Thursday, November 15, 2012

Less is More

I spent the day listening to the wonderful baroque organ at All Souls’ Episcopal Church, and it really was a revelation. What a glorious, big sound! This is a big sound full of nuance and color. I’m struggling to comprehend why we thought modern materials and technology could improve upon that design.

At the risk of over-simplifying, a baroque organ (perhaps more accurately, a “baroque-style organ”) differs from a “modern” organ in several key areas. First of all, it is all mechanical, with the exception that nowadays electric blowers replace hand bellows. No electric relays or fancy electronics. Secondly, it is constructed with lots of wood components: there is no plastic and metal is relegated to the pipes and small pivots and connectors. Indeed, they are often assembled using wood pegs, rather than screws. Why does this matter? Wood has many desirable properties, including acoustic, but it also is sensitive to changes in humidity—just like other acoustic instruments. Finally, the air pressure used to blow the pipes is lower.

This feature of lower air pressure is similar to that of the pitch/tension for stringed instruments. Higher pitch results in higher tension and generally greater volume. There is a cost. Higher tension results in a brighter, more strident sound. Likewise, higher air pressure in organs may result in more volume, but it affects the sound. Think of blowing a whistle: with a moderate blow, you get a nice round sound. Blowing as hard as you can results in a louder, but more shrill sound.

Geoff Graham, the organist at All Souls', is like a proud father of this organ, and rightfully so. His enthusiasm for the features and nuances is infectious. I returned home with a copy of “The Organ Handbook,” by Hans Klotz at Geoff’s insistence. The details of the organ have always eluded me. Even worse, it abounds with terms of obscure German origin: Hauptwerk, Rückpositiv, Brustpedal, etc. Not to mention the huge list of stops: Rauschpfeife, Quintade, Gedackt, Rohrflöte, Sifflöte, etc., etc. I’ve looked on Wikipedia in the past to make light of this, with little success. Klotz’s book is a step in the right direction.

Maude Gratton at the organ
I must be truthful: all of the recordings I own feature baroque organs, mostly historic instruments that have been preserved or restored, so I’m sure I’m predisposed to their charms. However, I grew up with more modern pipe organs, and that is the live sound I am used to. And, for good reason: there aren't lots of baroque organs in Southern California. The modern organs may offer more of a lot of things, including volume and range, but for baroque music, a good baroque organ proves less is more.

Be sure to visit All Souls’ sometime to hear the real deal and decide for yourself. Better yet, hear it played by French virtuoso Maude Gratton Friday night. As Maude told me, it is the best instrument she has played in her American tour. Tickets can be purchased at the door. For details, see sdems.org.

—Kemer

2 comments:

SallyB said...

Kemer,
I share your excitement over this recital! It was simply wonderful playing and such powerful music. When the Bach on the first half had finished, I thought, Well, we've routed the forces of disorganization for now, anyway! Stirring is the word!
One thing I find strange, however, in your posts, the program, the church's website, everywhere, basically, -- no credit given to the maker of this beautiful instrument. Usually there is identification on the instrument, which I didn't find (excuse my mistake if there is some) -- but I also wanted to tell an organist friend who made this instrument and can't seem to dredge up that usual piece of information.
Thanks if you have any! Sally Buffington

SallyB said...

AS a new board member, I can say that we sure produce some beautiful concerts -- what a rich line-up we have for this coming year, and already two glorious concerts!

SallyB