Sunday, 24 May 2009

Bach and Beyond

Hello again. I'm most grateful for you being not fed up with me (yet) and have returned to my blog.

As per usual the slightly-odd organist would squeeze out as many puns as he can from this blog-entry title.

First and foremost, the idea of the organ being a timeless instrument, and on how it has evolved from Bach, and beyond that. (And the idea of Bach representing what was 'back-then' - more elaboration on the Historically Informed Performance movement here.)

The same title could also develop into an essay on Bach and the aesthetic sublime. But that's actually going to be my upcoming written dissertation at school, so until I've written that we'll stick with the first possibility.

We always think the organ as something of an emblem of archaic technology, connected with the now-largely-ceremonial religion. To some extent the instrument does give us such an impression: It's perhaps the only instrument that incorporates a single pipe for each note (as opposed to the same tube but with variable length through the use of holes, like the flute or oboe), and with so many stops and ranks, it adds up to a huge pile of metal cones and wooden cylinders that gives us an impression that its sole purpose is to deliberately overwhelm us with an array of shiny metal pipes, an ornate casing, and a humongous sound.

But the truth is far from that.

In fact, the pipe organ could be argued as one of the most fruitful platform in the development of music technology. The difference making a pipe out of wood, or tin, or zinc, or a combination and the precise percentage of each metal, has been a forerunner in stimulating the bridging the fields smithery and acoustics. Improvements on the mechanical action saw ingenious innovations in lever designs. On to the Romantic Period of musical history we see the towering figure of Cavaille-Coll bringing the English Barker lever system and his 'symphonic' approach to organ voicing, literally bringing an entire orchestra of sounds and timbres to the fingertips of the organist. In the digital age we see companies like Rogers and Allen championed the field of computer simulation of sounds.

But reform is never coherent. The image of an imposing tower of pipes and an imposing sonic wave of the organ plenum is undeniably the image that is most associated with the pipe organ - one doesn't need to think far from the almost stereotypical dark-castle-with-several-candles kind of mood invoked by the (in)famous 'Toccata in D minor' BWV 565 by JS Bach.

(Which of course leads us to the debate if the piece is actually written by Bach at all. It's true that the piece exhibits quite a number of musical traits never seen again in the entire Bach oeuvre - a solo pedal entry in the fugue, relatively primitive harmonic structure for Bach, and a minor plagal cadence at the end, to name a few - but for the sake of popular-approach I'll stick with the (blind) belief that it's by Bach.)

And what could organists do? The very-honest reduplication of the Baroque style of organ - flat and parallel pedalboard, reversed colour on the manual keys, and a gorgeous organ case - is still housed in places like Pembroke College at Cambridge. Whilst at the same time, the equally mind-boggling modern style of organ is house just next door at Robinson College.

Perhaps it's the distinction between the 'church'-kind of organ and the 'concert hall'-kind of organ that made people believe the organ has stopped entirely from developing. The former is held as an archaic assistant to worship, the latter as a gigantic toy to pump up the decibal level if a symphonic orchestra is not enough.

Is it true then that it is the musicians themselves who led the organ into its current dusty condition, shovelled up in an abandoned corner in the attic? Quite 'inevitably' the organ was, is, and might still be deeply rooted in what we call polyphonic music.

Due to its unique structure of seperate pipes for each note, composers throughout history has dedicated their most polyphonic and musically complex works to the pipe organ. The dreaded shadow of the fugue lives on from Fux, to Bach, to Mendelssohn, to Vierne, and even to the most 'modern' (which is a synonym of 'plain odd' for me) Messiaen.

Clearly I have digressed quite far way from my original intention for this blog entry. But then that's you've expected, isn't it? I don't care; it's half-term for me. I'm obliged to baffle. Until next time.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

And the Flood hath spoken

16th May marked the Kent County Organists' Association's 2009 Organ Festival.

Quite naturally, I think, that it would be an event almost unheard of.

Some argue that it is events like this, these gatherings almost unnoticed by everyone that they resemble the covertness of certain pagan ceremonies, that has unfortunately enforced the age-old stereotype that organist is a cliquey profession.

Or do we know any better? One of the most prominent 'Out-reach' courses with an intention of spreading interest in the instrument, the Oundle Organ Festival and all its connected summer schools, seems to be deliberately unaware of its cliquey undertones.

Take there application form of this year's summer school programme as an example. Questions are asked about prizes or scholarships won on organ, positions or scholarships held as an organist, and so on and so forth: Application form

The form for bursary even hints ever so slightly as to whether you are a member of the RCO (Royal College of Organists) or not: Bursary form

Is it true then, that organists are cliquey beings that judge amongst themselves?

I don't think so. The generation of tweedy organists is fading clearly: Most of them are human being on the brink of falling apart now. (Not that I have any grudge on their ability at all.)

The fact is, the upcoming new generation of organists is more inclined towards the word 'eccentric'.

But before delving into the newest generation, I'll talk about the currently prominent class of organists: the quasi-middle-aged ones.

What is undeniable is that they are, whilst not insufferably tweedy, predominantly middle-class. But rather particularly in this profession, ever so self-consciously and self-mockingly.

The 'honour' of a clerical profession has long lost its sparkle and is now widely regarded as some imagined reverend joke. Is God Dead? Have we killed him? Nietzsche thought so.

But it's undeniable that a clerical career is falling out of fashion: monasteries are even giving out Weekend Taster courses for prospective monks.

But being an organists is slightly different from other clerical careers. Again this could be seen in the whimsical self-awareness of the current generation of organists. The Organist's Dictionary of Real Meanings as written by the (dubious, possibly a pseudonym) Horatio Netherwallop demonstrates this. The definition for 'Clergy' is given as 'Those who wish to serve the church but are not clever enough to play the organ.'

So today's organists are fully aware of the 'decline' of the importance of religion, and consequently the declining interest in organ music. This is perhaps due to the still quite church-oriented approach towards the instrument. In other countries we see an ever growing tendencies in moving the instrument into the concert halls and venues. In the UK, however, the dominant venue for the pipe organ remains in churches - and even more stereotypically, Anglican churches with their boy choristers, dressed in robes with a flowery ruff.

But organists seem to have an inclination to simply laugh things off. Dr David Flood, who was the adjudicator at the said Organ Festival, was quite easily amused by the turn-up of seven young organists over an entire county.

Some fellow organists have expressed their view on this on the ABRSM organ forum that this is what makes the job of an organist special, that you need that immense enthusiasm for music making and choral directing in order to survive in this seemingly underappreciated career. This enthusiasm, in turn, marks excellence in the music.

Or is it just a feeble (although quite effective) attempt of organists trying to maintain their profession as a 'honourable' one? Is it nothing but self-deceit?

May be it is, but organists are generally so good at making fun of themselves that their stereotypes remained, or are even reinforced.

It's true that statistics show that the predominant group of people who enjoys organ music is demonstrated by the dreaded phrase 'White Male'.

In a sense, however, this stereotype of 'honour' and religiousness is in fact quite contradictory to the very nature of the survival of an organist.

A starking truth is that organists are perhaps one of the most loosly-bound clery-type jobs on the Earth. By loosly-bound I mean religious-affiliation. One doesn't have to look far: The current Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey, Robert Quinney, served as Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, and before that, Acting Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey. All of these happened in 4 years. There is no other clerical job on the world that allows you to change faiths from Protestanism to Catholicism and back to Protestanism so efficiently.

So what's the point here? Do organists indulge themselves by advertising an 'honourable' image and laugh at how religion has declined (even with the threat of their declining pay)? Not so. Most organists, dare I say, are simply too enthusiastic about their music (as the mentioned fellow on the forums) that they simply don't give a toss about the divisions of religion, which they deem as trivial matters under the majesty and beauty of the music their instruments make. There's an ever effective in-joke amongst organists, after all, that the sole purpose of Deans is to mercilessly change the selected hymns on a cold Sunday morning so that organists can practise their sight-reading.

Or may be I'm hypothesising too far.

Next time I shall comment on the new generation of organists - and I promise it'll be an even more 'eccentric' journey.

Friday, 15 May 2009

As if you need an introduction

I suppose you do.

This, my reader, retaining the obvious Dickensian period breaking-of-fourth-wall, is a blog that has minimal connection with bloody pompous literature.

Instead it's ME on organs, or 'orgel' as Theo keeps reminding me to write instead.

For Christ's sake if we're really going to trace organs back to their primitive forms then we shouldn't be using German after all, but perhaps ancient Greek.

But who cares about that.

Hello and my name's Jonathan Yip. Currently 17, an age widely regarded as an ambiguous inconvenience bridging the sexual excitement brought by 16 and the boorish civil duties of 18. As you may well have guessed this blog is going to fill your heads with the subject: organs.

I'm of course referring to pipe organs. I for one am not interested at all in the dispiriting, and if not slightly amusing due to its failings, Hammond organs of electrical imitation.

I might as well clarify here that this blog started quite in a rush as I charged headlong into a sudden fad in my boarding house. I believe it's Hill who started on sports and Hilton's doing life (Life?! How desparingly dull do you have to be to write a blog on Life?!) and so by the urging adrenaline a blog was born.

And now after much babbling on rather irrelevent things let's move on to actual orgel-stuff.

Quite interestingly I've started learning the organ as an instrument for only 9 months. Yes, 9 months. I may think therefore I could legitimately look down on you because in 9 months I've finished Grade 8 with an oh-so-shiny Distinction and I'm moving on to county competitions.

But I won't look down on you, perhaps due to the sole reason that doing so might kill off my audience - or as they say here, view count.

Speaking of soles, the next blog entry would very much likely be something about organ and shoes. But until next time and the potential lurings of feet-fetishism, we'll stay on basics.

One of the most alluring traits of the pipe organ is its versatility. The main things that attracted me to 'transfer' from piano to organ is that I realised my hands are not enough in playing the contrapunctual music of Bach's gang. On the organ one of the most distinguished feats is that the musician plays not only with his hands, but also with his feet. And whilst you might think a drummer could well play a cymble with his left hand and a bass drum with one of his feet, an organist actually plays melodic lines, of ten independently, with his left and right hands and his feet.

That, my reader, is what brought me to this instrument. In some way we can say that playing the organ is like dancing: after all your feet are moving on the 'pedalboard' (the keyboard that your feet play) as if dancing in some exotic steps. What is interesting is that it is your dance that makes the music, instead of the music guiding your dance.

Or is it the other way round? After all you're reading the music and playing the notes with your feet. So it's actually the music guiding your feet.

Circular reasoning aside, I think I'll stop now. We'll soon delve more into the technicalities of the organ... perhaps making a collaboration of 'Dummies' Guide to the Pipe Organ'. Rest assured the blog will also be infested with inrecognisable rantings and sayings that only me in the world would think is witty.

Let's make a list of possible future topics: Names of organ stops, the construction of an organ, how does the thing work, discussions on organ repertoire, organ as an instrument in today's musical world, jokes on the baldness of preachers, interesting encounters in organ lofts, and how to not be a prick that continuously irritates organists by repeating a set of organ-related vocabulary without actually know them, and so on and so forth.

Meanwhile, ta-ta. This entry is brought to you by the courtesy of a blue plastic cable, which has transmitted this to you without a single complaint.