Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Who do we think we are?

In the wind…

May 2012

Who do we think we are?
I was a few weeks shy of my sixteenth birthday in February of 1972 when my wisdom teeth were taken out.  I don’t know whether oral surgery was that much more cumbersome in those days, or if my teeth presented some special problems – but I do know I had to spend two nights in a hospital, and I lost the school vacation to the experience.  Because of the pain and perhaps a sense of rebellion, I stopped shaving, and for forty years I was never without a beard.  Through an eighteen-year first marriage, two kids growing up, and many life-long friends, it wound up that the only people in my life who had seen me without a beard were my parents and my siblings.

In the first week of January this year, Wendy and I attended the wedding of a close friend and colleague.  It was a lovely three-day event in a picturesque village in Vermont.  There were about a dozen other guests and together we had a lovely time.  It was a dressy affair and there was an excellent photographer present, and a week or so later we were invited by email to a website to see (and purchase) photos.  They were great photos and everyone looked terrific in snazzy clothes, but I had to admit that I looked older in the photos than my internal picture of myself.  That beard was so white.

I shared my thoughts with Wendy and we agreed to experiment.  Several years ago with the help of a hotel concierge I found a wonderful place for haircuts in New York.  It’s a men’s-only salon that offers drinks and all sorts of nice perks.  I made an appointment with my favorite stylist, Lyuba, and when I sat in her chair she asked, as she always does in her strong Russian accent, “what are we going to do with you today?”  When I said we’re going to take off the beard she gave a little shriek.  They brought me some whiskey, and off it came.  She finished up with a luxurious old-fashioned straight razor shave, and I went out into the evening.

The salon is on 46th Street between Third and Lexington Avenues and I walked the crowded sidewalks down Lexington to 42nd Street, and into Grand Central Station to take the “6” train to our new apartment in Greenwich Village.  I continually touched my cheeks and chin, getting used to new sensations.  The feeling of cool air on my face was novel and strange.  But by far the biggest sensation of change was that no one around me knew anything was different.  It was rush hour and I must have walked past sixty-thousand people in those five minutes, and although I knew something was radically different, not one person noticed.

Wendy laughed out loud when I walked into our apartment.  A few days later there was a family outing with my parents and two of my siblings – lots of ribaldry about who in the family I look like.  And a couple days later I stopped shaving.  I retreated to our place in Maine so, as Wendy teased, I could hide in the woods while it grew back.

I’m better now that the beard is back.

Looking back on the experience, it’s funny to think that what I actually look like doesn’t fit my image of myself.  Since I was a teenager I’ve known myself as a person with a beard, as has everyone around me.  Without a beard I am myself, but I don’t look like myself. 


We are a community of organists and organbuilders, professionals in a niche market.  It’s as though we’re proprietors of a unique boutique.  What is our image of ourselves?  When we look into a proverbial mirror who and what do we see?  Are we who we think we are?

How many of our customers like us because they think we’re quaint?  I’m reminded of these questions every time I’m at a social event and meeting people for the first time.  In those situations it’s inevitable that someone asks what I do and their response is swift and predictable: “Pipe organ builder?  I didn’t know there were any of you left.”  It’s almost comical how often I hear that, exactly word for word.

During the second half of the twentieth century, much of our effort and talents were focused on the past.  We studied and emulated the instruments that were played by the “old masters.”  We researched and emulated how the “old masters” played, and we programmed thousands of recitals that included nothing written within the last two or three-hundred years.

Make no mistake as you read this.  I believe strongly that movement was essential to the future of the pipe organ.  Without all that creative energy, without all that fresh understanding of the heritage of our instrument, there would not be the high level of excellence and competency in today’s American organbuilding.  And it’s hard to imagine how we would be experiencing the music of Bach unfiltered by the careers of artists like Gustav Leonhardt, Ton Koopman, or E. Power Biggs.  That half-century was a modern Renaissance in the truest sense of the word. 

Yesterday I heard a story on National Public Radio about actors who have researched the accents, pacing, and delivery of Shakespeare’s plays as they were produced during his lifetime.  A recording was played of Sir Lawrence Olivier delivering the famous “to be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet followed by one of the modern actors doing it according to this research.  The research seemed to be saying the accent was close to that of modern Ireland (whatever that is), and the delivery was very quick.  It was interesting enough, but I couldn’t help wondering how in the world they think they know what a sixteenth-century actor sounded like?

I’ve lived in Boston most of my life, a city renowned for its famous accent, but as a Bostonian, I know there are least five distinct “Boston” accents.  How do we decide on an authentic accent for Stratford-on-Avon in 1595?  And I’m not sure we can claim to know how fast a sixteenth-century Shakespearean actor spoke, any more than we can claim to know how fast Bach played the “little” Fugue in G Minor.  The value of the research, both for Shakespearean accents and Bach’s tempos, is whether it adds to the vitality of the performance.

Walk into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York any day of the year, and you walk into a mob scene.  The soon-to-be-replaced steps at the main entrance on Fifth Avenue have a carnival atmosphere, the big entrance lobby is jammed with tourists from dozens of different countries, and the galleries are all a-swirl with people gawking at the artworks.  People used to go to organ recitals that way.  There are plenty of historic accounts of huge enthusiastic crowds at concerts in municipal auditoriums and churches alike.  Just a couple months ago in this column I reprinted the account of the dedication of the big Skinner organ in the ten-thousand seat Municipal Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio in 1922.  The place was jammed, the aisles were full, thousands of people were turned away, and the police gave up trying to control the crowd.  When was the last time you saw something like that at an organ recital?

I don’t have the statistics at hand just now, but I remember reading that it was sometime in the 1960’s that the cumulative attendance at live performances of classical music in the United States was surpassed for the first time by attendance at professional sporting events.  I doubt that even the recently announced scandal-driven suspensions of coaches and players of the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints will contribute to a reversal of that development.


It’s the twenty-first century now.  We’ve survived the transition from one century to another.  Remember how uptight everyone was about Y2K?  Airplanes would crash, ATM’s would run dry, clocks would stop, and heaven help anyone depending on a computer.  January 1, 2000?  No big deal.  And what were we going to call the first ten years of the century?   The oh’s, the aughts?  Now we’re about to enter the teens.  No big deal.

In the nineteen-twenties, American pipe organ builders produced more than two thousand organs a year.  Companies like Skinner and Austin built a new organ each week – M.P. Möller had many years during which they shipped a new organ each day! 

I’ll go out on a limb and make an educated guess: American organbuilders have not produced two thousand organs in the last thirty or even forty years combined.  Since 1960 companies like Fisk, Noack, Dobson, and Andover have each built between one and two hundred organs.  Taylor & Boody has just signed a contract for Opus 70.  Möller built fewer and fewer new instruments each year until finally closing in 1992. Aeolian-Skinner closed in 1972.  Year for year, the American market for new pipe organs is less than five percent of what it was a hundred years ago.

In fairness, these numbers need some interpreting.  Today’s organbuilders have a much higher percentage of projects rebuilding older organs than those of a century ago.  Thousands of nineteenth-century masterpieces by builders like Hook, Jardine, Hutchings, and Odell were replaced by the new-fangled electro-pneumatic jobs built by Skinner, Austin, Kimball, and their competitors.  Today we are much more likely to be renovating organs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than building new instruments.  And some of the markets for new organs a century ago are simply gone, such as the municipal organ, the big-money residence organ, and the cinema organ.  Utterly outside the market for church organs, Wurlitzer and Aeolian built thousands of instruments for movie theaters and private homes.  Last year’s Oscar-winning movie, The Artist, about the quantum shift from silent movies to talkies never gave a hint about the collapse of the market for theater pipe organs!

But however you analyze the numbers, we can’t escape the fact that the market is wildly different today.  And we who love the organ are responsible for its place in our cultural heritage for the coming century.

So how do we see ourselves?  Who is our audience?  What is the future of the pipe organ in America?  Are we condemned to crying in our beer as we lament the good old days like the enthusiasts of steam railroads?

What is our image of ourselves? 
·      Are we coconspirators in a quixotic adventure? 
·      Are we hanging on the glories of past ages? 
·      Is our range of expression limited to those of our predecessors? 
·      Are we playing to each other from positions of expertise assuming that the general audience will be moved vicariously?

Answer those questions relative to the price of a new organ.  We live in the age of the “million-dollar” organ.  That’s what it costs to commission a new instrument with three manuals and forty or fifty stops, and that’s not a very large organ.  That’s a mighty amount of money for a church to spend on a musical instrument in a society rife with poverty and other social needs.  Are we presenting ourselves, and our music, to the public and to our congregations in a way that’s worthy of expecting laypeople to justify coming up with that kind of money? 


That was a mighty negative list of questions.  I offer them as challenges.  I challenge you to think about your work, your interests, your plans for future repertoire and performances with those questions in mind.  A great performer is a great communicator.  When you perform you share your convictions about your art with those who come to hear. 

We refer to public performances of organ music as recitals.  The dictionary says that a recital is a performance of music by a solo musician or a small musical ensemble.  But if we embody the root of the word, recite, what are we offering to the listener?  In that sense of the word, there’s no implication of originality, or even passion.  Don’t recite, communicate.

I think that one of the attractions of viewing a work of visual art in a museum is that you are free to interpret it any way you want.  You might be influenced by the way it’s hung, the way it’s lit, or the architecture of the gallery, but when you simply view the painting or statue you’re on your own. 

Music doesn’t work that way.  The only people who can appreciate a piece of music at that level are those who can read a score and understand the piece in silence.  That experience is not available to the casual listener.  When you listen to a piece of music you are influenced by the performer.  It’s therefore up to the performer to decide what kind of experience to provide for the consumer.  It’s up to the performer to give the listener a good experience.


You might not think so from reading this so far, but I’m optimistic.  In this world of instant communication, flashy digital equipment, and dwindling intellectual content in much of the public discourse, I think I see a refreshment of public appreciation for things that are real, that have depth of expression, and that feed people’s cultural hunger.  I’ve written often of my celebration of the ever increasing numbers of genius young organists whose pedagogic abilities are such that the technical demands of the most complex music simply dissolve, allowing the listener to hear the music un-bumped.  There are dozens of players like that today, performers with old-world work ethics who are willing to devote themselves to routines of practice and diligence that we used to be able only to read about, shaking our heads.  And the best news is that many of them are now the teachers of tomorrow’s generation of masterful performers.

The Organ Historical Society was founded in 1956.  In its nearly sixty-year history, the OHS has had a huge influence on how we view the heritage we’ve inherited from our predecessors.  Over the same period of time we have studied and adored the music and instruments of various epochs of European history.  We are much the richer for all of that.  We have a strong community of outstanding organ building firms.  We have a rich crop of brilliant musicians who are finding new and exciting ways to use the pipe organ.

The past has informed us, but the future is a blank slate.  Let’s be sure we know who we are.

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