TANGENT #2: Musical Music and Duration: Creating Expression through the Organ Machine

Well-known as the “king of instruments,” the organ is also unquestionably the largest music-making machine of all instruments (although computers can be even bigger, arguably). The fact that we can actually produce music with such a complex contraption seems a minor miracle!

However, it seems that this unique quality of our instrument, which fascinates both performers and listeners alike, can sometimes be its Achilles heel. The very mechanisms that draw aural life from inanimate objects can also cause the player to play mechanically, in imitation of that which they are controlling.

How do we overcome this aspect of the organ, coaxing musicality from a combination of metal and wood? What does “musicality” really mean when applied to the organ and how can we use it to bridge the metaphysical gap between the mechanisms of the organ and the desired emotional effect of the music?

I hope to explore this through several entries, and really need your thoughts and opinions on this very pertinent issue for both organists and musicians of all types! Only through us sharing our experiences we can really learn from each other.

It’s worth looking at our cousins, the pianists, to see how they express their musicality and how their instrument differs in musical expression to learn more about how to play our own. One of many ways in which pianists express musicality is through volume, which they vary to highlight the musical phrase, point out important moments, and carry the listener to and from musical climaxes.

1) Note duration. Because the organ’s pipes are set at their volume long before an organist ever strikes a given key, we lose that aspect of expression (besides being able to select ranks of pipes to use alone or with others for color or volume changes. We lose the subtleties of adjacent notes being louder or softer to bring out a phrase). However, what we lose in volume, we gain in being able to completely control the duration of notes. This allows us to use articulation (how to connect or separate adjacent notes) to make a musical phrase. While any note struck at the piano immediately begins to die away, the continuous winding of an organ allows any note to resonate forevermore, if desired (See this link  for an organ performance that will literally not end for another 600 years or so). Thus, the release of the note becomes equally as important as the attack, since the note hasn’t changed a bit since its beginning.

This kind of musicality is one of the hardest things for young organists to begin to hear and put into practice, since volume changes are things we encounter far more regularly and consciously, such as screaming babies, yelling angry people, or whispers, than durations of invariable sounds. Even a siren, which sometimes seems indeterminable, changes in volume (and often pitch!) depending on its proximity to the listener. How do you help students to begin understand the importance of note duration on the organ, and how do you introduce them to beginning to manipulate it?

Now, I will also include some lovely photos of the French (and/or Russian, as I travel there on Thursday!) countryside. Perhaps that will save us from the terrible ennui that may result from this exploration. After this explanation, you certainly deserve a photo or two of la belle France!

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L’église rupestre de Vals in Ariège Pyrénées. This church, partially constructed in the rock that you can see at the foundations, has three levels, each from a different historical time, with the earliest from around the 10th century.
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The view of the small town of Vals from the “terrace” of the église.
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Une fête de l’orgue

Toulouse les orgues is the only festivals of its kind in the world. Where else is there a city with a 10-14 day annual spree of concerts and presentations all featuring (some more than others) the organ? From a pop singer who calls himself “The Organ King” to Cameron Carpenter to Olivier Vernet, Toulouse les orgues (TLS) showcased some truly unusual views of “our” instrument. The best part of inviting such a variety of performers (even, and perhaps especially, some controversial ones) was that TLS managed to access an audience of concert-goers who might never attend a “typical” organ recital without being exposed to the instrument through another means, such as those offered during the festival. Through heavy advertising in nearly every way possible, having a theme (the great machine of the organ), an extremely descriptive and well-written program book that was available at every church, every school, and goodness where else, program notes (verbal, visual, or written), family-focused events, and countless other ways of getting listeners, TLS got audiences who were excited about the music in a myriad of different ways and came from many different financial and musical backgrounds.

Unfortunately, I missed much of the festival because I had to return to Paris for my Russian visa in the middle of the events! Anybody who has ever had to try to get a visa for another foreign country, while already living in a foreign country, knows how overly complicated the process can be. However, despite being frustratedly asked “do you even speak French?!” when I was stumped by a question after successfully carrying on a 15-minute conversation in French with the heavily-accented Russian visa services woman, I have indeed received my visa for the concerts in Krasnoyarsk on 1 and 2 November. That will be a blog post… or two!

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Place des Vosges, the oldest place in Paris, found in le Marais

Because the 5 ½-hour train ride to Paris makes it seems as though I should stay for at least two nights in the city of lights, I did just that, experiencing parts of Paris I had never been able to before and attending two fabulous concerts. However, to be honest, I am happy to not be living in this huge city—I would be tempted to simply camp out near the Philharmonic Hall and attend every single orchestra concert!

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M. Escaich takes a bow

The first evening, after a celebratory 3-course menu of escargot, cuisse de canard, and tourte aux pommes, I attended Thierry Escaich’s recital at St-Étienne-du-Mont celebrating his induction into the Académie des Beaux-Arts. After showcasing a kind of progression of musical composition from Handel and J.S. Bach through Mendelssohn to Vierne, this master of improvisation showed his skills with a 4-movement symphony. This was what the audience had come for and this showed through their rapt attention and the standing ovation, calling for an encore, following the conclusion of the fourth movement. I found out later from M. Escaich that it truly was an improvisation—he had only arrived the day before and had little to no time to prepare it!

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Le penseur at the Musée Rodin. Perhaps he is thinking about the lovely weather!

After a full day of (finally) buying French chocolates and caramels (oh my gosh are they amazing…), wandering throughout left bank, visiting the Musée Rodin’s gardens, and sampling 4€ crêpes, I decided to take advantage of France’s kindness towards its students in offering 10€ tickets for concerts at the Paris Philharmonie. Stopping by the Place des Vosges and getting fantastic falafel from l’As du Falafel and apple strudel from a Jewish bakery on rue des Rosiers in le Marais (thank goodness I’m still running), I made my way to the 19th arrondissement to see the Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig, directed by Riccardo Chailly, at the new Paris Philharmonie. Their stunning interpretation of Richard Strauss’s Mort and transfiguration took my breath away, However, this was followed by the Mozart Clarinet Concerto that simply stole the show. Martin Fröst, a Swedish clarinetist, walked onto the stage and immediately took charge, flooding the concert hall with his palpable personality and love of the music. Although often moving a distracting amount and sometimes in ways that had absolutely nothing to do with the music, Mr. Fröst continually communicated with the other musicians on stage, making the concerto into a real collaboration of artists. His control was unbelievable and the audience was enthralled, calling for an encore at the end of the first half of the concert. Mr. Fröst obliged, announcing from the stage that he would improvise a “sort of bridge to the second half of the concert,” which would feature Strauss’s Métamorphoses Till Eulenspiegel. Unfortunately, I had to leave after intermission, missing what I am sure was an overwhelmingly beautiful performance. What an evening!

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The gorgeous Paris Philharmonie

Alas, my time in Paris, for this visit, was over. However, I returned to the end of the Toulouse les orgues Festival! As a Conservatory student, I was able to turn pages and pull stops for various performers, including an “organ workshop” by Toulouse Conservatory student Julie Pinsonnault, a fascinating transcription of excerpts from Brahms Piano Concertos for 4 hands and orchestra, Op. 83 and Op. 15, by Olivier Vernet and Cédric Meckler, performed by the transcribers and by pianists Isabelle and Florence Lafitte (it was quite the endeavor to coordinate eight hands on two keyboard instruments, one upstairs in the loft and the other about three stories below, on the floor of the nave!), and the final concert, entitled “The Night of the Organ,” performed by four young international organists in St-Sernin. For this final celebration of the festival, the Basilica was packed and at least five cameras broadcast different angles of the performers (and the organ, since two cameras were devoted solely to watching the trackers, showing the machine that is the organ!) onto a screen placed at the end of the nave. Of course, the workers of TLS were celebrating the end of these stressful two weeks long before the end of the 2 ½-hour long concert, pulling out wine bottles to enjoy in the narthex!

If anybody from the U.S. is reading this—let’s start some festivals like this in the States! Boston, New York, Chicago, any takers?

Cultural Encounters

Picture this: sitting quietly at the kitchen table, enjoying breakfast and watching the early morning light filter through the windows while listening to roosters crow and birds start to sing. Suddenly, your unflaggingly energetic hostess enters the room, jumps when she realizes that somebody is sitting there, and asks why in heaven’s name one would be in the kitchen without any lights on. Upon hearing your response of “enjoying the tranquility of the early morning,” she immediately agrees and then proceeds to turn on the radio as loud as it can go (to the morning’s Christian talk show), flip on the lights, and take several pounds of figs off of the tray where they have been collecting fruit flies for a few days.

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A display of…umbrellas?? in downtown Toulouse

Needless to say, my living situation is quite the experience! My hosts, a retired couple who have an astonishingly large house a mere 20 minute’s walk from the conservatory and from the center of town, rent out five of their rooms to students and internationals like myself. This makes for continuous excitement throughout the house… and for some interesting mealtimes, since having more than one person in the extremely narrow kitchen requires some serious coordination.

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Graffiti on the way to school “Ne travaillez jamais” = “never work”

On another, completely different note, I have discovered what pompiers are. Despite their rather unfortunate name (to English speakers), pompiers are French firefighters, who also serve as EMTs in such cases as, for example, when one falls off of their bike, as I did just last week. There’s nothing like, following a crash landing off of a bike, one’s body deciding to take a dive bomb in the Conservatory lobby because of shock and then having three pompiers show up to confirm that your blood pressure is fine! Not to worry, I have only a few scrapes, as well as a newfound respect for the promptness of French medical personnel. Several lovely conservatory employees now consider me to be an adopted daughter and I have proven that I can indeed speak French and answer questions through blurry vision and a splitting headache!

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St-Pierre de Chartreux. I still can’t believe I can simply walk in and play this lovely organ almost anytime I want to. 1683 Delauney, 1783 Micot, restored 1983 Grenzing

Just as an example of the famous French bureaucracy, I am happy to share the story of how I managed to get my student card. These could only be given out this week, although Conservatory classes started a week ago Thursday. Practice rooms can only be accessed through exchanging these cards for keys. Thankfully, Michel Bouvard granted us poor organists special permission to use practice rooms for the last month, or we would likely have been climbing the walls to just get a keyboard!

All of the students received an email that, in order to get said student card, we had to have French social security, which is actually health insurance. This email stated that we had to get it through one of two companies, not mentioning that one could also simply get health insurance through the Conservatory. After one frightening visit to one branch of each company, where I looked at the list of “required items” (including a testimony of a treating physician, copy of a birth certificate, proof of acceptance into university [which I still don’t have, somehow], and several other scary things) and chickened out before trying (and likely failing) to talk someone into taking my money and giving me a social security card, I went to talk to the woman at the Conservatory who apparently could give us the cards. She directed me to somebody else, who was absent that day. The next day, I was able to see that other person, who was, in fact, able to take my money for social security (thank goodness!), and give me a student card (why the other woman, who was supposed to give out the student cards, could not do so, I have no idea!). However, this student card required a photo (which I thankfully had with me, since nobody had mentioned that those might be needed), the signature of somebody else, and a few official-looking stamps. After paying some more fees and visiting a few more administrators in the Conservatory, I now successfully have the cardboard, yellow carte d’étudiante that has a photo of me (not a photocopy, since photos are so hard to illegally copy these days), a red stamp of the Conservatory with “organ” and “harpsichord” hand-written to authorize me practicing in rooms that contain those two instruments, and a hand-written phrase indicating that I have, in fact, paid for social security. The Oberlin ID card seems quite a bit more high-tech now and it’s been quite the week!