Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Size Matters

This is a post from January of last year from my other blog. It seems it might have a more sensible existence over here.


I continue my little musical nostalgia tour from the last post. It's been a musical couple of weeks, which is much better than a couple weeks of politics.

Our hotel in PHL is a block from the old Wanamaker department store, now owned & operated by Macy's. This store contains, in what seems the ultimate non-sequitur, the largest operational pipe organ in the world.

As a devoted fan of the pipe organ, I've known of this instrument for many years. It's not really my kind of organ; this is an ultimate example of what we might call the symphonic organ, that is, the organ as a kind of one-man orchestra. This design philosophy, which really took off after Bach's death and found great flowering in the 19th and 20th Centuries at the hands of France's Aristide Cavaille-Coll and America's Ernest M. Skinner, among many others, stands in philosophical contrast to the organs that Bach knew. Bach's organ was a stand-alone instrument with its own repertoire and its own history having nothing to do with the orchestra or any other instruments. Starting in the late 1950s, by which time these symphonic organs were the established norm, there was a push in the organ world to return to the non-imitative roots of the baroque organ, creating a pretty deep rift--almost a civil war--between the neo-baroque and romantic / symphonic camps. To me this whole fight has been a vital and interesting one (in a sitting- on- the- sidelines- while- buttoned- down- Christians- throw- stones- at- each- other kinda way), one with a few dollops of intrigue thrown in; but that's kind of another post.

The organ at Wanamaker's has the additional distinction of being incongruently located in the eight-story central court of an operating retail department store. As if the pipe organ does not seem anachronistic enough on its own (something about which I'm feeling rather bruised and vulnerable lately), the idea of supporting such a beast with retail shoppers of socks and underwear is positively surreal. Proven so, actually, since nobody I saw shopping during the 45 minute concert paid the least attention to the music. But John Wanamaker had money and a love for the organ and a place to put one, and the rest is history.

Yesterday was the first time I ever heard the Wanamaker instrument. I've walked past the building a few times in the last five years, but the last couple times I've been here the store has been closed for its conversion from a Lord & Taylor to a Macy's. Yesterday everything was up and running as usual. There are regular noontime concerts played every day of the week, and there are afternoon concerts three days a week, plus weekend concerts and occasional special events (including after-hours things where they can let the beast out of its cage properly). So I timed my walk around the city to make the noon concert.

The organ speaks into the large, central shopping court from several levels, and the delivery-van-sized console is visible behind a railing on the third level. Walking around to the console, a flat screen monitor televises the organist at work. I can't entirely fault the shoppers for not paying more attention to the music, as there are no accommodations made for concertgoers--no seats and not many good places to stand and watch & listen--and the repertoire, while pleasant and demonstrative of the huge variety of the lower half of the instrument's dynamic range, was not thought-provoking. Which is as it should be; after all, it is a working retail establishment, and they can hardly do without their phones or normal business transactions for two 45-minute periods every day.

After the concert I talked to the organist and one of the two technical people who look after the instrument full-time, and I got a tour of the massive console. Much of the organ--including this awesome control console--was built by a shop on the 12th floor of the store (space now leased out to other tenants), with the pipes themselves coming from the Kimball Organ Company. The instrument was originally installed in the department store in 1911, at which time its 10,000 pipes (already several times the number found in most church organs today) were deemed "inadequate" for the space and enlargements were undertaken. By about 1930 the organ had tripled in size to its present 28,000 pipes. I talk of the organ exercising the quieter half of its dynamic range, but even then the power of the instrument rather takes one by surprise. Considering that, from where I listened to the concert from the third floor I could not have heard a normal cell phone ringer down on the main shopping floor below me, the fact that even a quiet solo stop is clearly audible throughout the eight-story courtyard gives one an idea of what kind of horsepower is behind it. And naturally, the organ has the resources to make conversation in the courtyard quite impossible. Those who have heard a good-quality pipe organ in their local church or auditorium know that organ bass is often felt as much as it is heard, the product of high energy, low frequency sound waves produced by the large pedal pipes. Well, one can imagine what kind of power is required to shake the air--and the occupants--of so large a space as this one.

It's amazing, really, that Macy's would agree to continue funding something which at this point can only be considered an historical and nostalgic oddity. Surely this instrument no longer generates any real revenue, and yet Macy's pay a staff organist and several assistants, as well as two full-time maintenance people. They also contract out some maintenance services when the jobs get too big for the in-house shop to handle. While there is a non-profit foundation called the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, and the organ has received several substantial endowments and private donations, it is still some burden on Macy's and one cannot help feeling grateful that they have embraced this quirk in the store's past.

It's a little off track, but even as long as I've been a student of this instrument and (some of) its repertoire--nearly 30 years now--I'm still not immune to its magic. I have made treks over the years to a number of individual pipe organs both here and in Europe, instruments which I've come through recordings to love; I've examined and played them in my unskilled way, and gotten a sense of their presence and of the rooms and acoustics where they live; and I've been witness to some awesome demonstrations by people who knew what they were doing at these instruments. And I'm always frankly amazed at the organist's skill.

Yesterday at Wanamaker's I watched the organist at the console during the concert via a little flat screen monitor outside the cordoned-off area where the console sits, and though he appeared to be a thousand years old he still achieved a near-magical feat that virtually none of us could do. The coordination required of an organist--just the aspect of playing coherent musical phrases with one's feet while the hands do their thing simultaneously on two separate keyboards--requires a physical command of one's body that borders on the impossible. (Look sometime at the notation for Bach's Trio Sonatas for organ and you'll have some idea of what this inter-limb / digit coordination entails.)

But there's more. Look at the photos of this console.

In addition to six separate keyboards (basically, one for each division of the organ, each of which will have a distinct function or sonic character) plus a full pedalboard, there is a tablet for activating each of several hundred individual timbres of the organ, controls for coupling divisions together (at various octave intervals), pedals and sliders for controlling the volume of sound allowed to escape from the chambers where the pipes are contained, and a baffling array of buttons and footswitches which can be programmed to singly make large-scale changes of the organ's settings. And a couple dozen other odds and ends to boot. Ignoring the business of simply playing a coherent musical thought in this setting (again, a not inconsiderable task by a long shot), just the management of all these other controls and resources at this console requires a physical dexterity and concentration that I would venture few of us ever have to muster in life. Put the two things together--playing music and managing the machinery--and we have arrived at outright sorcery. This has to rank among the most complicated tasks the human brain and body can tackle. I can think of no better way for a hunched-over old man to inarguably win the pissing contest of masculine achievement than to play something coherent on this instrument. Top THAT, football boy. That the purpose of all this training and skill is to fill an arena-sized room with a kind of bone-marrow-boiling sound makes it all the more interesting. Or, looked at from the opposite angle, that such stirring musical ideas come to fruition by way of such great demands placed on the artist makes the art remarkable.


shrimplate said...

That's something else.

I have never been to Philly and I'm just young enough to have missed out on the era before "malls attacked." But I'd love to experience that. The kid would probably dig it, too.

wunelle said...

It's unavoidably impressive just as a force of nature. And the surreal setting kind of burns the experience into memory.

One of these days I'll hit one of the evening / weekend concerts, where they really let the instrument fly.

There are recordings of it, but I haven't yet convinced myself that I need them.

Nate said...

If you think that's impressive, take a visit to the s-s-s-SEVEN manual organ in Atlantic City! They couldn't keep up with it as it required two full-time positions just to maintain the thing on a day-to-day basis. But man...a console like the cockpit of a 747 and pipes you could stand inside with plenty of breathing room.... you can hear the Wanamaker's organist Peter Richard Conte at his Sunday gig at St Phillip on a more "normal" organ...nice guy, if a bit eccentric--then again you have to be a little crazy to be an organist, right?!