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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