blog.sinden.org

Holy Week 2019

02 March 2019
Down with Robot Organists!

I love the Episcopal Church and I am privileged to be an organist working in it. But I am not alone in wondering about the future of the Church in which I find myself employed.

I applaud those who think creatively about ministry and are able to empower small and mid-sized congregations to be the best they can be. But I think a recent article published by the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas is destructive to the church's worship and mission. (The article has since been removed the Diocese's website, but without any notice and without any word from the Diocese about why it has been taken down. You can read an archived copy here: "The Future of the Organ for Church Worship")

We live in an era marked by increasing technicization. It's not enough to be able to turn on electric lights in our homes by flipping a switch; now it is possible to operate lights with voice commands. Parallel parking is less important in driver education as more and more cars park themselves. With the click of a mouse, we readily assign friendships, likes, loves.

But the church should and must resist such technicization. Don't get me wrong. Electric lights, the public address system, and word processing are probably the three greatest enhancements to Episcopal worship. But electric lights do not replace real candles (at least I hope they don't!). The public address system doesn't read the lessons or preach the gospel on its own. Service leaflets may help worshippers to follow the liturgy, but they draw their effectiveness from the Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal, and our liturgical tradition.

Furthermore, all of these technological enhancements are added costs. It would be cheaper not to turn on the lights, maintain the sound system, or run a church print shop every week. It is only with music, it seems, that we regularly find a desire to radically cut the expense of producing worship.

It is a similar desire for economic efficiency that drives the author of "The Future of the Organ for Church Worship" to suggest an electronic replacement for the organist itself. The author argues that organists are hard to work with and difficult to find (a double whammy!). Why not just get what he calls an "organ in a box"? But let's be clear: this name is terrible. He's talking about replacing the lay professional who plays the organ with a device so the more accurate term would be "organist in a box", or even a "robot organist".

The reason that the organ has developed as an instrument for Christian worship (and it did so in physically large churches) is that it is tremendously efficient already. There is no other single instrument capable of such a wide range of pitch, color, and sheer sound. That an organist was required to play such an instrument was simply a fact of life. It was still a paragon of efficiency.

Now, however, a further kind of efficiency is sought: the elimination of the organist him/herself

The reasons given for the elimination of the organist in the article in question are somewhat offensive:

  1. "Pastoral control over weekly content". Yes, in the Episcopal Church the rector is in charge of worship, but it doesn't seem to me that he or she is necessarily an expert in music or hymnody. In a Christian context, it seems that control is less important than conversation. How else will clergy keep abreast of new hymns and new currents in church music? In an ideal situation, it seems that someone skilled in music should have some input too.
  2. "Accurate and professional sounding organ led worship". Where we really see the Emporer's New Clothes for what they are is the "professional sounding" remark. This is now full-on illusion. The expertise is desired at none of the expense, or even a relationship.
  3. "Reliability". On balance, I don't know that organists miss any more Sundays due to illness, injury, or family emergency than clergy do. I don't think we have a reliability crisis in the organist profession, and I think it's disingenuous to suggest that we do.
  4. "Cost". I'm reminded of a classic email forward of many years ago about an employee that took his boss to hear the local symphony orchestra for the first time. (I don't know how well I remember this; maybe someone has a copy?) I think it went like this:

    On Monday morning after the outing to hear the orchestra, the employee got a memo from his boss detailing all the ways that the orchestra was inefficient. There were too many violins, for instance. All of the violins were effectively doing the same thing. Why were there so many of them? The best violinist should represent the whole section and his or her sound should be amplified. The remainder of the section should be fired since they are redundant. I believe the conductor, too, was called into question. He was the only person on stage who didn't produce sound.

    Musicians laugh at this kind of thing because it is so far from the reality of what the tradition of good music dictates. Yes, of course, you could eliminate all but one string player in each section, but you would not then have a symphony orchestra. It would be something else.

  5. "Diversity in styles and hymnal access". This is a Red Herring. I find it hard to believe you have greater access to diversity of style and hymnal if you are reliant solely on electronic means. The best way to have creative music is to have a professional musician who is rooted in your congregation and engaged with relevant professional organizations like the American Guild of Organists, the Association of Anglican Musicians, and the Hymn Society.

The most lamentable part of "The Future of the Organ" article isn't about efficiency or any of the perceived "advantages" listed above; it's the fact that excising the human element of music in worship is horribly destructive to the role of music in the liturgy.

Built into the very warrant for sacramental worship is a verb of performance. Hidden in that performance is a vision of life in Christ that is not a state of being but rather an act, an act of the worshippers who enact a cosmos and a community that is nothing less than God’s act of creation.

McCall, Richard D. Do This: Liturgy As Performance. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Ind (2007). p. 2

An organist robot does not perform in a human sense.

Furthermore, I am dubious of the ethics in having the regular organist record music on MIDI to be played in his or her absence, also mentioned in this article. Everyone is entitled to some amount of vacation, right? Does the rector record his or her sermon in advance and simply have it broadcast over the church public address system? I hope not. Yes, recording sermons or organ music in advance is possible, but it is not desirable. Even when we are fortunate enough to have human organists, let's please not treat them like robots.

If you want sermons that are relevant to the community, they must be preached by someone in that community. If you want a church music that is relevant to the community, it must be led by people in that community.

I have a specific way that I like to lead breaths in hymns. Many years ago, I became convicted that I and too many organists are guilty of rushing each successive stanza of the hymn one after another. It diminishes a congregations ability to mentally finish the words they have just sung, get a good breath, and a confident start on the next stanza.

In every congregation I have served, I can hear the congregation adapting, hymn by hymn, week by week, year by year, to the way I lead breaths between stanzas of a hymn. Sometimes I don't have it quite right, and their singing lets me know. We're in the room together, and its a symbiotic relationship. I guarantee you a robot cannot do this. In fact, the symbiotic breathing I am describing is the opposite of robotic. It's the very definition of being human.

In the "Future of the Organ" author's own words: "many young Christians have grown weary of the high tech entertainment based worship and seek something with deeper ties to historical Christianity."

Robots don't have deeper ties to historical Christianity, at least not yet.

Down with robot organists!

 
 
Comments:

Post a Comment

The page you're reading is part of Sinden.org

©MMXVII Sinden.org: a site for fun and prophet

Organ and church music, esoteric liturgics, and a site that changes color with the liturgical year.

Archetypes

Looking for Carol Spreadsheets?

Hungry? Try the Liturgical Guide to Altoids Consumption

Thirsty? Try the Tibia Liquida

The Eric Harding Thiman Fan Page: The greatest composer you've never even heard of.

Infrequently Asked Questions

picture of a chicken

Questions? Problems? email the sexton.

Archon

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.

about

contact

Archbishops

Anglicans Online
Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise
Book of Common Prayer
Brain Pickings
The Daily Office
The Lectionary Page
Sed Angli
Ship of Fools
The Sub-Dean's Stall
Vested Interest - Trinity Church in the City of Boston

Archenemies

Andrew Kotylo - Concert Organist
Aphaeresis
Anne Timberlake
Bonnie Whiting, percussion
conjectural navel gazing: jesus in lint form
Friday Night Organ Pump
Halbert Gober Organs, Inc.
in time of daffodils
Joby Bell, organist
Musical Perceptions
Musings of a Synesthete
My Life as Style, Condition, Commodity.
Nathan Medley, Countertenor
Notes on Music & Liturgy
The Parker Quartet
Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers
Steven Rickards
That Which We Have Heard & Known
This Side of Lost
Wayward Sisters
Zachary Wadsworth | composer

Archenemies Aviary

@DanAhlgren
@dcrean
@ericthebell
@jwombat
@larrydeveney
@nmedley
@samanthaklein
@sopranist
@voxinferior

Arches

Advent (Medfield MA)
All Saints, Ashmont (Boston MA)
All Saints (Indianapolis IN)
Atonement (Bronx NY)
Broadway UMC (Indianapolis IN)
Cathedral of All Saints (Albany NY)
Christ Church (Bronxville NY)
Christ Church (Madison IN)
Christ Church (New Haven CT)
Christ Church Cathedral (Indianapolis IN)
Christ's Church (Rye NY)
Church of St. Stephen (Hamden CT)
Congregational (Belmont CA)
Coventry Cathedral (UK)
First UMC (Lancaster SC)
Gloria Dei ELCA (Iowa City IA)
Immanuel Lutheran (St Paul MN)
Immanuel Lutheran (Webster NY)
John Knox PCUSA (Houston TX)
St Andrew (Marblehead MA)
St Andrew's, Oregon Hill (Richmond VA)
St Bartholomew the Great, (London, England)
St James's (Lake Delaware NY)
St James's (Richmond VA)
St James Cathedral (Chicago IL)
St Mary's Cathedral (Memphis TN)
St Matthew and St Timothy (NYC)
St Paul's (Cleveland Heights OH)
St Paul's (Indianapolis IN)
St Paul's Cathedral (Buffalo NY)
St Paul's, K Street (Washington DC)
St Peter's (Lakewood OH)
St Peter's ELCA (NYC)
St Stephen's (Richmond VA
St Thomas (New Haven CT)
St Thomas ELCA (Bloomington IN)
Second PCUSA (Indianapolis IN)
Towson Presbyterian Church (MD)
Tremont Temple Baptist (Boston MA)
Trinity (Indianapolis IN)
Trinity on the red (New Haven CT)

Auraling

BBC Radio 3 Choral Evensong
New College (Oxford, England)
St John's College (Cambridge, England)
St Thomas (New York NY)

Argyle

Like the site? Buy the shirt.

Areyou . . .

selling diphthongs?
Yes, but they're not the kind you buy on Wheel of Fortune.

the owner of a bower at Bucklesfordberry?
Full daintily it is dight.

interested in touch lamps?
And fountain pens.

Archives
this site used to be better:

March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005
August 2005
September 2005
October 2005
November 2005
December 2005
January 2006
February 2006
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
September 2007
October 2007
November 2007
December 2007
January 2008
February 2008
March 2008
April 2008
May 2008
June 2008
July 2008
August 2008
September 2008
October 2008
November 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
March 2009
April 2009
May 2009
June 2009
July 2009
August 2009
September 2009
October 2009
November 2009
December 2009
January 2010
March 2010
April 2010
May 2010
June 2010
July 2010
August 2010
September 2010
October 2010
November 2010
December 2010
January 2011
February 2011
March 2011
April 2011
May 2011
June 2011
July 2011
August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 2011
December 2011
January 2012
February 2012
April 2012
May 2012
June 2012
July 2012
August 2012
September 2012
October 2012
December 2012
January 2013
March 2013
April 2013
May 2013
June 2013
July 2013
August 2013
September 2013
October 2013
November 2013
December 2013
January 2014
February 2014
March 2014
April 2014
May 2014
June 2014
August 2014
September 2014
October 2014
November 2014
December 2014
January 2015
February 2015
April 2015
May 2015
June 2015
July 2015
August 2015
September 2015
October 2015
November 2015
December 2015
January 2016
February 2016
March 2016
April 2016
June 2016
July 2016
August 2016
September 2016
October 2016
November 2016
December 2016
January 2017
February 2017
March 2017
April 2017
May 2017
June 2017
July 2017
August 2017
September 2017
October 2017
November 2017
December 2017
January 2018
February 2018
March 2018
April 2018
May 2018
June 2018
August 2018
September 2018
October 2018
December 2018
February 2019
March 2019