I might be wrong.
(I think this might be the way to start a conversation about electronic organs.)
I'll say it again: I might be wrong. But the recent publication of an electronic organ on the cover of The American Organist (the journal of the American Guild of Organists) has me thinking about the electronic organ.
And before I go any further I want to address those who play electronic organs directly: this is not about you. And I don't question your character one way or the other. This is not about me, either. This conversation is bigger than all of us. It began before we were born, and it will continue after we're dead. This is about technological innovation, the economics of music and religion, wind, beauty, and integrity.
What I'm trying to do is zoom out for a moment to get the big picture. I want to figure out what led us to the point in May 2017 when our professional organization would seemingly validate a fully-electronic organ by allowing it on its cover of its journal.
The organ has been on the forefront of the technological advancement of humankind. And every step of the way surely there was someone crying "what are you doing!? organs aren't supposed to work that way!"
Surely objections were raised when
Then in 1939 Jerome Markowitz, the founder of the Allen Organ Company, built the first fully electronic organ through the use of oscillator circuitry based on radio tubes. (thanks, Wikipedia!)
So, is the electronic organ (now really the "digital organ" or the "software organ") the way of the future? Is it simply the next technological advancement in a logical line of progress?
It's interesting to note the chasm between the academic study of organ performance and the practical realities organists will encounter in the real world. No reputable academic institution would suggest serious performance on an electronic substitute; they require lessons and recitals to be held on real instruments with pipes.
Churches, on the other hand, are often happy to acquire electronic substitutes for reasons of 1) low initial cost, 2) space limitations, and 3) and ease of maintenance.
Let's speak briefly to each of these reasons:
What is lost when a church decides to go the route of an electronic device rather than an instrument with pipes? Many things, including 1) wind, 2) beauty, and 3) integrity.
In terms of organ building, we take wood and metal, combine them just right, and get wind.
Wind is a particularly special part of the Christian Faith. Just pay close attention the next time you're at the Easter Vigil.
It was the wind that moved over creation in the beginning. It was wind that passed over the earth when God remembered Noah in the ark. It was wind that divided the Red Sea so that the Israelites could pass through. When Ezekiel prophesies to the dry bones he says, "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." In Zephaniah God exults with loud singing (what kind of breath would that take?!). The death of Jesus, his very last breath, is reported by the Synoptic Gospels as a loud cry. And finally, there is the rushing, violent wind of the Day of Pentecost, the birth of the church itself.
Electronic organs can only emulate and imitate. They have nothing of their own to contribute and are not truly beautiful.
And lighted stop knobs are hideously tacky.
And don't get me wrong, the technology has come a long way since 1939. The results are more and more impressive, but no matter how good they get they will never actually be real.
And unlike Pinocchio, there is no magical transformation that awaits them.
What is it that prevents electronic organs from being real?
The first time I came home from college I noticed the electronic instrument I knew in high school sounded completely different to me: it was flat, fake. But the tone quality these machines produce is better and better all the time. The systems are programmed to simulate a certain "out of tune-ness" and subtle variations in pipe speech that real organs have. They try to emulate the huff and puff of the whole winding system of a real organ. (Cameron Carpenter is so impressed with all of this he has jumped in with both feet.) Surely the ability to generate and replicate pipe sounds electronically will continue to improve even more.
So what is it that keeps them from being real?
Well, it has to be what's moving the air that makes the sound. In the case of the Pipe Organ, the sounds that seem to be coming from pipes are made by pipes. In the case of the Electronic Organ Simulator, the sounds that seem to be coming from pipes are made by speakers.
There's just something fundamentally dishonest about this. Even if you had a big enough budget to get a really obscene number of speakers for this installation (let's say you go so far as to have one speaker for every "pipe" in the organ simulator), you still have the fundamental problem of integrity. You are trying to make something sound like pipes that are not pipes.
Do Electronic Organ Simulators have their place? Sure! How about your spare bedroom, or your basement! It's great fun to have one of these things and to simulate the sounds from lots of different organs around the world. But let's call it what it is, a simulator, and not hold it up as a paragon of excellence.
Kerala Snyder has a marvelous book about the development of the North European organ called The Organ as a Mirror of Our Time.
Can we look at the instrument on the cover of The American Organist as a mirror of our time? What would it tell us if we did?
The first Allen Organ was made in the Industrial Age; the latest Allen Organ to roll off the assembly line is a product of the Information Age.
Our knowledge-obsessed society prizes high-tech achievements over craftsmanship.
No longer concerned with wind, beauty, or integrity, or even with how well-built an organ is, many are content to gaze upon the latest technological achievements in the Organ Simulator and admire how impressively it manages so much Information.
But the Information Age is still brand new. We are still discovering what it means to live in such a time as this. The new Information Economy can give rise to the promise of the Information Superhighway one day and the Junkyard of Fake News the next.
When we hold up this organ as a mirror of our own time we first notice it's not even a pipe organ at all. It's a pale imitation of the real pipe organ at best. But many are content to pretend that it's just as good as the real thing. And if you repeat this lie long enough, doesn't it start to seem true?
The electronic organ is fake news.
“The organ is like a mad idea…like an island in itself. And you have to live inside of this island, to make IT live also.” –Jean Guillou
The organ truly is a mad idea. An audacious one. Mozart famously dubbed it "the King of Instruments." And occupying the instrument to make it live is a shared desire among organists that I know.
When we disagree about the philosophy behind instruments it's due to this: our differing ideas about how to "live inside" the instrument and to make the organ and it's repertoire come alive.
So where would you rather live? To borrow the terminology of a great science fiction movie of the Information Age: would you rather live inside the matrix (a simulated reality) or live in the real world?
"What is truth?" asks Pilate.
Will we take the red pill or the blue pill?
I'm going to reach for the red.
But I might be wrong.
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