complicated organ with cutout switches for each organ and couplers every which way, and practice time was rigidly limited for each récitaliste du jour because of the church’s busy schedule. For many of the Friday recitalists, it was the chance of a lifetime—the biggest organ in the biggest church they’d ever played in. For others used to “big city” venues, it was more like home, but a few of those got tripped up by the extra complications of playing two large organs, one with four manuals, on a three-manual console.

That collective experience was an important part of my education in the pipe organ. I knew the organ intimately through thousands of hours of tuning and repairs, both major and minor. I learned how to dissect registrations by listening, and could often anticipate what a player might do after the next page turn. I heard some players make the organ come alive, and I heard some players get eaten alive by the thing. I was constantly amazed at how different the organ sounded under different hands.

You could tell who had never played an organ with a Trompette-en-Chamade, as they couldn’t keep their hands off it. People used to big organs with powerful stops could play a whole recital without touching it; it wasn’t the right tone color for lots of Romantic music. (Warning signs were posted on the doors to the gallery on those Sundays when the “en Chamade” would be used.)

The speed of sound is 768 miles per hour. After a little arithmetic, I round it off at 1,125 feet per second. I guess the distance between the console and gallery organ at Trinity Church is around 150 feet, so the time lag for the organist would be about .13 seconds. (Mathematicians are invited to correct me!) That’s a lot less than some guesses I heard, but it sure was enough to trip up some players.

Sometimes the organ had its own issues. Better run back after Chicken Yellow Curry and get that squeak in the Chancel Choir shutters. The acoustics varied with the weather. And tuning was challenging because the organ was scattered about the building in different locations and different altitudes. The recording sessions for Candlelight Carols were in July—I remember the surreal feeling of lying on my back in the pews in the wee hours of the morning, listening to that glorious choir singing familiar carols accompanied by an organ in “summertime tuning.”

Seasonal and short-term foibles aside, it was the same organ each week, the same pile of windchests, reservoirs, and shutters. Every time you drew Principal 8, the same set of pipes would play. But the character of the organ depended on who was at the helm. Sometimes it was a lumbering monster, careening around a laboratory full of bubbling beakers. Sometimes it was a stubborn horse, obstinately pawing the ground, waiting for its rider to inspire motion. And sometimes it was a massive symphony orchestra, swooping through swashbuckling literature with thrilling stereophonic expressive effects.


It’s all about air.

Orchestral musicians have personal and intimate relationships with their instruments. Arnold Steinhardt, longtime violinist with the Guarneri Quartet, wrote of how he holds his violin between his thinking brain and his beating heart, wrapping his fingers lovingly around its neck. A clarinetist wraps both hands around the instrument, and holds one end of it in his mouth. A cynic might say that playing on the keyboards of a monumental organ is more like using a remote to open a garage door. 

Many orchestral conductors consider the pipe organ to be unexpressive, because an individual organ pipe can play only one pitch at one volume level. A violinist, a trumpeter, or a flautist can emphasize a note with a little burst and can create crescendos and decrescendos on a single sustained note. The organist is an illusionist, creating musical expression by remotely operating a machine. Every console control is a switch. Throw a few switches and the shutters open. It’s no accident that the contacts for swell shutters are arranged in a continuous row so they can be operated ad seriatum by a motion of the ankle.

We speak about the organ in metaphors of life and breath. The organ inhales and exhales the same air we use to sing. When you’re inside an organ with the blower off, it’s a heap of industrial equipment. Turn on the blower, and it comes alive, every sinew quivering, ready to speak on command. I still love being inside an organ when the blower is turned on and that transition happens. The organist is as much a conductor as instrumentalist, turning musical thought and impulses into tangible sounds, sounds that are perceived physically as much as aurally. 

It’s normal to think of the organ as a keyboard instrument, but the organ is really a wind instrument. The keyboard is just user interface, and playing the organ is about managing wind. You learn that right away playing on a large and sensitive tracker organ. I remember my introduction to that concept at the keys of the three-manual Flentrop organ in Warner Hall in Oberlin. Release a pedal note with a big combination of stops while sustaining a chord on the manuals, and those big pedal valves would slap the air and jiggle the treble notes. Managing the wind meant releasing a chord from the top down, so the pedal note was released last.

Knowing about that phenomenon, organbuilders like Ernest Skinner devoted huge thought and effort to creating wind systems you could use with impunity. Low CCCC is on a remote windchest, along with the other eleven notes of that octave, with its own isolated wind supply. No way does early release jiggle the Great.

There are relatively few of us who have actually experienced how much wind is involved. Lift CCCC of a 32 Open Wood Diapason off its hole (the pipe probably weighs 1,500 pounds) and play the note. It’s like a hurricane. (I’m a professional: don’t try this at home.) Your glasses blow off your head, clouds of dust burst about, there’s so much wind you can’t stop it with your hands. That’s the energy you release when you play that low C, delivered to the windchest by the blower and the reservoirs, ready for your use. And the cool thing is that you can sustain that note as long as you like. There’s no decay of tone as the amplitude of a vibrating string decreases, and there’s no limit imposed by the capacity of the human lung. As long as you can hold your foot down, and as long as the electric bill is paid, that note will keep playing. Take that, Mr. Orchestra Conductor.

When installing a windchest in an organ, whether you’re releathering, or it’s a new organ, it’s usual, actually necessary, practice to “blow it out.” Each crumb of sawdust trapped inside the windchest is a potential cipher. After the action and the windlines are connected, before the rackboards get put on, and before the pipes are placed, each note of the chest is played to be sure that every little loose piece of dust is blown free. You do it note by note with a vacuum cleaner held over each hole, and you do it in big fistfuls of notes to let the air really blow through. Once again, the organbuilder witnesses the amount of air moving when playing a big piece, just how much wind energy a windchest can deliver. I’d love for every organist to experience that in person. 

Whenever I’m listening to an organ, I’m aware of all those valves in motion, all the air blowing into the pipes, and how the pipes transfer the wind into music. You can think of it as a hurricane, as Guillou surely did when he coaxed that magic from the unsuspecting little instrument. Or you can think of it as a gentle zephyr, wafting off the water on a sunny afternoon, riffling your hair as you sip a drink on the deck. You get to decide what to do with that air. The organ provides you with limitless energy. If you as a musician can generate your own energy in addition to the waiting gale, then you have something.


In Dallas in 1994, I heard Jean Guillou make a modest simple organ roar. I also heard him pass the same energy through his fingers into the monumental, seemingly limitless Fisk organ in the Meyerson Center. Guillou playing Jongen’s triumphant music on that heroic organ along with the mighty sounds of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra was an experience of a lifetime. I feel a little smug thinking back on it, because I was among a relative few in the hall who knew how the wind blows.

As you play the organ, don’t focus on fingers on the keys. Focus on the flow of air from blower to reservoir, from reservoir to windchest, from valve to pipe. Pay attention to that magic when pressurized air is converted into music. Show the organ how to breathe. It’s all about the air.