Swell to Positive

When it comes to composing, writing for organ strikes fear into my heart. I’m not sure why. Even though I’ve written for pipe organ successfully before, when including it became a condition of the piece I’m currently working on, my anxiety ratcheted up a notch or two. Perhaps it’s that, combined with the outrageously wide range (basically the range of human hearing) of the thing, there are so many timbral possibilities, many of which can’t be defined as specifically as I am accustomed to defining things; the composer has to be even more dependent upon the performer to make decisions about the quality of the instrumental sound.

Happily, my trepidation was greatly eased earlier this week, when I had the wonderful opportunity to receive a demonstration of, and experiment a bit with, the Watjen Concert Organ of Benaroya Hall in Seattle, Washington. It is a gigantic beast of an instrument, through which organist Joseph Adam (who is a “pipe organ whisperer,” if ever there was one) expertly gave me a tour.

He demonstrated many, many different sounds, explaining not only ways to communicate the different qualities to an organist in a musical score, but also offering some helpful general ideas about how the different sonic qualities function in terms of volume level, tuning issues, and how they blend (or don’t) with other instrumental groups. A number of comments dipped into the physics of sound: “This sounds hollow because all of the even numbered harmonics are taken away.” In addition, he showed me some whiz-bang changes that are possible through the electronically controlled stop-action. In my previous experience writing for organ, the instruments the work was to be played on ended up being very old European organs in crumbly churches, so all of this modernity is very exciting!

Speaking of stops, I had to laugh when I finally moved my line of sight away from the keyboards and to the stops on the right side of the instrument (thank you, organ builders everywhere for this):

Swell to Positive

Adam also played bits of different pieces, such as Mahler and Stravinsky, to illustrate certain techniques. At one point he pulled out a score of Hindemith’s Sonata No. 1 for organ, which I hadn’t heard before and liked so much that there is a score winging it’s way to my doorstep as I write this post. I was also able to show him some of my music-in-progress, which he played through, allowing me to develop a clear image of the registration and sound quality the organ part will have, and providing inspiration for the sections yet to come.

I did play the instrument a little bit myself, and it felt like driving a really fancy car that handles easily despite it’s weight, responding to the lightest touch. As a person who learns best by doing, being able to actually play an instrument with which I feel unfamiliar—especially if I don’t know exactly how it works—makes a huge difference in the way I end up writing for it. I think this is true for any composer, regardless of learning style. Studying scores till I drop is definitely helpful, but physical engagement with the instrument is what ultimately makes the music work.

2 thoughts on “Swell to Positive

  1. Jack Parton

    Love the Hindemith organ sonatas–they were SOO much fun to play back in the days when I played organ…

    I love writing for organ, but I always found most daunting how different each individual instrument might be, what advantages or limitations it might pose. It’s of course great fun to write for a particular instrument, but there’s also possibility that that can also limit a work’s future: I think particularly of one of my mass settings written for a church in Baltimore; some of the organ effects called for were specific to that instrument (and some of the musical effects took advantage of some musical quirks of that room, for that matter); it was a lesson learned to hear it performed a second time in a church in Manhattan and have these ideas, while played as closely as possible to the original specifications, fall kindof flat. It’s not like a piano where you know pretty much what sounds those 88 keys are likely to produce. There’s also the fun of figuring out how to give the organist the “free hand” he sometimes needs to effect registration changes mid-stream; many organs have all sorts of presets and crescendo-pedal controls, but not all. It’s illuminating looking at Langlais and Duruflé scores to see how even registration changes can be used as musical events in the work and how those composers free up hands needed to pull or push a stop at those moments. I have one work where the “fugue” material became complex enough I finally rewrote the work for four hands and four feet, meaning at some point SOMEONE has a hand that can be spared for a few moments.

    Organ, like the harp, is one of the instruments at which I’m grateful to have had a number of years’ lessons. As you say, nothing is as useful as actually having had a hand on the instrument to know how it might work.

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