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This Week's Featured Recording: for Friday, January 21 

Valet will ich dir geben
by J. S. Bach

Very loosely translated, this hymn text basically means, "good riddance, world!" It was composed in the 16th century and became a mainstay at funerals during the Baroque period. The opening line can be rendered, "Gladly will I leave you, false and evil world!" which, after all, does make it seem like the deceased has it far better than any of the attendees. Bach's contemporaries always did seem to be in a hurry to get out of here.

I ended up playing the piece a couple of weeks ago for a prelude to a church service in which the scripture reading was about Jesus's entry into Jerusalem. Normally that scripture would have been reserved for Palm Sunday, which is in a couple of months, but our pastor is on a different schedule this year. And, he wanted to emphasize that Mark's version of the story suggests that the event may not have been so public and obvious: in other words, the "Triumphal" entry may have just been more of an entry.

That, in turn, triggered my decision to not only play a piece based on a hymn tune that we normally associate with Palm Sunday (rather than funerals; there is obviously a different text) and to use a lighter registration and a more stately tempo, which may have been why I received an unusual number of compliments from non-organ/Bach fans after the service.

No Chewing Gum Necessary    January 21, 2022

My first thought when I fired up the organ at church this morning was "it's gonna blow!" Then I called our organ technician to make sure that wouldn't happen.

There is a part of the organ that is so wondrously--and painfully--reminiscent of the 19th century. An instrument that has been around since the days of the Roman Empire (not our organ but THE organ), it has seen the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the 19th century, all the revolutions, all the wars, all the changes in power, and still it goes on, even under threat of extinction and irrelevance--and even that existential threat isn't new to it. It has grown and changed to meet every age, and every part of its history can be found like a layer of sediment in the workings of our own instrument, from the days of water power and debates over the Greek modes, to the 21st century and all of its plagues. There was a time when knights wore heavy armor, walls were several feet thick, and the organ could only be played full blast. Centuries later, more tonally various, it still required the labor of both a player and a few unskilled others (poorly paid, I suspect) who pumped the wind into the chamber. Then, when electricity turned the world into a monopoly of machines, it became something else again.

It was this part of the organ's not-quite-so-ancient history that was clamoring for attention. It sounded like the Industrial Revolution had come back to haunt us yet again. More specifically, it sounded like the overworked engine on a steamboat, like the one in Twain's story about the two steamers rashly racing each other until one of the boilers exploded. I've never heard an organ explode. I'd rather not, thank you. I switched off the blower.

Jon arrived a few hours later with a theory about what might be causing the noise. Perhaps some worn out leather had, from a long period of disuse as our organ sat for years after the lightning strike which was then followed by its recent regular use, finally lost its grip and needed to be replaced. It turned out, however, to be a very large leak from one of the reservoirs. There are several in this 6800 pipe Moeller organ, and several leaks as well. Because of these, ever since we switched on the blower in August, the air has been making its presence known. Quite known. Every time I switch on the blower during a service people notice it (it is too distracting to leave on during the sermon). My favorite episode was at the Christmas Eve service when, not comfortable waiting until the end of the scripture reading, I chose the words "and the glory of the Lord shone round about them" and the sudden woosh of air caused several people to look around. Nothing like a little dramatic reading.

The gash in the side of the reservoir was rather large, but not too large for a home remedy. Jon asked for some Duct Tape. If you've been around the block a few times, you know that Duct Tape can fix darn near everything. Well, add pipe organs to your list. There were several leaks, and Jon spent the next two hours going around to all of the places that were leaking air.

The result is that the pipe organ sounds much quieter than it has in the past. If you are in the sanctuary during its operation, you might not even notice it. This means that the pipes can remain on for the whole service. It also means that forthcoming recordings won't have so much ambient noise. And it means that the age of steam and mechanized industry can take a seat--quietly--alongside the other eras the inform our organ's makeup.

The Duct Tape is a temporary fix, and, due to the elevation in wind pressure now that half of it isn't escaping from everywhere, there will probably be a few new ruptures in the coming months. There are still several long-term issues that need to be addressed.

In the meantime, there won't be any unearthly sounds from the balcony, we hope, which is good, because our pastor wasn't planning to preach about Hell anytime soon, and the balcony is in the wrong direction for that anyway, so that would be kind of disorienting.

Chopin at an Impasse...

Some composers pace the floor while they are writing. Wagner could be seen in an upstairs window pacing around between phrases of Gotterdammerung, for example. Brahms and Beethoven liked to get their ideas while out for a walk. And Chopin, said George Sand, spent some 24 hours wrapped in thought, trying to figure out how to compose the next two measures of a piece he was working on.

It has been a long time since I read that anecdote but Iíve never forgotten it. Imagine, a composer struggling that long to figure out what to do with the next small bit of musical information.

Then imagine that composer is an inveterate improviser.

Strange, no? Somebody who can make up an entire piece of music out of whole cloth the instant he sits down at the piano, having that much trouble deciding which notes to put on a page?

what's next, I wonder?