In the wind. . . .

January 1, 2018

It’s about time, it’s about space . . . 

Music is one of the most elegant ways we have to measure and control time. Time is about the generous breath an organist gives the congregation at the end of a line of a hymn and the beautifully paced pause between verses. Time is about never giving the listener or singer the sense that you’re in a hurry, even in a piece that is fast and furious.

Inspiration is a magical word that refers to innovation and new ideas and also to the intake of breath. One of the special moments in musical time is the sound of inspiration as a choir breathes in unison at the start of a piece. The music starts a full beat before the first note. All these examples are also about space, the breath between lines or verses, and the control and spacing of tempo. Thoughtful consideration of time and space are among the most important elements in a moving musical performance.

When I was a pup, just out of school in the late 1970s, I was working for Jan Leek, organbuilder in Oberlin, Ohio. One of our projects was the renovation of a Wicks organ in the cavernous and ornate St. James Catholic Church in Lakewood, Ohio.1 I don’t recall the exact date, but remember that the organ was built in the 1930s, comprising a big three-manual instrument in the rear gallery, and a modest two-manual organ behind the altar, all played from two identical consoles. The 1970s was the early dawn of solid-state controls for pipe organs, so our project was replacing the original stop-action switches with new analogue switches.

The job involved weeks of repetitive wiring, much of which I did alone, sitting inside the organ during daily Masses and the recitation of devotional rites. I heard “Hail, Mary” repeated hundreds, even thousands of times, led by the same faithful woman, so I not only memorized the text, but can still hear the quirky inflections of her voice, which I associate with the memory of the beeswax-and-incense smell of the church’s interior: “. . . and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, JEE-zus.”

The building is huge, and the acoustics endless, and there was a majesty about that repetitive chanting. It was even musical because the different tones of inflection lingered in the reverberation, turning the spoken word into song. Listening to that for countless hours allowed me insight into the origin of music. The later intonation of text as chant made the words easier to understand, and the natural succession of fauxbourdon embellishing the single line was the first step toward the rich complexity of today’s music.

A few weeks ago, Wendy and I attended a concert by Blue Heron, a polished vocal ensemble that specializes in Renaissance choral music. You can read about them, and hear clips from their recordings at www.blueheron.org. They are in the midst of a project titled “[email protected],” in which they are performing the complete works of Johannes Ockeghem (1420–1497) over a span of about five years. The project includes performances of music by Ockeghem’s predecessors and contemporaries, providing a significant overview to the development of this ancient music.

That music roughly fills the gap between the origin of chant and the advent of tonal harmony, more than a hundred years before the birth of Sweelinck (1562–1621). Ockeghem and his peers were striving to take music in new directions, wondering what sounded good as chordal progressions, as counterpoint, and simply, as harmony. There is a sense of experimentation about it that reflects the genius of innovation. The performance we heard was at First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just off Harvard Square, where the brilliant Peter Sykes is director of music. The building is a grand Victorian pile, and while it doesn’t have the endless acoustics of that stone interior in Lakewood, Ohio, it’s big enough to have spacious sound.

As we listened to the timeless sounds, my mind wandered to the devoted Hail, Mary women of Lakewood, drawing connections between the “spoken singing” I heard there and the explosion of innovation at the hands of the Renaissance composers. There were many homophonic passages, but also exploration into imitation (the forerunner of fugues) and melismatic polyphony. And along with the tonal innovations, those composers were learning to manage time.

Harvard University professor of music Thomas Forrest Kelly is an advisor to Blue Heron, and the ensemble recorded a CD of plainchant and early polyphony to accompany Kelly’s insightful book, Capturing Music: The Story of Notation,2 in which he traces the invention and development of musical notation. In Chapter 3, “Guido the Monk and the Recording of Pitch,” Kelly examines how Guido of Arezzo, Italy, developed notation to indicate musical pitch around the year 1030, and in Chapter 4, we meet Leoninus, an official of the as yet unfinished twelfth-century Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France, who is credited with developing notation for the recording of rhythm in music.

I recommend this book to anyone whose life revolves around reading music. Professor Kelly unveils countless mysteries about musical notation, including the origin of the names of the solfège scale. It is a compelling read.

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There were some wonderful organs in the wood-frame-and-plaster New England buildings of my teenage life, but they certainly didn’t have much reverberation. I was around 25 years old when we did that work at St. James in Lakewood, Ohio, and it was one of the first places where I had freedom to play in such a huge acoustic. I was mesmerized by the sense of space. There was the obvious magic of releasing a chord and listening to the continuation of sound, but even more, I loved the way the building’s space gave the music grandeur. I had an epiphany as I played Widor’s ubiquitous Toccata. Suddenly, it wasn’t about 32 sixteenth notes in a measure, but four grand half-note beats. The harmonic motion was like clouds rolling across the sky, and the spaciousness of the room turned the sixteenth notes into chords. The music went from frantic to majestic. So that’s what Widor had in mind.

Take a minute with me on YouTube. Type “Widor plays his toccata” in the search field. Voilà! There’s the 88-year-old master playing his famous piece on the organ at St. Sulpice in Paris. It takes him seven full minutes to play the piece. Scrolling down the right-hand side of the screen, there was a list of other recordings of the same piece. I saw one by Diane Bish with 5:47 as the timing. I gave it a try and found that Ms. Bish was speaking about the performance and the organ for nearly a full minute, and she played the piece in less than 5/7 of Widor’s time. There sure were a lot of performances to choose from. Most of them were around five-and-a-half minutes long, and only a few were over six minutes. No one but Widor himself made it last for seven. Have we learned anything today?

More than 800 years after Leoninus started writing down rhythms at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, on November 15, 2015, a special Mass was celebrated there in memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris two days earlier. Olivier Latry was on the bench, and as the priest consecrated the bread and wine, Latry set sail with La Marseillaise like only a genius cathedral organist can. The vast church was full, and emotions must have been running high. Latry established a powerful rhythm and gave the music a harmonic structure worthy of the towering room. His improvisation was about time and space in the extreme. It’s just over four minutes long, but it seems eternal, perfectly paced, and exquisitely scaled for the occasion. If I had been in that church, I would have needed to be carried out. Sitting at my desk in Maine, I’m weeping as I write. Watch it with me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbwJACUxXdo.

The other day I had a meal with David Briggs, the virtuoso organist who is dining out these days on his capacious transcriptions of symphonies by Mahler and Elgar. How appropriate that he has been appointed artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Church buildings don’t get bigger, and pipe organs don’t get grander. That iconic church is a perfect stage for solo music-making on such a grand scale.

Like Notre Dame, but for only about an eighth as long in time, St. John the Divine has been the site of immense pageantry and ceremony. Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama have preached there. Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic there. Philippe Petit walked across the nave on a tightrope there. John Lindsay, Alvin Ailey, and Duke Ellington were buried from there. Elephants have paraded down the center aisle for the blessing of the animals. To walk and breathe in any building of that scale is to experience the ages.

It is no wonder that David could be master of such a space. He was bred for it. As a boy chorister at Birmingham Cathedral, he watched the organist out of the corner of his eye, waiting for him to draw the Pedal Trombone. He was organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, where the renowned choir sings in one of the world’s largest college chapels, with one of the trickiest organ console placements in Christendom. From that hidden console, twenty-something David had the bench for some of the most visible services in history, as the Festival of Lessons and Carols is broadcast to hundreds of millions of listeners around the world. He has held positions at the cathedrals in Hereford, Truro, and Gloucester. He was born and bred to make music in huge spaces, a far cry from the frame buildings of my musical childhood.

David’s performances and improvisations are informed by his innate understanding of space. While many musicians are baffled by long reverberation, he harvests it, molds it, and makes it serve the music. No building is too large for his concepts of interpretation. A great building joins the organ as vehicle for the flow of the music.

 

Bigger than the great outdoors

Bagpipes, yodeling, and hog-calling are all forms of outdoor communication with a couple things in common. Bagpipes were commonly used on battlefields for military communication. Yodeling traces back to the sixteenth century, when it was a means of communication between Alpine villages and by animal herders for calling their flocks. Hog-calling is for, well, calling hogs. The other thing they have in common is that they are all air-driven. Wind-blown acoustic tone is as powerful as musical tone gets. No one ever put a Plexiglas screen in front of a violin section.

Around 1900, Robert Hope-Jones, the father of the Wurlitzer organ, invented the Diaphone, a powerful organ voice with unusually powerful fundamental tone. The sound of the Diaphone carried so efficiently that the United States Coast Guard adopted the technology for foghorns, used to warn ships of coastal dangers. The pipe organ combines bagpipes, yodeling, hog-calling, and foghorns as the one instrument capable of filling a vast space with sound at the hands of a single musician.

Igor Stravinsky famously said of the organ, “The monster never breathes.” He was right. It doesn’t have to. It’s the responsibility of the organist to breathe. Playing that wonderful organ at Notre Dame, Latry has infinite air to use. That does not give him the mandate to play continuously, and he doesn’t. The recording I described shows him at the console in an inset screen. The space he leaves between chords is visually obvious—his hands are off the keys as much as they’re on. He uses every cubic foot of the huge space for his breathing. As Claude Debussy said, “Music is the silence between the notes.” A Zen proverb enhances that: “Music is the silence between the notes, and the spaces between the bars cage the tiger.”

Nowhere in music is the space between the notes more important than for the organist leading a hymn. You have an unfair advantage. According to Stravinsky, you can hold a huge chord until Monday afternoon without a break. According to Wikipedia (I know, I know), the lung capacity of an adult human male averages about six liters. There’s a six-pack of liter bottles of seltzer in our pantry waiting to be introduced to whiskey, and it surprises me to think that my lungs would hold that much. It doesn’t feel that way when I’m walking uphill. But it’s a hiccup compared to the lungs of a pipe organ. With the privilege of leading a hymn comes the responsibility to allow singers to breathe.  

As you read, I imagine that you’re nodding sagely, thinking, “Oh yes, I always allow time to breathe.” Because of the amount of travel my work requires, I no longer lead hymns. I’m a follower. Frequently, as I gasp for breath, I wonder if my admittedly energetic hymn playing allowed those congregations time to breathe. I hope so.

I often write about my love for sailing. Friends seem surprised when I draw a parallel between a sailboat and a pipe organ, but for me, it’s simple. Both machines involve controlling the wind. You can describe the art of organ building as making air go where you want it, and keeping it from going where you don’t want it. When I’m at the helm, I harvest air, the same way David Briggs harvests space. I set the sail so it reaps maximum energy from the air. And to inform my organ playing, when I’m sailing, I use only a fraction of the air available. The huge volume of air above the surface of the ocean moves as a mass. Sometimes it’s moving slowly, and sometimes it’s flowing at great speed. I raise 400 square feet of canvas to capture thousands of cubic miles of moving air.3

Two weeks ago, we experienced a violent storm on mid-coast Maine. It blew over 60 miles per hour for 18 hours, and it rained hard. We were fortunate to avoid damage to our house, but friends and neighbors were not so lucky. Thousands of trees fell, there was no power, phone, or internet service for nine days, and it took emergency workers four days to open the road to town. I love wind. It’s my favorite part of weather. I love sitting on the deck with wind coming up the river. I love it when I’m sailing. But there’s such a thing as too much. That storm was too much. People in Houston and Puerto Rico know what too much wind can be.

When you’re playing a processional hymn, you’re Aeolus, god and ruler of the winds. You’re Zephyrus, god of the west wind. You have the wind at your fingertips. What a privilege, and what a responsibility. Use it wisely. Use it to create time and space. Use it to move a sailboat, not to knock down trees. Think of the spaces between the notes. Think of the clouds flowing across the sky. You’re the weather maker. You’re lucky.

 

Note: ‘It’s about time, it’s about space . . . .’ are the opening words of the theme song of a 1966 television sitcom by the creators of ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ ‘Gilligan’ lasted three seasons while ‘It’s About Time’ lasted only one, a clear indication of the degree of artistic content. It has been an annoying earworm today as I try to conjure images far more grand.

 

Notes

1. There’s a slide show of photos of this church on the homepage of https://www.stjameslakewood.com/.

2. W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

3. Ours is a 22-foot catboat with a single gaff-rigged sail.