30 May 2011

Organists on the Prowl

There is a peculiar phenomenon which I call the Organ Spotter.  What happens is that the person concerned attempts to reach as many organs across as wide a geographical area as possible, sit at the console, play a few notes on any stop called "Tuba", "En Chamade Trumpet" or the like, rattle the bottom notes from a 32-foot reed and play a few bars of either a dreary Victorian hymn tune or improvise in much the same stylistic vein, and then move on.  I've often wondered if there's a book around which lists in columns every organ (with a few vital statistics, the most important being solo reed wind pressures) for the Organ Spotter to underline when spotted, rather in the manner of those lists of train or bus rolling stock.

Indeed, I expect the Ian Allan company to have issued just such a book, but whenever I go into their shop behind Waterloo Station with the intention of asking, their staff are so hostile and unhelpful that my courage deserts me and I limply go away clutching a copy of "Diesel Multiple Unit Rolling Stock on Virgin Cross-Country Services 1998-2001", or some such enticingly-titled tome.  Possibly the I-Spy corporation has produced one, but I suppose if the title "I-Spy Organs" hasn't already been reserved by the medical profession, it will have been snapped up by those involved in the bordello industry.

As a boy I was an avid bus-spotter, on every school holiday escaping with my notebook and pencil to hang around bus stations and busy city intersections rabidly jotting down numbers to be underlined in the relevant Ian Allan fleet list at home that evening.  It was a harmless enough activity, and I would like to say it got me out in the fresh air and allowed me to meet different people; but, in truth, I developed a life-long love of inhaling diesel fumes and an ability to spot and avoid a weirdo at 20 feet.  (When I tried my hand at train spotting, I developed a new skill; that of identifying and avoiding malign sexual predators.  Spotting a curly-haired 12-year-old on the platform was like a red rag to a bull, and within seconds I was surrounded by panting and obese middle-aged men, keen to show me their cameras in the privacy of a nearby bush.  I'm sure that present-day train-spotters are all clean-living and sexually pure gents; which is more than I can say for Organ Spotters.)  The thing is, though, while I still have a passion for buses (and, for those interested, I spotted my first Wright-bodied Volvo on the SBS 14 service on Saturday – Wow!!!!) it has developed into a more involved fascination with the totality of road passenger transport and has not got stuck into the sterile activity of merely underlining another number on a list.  Sadly, the Organ Spotter does not seem to have progressed much beyond that initial step.

When I was at Llandaff, with its eccentric four-manual Hope Jones, at Bangor, with its glorious four-manual Compton, or at Derry with its hideous three-manual Willis (all, now, long gone), the Organ Spotter was unavoidable.  In a cathedral you have to be nice to people (why?  In my experience church-goers are pretty horrible to each other as a rule) and an anorak-clad visitor from a minor parish in the diocese begging to touch my organ could not easily be dismissed.  My Derry friends will already know the famous story of the late great Billy xxxxx, so I apologise for repeating it here.  On taking up my duties at Derry I had to lodge with the Dean (the wonderful George Good), the organist's residence currently being rebuilt from yet another bomb (it was opposite the court house where IRA boys were regularly tried).  A regular feature of life at the Deanery was the ringing of the side door bell by passing tramps.  "Give the feller an Irish 50p piece", Dean Good told me, "and he'll be happy".  So, when the Dean was away, I did just that.  On one occasion a particularly noxious figure in a filthy brown overcoat tied with string and toes emerging from sodden shoes called and, opening the door, I was immediately assailed with a powerful aroma of stale urine and fresh whiskey.  Handing him an Irish 50p piece (which we collected just for the purpose) he pocketed it with copious thanks and then informed me "I'm Billy xxxx.  I'm organist of Holy Trinity Portrush, and I'd like to try the organ in the cathedral".  I got to know Billy well in later years, even counted him as a good friend…but I never got my 50p back.

However, once in Kuala Lumpur at the country's premier concert hall, there were no such obligations and, indeed, it was virtually impossible to allow strangers to gain access to the hall, let alone the organ console.  This did not prevent the litany of begging emails and cold callers, all of whom seemed to think that, as they played in a church somewhere in the UK or US, they were automatically entitled to touch the concert hall organ. The attitude seems to be that Malaysia is a backward third-world state and it can only be for the great benefit of the natives that a visiting nonentity is willing to play the organ which they, by some serious accident of nature, find in their possession and clearly have no idea what it's true function is. I've often wondered whether the authorities at the Festival Hall or Albert Hall in London get so plagued with requests, but I doubt whether many of them show such arrogance and/or ignorance as that shown by petitioners to see the KL Klais.  I've had "I'm an Associated Board examiner so I CAN play the organ", "I have flown all the way from Wisconsin just to play this organ", "I'm a leading organist from Norway come to pay you the honour of playing your organ" and so on.  They don't do their research ("Can you arrange a series of recitals in churches in Malaysia while I'm there?", "I would like to play a programme of music reflecting the Passion of Christ during Holy Week at the concert hall in Kuala Lumpur") and they don't seem to appreciate that a professional orchestra can't just cancel a scheduled concert in order to allow them to play the organ for five minutes ("I'm in KL on Saturday evening and would like to arrange a few minutes on the organ at, say, 8pm").

Very rarely, an organist who has written in advance and made an appointment which has fitted in with the hall's schedule, has enticed me into granting a visit.  Always it has been a disaster.  From the organist determined to play all the hymns in the book from memory, to the spotter avidly taking photos – both of which activities are forbidden, the former for religious reasons, the latter in the interest of copyright – I've bitterly regretted allowing my guard to drop.  I had to fend off a party of angry Muslims interrupted on their way to say Friday prayers by the sound of a visitor playing at full volume a litany of hymn tunes, unaware that everything going on in the hall is piped out to the surrounding areas (which includes one of the access ways to a small mosque), and I've faced the wrath of the management when a CD sleeve was produced showing the organist at the KL console – we had to force the record company to pulp the original booklets, which blotted my copybook with two significant organisations.  So organ spotters are now kept well away and requests for a visit firmly rejected.

But as a resident of Singapore, I find myself the target of yet more Organ Spotters.  Just last week I was approached by both an American and a British organist both of whom were separately in Singapore.  "Can you let me on to the Esplanade organ?" was the request.  Both had tried the concert hall management and maintained that the rejection they had received from that source was due to "musical ignorance", while I, of course, would appreciate the "need" for them to visit the organ. Another asked me to petition the Dean of St Andrew's Cathedral to let them give a lunchtime recital; and I've only once in my life set foot inside the place.  I certainly don't know who the dean is nor, for that matter, had I ever heard of the organist making the request.

If it had been in my power to grant these requests, I would not.  The lesson I have learnt from my encounters with Organ Spotters who visit Asia is that even the most innocuous of fellows cannot be trusted when they are within a hand's reach of a strange organ.


  1. Loved your story about Billy in Derry.. whilst there, did you ever get to try the even more hideous compton in the catholic cathedral? (sadly its currently unplayable), which still managed to sound good due to the fantastic acoustic..

  2. So right about the Compton in St Eugene's Derry. The organist there in my time (was it Karl Haan?) was quite old and I often stepped in to help out. Which made for a lot of fun in what was then a violently sectarian city; I had to keep my dual role from both sets of congregations

  3. I think it was Clement Hann, who passed away in 1981 (he had a son called Karl). It would be interesting to hear some of those stories - at least you were able to remain quite anonymous high in the gallery in St Eugenes! Some pics of the compton (in its current derelict state) and the cathedral here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrhilo/4806380126/in/photostream

  4. Dr Marc Rochester16 June, 2011 09:15

    Of course you're right; I gave Karl some lessons - he was a priest if I recall correctly. The pictures take me back. What a choice in those days, a ghastly, ghastly, ghastly Willis in St Columb's without a single endearing feature and a decrepit Compton at St Eugene's which was hell to play but made a lovely noise. I have yet to hear what the new St Columb's organ is like, but I'm sad with all the music in the city, St Eugene's could not do better by its organ.