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.

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