Friday, August 31, 2007

Organic Matter

This is another one of those posts that no one in their right mind will read. But I started typing and this is what came out. I'll just think of it as a diary entry.
I became interested in the pipe organ during my early days at college. I was playing my drums that first year for one of the jazz ensembles at the University of Minnesota, and it was my intention at that time to make a career out of drumming. But after that first year, my interest in drumming faded a bit, and I began exploring classical music. This was not entirely out of the blue; my years in concert band had exposed me to a mixture of classics and pops music, and I had listened in some detail to Beethoven symphonies and to the Star Wars soundtrack during my pre-college years. But I was drawn to the sustained, lugubrious sounds of the organ. In spite of not having been in a church for nearly a decade, I knew that this was the sound I craved, and I remember actively seeking it out, and thinking it was strange to be doing so. I can only speculate that exposure to the organ as a child planted the seeds which now sprouted. I've always been captivated by harmony--my love of it is at the very center of my love of music--and the organ is a harmony machine. Also, I'm drawn to the dark in music, and organ music is usually somber and lugubrious, or tormented; just my kind of stuff. Anyway, I followed my nose in this way and, young machinery geek that I was, began checking out books from the university library about the history and construction of the organ, and I began buying albums of organ music to hear the reality of what I was studying in theory.

You cannot study the organ without bathing yourself in the music of Bach. And it very quickly transpired that his genius rather towered over my original subject matter, and so while I continued to study the organ I also immersed myself for the next decade and more in the music of J.S. Bach. But the instrument boasts a rich history, extending well beyond even the unfathomable genius of Bach, and after I had explored this great musical flowering from the North of Germany and the Netherlands--Sweelinck, Bruhns, Buxtehude, Scheidt, Pachelbel, and, of course, Bach--I eventually wandered into the next great dynasty in organ composition, France in the mid-19th Century onward. I find myself still stuck in exploration of this French school, nearly 30 years later.

I've been living with these composers and their ideas now for a long time. But the instrument itself still captivates me. A while back I wrote about a CD I purchased of a new organ at Oberlin College, an instrument built by one of America's most iconic pipe organ builders, the firm of C. B. Fisk of Gloucester, MA. (The late Charles Fisk is a fascinating study in himself. After studying nuclear physics at Harvard, he opened his organ shop in 1961 and amassed an impressive list of very innovative and progressive instruments.) Apart from being a large instrument designed and built for an academic concert hall, this Oberlin instrument--their Opus 116--has the further distinction of having been built, as an experiment, according to the tonal principles of France's greatest organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899). Cavaillé-Coll is responsible for nearly all of the famous instruments in Paris's great churches (Notre Dame, St. Sulpice, St. Clotilde, la Madeleine, St. Trinité), and many others, and he played an integral part in the flowering of this great compositional school from Cesar Franck onward to the present day. While the Fisk organ at Oberlin is not a copy of any particular Cavaillé-Coll instrument per se, it utilizes his ideas of what sounds ought to be represented in an instrument of this size--its stoplist--and it makes use of Cavaillé-Coll's technical specifications--wind pressures and pipe scalings. The idea, as I understand it, was to build a new instrument for a large American space that is a reasonable stab at what Cavaillé-Coll might have built. It's a fascinating idea, if one cares about these things, an experiment played out in a very elaborate and expensive arena.

That particular CD had a further twist. In addition to the works of Charles Tournemire played on this new instrument (a man with whom I've been near-obsessed now for nearly a decade), a second disc was included where the recording engineers ran the digital data from the original recording thru a computer process which gave the organ an artificial acoustic. In effect, the computer was used to put the Oberlin organ into the acoustics of Chartres Cathedral (the acoustic at Finney Chapel is quite dry, and not at all like any acoustic where the existing Cavaillé-Coll instruments are found). The very idea of this, and the details of how they accomplished it, were incredibly captivating to me--and still are (and are covered a bit more in that earlier post).

Now I've acquired another couple of CDs over this past week that put me in mind to chew on all these ideas again. The first is a program of the organ works of Cesar Franck played on this Oberlin Fisk organ (though without any acoustic processing). Another organist recording another composer, captured by another recording engineer and released on another label--these all help to give a fuller picture of exactly what the instrument is like. (And I ordered yet another disc of this instrument--with yet another performer--but it's on backorder.) And this new recording brings some confirmation to my suspicions from the first recording. Well, it does and it doesn't. I have quite a number of recordings of the organs of Cavaillé-Coll, and my familiarity with them and my love of their sound was my primary motivation for going to Paris a decade ago: to see and hear these instruments first-hand. And I have to say that my first recording of this Fisk "copy" of Cavaillé-Coll's work just didn't sound particularly like the C-Cs I have heard. Not even with the signal processing, however fabulous and effective that part of the exercise was. Don't get me wrong: it's a great-sounding instrument and a magnificent musical accomplishment in its own right. It sounds fantastic in this French repertoire, though the room is maybe a bit unfortunate. But I just don't think in some kind of blind test I would have any confusion about which was the Fisk and which was the Cavaillé-Coll. The performer on this new CD, Haskell Thomson, registers the organ in a way that makes the C-C illusion more convincing than it was the first time around, which then begs the question of what HIS recording would sound like if acoustically processed. But still, I think I would not be fooled. That raises many questions about what details big and small are really responsible for Cavaillé-Coll's signature sound: the stoplist? The building itself? The materials used in the pipes? Or is it a matter of the very subtle voicing of the individual stops?

(C.B. Fisk's Opus 116 at Oberlin College)

I also got two other discs of French repertoire which feature one of America's most musically noteworthy organs, the 1928 Ernest M. Skinner organ at Woolsey Hall at Yale University. Skinner (1866-1960) is the most famous organ builder this country has produced, and instruments which bear his name can still be found across the country. But most of those organs came from his firm after it had been purchased by the Aeolian company and became the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company, by which time Skinner was no longer involved. The whole process which saw Skinner build a successful organ building firm which was then taken over by others and Skinner himself ousted is an interesting and sad story. Skinner hired into his firm the brilliant G. Donald Harrison from the Willis organ firm in England, who rather quickly assumed control of the firm; and Skinner--whose name was on the stationary--quietly went away (Skinner, already in his 60s by this time, went on to form another company with his son, which didn't get very far off the ground).

Harrison's most famous instrument is probably the great 1947 Aeolian-Skinner at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City--another really iconic American organ--but his influence was already being felt by 1928 when the Skinner Organ Company was contracted to renovate and extend the existing instrument at Woolsey Hall at Yale. Harrison is celebrated as one of the organ world's bright lights, but I think Ernest Skinner is generally thought to be one of those eccentric geniuses, like Cavaillé-Coll a generation before or, a generation later, Charles Fisk. There are industrious and very talented people everywhere and in all fields, but the spark of genius is reserved for only a few.

The connective tissue in all this is that Cavaillé-Coll and Skinner built instruments which in some key ways can be compared to each other (which can't meaningfully be done between Cavaillé-Coll and, say, one of Bach's favorite builders, Gottfried Silbermann; their instruments are simply too dissimilar). Both built sonically powerful instruments for large spaces, both built what we might call "symphonic" organs, and both utilized modern technology to bring versatility and flexibility for the performer to what is essentially an old, conservative instrument. So here I have in front of me a collection of fantastic French pieces played on the original Cavaillé-Colls for which they were written, and also played on a present-day American copy of a Cavaillé-Coll as well as on one of America's greatest historic instruments from the last century.

There's just a lot of stuff here to sink one's teeth into. To listen to these instruments back-to-back is to face really basic questions about what in the organ's sound is appealing, what auditory components make up that sound, what things make it better or worse, and what role the room's acoustics play. A large symphonic organ may have as many as 10,000 pipes, and a couple hundred distinct timbres available to the organist, and these things have a cultural and historic component.

(Maybe the greatest organ in France: the Cavaillé-Coll of St. Sulpice, Paris)

One of my first and lasting impressions with the work of Cavaillé-Coll was his unexpected method of bringing power to the sound of his instruments. Organs are composed of two kinds of pipes, called flues and reeds. Flue pipes make sound by blowing air over a cutting edge, causing the column of air in the pipe to vibrate, like a flute. Reed pipes make their sound by air causing a reed at one end of the pipe to vibrate, like a saxophone or clarinet. The reed pipes on an organ tend to be the loudest, and Cavaillé-Coll voiced his big reed stops to be quite obnoxious in their tone. Played by themselves, they sound just this side of noise. But as a foundation for a large body of stops being played simultaneously, the brashness imparts a huge majesty and harmonic richness that is quite unexpected. The idea of achieving something of transporting beauty by way of some rather ugly elements is ingenious (like the painter Chaim Soutine, whose crude globs of paint nonetheless form, if one steps back a bit, a moving image). Likewise the high frequency upperwork. Organs sound so rich because they don't have to rely, as most instruments do, on the natural occurrence of harmonics; pipes can simply be built to SPEAK the notes you might otherwise hope would show up as harmonics. And again, Cavaillé-Coll was not shy about this. These bright, high frequency flue pipes (referred to as "mutations" and "mixtures") are loud to the point of being shrill. Again, without the ensemble beneath them, they are quite painful to listen to; but added on top of a mass of more conventional organ sound, they take your breath away with a richness which is like a whole sonic universe opening before you.

(The 1928 Ernest M. Skinner at Woolsey Hall, Yale University)

Skinner hugely modernized the mechanics of the organ, but took a more conventional approach sonically. His sounds are all more urbane and controlled, and even the powerful ones are more tightly reined in. There is nary an ugly sound on a Skinner organ. But his technical advances enabled him to employ a scale of pipe and wind pressure to make the rather conventional timbres absolutely huge. Smooth, but overwhelming in absolute power. All sound is waves of air, but with a Skinner organ you physically feel the air move, in your gut and on your skin. The full tutti is not just loud, but overwhelmingly, inside-your-head loud, and yet absolutely musical. The pedal flue pipes on Skinner's work sound like the voice of the Earth itself: impossibly deep and fundamental, and so smooth as to be almost more felt than heard. It's an example of him not doing new things so much as doing the old things so much better than those before him as to make it a new thing.

How fabulous to be able to compare these things apples-to-apples. Cavaillé-Coll, like Bach in a different realm before him, was the end of a long line of development, the culmination of a cultural phenomenon. Skinner was the greatest practitioner of what became known as the Classic American organ, but its roots were not nearly so deep or so wide-reaching as those of Cavaillé-Coll's work. He took a thing rooted in long tradition, and kind of struck out in his own, bold way. There's something wonderfully American in that. In my casual methodology, I don't doubt that I'm not always accurate in identifying what I'm listening to. It's an interesting exercise for me to try and figure out the what and how and why of something which has long captured my imagination, and at these times I have a little pang of regret that I did not pursue the career in organ building which I flirted with for a while in my 20s. But only a little one; life is good, and even from this distance the organs are rich and magical.

In the end, though I of course love them all, I have to say that the Skinner organ at Yale is my favorite of these instruments. I surprise myself even a bit with this judgment. But this instrument does everything very well, and puts its own stamp on in the process. And it is Skinner's genius that his stamp complements and augments the artistry of the composers and players. The Yale organ has an ultimate majesty that leaves me, well, I was going to say speechless but I've still managed five pages trying to put words to it.


Dzesika said...

Have absolutely nothing of value to add to this - but love the post! Talk about pipe organs to your heart's content ... we'll listen :)

Francine McEntyre said...

An absolutely wonderful, interesting post! Read it with utter delight, as it shows with marvelous clarity your passion for this musical instrument, as well as some fascinating comparisons. Am forwarding it to my brother, who keeps up, far more than I do, with what is published/mentioned/recorded with regard to Aristide and his father. My brother and I are of the Cavaillé-Coll family; it is my brother's last name and my maiden name.

Will check off and on what else you have to write, in the future.

wunelle said...

An unexpected and delightful comment! I know of Aristide only second-or third-hand thru the writings of those who played his instruments, but my enthusiasm for what he accomplished gives him a bit of stardust. To hear from a relative of his is a great treat, and the more unexpected when I don't expect anyone to even see these posts!

Thanks for writing!