23 August 2019

Instrumental Integrity

All musical instruments in one?

Around 30 years ago I was on an examining tour of South Africa which involved a day examining in a violin teacher’s private studio.  The door list showed a plethora of early grade violins and, strangely, just one candidate listed as doing grade 5 piano, harpsichord and organ.  I assumed that the teacher had merely “invented” the three grade fives in order to meet the requisite number of hours needed to qualify for a personal visit from an examiner.  On arrival I did question the teacher about this and, much to my surprise learnt that they were indeed legitimate examination entries.  It appeared that her students’ accompanist was about to go off to university and wanted to equip himself with three more music certificates before abandoning music in favour of chemistry, law, horticulture, or whatever it was he was going to study at university.  I asked where the harpsichord and organ exams were going to be held and was told, “here”.  “Here” was a half-converted garage beside the teacher’s house equipped with a music stand and an electronic keyboard, which was to be used for all three non-violin exams.

Around 30 years ago, such instruments were quite unusual and examination regulations had yet to catch up with technology to the extent that they made few provisions for non-acoustic instruments.  I was able to say that the organ exam was not possible; the syllabus did specify an instrument with at least “two manuals and pedals”, and here we had a single keyboard. Despite protestations that the instrument had been “approved” by the exam board (it had not, although the local rep, unsure of the regulations, had said it “should be all right”) and that the requirements could be met using the single keyboard and its accoutrements, I was sure of my ground and refused to allow the exam to proceed.  I was on no such terra firma when it came to the harpsichord exam as no provision at all was made in the examination regulations concerning the nature of the instrument.  The candidate duly finished his piano exam, and switched the keyboard from “grand piano” mode to “harpsichord” for the next exam.

Around 30 years on, this horrific memory has re-surfaced because of two comments made this week by two colleagues.

Last weekend one of them posted a provocative piece on Facebook suggesting that there should be a competition in which contestants play the piano, harpsichord and organ.  That was like a red rag to a bull to me, and out I came, nostrils flaring and feet pawing at the ground, vehemently opposing the whole vile notion.  Organists continually suffer the gross ignorance of those who have a look at what they imagine to be their instrument, think it resembles a piano, and assume anyone who can play the piano can easily switch to the organ.  Piano teaching colleagues are similarly appalled when their students are press-ganged into playing the organ (or harpsichord) by those whose monumental stupidity cannot recognise that they are wholly different musical instruments.  The organ is demeaned by those who believe playing it merely involves pressing down the right keys at the right time.

It looks a bit like a piano?  Surely any pianist can play it?
Playing the notes is the least of the organist’s concerns.  An organist’s skill involves understanding registration, understanding the properties of the movement of wind through channels and pipes, manipulating the stop knobs, foot and toe pistons and crescendo pedals which direct the flow of air to specific ranks of pipes, and operating the swell pedals which regulate the volume of sound coming from certain ranks of pipes in certain physical locations within the organ case, which is as often as not, some distance away from the console – that box of keyboards, pedals and buttons which the unthinking ignoramuses assume is the instrument itself rather than simply its command centre.  And all that before you get to the issue of musical interpretation and accurate playing of the score.  In fact, playing the notes on the keyboard as one might play them on the piano is one of the very least of the organist’s essential skills. 

And, as if that was not enough to convince even the most stupid that the organ and piano are as different as chalk and cheese, an organist, unlike both the pianist and harpsichordist, is primarily concerned with the release of notes rather than the attack of them.  Articulation is the principal topic in any organ lesson, followed by registration, registration control and hand/feet coordination.  Do any of these feature regularly in piano lessons?

A second colleague asked me this week in all innocence if I was “going to the organ recital tonight?”  He was referring to an intriguing computerised presentation of light and sound in the conservatory staged by a couple of our more illustrious alumni.  I would have loved to have gone, but I had another concert elsewhere last night, and tonight (when the event is being repeated) I shall be flying off to a meeting in Kuching.  But I would not go expecting to experience an “organ recital”; for there was no organ present.  True, one of our alumni was playing some organ works of Bach on a computerised device which has been programmed to make a sound like a church organ; but it is not an organ and does not even begin to behave like one.

Where the sound emerges shows the REAL difference these two instruments
In a world where we regard music not as an art but merely as a sound, most people would regard my strong and heartfelt resistance to such machines being labelled “organs” as the last throes of an aged, out-of-touch old man, whose mantra is “things were better in my day”!  I certainly feel as if I am swimming against an ever-increasing tide where if the sound seems right, then it is a legitimate musical instrument.  And I do not deny that I hold dear to my very soul Sir Thomas Beecham’s amusing but deeply perceptive comment that people “don’t like music – they just like the sound it makes”.  But I hold firmly to the intense belief that music is something far more than sound, that sound is merely the means by which music is made manifest to humanity, and that musical instruments need to have true integrity to convey in the sound they make the essence of the music behind it.

Great organ music (and I put much of Bach in this category) is not merely about nice sounds, it’s about something rather more fundamental.  Pipe organs do not create sound so much as they create sensation.  Air is at the very core of their being – the movement of air through channels and pipes may produce a sound, but it also generates a series of vibrations and a total reorganisation of the environment in which the air is moving so that those within its physical range do not so much hear the sound as experience the sensation.  The speakers which serve as the conduits of sound manufactured electronically may move air, but that is a by-product not a fundamental generator of the sound; and while that difference may not be discernible to many untrained ears, it governs the whole complex process of playing the instrument. 

Alexei Sourin and his Theremin
Electronic sound-producing/musical-instrument imitating technology has developed in leaps and bounds over the past decades, and now we can imitate pretty convincingly the sounds of almost anything we care to mention.  On Tuesday, I attended a fascinating demonstration of the Theremin in which the presenter, the marvellous communicator Dr Alexei Sourin, was able to get this weirdest of all electronic sound-creating devices to sound remarkably like a soprano singer.  I myself have played synthesisers which give a pretty fair impression of the sound of string instruments. 

Now, around 30 years later, I am inclined to go back to South Africa, along with my two contentious colleagues, and meet again the violin teacher in her half-converted garage.  I’ll give a violin recital.  I can’t play the violin (I passed grade 3 and then gave up) but I can use a digital keyboard to make a sound like one.  Surely, if we accept that a computer can give an “organ recital” we must accept that one can also give a “violin recital”. 

I hope no violin teacher would accept my playing the Paganini Caprices on a keyboard set to “violin mode” as a legitimate violin performance.  So please, do not belittle us organists by claiming that making a computer sound like an organ is the same as playing an organ.  We must all preserve the integrity of our real musical instruments so that we do not lose sight of the fact that their prime purpose is to make music, not to generate sound.

1 comment:

  1. Nice posting. I love the idea of turning up to a violin exam, hopefully clutching an electronic keyboard on the violin setting.

    But where to draw the line - as you did when you allowed harpsichord but not organ ? Have you had cases of a viola exam taken on a re-strung violin, a cello restrung as a bass, a clarinet on a different transposition, recorders or saxophones of a different register. I suppose the simple answer is whether they are functionally similar. How do you go about making that judgement ?