r.s.e. I read an interview Glenn Gould did for High Fidelity in the 70s, where he interviewed himself (as perhaps only the witty, brilliant, and quirky Gould would think to do), and being inspired by the format, thought we could use that here as well.
R.S.E. Very clever. This way, we can attempt to bring to the fore various questions I’ve heard over the years, as well as points I think are often overlooked or misunderstood, about the organ and organ playing.
r.s.e. Along those lines, I’ve begun to suspect that, aside from the accordion, no other instrument is as loaded with stereotypes and cultural assumptions as the organ, and this probably holds true for organists as well.
R.S.E. Definitely. You know, I have regular conversations with people I’m meeting for the first time, that involve some variation on the following responses, “An organist? Not too many of those around anymore!” or, “Huh… I’ve never met an organist before.” I think what these comments point to is the level of ignorance and even invisibility that abounds about what is without a doubt the most complex, diverse, and largest of any musical instrument.
R.S.E. Well, as a young person first learning to play the organ, it’s definitely the power! As we listened to a teenager play once, a teacher friend of mine said, “When you’re 18 years old, you have to play loud,” and this does seem to be true! It is an incredible thrill to have all that sound at your fingertips, even for me still, after all these years of playing.
r.s.e. Do you find yourself approaching the instrument differently, now that you’ve been playing the organ for over 20 years?
R.S.E. As the years have passed, I have to say that what is more striking to me now is the infinite variety available. Not only between instruments, though that is certainly true, but even what is available on one instrument. It’s very gratifying, after a concert, to hear the organist, or a congregation member say, “You brought out sounds we’ve never heard on our organ before!” This isn’t because their organist isn’t working hard, or being creative, but we’re dealing with a huge number of variables, and as organists, we are each approaching an instrument so differently, bringing our preferences, past experiences, and ideal sounds into play.
r.s.e. So how many of the sounds you use are prescribed by the composer, and how many are left to your discretion?
R.S.E. This depends – there are traditions of which sounds, or stops, to use with certain historical models and forms, though within that, there is so much room for preferences and creativity, as well as problem-solving on a particular organ. There are also schools of thought and performance practice issues that affect the parameters an organist is working within, as well as their assumptions and preferences. Some modern composers try to be more specific, as far as the sounds they want to hear, but there we have the same issues – an organist is always transcribing the score for whatever instrument s/he is playing.
r.s.e. Do you mean to say that every time you sit down at a new instrument, you have to re-orchestrate your pieces for that organ?
R.S.E. Exactly. Each instrument brings its own set of challenges and opportunities. Every time that I show up at a new instrument, I come with my thoughts already shaped as to how I would like the pieces I’m playing to sound – some of that is certain specific stops that I’d ideally like to use, and some of that is more a general feeling about a piece. But then I have to look at that organ – what sonic possibilities are present, the physicality of how the console is laid out, and how my hoped-for sounds will practically work out, as well as what ends up sounding the best on that instrument.
r.s.e. Are there different challenges one finds, playing on a really great instrument, versus a sub-par organ?
R.S.E. Ironically, bad organs end up being much trickier to work with. The performer with integrity, who cares about finding the best sounds and solutions on any instrument, will need even more time on a mediocre instrument, simply because the good solutions are harder to find, and the best sounds might involve a lot more time and effort to uncover and make work.
r.s.e. But would you ever tell a congregation member or presenter that they possess a “mediocre organ”?
R.S.E. Oh no! Inevitably, that person will have helped to choose or fund the organ! And besides, I try to remind myself, I’ve traveled all over the world, expressly to seek out the very best in organ building. Most congregations are proud of the instrument they have, whatever it is, and it’s important to remember and respect that. I’ve probably gotten much too picky! So I try to be realistic too.
r.s.e. Are there things you’ve learned by having traveled to visit so many different organs, playing concerts and practicing?
R.S.E. What I have found, as I travel with the same pieces to different organs, is that the more I play a piece, even on widely varying organs, the easier it is to figure out how to solve these problems. This is perhaps counter-intuitive, because each time I am solving the problem in a new and different way, but I think the very act of thinking through what I want, and how I’m going to get the closest possible approximation of that, makes the next time I have to do it a little easier and quicker, because I’m getting better at finding what I want. I think this is one of the great creative joys of organ playing – the amount of problem solving, and thinking up new solutions, that each new instrument involves, can be maddening, but is what makes for so much variety, and thrill of discovery every time.
r.s.e. How much variety can there be from organ to organ?
R.S.E. Well, the sonorities, but also the physical layout, the look and feel of the console.
r.s.e. How does the physicality of the console end up affecting the performer?
R.S.E. As far as how the organ console is laid out, with historical instruments, like the ones I played in Germany, from the 16th and 17th centuries, and even into the 18th and 19th centuries, this can mean drastic differences in spacing of the keys, the way the pedal board and keyboards line up (or don’t!), the number of keys and their layout (for instance, if there is a short octave, or fewer notes in the highest octave), and the sensitivity of the action (anywhere from feather light to weight-lifting heavy). Even with modern instruments, there are factors such as how many keyboards – anywhere from one to five; how the console functions – through a direct mechanical link to the pipes, or an electric connection; where the pipes and console are located in the room; and how you change stops – usually through a system of sound combinations we set on buttons to be pressed throughout the piece, though the layout always varies.
r.s.e. So what about the sonorities – how can they differ? And what about those knobs you organists call “stops,” that you pull and push to get different sounds, when you’re “pulling out all the stops”?
R.S.E. I have heard that one before… There is the question of which stops are present on any given organ, and then there is the question of how those particular stops actually sound! There are traditions of certain stops – organists can talk about a specific kind of French 19th-century flute, or a 17th-century German trumpet, and some of us will have a certain sound in our ear for what that should ideally mean, based on those historic models, but frankly, any builder can use that same name, and often you have to hear it to decide if it’s really similar to that stop it’s claiming to be.
r.s.e. Do you associate a certain sound with certain builders?
R.S.E. Certainly, organ builders each have their own sound, so if you know a particular builder well, you can probably give a pretty good guess at what a certain stop might sound like before you pull it, but even there, a builder might have built their Opus 13 in one particular style, and their Opus 30 in a vastly different style, and then they would have very different sounds. There are also general regional building trends – organists talk about the French 19th-century school of organ building, or the North German 17th-century school, or the American early 20th-century school – saying a phrase like that will call to mind certain sounds that those instrument will likely have.
r.s.e. You’ve talked a lot about individual stops, what happens when you combine sounds?
R.S.E. When you put stops together, what does the ensemble sound like, what combinations are possible? There is a whole other realm of sounds to think about, once you move past individual colors, and that’s when it really starts getting complicated! Not to mention the acoustic of the room – it’s been said that the room is the most important stop on the organ, and it IS that significant a factor in how the instrument will sound. A mediocre organ can sound pretty good in a great room, and a great organ can sound considerably worse in a bad room. (Note to church and concert hall planners everywhere!)
r.s.e. Can you play any piece on any organ? Or if not, how do you choose what’s going to work, especially if you haven’t played the instrument before?
R.S.E. This is a great question. There are certainly “eclectic” organs, so-called because they can play anything. Now, my preferences generally tend towards more specific instruments, because I find them more interesting. I spent years playing 17th-century North German organs, but frankly, I couldn’t play everything on them, though I could play more than just 17th-century North German music. It is always true that the more specific an instrument’s style is, the less versatile it is, but the more convincingly it will be able to play that repertoire. I think it’s also true that as you understand an instrument and style better, you will be able to stretch what is possible – I played 20th-century American organ music on those German organs, as well as 16th-,18th-, and 19th-century German music, and 16th– and 17th-century French, Spanish, and Italian music. Because I understood the organs well, I knew what would work, and how to stretch the boundaries of what was possible on each instrument.
r.s.e. So, you’re pretty much an anti-eclectic organ snob, is that it?
R.S.E. No putting words in my mouth! I don’t dismiss eclectic organs – this country is full of eclectic instruments; that’s certainly what I spend much of my time these days playing, and there are some very fine examples of organs in that style being built today. The advantages of an eclectic instrument are many – for one thing, you can play just about anything on them. This also gives the creative performer the opportunity to put together really interesting programs, utilizing pieces from a wide variety of eras and countries, and one doesn’t need to worry about something not working. There are also certainly very good instruments with a specific regional, or historical leaning. They favor that repertoire, but are still quite eclectic, and able to play a wide variety of repertoire.
r.s.e. When you’re approached about playing on an organ you don’t know, how do you go about planning a program for that organ?
R.S.E. Visiting and playing beforehand is always the best way to go, when possible, but often I can’t, and then I look at the builder and what I know about their work, I look for a convenient label (American 20th-century eclectic, French Romantic) that describes the sound the builder was aiming at, and I look at the specific stops and how the organ is laid out, to help decide which pieces will or won’t work. Then I have to put all that information together and make a guess as to what will work the best on the instrument, and see how close I was, when I arrive at the organ!
r.s.e. What’s the best and/or biggest organ you ever played?
R.S.E. Something I think that is crucial to point out here (and everywhere!) is that bigger is not necessarily better, especially when we’re talking about organ building. In this country, it is certainly a modern trend, to try to outdo the church down the street, with more stops, more manuals, more sound, but my time in Germany on many breathtakingly beautiful, small instruments has permanently molded my views on this subject!
r.s.e. “Bigger is better” is a very American sentiment!
R.S.E. Let me tell a story to illustrate my point. I’m a member of the Organ Historical Society, which has conventions every summer, highlighting the best of historical American organ building, and last summer we were in Vermont. My friend and colleague Greg Crowell played one of the smallest and oldest organs of the convention (an Erben organ from around 1837) – it had only one manual, four stops, and no independent pedal sounds. In any respect, this would be considered a tiny instrument, and in some circles probably disregarded for that very reason. However, Greg played a fabulous and fascinating program, utilizing pieces from four centuries and various countries, and showing off a beautiful instrument. It was a true highlight of the convention, but it wasn’t loud, and it wasn’t big. Now, perhaps this says more about my preferences than anything, but my favorite instrument is probably NOT going to be the biggest organ I’ve ever played, simply because in my experience, the more sound, the less interesting any of it is. Some of the most beautiful organs I’ve played were built using a model of economy and moderation, but within that, there was so much variety, beauty and integrity of sound, that I was never wanting more. I have seen so many wonderful instruments in the years I’ve been traveling to visit organs, I’m not sure I could name just one of my favorites.
r.s.e. You have two children, is this like me asking you to choose your favorite?
R.S.E. In some ways! It’s also like comparing apples and oranges. My favorite North German 17th-century organ? My favorite 20th-century American organ? I do have pictures on my website of organs I’ve played and loved. However, for me, it’s a bit like reading books – whatever I’ve just read (or played) is my favorite right now!
r.s.e. Well, thank you for talking with me today.
R.S.E. My pleasure. I really feel like we are of the same mind about so many of these issues. We should try this again sometime soon.