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business models, strategies and technologies

Pipe organ experience reframed

The intricate realms of organ music seem to be shucking off the confines of the ecclesiastical – go YouTube

I recently attended an organ concert at a local church. Unexpectedly, the experience gave rise to a series of ponderings about organ music, its place in a greater scheme of things and its potential via rethinking. 

What stood out with this particular event – at a venue I’d selected more for its architecture than for its spiritual ambience, I admit – was that the organist conducted and controlled everything from “up top”, using a hand-held microphone to introduce and explain the different pieces.

In most of the organ concerts I’ve attended in Denmark, such intros are in the hands of the minister or head of the appropriate church organisation – who thus establishes him/herself as the authority figure and capability conduit. This also reduces the organist to just the “squishy bit” of the instrument, tucked away on high, de-physicalised and made tiny by distance, always facing away from the listeners, and largely out of sight behind the balustrade of the organ loft. Normally, us in the “down below” audience only see a minuscule, jiggling head and an arching back, and then a silent, bowing figure on high at the end of the concert/performance.

In this particular concert, however, the organist made a small-yet-big alteration in the presentation narrative, becoming active, speaking, capable and – not least – human. She introduced a living/breathing person into the hugeness and wood-and-metal presence of the organ mechanics and the entire squeezing-out-music process, while communicating enthusiasm, calm confidence and knowledgeable authority. Small change, big effect.

Spiritually split?

Most of the organs I’ve come across in Denmark (and western Europe) have been in churches and cathedrals. And most of the organ concerts held in them are essentially musical and “non-religious” – while tapping deep into the resources of the mother lode of institutionalised religion.

Apparently, the opportunities to put on such concerts are a delicate multi-balance between parish council mindsets, majorities and budgets, the individual organist and his/her capabilities and ambitions, and the structure of the individual organist’s employment contract – some are only part-time, some include playing obligations at multiple churches, etc. From my precarious position as non-musical ignoramus, it seems there are different roles involved, with the organ and the virtuosity of its driver roaming loose and leading the chase during concerts, whereas during church services he or she has to shepherd, drag and coax the (usually) poorly singing congregation through hymns and liturgical responses that often end up sounding more like dirges or penances.

This seems to present an inherently split performance identity for both organ and organist – with concerts and recitals (involving sensory pleasure, emotion, physicality, etc.) on the one hand and church services (featuring duty, rote, ritual, obligation, spirituality, etc.) on the other. From acrobatics pilot to tug skipper?

From edifice to expression – reframing?

Before recent modernisations/liberalisations of European church services, the organ has usually been the only musical instrument in these ecclesiastical establishments. However, when placed in a church or (in particular) a cathedral, the organ is often more of an edifice than an instrument, a dominating, richly decorated upwards-seeking structure, an altar to the power of music – both spiritual and secular.

Such edifices do also exist outside the church, of course – either in concert organs that are expressions of civic pride and musical performance ambition, or sometimes – as at the incredible four-storey Wanamaker Grand Court Organ at Macy’s, in Philadelphia – as monuments to capitalist success and commercial grandeur.

But as church attendance continues to decline in Western Europe and the gradually de-Christianised western world and very few new large churches are built, the organ will probably become a gradually more secular instrument for music performances, released from – or devoid of – its original ecclesiastical roots, traditions and trappings. There certainly won’t be organs in the forthcoming generation of Swiss motorway chapels and the new prayer pitstops throughout Germany, where the focus is on spiritual refuelling and pause for thought, while in transit.

As with so much else, YouTube seems to provide at least some answers.

Enlightenment à la YouTube

In most organ concerts, we don’t get to see the four/five keyboards, the pedalboards or the panels with all the stops – as far as I know, the organ is one of the few musical instruments played with all four limbs at once, in remarkable feats of coordination and dexterity.

Digital cameras – and the proliferation and accessibility of their outputs via YouTube – now provide a wealth of close-up reveals of organ maestros at work on the most amazing instruments all over the world. The Scott Brothers Duo is just one example – there are dozens more, all revelations to me.

It’s a delicate balance between focusing on the one hand on the mechanical production of sound and getting distracted by the physical mastery and dexterity displayed by professional organists, or the result that emerges from the pipes for our delight and pleasure, on the other. Purists might shudder, but I’d argue that carefully curated and tastefully executed YouTube films – by providing access to stupendous performances on the best concert and church organs in the world – open the world of organ music to those who might never otherwise experience it in real life. And give them a much greater appreciation of what an organist can do …

Opportunity decoupled – on the organist’s own terms

There is, of course, one organist who has done most to break the conventional mould for organ performances and for understanding what the organ is capable of. Cameron Carpenter is the virtuoso wild child of organ music, complete with side-shaved neo-Mohican haircuts, spectacular outfits and a superbly articulate technical and creative perspective. With charisma, Grammy-winning capabilities and ambitions taken to unprecedented levels and another dimension of self-aware showmanship, he also has a radical vision for the future of his instrument.

It’s just a machine …

As part of this, he designed and commissioned the International Touring Organ, a ground-breaking transportable, digitised instrument that is artistically and sonically equal to or better than any of the world’s great organs (sayeth the cognoscenti) and yet can be quickly dis-assembled into crates and containers and shipped with him by road, ship or plane to wherever in the world he wishes to play. This means he can do so on his own terms, milking, tweaking and developing the machine – unhindered by history, convention or hardware. Cameron Carpenter has decoupled the hallowed instrument from geography and location, and its digital heart means he and organ builder Marshall & Ogletree LLC have also decoupled the creative sound possibilities from the limitations of traditional hardware. The organ follows the man. and the machine does what he wants – however wild and innovative.

Perception and narrative

Cameron Carpenter has shown that It’s not just a question of the inanimate organ (or any other instrument …) and its capabilities or imitations – it’s what you want to do with it, and your purpose with using it. Control the narrative … and everything else follows.

What he has done is to extend the scope of the organ capabilities rethink way beyond any one instrument or setting. He has established a powerful position from which to influence and determine how his instrument and performance contexts are perceived, understood and enjoyed. Kinda’ big deal in terms of strategic positioning and thought leadership, I reckon.

Obviously, this is not a solution or an option for organists in their most common incarnations. But it does open up new ideas and thought-provoking ways of approaching and deploying this venerable, institutionalised instrument – and its musical capabilities.