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!

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.
The view of the small town of Vals from the “terrace” of the église.

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

  1. Janice Stover says:

    I think duration is the most important aspect of expression from the organ.
    Demonstration to the student is key: we hear, we understand. Then of course the theoretical reasons for stressing, prolonging a note: suspension/resolution of a non-chord tone, a chord with tension built into it, the climax or the culmination of a phrase. And my personal favorite, feeling & passion.
    Perhaps when we play for a long enough time, those musical impulses or “feelings” come automatically out of our study and practice. If we give our students permission to explore and go beyond the technical, that is such a gift.
    I hope that you will share that gift with many, many imerging organists!
    All my best,

  2. Katelyn
    You are hitting the issue with pipe organ right on the head. The problem is that the human ear gets bored and tired very easily. After few (milli?)seconds of a constant sound, there is no much interest left. I guess this is because our brain can process sounds very fast. Hence, the appeal of the piano sound made of a percussion followed by a naturally decaying sound (itself modified by the other harmonics generated by adjacent cords). Hence, the vibrato that singers or strings add. In order to keep our interest, the sound needs to change.

    This is therefore the curse for the organ which provides by nature a constant sound. The skill of the musician is to pretend this is not the case. Various tools can be brought in, the most important is the articulation you are referring to: most of the interest of a pipe sound resides in the transient that happens at the attack and at the release. This involves obviously the voicing technique but also the winding and the mechanism (chest type, key action, etc). This is a delicate balancing act between the organbuilder and the organist.

    Didier Grassin
    Noack Organ Co.

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