Easter 2024

31 January 2008
expansion - organist law of piston

Most organs are equipped with pistons, buttons that store combinations of stops, or registrations, set by the organist. General pistons affect the entire organ; there are also divisional pistons which affect only a division of the organ. (Good Anglican organists rely heavily on the divisional pistons of the swell.)

I've played Holtkamps that have only six general pistons. I have played others that have 14 or 16. I'm sure there are organs that have more.

But here's what I've noticed about my playing on these different organis:

On the six-piston Holtkamp, I feel limited in registering pieces, but I make it work. On the plentiful-piston organ, I don't feel the pressure to conserve piston changes. But in registering my pieces I pace myself -- subconsciously, I believe -- so that I use all the general pistons available.

Now let me set some parameters. I'm not talking about a Bach Prelude and Fugue here. I don't become the reincarnation of Virgil Fox when confronted with an empty memory level and a piece of the Fifth Gospel. Nor am I talking about a full-fledged organ symphony with multiple movements and a host of possibilities for registration. And I'm not talking about pistons on different levels either. I'm talking about those pistons one would reasonably expect to be able to use in the performance of a single piece.

My thesis would be something like this: the architecture of the organ's memory aids affects my registrational response to a sizable romantic or contemporary piece organ music.

With six pistons, I fight the architecture; but with a dozen or more, I feel compelled to put furniture (IV rank?) in every room.

Here's where things start to get interesting. Where do I, as a registrator (it's a word; think "orchestrator") draw the line when it comes to the number of pistons I set? Where's the ceiling?

If there were 20 pistons, would I expand my scheme to fill them? 40 pistons? 80?

ergonomics: Here's where we start to get into space considerations on the organ console itself. There's only so much room under the keyboards for buttons, so many larger instruments have "phantom pistons" that are programmable but not immediately accessible by a designated button.

Or what about 400? or 4000? There's no reason that those who design organ memory systems need to be so stingy with computer memory which is much cheaper, faster and more portable than they would like to admit (this is a different rant). There comes a point in memory design where the number of pistons available would be excessive rather than ample.

If the music influences the design of organ consoles, do the consoles then in turn influence the music? If organ designers added the "excessive" memory to their instruments (like those extra keys on Bosendorfers), would composers utilize the capability?

Speaking from hands on experience here, the only piece I can think of that could have made a dent in a bank of 400 pistons would have been Giles Swayne's Riff-Raff. The opening pages called for a shifting shimmer of similar sounds. In my performance on a conventional ten-piston organ, I was not able to achieve the variety of similarity that I think Swayne was after.

auralnomics: But this is as far as this kind of approach can take us. After a point, we enter the realm of intellectual exercise. When one piston is set with plenum and another piston later in the piece is set with the same plenum with an alternate 4-foot principal, we enter the realm of "variety" that can be programmed into an organ for no apparent reason. Ergo, I can't see a reason for the proverbial floodgates to be opened. The organ is an impressively complex device, and we can rattle off all kinds of combinatorics with even a modest 20-stop instrument, but the reality is that most of these combinations are effectively the same. The 400-piston organ would serve no purpose.

But, since I know you want to, here's How to simulate a 400 piston organ: Get a 16-piston organ with a "piston +" switch that advances from the last piston to the next memory level. You'll need to use exactly 25 memory levels.

And so, these two principles hold each other in tension:

When organists set up a big piece, they will mystically fill all the pistons available (Organist Law of Piston Expansion).

When builders design a big organ, ergonomics and auralnomics suggest the number of pistons should be somewhere between 6 and 20.

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25 January 2008
list - music, encyclopedic

Don't miss this stunning music list from Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal and Patrick Wedd, music director.

It's not uncommon for large parish churches and cathedrals to publish information about the service music in advance of the services. As more of these churches make better use of the internet, these lists are finding their way online.

Most of the time, these are plain text or PDF documents. The Montreal site, however, takes full advantage of its medium and is rife with program notes, pictures, biographical material and links to sound files (in many cases, more than one).

There are formatting issues, and the hymns aren't listed, but it's still worth a visit and worth keeping up with, I think.

In fact, I would say that the educational approach taken here is nothing short of prophetic and shows other music-listing institutions the heights to which they should aspire.

(thanks Aaron!)


23 January 2008
Howells, Herbert - Organ Sonata movement on BBC

Evensong from Derby Cathedral last Sunday (as broadcast from the BBC) concluded with "Quasi Lento (Sonata) (Howells)".

I had to listen to be sure, but yes, this is from the Howells Organ Sonata of 1933.

The Sonata is so rarely performed, that I take notice of any mention of a performance I run across, let alone a performance was broadcast on the BBC.

"Quasi Lento", the second movement of the Sonata, has a lot in common with the arch-form of the Psalm-Preludes, but has a bit more of an active personality. The central climax is crowned by a noble Tuba dialogue.

It's also interesting to note its use as a concluding voluntary to evensong. Personally, I've used it as a prelude.


22 January 2008
organists - circular nature of the shortage of

Finally, coming from the Minnesota Star Tribune, some acknowledgment of the circumstances surrounding the "organist shortage".

There's a shortage of trained organists because ...

Younger people are not pursuing it as a career because ...

They don't hear it played as much as their elders did because ...

There's a shortage of trained organists.

Return to Step 1 and repeat until the second coming.

Strickler, Jeff. Faith+Values: Modern bent squeezes classic pipe organs

So, we're really in a rut, huh? But maybe we can get ourselves out of it? I mean, we have built some really impressive organs in the past 20 years. Organ building is getting better and better. And as a consequence, there are better organs in more and more places.

As better organs make their way into churches, does it point to a change of course?

"The pendulum is starting to swing back the other way," said Beverly Claflin, Mount Olivet's music director. "Certainly a lot of churches have had a knee-jerk reaction to provide modern music. But I think that people are starting to look for that constant in their life that can come from music that has stood the test of time."

But some argue that the "praise band" is developing into an institution of its own right.

There are many different ways to spread the word of God," [Scott] Newman said. "It's the same message delivered with a different vehicle."

Fine. But I would add that the organ is a Rolls Royce, and the praise band is a VW Bus.

Some of us prefer to ride in style.

"Largest tracker organ in North America" tangent: Is the 114-rank Visser-Rowland built in 1990 organ at Wooddale Church the largest in North America as the article claims? It is substantially larger larger than the Visser-Rowland at the University of Texas.

Update: 22:35 23 January 2008: Via Osbert Parsley, per his comment below, "a somewhat different take on the article", "Imminent Demise of Organ-Playing!"

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21 January 2008
miraculis - tribus

Looking for another Epiphany anthem? Check out Tribus miraculis (Three miracles).

We solemnly observe this day ornamented with three miracles:
today the star led the magi to the manger;
today wine was changed to water at the wedding;
today Christ desired to be baptized by John in the river Jordan so that He might save us,
Palestrina's written one (score at the Choral Public Domain Library).


19 January 2008
Cathedrals - Episcopal, proximity to Starbucks stores (Province I) is proud to bring you this multi-part series of Episcopal Cathedrals and their distance from Starbucks stores. Or perhaps it is a series about Starbucks stores and their distance to Episcopal Cathedrals -- for, you understand, in most cases the cathedrals predate the stores.

Using field agents and survey crews (well, Wikipedia, and Google Maps anyway) we have worked tirelessly to bring you this valuable resource.

We begin in Province I (New England). Province I includes seven diocese and contains the oldest (Connecticut; think Samuel Seabury, the first American Episcopal bishop) and the largest (Massachusetts; 194 congregations, 77,000 members) in the Episcopal Church.
DioceseCathedralDist to SBUX
ConnecticutChrist Church, Hartford0.2 mi (185 Asylum St)
MaineChurch of St Luke, Portland0.3 mi (594 Congress St)
MassachusettsChurch of St Paul, Boston0.3 mi1 (12 Winter St)
New Hampshirenone2n/a
Rhode IslandSt John's,3 Providence0.4 mi (1 Financial Plaza)
VermontChurch of St. Paul, Burlington0.3 mi4 (2072 Burlington Town Ctr)
Western MassachusettsChrist Church, Springfield1.0 mi (1089 E Columbus Ave)

1. This would be 1.3 mi in the car since the one way streets in Boston are nefarious. But really it would be a two and a half block walk.

2. New Hampshire is one of nineteen domestic dioceses that has no cathedral (the others being Alaska, Central Gulf Coast, East Carolina, Eastern Michigan, Eastern Oregon, Fort Worth, Georgia, Navajoland, Nevada, North Carolina, Northern Michigan, Northwest Texas, Rochester, Southern Virginia, Southwestern Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Western Michigan).

3. No website? Not cool.

4. Google doesn't understand this address, but Starbucks does.

Well, we did pretty well distance-wise until we got to the end.

Average distance from an Episcopal Cathedral to a Starbucks store in Province I is .4167 mi.

Join us next month when we explore Province II (New York & New Jersey).

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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) - on "Jeopardy!"

I’ve learned about Jean Sibelius, and word to the wise, if you see “blah blah blah this Finnish composer blah blah blah…”, Jean Sibelius might not be your worst guess. Well, at least if I wrote it. I’m just not that up on my Finnish composers.

Why We Write - Number 15: Mark Gaberman


I fear that many of my acquaintances hear me talk that way too: "Blah blah blah Jean Sibelius blah blah blah".


Purcell, Henry (1659-1695) - notable deaths of notable church musicians (fourth in a series)

In the 300th anniversary of his death, one is likely to encounter a performance of the "Blow Ode", written, of course, by John Blow. The piece is officially titled "An Ode, on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell" with the first line "Mark how the lark and linnet sing".

In 1680, Purcell succeeded his mentor, John Blow, as organist at Westminster Abbey. He held the post for some time until he "caught a chill after returning late from the theatre one night to find that his wife had locked him out" or "succumbed to chocolate poisoning" -- one of the two.

(A much less notable theory is that he contracted tuberculosis.)

In any case, he died in his mid-thirties as a result.

Previously in this series: Cooke, Robert (1768-1814)

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18 January 2008
Dr. T - 5,000 movies of

After I watched The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T late last week, I descended into a merciless spiral of word-association movie watching fueled by Red Bull and eight-at-a-time Netflix. Here's how it went down:

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14 January 2008
Blow, John - 300th anniversary of the death of

Church musicians just finished with an "all Buxtehude all the time" 2007, and now, here's pointing out the fact that 2008 happens to be the 300th anniversary of the death of English composer and organist John Blow (scores).

Blow's one of those minor English composers whose name (along with that of William Crotch) is not often featured on concert posters.

Tired of anniversary years? Don't hold your breath. 2009? Purcell's 350th (birth), Handel's 250th (death); Haydn's 200th (death), and Mendelssohn's 200th (birth).

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13 January 2008
Christ - Baptism of, 2008

Then afterwards baptised I was,
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father's voice heard from above,
To call my true love to my dance.

stanza from "The General Dance", a medieval Cornish carol

My new favorite setting of this text is Gustav Holst's.


12 January 2008
Burdick, Owen - sudden departure from Trinity, Wall Street

On the front page of the Arts section of today's New York Times is an article about the sudden departure of the director of music and organist at Trinity, Wall Street: "Director of Music at Trinity Steps Down".

Owen Burdick's departure is rather abrupt, leaving the Trinity choir and Rebel Baroque Orchestra leaderless for their upcoming Monteverdi Vespers performance at the end of the month.

In the Times article, Linda Hanick, vice president of communications at Trinity is quoted as saying "We’re going to be looking at how we’ll restructure the music program."

Churches of Trinity's caliber don't often use the word "restructure" in regard to the music program; usually, they just want to keep it going. But Hanick is blunt: she doesn't say the church will be looking at if or when they'll restructure the music program. Those two questions are implicitly answered in her statement. Yes to restructuring, and now! This led the staff of to speculate that some forces in the church are eager to depart from the professional chamber choir model.

So how will the Trinity program be "restructured"? Perhaps the Trinity Choristers, currently under the direction of Rob Ridgell, will have a more prominent role in the music of the church. Or perhaps their will be an increased focus on liturgical music rather than afternoon concerts.

There is also speculation about what this may mean for the organ in the church, which is a Marshall & Ogletree digital prototype dubbed a "virtual organ". Last summer Burdick wrote an "Open Letter to the Organ Community" in defense of the instrument.

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11 January 2008
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T - plot summary

Herself came into the room as I was watching The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), the only feature film written by Dr. Seuss.

She identified the eponymous character and inquired as to his motives. I immediately replied:

"He wants 500 boys to play his enormous piano at the same time."

This is a great movie.


10 January 2008
summer - the organs of

The summer of 2008 is shaping up to be a varied one for this organist.

It looks like in the space of a week, I will play a seven or eight rank one manual tracker organ in New England and a 186 rank Aeolian Skinner in the world's sixth largest cathedral.

Elsewhere: I was just made by the Presbyterian Church (also "The Presbyterian Church like enjoys you not"!)


08 January 2008
D - Canon in

Is it really wedding season again? Well, not exactly.

Wait -- hold the phone, "wedding season"? Is there a particular season for weddings?

There's hunting season, and there's the holiday season that we just (barely) made it out of. If a fruit or vegetable is readily available at a particularly high quality we would say that it is "in season". In all of these cases the "season" is when the getting (game, gifts, gourds) is good.

So it's a kind of "wedding season" in the sense that couples are trying to get good "venues" for their weddings. And where should these weddings be? Why, how about a church? The couples haven't been to one lately, or ever, but they figure, hey, it's pretty and our parents might like it.

I regularly encounter these couples at the church where I work. According to our wedding policy, many of them are not eligible for a wedding in our church, now matter how pretty it is or how much money they have.

If you want to get married somewhere, great! Try the Motel 6, or the Hilton down the street.

If you want to get married in the context of a worship service, how about the church?

Unlike your blond bimbo bride, the church is not just another pretty face. Nay, it's rather more than that. And expressions of extravagant consumerism really have no place here.

A past rector was once asked what he would like to be paid for officiating at the wedding. His answer? The same as what the bride paid for her dress.

Now, don't get me wrong, there are "faithful" weddings, and not all faithful weddings happen in liturgical churches, or churches at all for that matter.

But the wedding-industrial complex is out of control. Too many churches, it seems, are in the "venue" business. They're happy to profit from a default deistic tendency of the populace, and are poor stewards of the gifts and heritage of the church. Rather than attempt counsel, educate or edify (let alone attempt to construct any kind of meaningful God-centered worship around the hackneyed couple-centered wedding liturgy) with their human resources, these churches simply whore their buildings out to the masses.

Speaking of whoring yourself out to the masses, how about Canon in D?

I'm happy to report that my "Moratorium on Pachelbel's Canon at Weddings" group on Facebook is doing well. Here are some recent highlights from the wall.

Mariah Mlynarek from Michigan writes:

everyone frickin bride says "I really want something different, you know, not you know canon in d?" and then I tell them that it is cursed and they will get a divorce if they have it played at their seems to do the trick

Jackie Lo from Australia relates the hate from down under:

when I hear "I've been dreaming about walking down the aisle to this song all my life.. but I can't remember what it is" or "'we need some music to kill some time" I know its coming....... Pachelbel's canon. So frigging lame!!!!! It's the worst song EVER

Kathryn Cooper, from Minnesota State, balked at the Canon she heard at her wedding rehearsal:

I stopped them immediately! I told them that if they want to get payed, they would stop... they all reacted "Thank God!" ha ha

Sarah Field's experience at a beginner flute concert:

The tempo was so slow that it took about 10 minutes to perform, no lie. By that time I was looking for razors.

Sally Hanton speaks on the musical literacy and levelheaded reasoning of wedding couples when she writes:

. . . I was asked to play as a solo cello at a wedding - of course, they wanted Pachelbel! Apparently the concept of "Canon" had escaped them...thankfully the aisle was short enough that I had only got to bar 8 by the time the bride arrived at the front!


01 January 2008
Tavener, John - Unto us is born a Son

Don't miss the BBC's broadcast of Choral Evensong from St. Thomas Church in New York City. (Hurry, because it will be replaced by another broadcast on Sunday.)

Take particular note of the new, rather nice, rather lengthy introit by Tavener.

While listening to this, I was disappointed that music lists are not archived at St. Thomas's website and I cannot see what they sang for Christmas.

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The author of this website is an organist whom the New York Times calls “repeatedly, insisting that he pay for his subscription”. He likes to read parking meters, music, Indianapolis Monthly, and weather forecasts in Celsius, particularly whilst wearing cassock and surplice. He serves lasagna, overhand, as an example to many, and on ecclesiastical juries. He mixes salads, drinks, and metaphors. He takes photos, lots of dinner mints, and a little bit of time to get to know.




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