In the wind. . . .

August 1, 2018

Mazel tov to muscle tone

We have a close friend in Maine who has always taken pride in his self-sufficiency. He built his own house, and in the twenty-five years he and his wife have lived there, he has done all the maintenance and improvements himself. As it is a rural house, there is extra work involved, like plowing a half-mile driveway, clearing brush and trees, and mowing a large lawn. They are just across the river from us, so like us, they have waterfront chores like taking docks and moorings in and out of the water. He is a tough and stubborn guy in his early seventies, and last winter he had a stroke.

I visited him in the rehab center where he spent several very difficult months learning to walk with new limitations, straightening out his speech, and adjusting to his new circumstance in general. His right arm and hand are now pretty much useless, and he was lamenting the loss of his “chain saw arm.” He could not imagine how he was going to be able to get the snowplow off his pickup truck, and the dormers on their roof needed shingle repairs. During that visit, it was simply not crossing his mind that he would likely not be able to do those things again.

Wendy and I had dinner at their house last week and were brought up to date on all those issues. He hired someone to repair the shingles, a friend took the plow off his truck, and he decided they would not put the docks in the water this year. In fact, he put his boat on the market. And though his wife is energetic and sprightly, they are considering selling their house and moving into a condominium, or even, dare they admit, an assisted living facility. With all those changes imposed on their lives, my pal is grateful that his speech is fine, and that with some difficulty he is able to walk, but he is astonished at the uselessness of his arm. “It hangs off my shoulder; I know it’s there. It hurts and itches sometimes, but I can’t make it move.”

Since that dinner, I have been reflecting on the miracle that is the human body, and the incredible things people can learn to do. All of us who are born with bodies that are normal and complete start with roughly the same equipment. Some people have little dexterity. The private nickname we have for one friend is “Oops.” But then there is the fellow who can throw a ball ninety feet and reliably hit a target about one-foot square, and there is the woman who can jump, twirl, and somersault on a beam that is ten centimeters (3.9 inches) wide.

The world of music is full of incredible examples. The human hand is the same apparatus that handles the “neck end” of a violin or guitar, the keys of an oboe or piano, or the strings of the harp. Have you ever shaken hands with a harpist? What may seem to be the simplest instrument is perhaps the most miraculous—the human voice. Stop and think what an incredible feat it is to simply match a pitch with your voice. How do we know exactly the tension of the countless muscles involved that will create that A-flat out of thin air? A choir starting a piece, a cappella, with each member confident of the pitch, volume, and timbre, is a dramatic example of human muscle control.

No musician can play two identical performances of the same piece. We study, train, and practice, trying to make accurate plans for where our fingers will go, where we want to emphasize something, where we want to bring something forward. We write fingerings into our scores, intending to use the same sequence of fingers on each sequence of notes in the hope that we can eliminate confusion. But something always comes up in performance that was not part of the plan. Maybe we got distracted. Or maybe something wonderful happened that never did before. It’s a thrill when you surprise yourself in performance with a special lilt, a delicious ritardando, or a thrilling and dramatic crescendo.


It’s a control issue.

Let’s take that muscle thing a little further. My friend’s stroke did not spoil the muscles in his right arm; it interrupted the electrical gear that operates them. The human nervous system is the amazing wiring harness that transmits our thoughts into muscular impulses. Our bodies include several hundred “visceral” muscles, those that perform involuntarily, running such equipment as our hearts, eyelids, and diaphragms. There are something like 320 symmetrical pairs of skeletal muscles, those that we exercise control over. When I googled that, I was surprised to learn that there seems to be disagreement over the actual number, apparently because some muscles can be considered as part of more complex structures and not counted separately.

I am something of a mechanical geek, which has allowed me to notice that controls of a backhoe, the most common piece of excavation equipment, are roughly equivalent to the nerves that operate our arms and hands. Each lever has opposite motions—left and right, up and down, flex and open—and the operator uses levers in combinations to make fluid compound motions. The boom extends, the bucket opens, the machine swivels all at once.

Watch a virtuoso musician playing a brilliant passage and think of all nerves firing to make those hundreds of muscles do exactly the right thing, at the right time, with the right amount of force. That’s some data stream.

Many musical instruments, including winds and strings, require the musician to participate in the production of tone, and the volume of every musical instrument is controlled by the muscular impulses of the musician. That is, every instrument but one. An organ pipe is perhaps the simplest of musical instruments, and certainly the least versatile. Any organ pipe can produce just one pitch at one volume level and one timbre. Period. Big deal. It is for that reason that many orchestral conductors consider the pipe organ to be expressionless. Conversely, I claim that a pipe organ, especially a large organ with electric stop action, is the most expressive of musical instruments. The catch is that the musician operates it remotely. The mechanics of the instrument serve as an artificial nervous system, allowing the musician to control the instrument. While I know I am opening a path for cruel jokes (he plays that organ like a Mack Truck!), there is a real analogy with that excavator operator causing a twenty-ton machine to move with fluid, human-like motion.


The musician’s workstation

I am thinking about organ consoles these days because I am working on one in my personal shop at our house in Maine. It is a three-manual job of modest size, about fifty years old, and I am refitting it with a new nervous system, that fantastic array of solid-state controls concealed in a series of small black boxes that have brought such sophisticated levels of control to the modern organist. Those black boxes were provided by a supplier who incorporated the original specifications of the organ, plus a slew of features that I wanted to add. There is a small LED screen at the heart of the control panel, the controls that control the controls.

The keyboards have been recovered and polished to provide a lovely visible sheen, but more importantly, a smooth surface to meet the musician’s fingers. There are no sharp edges or snags that could divert attention, or worse, cause injury. (I once covered a keyboard with blood from a deep slit in my finger caused by the jagged edge of a broken ivory, admittedly buried in my score enough that I did not look down until the piece was over.) The best keyboards are works of art whose beauty helps to inspire the musician.

All the stopknobs and pistons need to feel alike. A squeaky knob or a piston that clicks will distract the player and interrupt the flow. While it is impossible for everything to be perfect, the goal of the organbuilder is to make the machine disappear, or at least to minimize the machine’s ability to intrude on the sacred space between the musician’s heart and the sound of the pipes. I am requiring the musicians to take care of the arms, hands, and fingers part of the system.

Besides the switches and buttons that actually control the functions of the organ, the surrounding cabinet needs to be an inspiring workstation. The wood should be beautiful, the finishes smooth, the geometry perfect. All of these factors add to the console’s status as an extension of the musician’s body.


Cleanliness is . . .

There is a terrific hardware store in Damariscotta, Maine, the town that adjoins our village of Newcastle, and I go there at least every few days. It has a large parking lot with head-in spaces in front of the store, and a row of spaces you can enter from behind, leaving your car facing across an open lane at the store. There is typically a row of tradesman’s pickup trucks and vans lined up there, and I always notice which trucks are kept neat inside, and which have their dashboards piled high with soda cans, coffee cups, receipts, sandwich wrappers, tools, and hardware samples. I have used those observations to inform who I hire to help with our house. If a painter’s truck is covered with slobbers of paint and filled with empty coffee cups, I don’t want him in my house.

Traveling around maintaining organs provides the same experience. Some organ consoles are always clean and free of clutter, and some are nasty depositories that could have come straight from the dashboard of a plumber’s pickup truck with the same coffee cups, candy and food wrappers, nail clippers (ick), and hairbrushes. One organist I worked for had long thick gray hair and the console looked like the couch in a house with ten cats. Her hair tangled up in the pedal contacts causing dead notes. We called it the “Hairball Church.”

Often, those dirty consoles are out in the open in the front of the church for everyone to see. It’s hard to imagine why a musician would choose to present such a front for the worshippers. And it’s hard to imagine how a sloven could produce beautiful music from such a sty. I understand the value of having pencils, note pads, “stick-ems,” and even paper clips handy (though paper clips falling into keyboards have necessitated many an emergency call!), but you should take your trash with you when you leave. The one that really gets me is the half-sucked lozenge sitting on the open wrapper. You didn’t finish that lozenge? Really? A few paragraphs ago, I referred to an organ console as an extension of the musician’s body, perhaps a little idealistic if the console is a mess.


A modern solid-state organ console is loaded with creative functions that allow the musician ever higher levels of control over the instrument. Multiple levels of memory and piston sequencers are two concepts that were really not possible before the introduction of solid-state equipment. Like the old codger who starts a conversation with a grandchild with the words, “When I was your
age . . . ,” I like to share that it was a big deal when my high school purchased four four-function calculators (add, subtract, multiply, divide). But it was only a few years later, when as an apprentice, I participated in installing one of the earliest solid-state combination machines. A lot of smoke came out.

As incredible as these machines can seem, organ consoles built a century ago featured sophisticated functions requested by the pioneers of symphonic organ playing. Lynnwood Farnam was organist at Emmanuel Church in Boston when Casavant’s Opus 700 was installed there in 1917. That console featured such controls as:

Piston “throwing off” all manual 16 stops, also Quint 513 and Tierce 315

Piston “throwing off” all subcouplers

Swell octave couplers to cut off Swell 2 stops

Other manual 16 and 2 stops not to be cut off by octave or sub couplers.

What was he thinking? That was barely the time when you could expect a new organ to include an electric blower. (After sitting in storage for more than ten years, that organ has recently been renovated by Rieger and installed in a concert hall on an island in China.)

Mr. Farnam was involved in the design of another console that I have written about before, that of the new Skinner Opus 707 built in 1928 for Grace Church, New York City. Farnam’s dear friend George Mitchell was organist there, and together they dreamed up a behemoth console that could seemingly do anything. The console controlled a double organ, Chancel and Gallery, with a total of 167 stops and 133 ranks. There was a separate crescendo for each organ. Above the Gallery Crescendo pedal there were two toe studs, marked “Regular” and “Orchestral.” The Chancel Crescendo pedal could be programmed from the console, using a wire-and-plug system located in a drawer under the bottom keyboard. A programmable crescendo in 1928! Besides the two crescendo pedals, there were five expression pedals, with a sliding control switch that allowed the organist to assign any expressive division to any pedal.

It is amazing to think of that level of electrical control in a contraption built in 1928. It was the product of some of the world’s most creative musical minds expanding the expressive possibilities of the most complex and least personal of all musical instruments. It is as if a puppeteer added 320 symmetrical pairs of strings to the marionette, mimicking the repertory of human skeletal muscles.

Because of that heritage of creativity, combined with the added dimensions made possible with solid-state controls, the supposed least expressive of musical instruments eclipses the expressive capabilities of the symphony orchestra. It can be softer than the softest, louder than the loudest, and with a few flicks of fingers, create dramatic crescendos between extremes.

When Wendy and I lived in Boston, we had series tickets for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with seats near the curve just above the stage. During the first performance using the newly renovated organ, with Simon Preston playing the obligatory Organ Symphony by Saint-Saëns, we marveled at the facial expressions and communication between orchestra members as the super low notes came from the organ during the slow movement. No orchestral instrument can go as low as the organ, and it is partly because of the limitless supply of air that the organ can blow whistles that big.

Are you surprised when I suggest that the organ is the least personal of musical instruments? I don’t feel that way when I play, rather I feel at one with the instrument, excited by the range of things I can make it do, excited by the way its sound rings in a huge room, excited by the way my musical impulses can make a whole room ring. It feels very personal to me, but as an organbuilder, I cannot separate all that from the fact that the organ is a machine operated by remote control. Like a pantograph that magnifies the size of a drawing using proportional levers, so the machine that is the organ magnifies the vision of the musician. But please, take your trash with you.