Saturday, September 21, 2013

In the wind…
September, 2013

The Start of a Century
At 10:24 am on October 15, 1947, Air Force Test Pilot Chuck Yaeger flew the X-1 experimental aircraft faster than the speed of sound.  That’s 761.2 miles per hour at 59-degrees Fahrenheit.  It was quite a technological achievement.  You have to generate a lot of power to move a machine that fast.  But there was a spiritual and metaphysical aspect to that feat.  Engineers were confident that they could produce sufficient power, but they were not sure that a machine would survive the shock wave generated by a machine outrunning its own noise.  They supposed that the plane would vaporize, or at least shatter, scattering Yaeger-dust across the landscape.

In his swaggering ghost-written autobiography, Yaeger, he casually mentions that he had broken ribs (probably garnered in a barroom brawl) and had to rig a broomstick to close the cockpit hatch.  He took off, flew the daylights out of the thing, and landed, pretty much just like any other flight.  By the noise, and by the cockpit instruments, he knew he had broken the sound barrier, but to Yaeger’s undoubted pleasure and later comfort, the worries of the skeptics proved untrue.

Invisible barriers.
Remember Y2K?  As the final weeks of 1999 ticked by, residents of the world wondered if we would survive the magical mystical moment between December 31, 1999, and January 1, 2000.  Of course, the world has survived some twenty-five changes of millennia since we started to count time, but this would be the first time with computers.  The myth that computers would not be able to count to 2000 had us hyperventilating as we ran to ATM to grab as much cash as we could.  People refused to make plans that would have them aloft in airplanes at that horrible moment, supposing that cockpit computers would fail and planes would fall from the sky.  The collapse of the world’s economy was predicted.  Public utilities would cease to function.  Nuclear power plants would overheat, and soufflés would fall.

As the clock ticked closer to midnight on New Year’s Eve, we waited breathlessly.  Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen…sometimes it causes me to tremble…eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven…all good children go to heaven…four, three, two one…


I have no idea how the venerable astronomers settled on how to organize the calendar and define our concept of time.  I imagine a committee of bearded and wizened wise men gathered in a pub, throwing darts at a drawing of a clock.  However they did it, they didn’t fool us.  Cell phones, ATMs, airplanes, power plants, railroads, and thank goodness, icemakers just kept on running.  However accurately that moment was defined, it was meaningless – a randomly identified milestone amongst the multitude.

Then we worried about what we call those years.  The oughts?  The Ohs?  Shifting from ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine to oh-one, oh-two, oh-three seemed impossible.  I managed, and so did you.

The twentieth century started without the computer induced hoopla, but I suppose that our heroes Widor, Puccini, Saint-Saens, Dvorak, and Thomas Edison watched in suspense as the clock ticked past the witching hour.  The real upheaval happened over thirteen years later.  On May 29, 1913, Ballets Russe danced the premier of Igor Stravinski’s Rite of Spring at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.  Stravinski had used traditional and familiar instruments and all the same notes that people were used to, but the way he arranged the tonalities, the maniacal organization of rhythms, the angular melodies, and the radical orchestration set the place in an uproar.  The bassoon that played those haunting melismatic opening solos could have been used to play continuo in a Bach Cantata the same day.  Legend has it that the audience couldn’t contain itself and there was wild disturbance.  How wonderful for a serious musical composition to stir people up like that.  I haven’t seen people so worked up since the Boston Bruins failed to win the Stanley Cup.

Everything’s up to date in Kansas City.
About five weeks before Stravinsky tried to ruin the theater in Paris, the Woolworth Building designed by Cass Gilbert was opened on Lower Broadway in New York, April 24, 1913.  Like Stravinsky, Cass Gilbert used a traditional vocabulary – the prickles and arches given us by the Gothic Cathedrals.  But Rogers & Hammerstein’s “gone and built a skyscraper seven stories high” was not as high as a building ought to go.  Cass Gilbert went fifty-seven stories – 792 feet – the building remained the tallest in the world until 1930.  Gilbert hung those classic Gothic features on a high-tech structure and startled the world of architecture and commerce.

Besides the technical achievement of supporting a massive structure that tall, the building had thirty-four new-fangled elevators.  The engineers executing Gilbert’s design had to figure out to get water more than seven hundred feet up.  Just think of that, pulling up to the curb in a shiny new 1913 Chalmers Touring Car, and stepping in an elevator to go up fifty-seven stories.  Those folks in Kansas City would have flipped their wigs.

The Woolworth building is still there a hundred years later.  Like Rite of Spring, it’s a staple in our lives, and it seems a little less radical than it did a century ago.  After all, a few blocks away at 8 Spruce Street, by the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, the new tallest residential building in the Americas (seventy-six stories and 876 feet), designed by Frank Gehry, towers like a maniacal grove of polished corkscrews.  Gehry took the functional aesthetic of the glass-and-steel Seagram Building (375 Park Avenue, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, built in 1958), and gave it a cubist ethic by twisting the surfaces to create the signature rippling effects.

How poetic that the Woolworth Building and 8 Spruce Street, opened almost exactly a century apart, stand just a few blocks apart, trying to out-loom each other.  I took these photos of them standing in the same spot on City Hall Plaza.

Frank Woolworth made a fortune in retail, the Sam Walton of his day.  F.W. Woolworth stores dotted the country, making goods of reasonable quality available to residents of small towns.  However, I doubt that anything sold in his stores would have been found in his houses.  His principal residence, also designed by Cass Gilbert, was at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 80th Street in Manhattan, across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Among dozens of priceless artifacts was a large three-manual Aeolian Organ.  Woolworth was one of Aeolian’s prime customers, and rare among that heady clientele, he could play the organ. 

His estate Winfield (the “W” of F. W. Woolworth) on Long Island boasted the first full-length thirty-two-foot Double Open Diapason to be built for a residence organ.  Now that would shake your champagne glasses.

Woolworth’s funeral was held in the Fifth Avenue mansion.  Frank Taft, artistic director of the Aeolian Company, was on the organ bench.

The Twenty-First Century Pipe Organ
There’s a lot going on here in lower Manhattan.  South of Union Square at 14th Street, Broadway stops its disruptive diagonal path across the city, and assumes a more reliable north-south orientation, forming the border between Greenwich East Village and Greenwich West Village.  On the corner of 10th and Broadway stands Grace Church (Episcopal).  Three blocks west on the corner of 10th and Fifth Avenue stands Church of the Ascension (Episcopal).  Both are “Gothicky” buildings – Grace is whitish with a tall pointed spire while Ascension is brownish with a stolid square tower with finials.  Both have pretty urban gardens.  Both are prosperous active places.  And both have radical new twenty-first century organs.

Taylor & Boody of Staunton, Virginia are coming toward completion of the installation of their Opus 65 at Grace Church where Patrick Allen is the Organist and Master of the Choristers.  Pascal Quoirin of Saint-Didier, Provence, France has completed installation of a marvelous instrument at Church of the Ascension where Dennis Keene is Organist and Choirmaster.

Both of these organs have as their cores large tracker-action organs based on historic principles – and Principals.  And both have large romantic divisions inspired by nineteenth and twentieth-century ideals.  Both are exquisite pieces of architecture and furniture, and both have been built by blending the highest levels of traditional craftsmanship with modern materials and methods.

At Church of the Ascension you can play the core organ from a three-manual mechanical keydesk and the entire instrument from a separate four-manual electric console.  At Grace Church, the whole organ plays from a four-manual detached mechanical console, and contacts under the keyboards allow access to electric couplers and the few high-pressure windchests that operate on electric action.

A more detailed account of the organ at Church of the Ascension has been published, and no doubt, we can expect one about the Grace Church organ – so I’ll limit myself to general observations, and let the organbuilders and musicians involved speak for themselves.  I admire the courage and inventiveness exhibited in the creation of these two remarkable instruments.

I expect that purists from both ends of the spectrum will be critical, or at least skeptical of these efforts to bridge the abyss.  But I raise the question of whether purism, or conservative attitudes are the best things for the future of our instrument.  We study history, measure pipes, analyze metal compositions, and study the relationships between ancient instruments and the music written for them.  We have to do that, and we must do that. 

After finishing the restoration and relocation of a beautiful organ built by E. & G.G. Hook (Opus 466, 1868) for the Follen Community Church in Lexington, Massachusetts, I wrote an essay in the dedication book under the title, The Past Becomes the Future.  In it I wrote about the experience of working on such a fine instrument, marveling at the precision of the workers’ pencil lines, and the vision of conceiving an instrument that would be vital and exciting a hundred-forty years later.  I saw that project as a metaphor for a combination of eras.  And I intended the double meaning for the word becomes.  The past not only transfers to the future, but it enhances the future.  I could carry the play on words further by misquoting the title of a popular movie, Prada Becomes the Devil!

Another tense of that use of the word become is familiar to us from Duprés Fifteen Antiphons, I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.  We don’t typically use the word that way in conversation, but if you read in a Victorian poem, “she of comely leg,” you’d know exactly what it meant!

Speaking of the Ballet…
Recently, renowned organist Diane Belcher mentioned on Facebook that the recording she made in ­­­­­­1999 (JAV 115) on the Rosales/Glatter-Götz organ in the Claremont United Church of Christ, Claremont, California has been released on iTunes.  Buy it.  This is a smashing recording of wonderful playing on a really thrilling organ.  It’s a big three-manual instrument with mechanical action and a wide variety of tone color.  The recording has long been a favorite of mine – I transferred it from the original CD to my iPhone and listen to it in the car frequently.

The first piece on the recording is Tiento de Batalla sobre la Balletto del Granduca by Timothy Tikker, was commissioned by the organbuilder to showcase the organ’s extraordinary collection of reed voices.  The piece opens with a statement of a measured dance, familiar to organists who grew up listening to the recording of E. Power Biggs, and proceeds in a dignified fashion from verse to verse.  I picture a large stone hall lit by torches, with heavily costumed people in parade.  But about three minutes in, things start to go wrong.  It’s as though someone threw funky mushrooms into one of the torches.  An odd note pokes through the stately procession – you can forgive it because you hardly notice it.  But oops, there’s another – and another – and pretty soon the thing has morphed into a series of maniacal leaps and swoops as the reeds get more and more bawdy.  Tikker established a traditional frame on which he hung a thrilling, sometimes terrifying essay on the power of those Rosales reeds.

New threads on old bones.
·      Igor Stravinski used an ancient vocabulary of notes and sounds to create revolutionary sounds.  The same old sharps and flats, rhythmic symbols, and every-good-boy-deserves-fudge were rejigged to start a revolution.
·      Cass Gilbert used five-hundred year old iconography to decorate a technological wonder.
·      Frank Gehry gave the familiar skyscraper a new twist.
·      Taylor & Boody and Pascal Quoirin have morphed seventeenth and eighteenth languages into twenty-first century marvels.
·      Timothy Tikker painted for us a portrait of the march of time.

Organists are very good at lamenting the passage of the old ways.  Each new translation of the bible or the Book of Common Prayer is cause for mourning.  I won’t mention the introduction of new hymnals.  (Oops!)

We recite stoplists as if they were the essence of the pipe organ.  We draw the same five stops every time we play the same piece on a different organ.  And we criticize our colleagues for starting a trill on the wrong note. 

I don’t think Igor Stravinski cared a whit about which note should start a trill.

The end of the world as we know it.
Together we have witnessed many doomsday predictions.  I’ve not paid close attention to the science of it, but it seems to me that the Mayan Calendar has come and gone in the news several times in the last few years.  A predicted doomsday passes quietly and someone takes another look at the calendar and announces a miscalculation.  Maybe the world will end.  If it does, I suppose it will end for all of us so the playing field will remain equal.

But we can apply this phrase, the end of the world as we know it, to positive developments in our art and craft as the twenty-first century matures.  Your denomination introduces a new hymnal – the end of the world as you know it.  So, learn the new hymnal, decide for yourself what are the strong and weak points, and get on with it.

Chuck Yaeger broke the sound barrier, and kept flying faster and faster.  On October 15, 2012, at the age of 89, Chuck Yaeger reenacted the feat, flying in a brand new F-15 accompanied by a Navy Captain.  But imagine this, it was the same day that Austrian Felix Baumgartner became the first person to break the sound barrier without at airplane!  He jumped from a helium balloon at an altitude of twenty-four miles, and achieved a speed of 843.6 miles per hour as he fell before deploying his parachute.  Both men lived to see another day.

A Taylor & Boody organ with multiple pressures and expressions, powerful voices on electric actions, and seething symphonic strings – the end of the world as we know it.  Embrace the thoughtfulness and creativity that begat it.  And for goodness sake, stop using archaic words like comely and begat.

Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building

Frank Gehry's 8 Spruce Street

Woolworth Building, street level detail.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bomb Scare

Originally published in THE DIAPASON,
August 2007

“…and the livin’ is easy,”
It’s high summer and Americans are at the playground. Amusement parks are full, beaches are packed, and the highways leading to the beaches are global-warming-nightmares – you can see the heat waves shimmering above the lines of cars. Having driven from Boston to our house in Maine on a recent Friday afternoon my wife commented that on the highway she’d seen a lot of vacations she didn’t want to be on. These were the station wagons bristling with bicycles packed with coolers, kids, and dogs, everyone with grim expressions on their faces (especially eighty-mile-per-hour Dad), determined to have fun.

“…Daddy’s rich,”
Three-miles-per-gallon motor-homes the size of troop carriers, topped with satellite dishes, towing trailers full of motorbikes and bass boats with 250 HP outboards, spew black exhaust through National Parks, idyllic countryside, and major cities alike. Along with all that gear are more gas cans than a landscaping crew. You see three or four such rigs with consecutive numbers on their license plates lumbering along in convoy. It’s as though we can measure fun by the price of our toys or by the amount of fuel we burn. You can just hear eighty-mile-per-hour Dad shouting, “I’m paying six hundred dollars a day for this and you’re going to enjoy yourself.”

It’s especially hard when someone’s fun interrupts someone else’s. You’re sitting on the rocks with a friend, engrossed in conversation and watching the tide advance past your ankles toward your knees when a squadron of jet-skis comes screaming along, weaving and jumping over each others’ wakes, the riders having as much fun as possible considering the relatively small amount of fuel they burn. Finally they’re gone, and a hint of two-cycle (gas mixed with oil) exhaust lingers on the evening breeze.

“…and your mama’s good lookin’,”
We’ve dieted and electrolyzed so we can expose maximum surface area to ultra-violet rays without embarrassment, and we pack our natty straw bags with chemical stews to ward off those rays and legions of flying pests. Marketers know how to capture the leisure dollar. Have you ever noticed how pottery studios, art galleries, and t-shirt meccas congregate near the vacation spots? Once in the elevator in a city hotel I heard a woman say to her friend, “stuff in Ann Taylor just looks so much better when you’re on vacation.”

“…fish are jumpin’,” (sorry to be out of order!)
Reflect on those fancy white fishing boats you see on trailers on the highway – two big outboard motors at $25,000 each, electronic fish-finders, hundred-gallon fuel tanks, and fishing rods galore. The first ten fish you catch are worth $6000 per pound. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Perhaps The Diapason isn’t the place for a global-warming tirade, or a cynical rant on American consumerism or vanity. And perhaps it’s too much of a cliché to repeat, “The Best Things in Life are Free.” But how much are we missing when we indulge in this expensive and noisy fun? And what are we teaching our children about priorities?

While all this is going on we wonder about the increasing difficulty of funding symphony orchestras, maintaining collections of art, presenting great theater, and yes fellow readers, funding pipe organs. As a society we seem to be able to imagine a world without art, without music, without theater – but rich in football. This is proven by school-board budgets across the nation. Is there one town in America whose school committee cut sports programs in favor of the arts? (If you know of one please let me know.)

Here’s a little collection of thoughts that reflect these priorities. Some are my own, some are from bumper stickers:

  1. Could we find statistics to prove that more kids have missed soccer practice in order to get to choir rehearsal than missed choir to get to soccer?
  2. How many carefully prepared Youth Choir anthems have been compromised because of the hockey team’s Sunday morning ice time?
  3. It would be a great day when the Defense Department had to have bake sales to buy warships and the schools had all the money they needed.
  4. How can kids learn about the world around them when they’re watching videos every time they get in the car?
  5. When you see three teenagers walking down the street, all talking on cell phones, do you suppose they’re on a conference call with each other? (I was once riding the Amtrak Acela between Boston and New York with an unnecessarily loud cell-phoner a few rows back. In each call he had to announce, “I’m on the Acela to New York.” His third interlocutor said, “So am I.”  My fellow passengers and I knew long before they did that they were both in the same car with us. Much laughter.)
  6. If young children are up at the crack of dawn and teenagers want to sleep until noon, why does high school start at 7:10 am and elementary school at 8:45?
As I write, the early-morning radio is playing Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria one floor up. I hear it only vaguely in the distance but recognize it in the first few seconds (I can name that tune in one note!) because I first knew it as the accompanist of my high school’s Concert Choir more than thirty years ago. (I doubt that the same choir would be singing sacred music in Latin today, but that’s another story.) And as a high school student, it was my usual routine to go to the First Congregational Church (a three-manual Fisk organ) after school to practice for a couple hours. I was organist for a large Catholic church that many of my classmates were forced to attend. How’s that for being cool? But I have many friends and colleagues who grew up with similar priorities. As students at Oberlin in the mid-seventies my friends and I argued about whether Herbert von Karajan or George Solti played better Beethoven. Had they been available we would have been trading Symphony Orchestra cards in lieu of baseball cards. (Come to think of it, that would be a fun virtual game, trading an oboe player for a cellist to build the strongest orchestra.)
I am not saying that singing in the church’s Youth Choir is the most important activity for a young person. And I am not saying that boating is not fun – those who know me know how much I enjoy it. But the bumper sticker about the bake sale gives pause for thought. And it seems that ballot propositions for tax increases in support of the schools are often voted down by an older generation that feels they’ve done their part. In reality, the older we get the more we depend on the young. We notice the first time our physician is younger than we are. One of the big social impacts of John Kennedy’s presidency was that so many Americans were suddenly older than their president. I know many people who felt that change very clearly. So what will it be like when we have a president who grew up playing video games instead of practicing the piano?
When I was a kid…
We all know the old saw: the old uncle rattles on about walking ten miles to school every day and about how easy kids have it now. But I’ll offer another twist. When I was a kid, a community of generous and encouraging organists welcomed me. They took me to concerts and organ-shop Open Houses, and invited me to dinner parties. I felt privileged to witness, even participate in heady conversations. Along with my routine of practicing and lessons and the occasional recital, these experiences were important to my early understanding of what it could mean to be an organist. If you ever have an opportunity to invite a young person to an AGO event or a concert, make the most it knowing how much impact it could have on a young artist.
You can also make the most of your own opportunities. The parish organist has few chances to hear others play – after all, everyone is at work on Sunday mornings. But when you’re vacationing, take a look at what’s going on in local churches. If you’re in a big city, there’s every chance you could hear something special – something that would inspire your work in the coming year, something you never heard before.
Bomb scare.
Shortly after the nine-eleven attacks I was leaving a job site and driving out of New York City with a couple trays of organ pipes in the back of my van. Leaving Manhattan, I went north on FDR Drive along the East River and got onto the ramp system of the Triborough Bridge to head back to New England. Let me set the scene in case you’ve never had that pleasure. The Triborough Bridge is actually of collection of three of four bridges (it’s hard to tell) and myriad ramps that connect the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. According to the New York State Department of Transportation, the bridge carries some 200,000 vehicles each day.
I was stopped by a State Trooper on the Triborough ramp (no I wasn’t speeding, they were stopping every vehicle) who kindly asked if I’d open the rear of my vehicle. He took a look at a rank of Principal and a rank of Trumpet pipes and asked, “What’re those?” My honest response revealed that the Trooper was likely not an AGO member. I offered to demonstrate and he invited me out of my car. With a hot gritty city wind blowing through my erstwhile hair and the dramatic Manhattan skyline in the background, I picked up an eight-footer, pointed it skyward, and blew into its mouth. It was fortunate that I had a copy of The Diapason in the car so I could share photos of organs that featured pipes similar to those in the car.  I was allowed to pass.
Last month we spent a college commencement weekend in Providence, Rhode Island.  That Saturday morning (May 26) we picked up the Providence Journal (colloquially know as Pro-Jo) in which I read an article that reminded me of my Triborough experience. The headline was, “PIPE ORGAN AT CENTER OF SCHOOL BOMB SCARE.” Written by John Castellucci, the article began:
The suspicious-looking object that forced the evacuation of Tolman High School on Thursday wasn’t a pipe bomb – it was part of a pipe organ.
Tolman Principal Frederick W. Silva said yesterday that a couple of students had pried the pipe loose from the school’s circa 1927 pipe organ, which was walled off in a recent renovation of the high school auditorium and forgotten.
Tolman’s 1300 students were sent home and state fire marshal’s bomb squad was called in after a teacher spotted the object in a second-floor locker and alerted school officials.
Bomb squad members couldn’t figure out what the object was. They destroyed it as a precaution, applying a small explosive charge.
Because the detonation wasn’t followed by a bigger explosion, officials concluded that the object probably wasn’t a bomb.
The preservationist in me is concerned that the bomb squad may have failed to document the provenance, material, and dimensions of the pipe before taking such a rash action. The article went on:
…But because it looked so sinister, Pawtucket police officials asked the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to get involved, handling the fragments over to a BATF agent late Thursday afternoon.
I’m sorry to report that BATF was apparently also unable to identify the object. The mystery was solved when the two students involved (both boys) confessed their deed. They were suspended for ten days.  Mr. Castellucci concludes:
…Their motive for taking the pipe organ part? “What they found out was they could make noises by blowing up into it,” Silva said.