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Ordinary Time 2017

30 May 2011
plagiarism - acoustic
I have never before visited Trinity, Wall Street in New York or played a Marshall & Ogletree organ, but that doesn't stop me from having this opinion: digital organs are fake.

It doesn't matter if you have a multi-million dollar endowment and a sophisticated PR department and web presence: digital organs are still fake, no matter how much they cost.

How do we define what is real in the liturgy?

There are a many elements that seem to be real:
There are a few things that seem to be "fake":
  • amplified sound
  • electric light
  • recorded sound
I think the first two elements here have become an accepted part of the worship experience given that they are modern conveniences and do not have significant artistic/creative implications.

Take for instance a concert of your local orchestra. If any pre-concert announcements are made, they will utilize a public address system.  The concert itself will not be amplified (I hope).

Likewise, as you enter the room where the orchestra will be playing, the house is illuminated.  After you read the program notes and the concert begins the lights dim.  

Sound amplification is present in our churches.  When words are spoken by a single person, they are usually amplified so that they might be better understood by the whole congregation.  Is this absolutely necessary?  No, I don't think so, and valid liturgies were celebrated without artificial amplification for nearly 2,000 years.  Is it generally expedient to amplify sound now?  Yes, and if this technology helps to further equip the congregation for the liturgy (literally the "work of the people") then it is well employed in our churches. (Amplified singing, however, is to be avoided as it interferes with the singing of the people).

In most of our churches, a consistent level of lighting is maintained throughout the liturgy. Interestingly, candles, which are hardly necessary during daylight hours, have long served a symbolic role.

Recorded sound?  You don't hear it at the orchestra concert.  If you hear it at a "popular music" concert or televised comedy revue you probably get upset -- you're not getting what you bargained for.

Digital organs are acoustic plagiarism

Digital organs are a kind of recorded sound. They are, at worst, imitating or, at best, reproducing a sound that comes from many hundreds or thousands of pipes.  Sure, we can sample these pipes in pretty sophisticated ways, but all we can do is copy something else.  This is not a creative enterprise, it's acoustic plagiarism.

The voice of these individual pipes is largely lost.  As the sound of thousands of individual pipes is routed through several dozen loudspeakers an important spatial element is lost.  And finally, the complex interplay between organ winding and pipe speech is negated in this simulation.  

No other instrument falls into this trap. Pianists, violinists and the like all want the very best instruments to play. Qualifying these ideal instruments as real seems unnecessary. I'm not denying that electric versions of these instruments can be used for effect, but in this case a real instrument is deliberately abandoned for a fake sound.

Yet organists seem content playing a fake instrument. And the reason? It costs a lot of money to have several thousand pipes of different pitches and timbres all voiced in a complementary way.

It also costs millions of dollars to own a Stradivarius, and yet there is no substantial sum of money being thrown at a digital violin concept that I know of.

If you think about what has more interest to a listener, to an organist, to a community of believers, is it a fake audio copy of bits and pieces of real organs, or is it the synergy of real wood and metal pipes, screws and nails, glue and steel that come together to make something artistic and beautiful?

Jesus didn't challenge us to make people interested in him; he called us to make disciples. I would rather be a part of a community that undertakes the building or restoration of a real instrument -- variously an affirmation of a gift from the past and/or an investment on behalf of the future of that community -- than a group that settles for a quick-fix heard through loudspeakers.

What kind of trust can we place in those who teach the faith in this community if they are regularly dishonest in passing of a digital copy as the real deal? And let's be clear: the facade pipes at Trinity, Wall Street were deliberately retained and the loudspeakers installed behind them.

There's no deception with the microphone on the lectern. We're familiar with the convention of the public address system. There's no deception with electric lighting. I think most people are familiar with this reality.

However, the digital organ seems to be a deliberate attempt to deceive. There's no evaluating it on its own merits. No one asks the question: "isn't this a great digital organ?" Rather, the question posed is "you can't tell this apart from a real organ, can you?".

The digital organ seems a short-sighted investment, and I think we have plenty of that in our daily lives. Shouldn't we strive for something real in our houses of worship?

These thoughts come as a result of reading this AP article by Jeff Martin. I continue to be surprised by Trinity's shift from calling the digital instrument an interim solution to a "long-term commitment". A quick-fix simply does not have long-term viability.

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