Thursday, June 28, 2012


In the wind…

January 2012

I admit it.  I’m a Mac-junkie.  After my Blackberry fell out of my shirt pocket into a hotel ice bucket in Madagascar (really!) in 2008, I tried an iPhone (everyone’s doing it) and found it easy to use.  I used PC’s since they were first widely available until last winter, when for the third time in not enough years I had to replace a recalcitrant laptop.  Because I liked the iPhone so much I bought a MacBook and was immediately delighted by the clarity of the screen, the fast response, and the ease of navigation.  Now I’ve added an iPad to my arsenal and I’ve become hooked on the new and exploding world of Apps.

I have Apps that convert measurements between English and Metric, manage To-Do lists, give weather forecasts, find restaurants and local tides, warn of heavy traffic, measure decibels, and even provide a carpenter’s level and plumb-bob – all useful and relevant to my work and life-style.  I have New York Times crossword puzzles, I love playing Words With Friends, and I even have Peterson’s Birds of North America, complete with audible calls. 

New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority has a great App called iTrans NYC (free).  Stand on a street corner in Manhattan, touch the app’s location button, type in your destination, and you get a subway route complete with (amazingly accurate) schedules and related street maps.  Want a quick lunch?  Open your maps App and type in “diner.”  Thirty little red pins fall out of the sky onto your screen.  If you’re in Manhattan, you’re never more than two blocks from a diner.  Does that whet your App-etite?

There's an app called Yelp that allows you type in what you're looking for and provides options based on your current location.  Type in "asian" and you get a list of restaurants with links to their menus, websites, and reviews.  Or type in "hardware," "art supplies," "Episcopal churches," etc., etc.

The other day my colleague Joshua Wood showed me the Starbucks App.  It has a locating feature – touch a button and you get a map with pins showing the nearest Starbucks stores.  You set up an account with a password and credit card, tap a button and the screen shows a barcode.  The cashier flashes the little barcode gun at your phone, and you’re in Joe.  I know perfectly well that if Starbucks is holding twenty-five of my dollars, they’re holding twenty-five dollars from a couple million other people, so on the short term they have the use of fifty-million dollars, but I still like having the App.  It makes me feel as though I belong, just like the turnpike EZ-pass that allows me to drive around a line of traffic – it’s better (and probably safer) than a backstage pass for a Rolling Stones concert.  The dirty little secret is that when I was setting up the Starbucks App it didn’t want to accept my credit card, so I tried again, and again, and again.  The next morning there were seven twenty-five-dollar charges on my bank account, but only one registered on my phone – I’m going back to basics by relying on the cheerful tellers in the bank branch to help sort that out for me. 

There’s a magnificent and innovative App on T.S. Elliott’s poetic masterpiece, The Waste Land ($13.99), which includes a filmed dramatic (memorized) reading by actress Fiona Shaw, complete audio recordings by Ted Hughes, Alec Guinness (among others) and by T.S. Elliott himself, all synchronized to the published text.  Most interesting are original manuscript pages with editing marks by Ezra Pound.  Now that’s educational.  Think of all the great works of art and literature that could be analyzed and presented in this format.


The Roman Catholic Church has approved an App called “Confession” ($1.99) which claims to be “the perfect aid for every penitent,” and especially useful for those who have been away from the Confessional for a long time.  Like any other App there’s a process you follow to open a “User Account” with password.  Once you’re in, you open an “Examination” page to get a list of the Ten Commandments.  Click on a Commandment and you get a check list of questions, a catalogue of sins, if you will.  When you’ve been through all the Commandments and clicked all the sins that apply to you, you have the option to create a custom list, typing in your own free-style personal failings.  You are then instructed to take your phone with you to the Confession Booth and told how to address the priest.  For reference when you’re finished, there’s a handy page with various Acts of Contrition.  You are required to enter your password frequently, protection no doubt against allowing your private thoughts to fall into the wrong hands.  A warning window clearly states, “This App is intended to be used during the Sacrament of Penance with a Catholic priest only.  This is not a substitute for a valid confession.”  I suppose marriage counseling is next.

Reminds me of the gospel song made popular by Manhattan Transfer:
“Operator, give me information.
Information, give me long distance.
Long distance, give me Heaven.

Operator, give me Heaven,
Give me Jesus on the line…”

Great song.

The Women of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) have published an App called Daily Grace.  The website says:
“Daily Grace is an on-the-go companion for your journey, offering a faith reflection every day.  In these brief writings you’ll encounter God’s extravagant, boundless and often surprising grace.  You will be comforted, challenged, inspired, consoled, and confronted.  The daily reflection will stir you to live out your baptismal calling.  Take time to reflect, offer a prayer, and prepare for the day.  Read the daily message or choose Random Grace.”

Random Grace.  Does that pair with Custom Confession?  What’s going on here?

There are lots of Apps out there useful to church musicians.  Google “lectionary app” and you’ll get an assortment of choices – one is free this weekend.  The Hymnals of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Episcopal Church, Methodist Church, Church of Latter Day Saints, Adventist, and Presbyterian Church are available as Apps, as is the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible, the Quran, and the Talmud.  Think how much work you can get done on the train.

But there’s also the silly.  Google “pipe organ app” and you’ll find a thing from MooCowMusic that puts a two-manual organ with stop knobs on your iPhone.  The website says you can “add gravitas to any situation.”  I bought the Confession App out of curiosity, but I’m not curious enough to bother with the MooCow organ.  If any of you out there get it, let me know how it works.  I have better uses for my ninety-nine-cents.

The First Church in Boston’s Back Bay is a large and central Unitarian Universalist congregation.  The original stone gothic building was destroyed by fire in 1968; all that remains is the east- facing “West End,” replete with rose window, and a stately stone spire.  These relics embrace the striking replacement designed by Paul Rudolph which houses a neo-classical Werkprinzip organ by Casavant.  The quirky interior space of the sanctuary includes several unusual windows that splash sunlight across the façade of the organ at astrologically predictable intervals each day.  The first time I tuned that instrument I was aware late in the morning of a dramatic stretch of the pitch – all the pipes were tuning with the slide-tuners in just the same spot on each pipe, but suddenly a couple octaves of pipes were too short to reach pitch, and I realized that the façade pipes (Ruckpositiv Principal 4’ which I was using as the tuning stop) were heating up in the brilliant sunlight.  Wait an hour for the sun to pass across the window and you can start up again.

I was discussing the strategy of tuning the organ with Paul Ciennewa (organist at First Church, and author of an excellent recent article in The Diapason on the memorization of harpsichord music) and we agreed that during the upcoming tuning session we would install thermometers in each division of the organ so we could develop a record of the temperature and pitch.  Paul whipped out his iPhone and opened the App called ClearTune ($9.99), entered the “calibrate” mode, and we recorded the pitch of the organ.

I was trained to tune “by ear,” setting my own temperaments with a neat system of double-checking, eschewing electronic “crutches” but I was intrigued by the convenience and simplicity of using my phone this way.  I downloaded the App that evening and quickly learned its capabilities, and the next time I made a service call I experimented using the app to set a temperament, then checked it carefully using my system.  I made little corrections to a couple intervals, but was surprised at how quickly and accurately I was able to get the tuning started.  I continued as usual, tuning other ranks to the original pitch stop, but I know this new tool saved me some time.

Now I see an App called “Organ Tuner” ($169.99).  It has a large variety of historic temperaments, strobe displays and spectrum graphs for accurate matching of pitch, it tracks temperature and adjusts itself when the temperature changes, and sets itself to allow you to tune mutations at your given pitch level.  I downloaded and printed the instruction manual – I think I’ll read it before I make the plunge.  I’ve never paid more than fifty-dollars for an App – that was for The Professional Chef, published by the Culinary Institute of America.  (Last night I learned from my iPad how to cut Grapefruit Suprêmes to make a wonderful salad with spinach, avocado, and balsamic vinaigrette.)


When President Nixon’s White House tape-recording system was revealed by Alexander Butterfield during questioning by the Senate Watergate Committee in July of 1973, a political firestorm ensued during which one disbelieving White House operative commented that eight years of recordings would take eight years to listen to.  There is such a thing as too much information.  The world of information, helpful tools, and amusements available to us as Apps has no practical limit.  I googled the question to learn that there are more than three-hundred-thousand iPhone Apps and sixty-thousand for iPad. 

As I write today, googling my way through my questions, I’ve bought and downloaded five new Apps.  The Episcopal Hymnal (1982) is downloading at the moment – simultaneously on all three of my Mac devices.  (Have I told you about iCloud?)  That means I’ve added an hour or so to the amount of time it takes to write this column.  Does this represent a net-gain in my productivity?  Will I gain that hour back later in the week because an App saves me time?

This morning I read last week’s New Yorker magazine on my iPad where the App nestles in Newsstand.  A cartoon shows a group of people sitting around a restaurant table.  The plates were empty (so the food must have been good), there were lots of empty wineglasses, and everyone seemed to be having a good time except the couple in the foreground.  He was buried in his iPhone.  With a cross look on her face she was saying, “Fine.  Sit there and check your messages.  Perhaps it will give you something to contribute to the conversation.”  Oof.  How often have you dived into your phone to google the answer to a question that comes up at dinner with friends.  Our daughter Meg hates that.  She says that in conversation we should rely on what we know.  Maybe she’s right.  Maybe if we rely too heavily on our phones for every thing we do we’ll lose the information we’ve worked so hard to cram into our brains.

But I love having all this information and entertainment so easily available.  It’s especially helpful to me because I travel frequently and by carrying a couple slim light-weight devices I have encyclopediæ at my fingertips.  I can navigate effortlessly in foreign cities.  I can communicate instantly with people around the world.  And I have plenty to do while sitting on a plane.

But I’m in danger of separating myself from my art.  There are Apps that play music, and Apps that allow you to record music, but there’s no App that performs music.  There are Apps that register decibels and pitches, but there’s no App that can voice or tune an organ pipe.  There are Apps that crunch numbers and measurements, and Apps that show level and plumb, but no App that can read the grain in a piece of wood before it goes through a planer or a table saw.  The organbuilder still has to know that wood warps “across” the grain – that the grain in a pallet has to be vertical or warping will cause ciphers, and the grain in a keyboard has to be horizontal or the keys will warp into each other.  When you’re standing at your saw working through a pile of wood, you pick up each piece, glance at it with your trained eye, and flip it around in the right direction before you push it to the blade.

No matter how many Apps we carry, when we’re involved in the arts we must leave open the possibility of Operator Error.  No risk, no gain.

I’ve carried on about the convenience and accuracy of tuning Apps, but when I check a temperament by ear that I’ve set using an App I almost always adjust a few notes to make it sound better.  The App has saved me some time, but if the proof is in the pudding, my fifty-something ears are still the best tools I have.  I hope I don’t get lulled into losing my ear by tuning to a graph.

There’s no App to work out the fingerings of a difficult passage.  The idea that every organist would use the same fingerings is as ridiculous as claiming that every organist has identical hands.  There’s no App to choose registrations – you try different combinations, listening creatively and critically until you find the right sound for the moment.  The idea that you would use the same stops on a given piece at every organ you play is as ridiculous as claiming that every organ sounds alike.

There’s no App to help you balance the voices in a choir.  As director, you listen creatively and critically, coaxing each member of each section to the right slot.  The idea that some machine could take the place of all that human artistic interaction is as ridiculous as thinking that every choir has the same issues.

And there’s no App that diagnoses a mechanical glitch.  The organ technician senses the problem and verifies it with his eyes or by the touch of his finger on the key.

I have a great idea for an App, and I know I’ll never act on it so anyone qualified is free to develop the idea.  There should be an App with a twelve-step program for people addicted to Apps.  It would be called App-endectomy.  Go for it.  I’m exhausted by all this deep research.  I think I’ll take an-App.  (No App-nea.)

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