Confessions of a non-organist

Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York, September 27, 2013 

Speech given at the EROI (Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative) Festival

I’ll bet I am one of a very small percentage of non-organists in this room, if not the only one.  Having known and worked with organists for a long time, and even having once been invited to a Calgary convention to judge organ playing, I feel like a welcome guest among you.   Organists constitute a large and, at least in my experience, collegial group. 

Marilyn Mason, who has commissioned several works of mine – her career-long habit with many living composers – always gets my complimentary copies of American Organist,  a magazine very definitely to-the-trade, to give her students as she’d requested me to do.   (I doubt any magazine oriented toward popular consumption would have the radical policy of only showing organ installations on its covers – not even one half-dressed babe in the whole magazine! Though Marilyn’s retiring after a record 66-year teaching career, I’ll still give myAmerican Organists to her to distribute.) 

I’ve written a fair amount of organ music, especially for a non-organist.  My wonderful publisher for many years, Bernard Kalban of Marks Music, told me that music publishers love organists because they buy music.  (The only other really lucrative  category for publishers is band music.)   Church organists tell me they buy a lot of music because of the allotment in the church budget for it will shrink if they don’t spend it all each year; evidently this is still true today even with budget cuts everywhere, and it must have been partly because of such budgets that I’m fairly sure that all of my organ music, most of which was written thirty years or so ago, has seen print. 

It wasn’t my publisher however who got me to write for the king of instruments, nor was it from any special interest in organ on my part.  Composers write usually most often because some musician wants a new piece, and despite that lovely publication allotment that allows organists to  buy our stuff, even organists have to scrape together somebody’s money to pay for that piece – so it must be mostly out of interest from organists that we composers get commissions, and for that my confraternity thanks you! 

Band – the other growth area in new-music publishing – is  also hungry for new pieces.  In the last few years there has been in my estimation a real uptick in quality of new works for band, which is very likely because composers, outside the small parish of exclusively band composers, increasingly appreciate band people’s actually spending a long time learning and rehearsing our new pieces. 

Contrast for example the condescending tendency of many orchestras to ask for short pieces not more than ten minutes in length (the maverick Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer was once asked for one, which of course he titled “Not More Than Ten Minutes in Length”).   These commissions often come because a particular grant an orchestra needs to function has a stipulation requiring that body to fund and perform a new commission.   A ten minutes’ piece presumably won’t take a lot of rehearsal time, and it very likely will be placed at the beginning of a concert when knowledgeable concertgoers know they can miss it if they show up ten minutes late.   The composer will have to be thankful if the new piece gets any more than two quick orchestra rehearsals plus a dress.  No composer wants a scrappy performance, so to avoid this composers have been learning how to write one-rehearsal-friendly concert openers.  Rhythmic squareness, many repeat bars, musical content that can be grasped in first reading by players, all this has created a good deal of new music stunningly devoid of substance.  Composers must be cynically aware of the situation – but who can blame them? 

And unless it’s the rare pianist who specializes in literature of our time and wants a piece, new piano commissions are exceedingly rare – pianists by and large are preoccupied with an enormously satisfying circa-200-year-old repertoire, which doesn’t leave much room for us youngsters to snuggle into.  There are exceptions among other musicians: I find singers are much more eager for new pieces than most pianists, or even most instrumentalists.   (It is worth noting that usually a singer wanting a new piece is female – I would guess a ratio of about three- or four-to-one to male-singer requests – and I ascribe that phenomenon to my observation that women are more fearless.) 

I’m sorry to have to say that, based on my experience, there has not seemed to have been a correspondingly healthy uptick in the quality of church music versus that of the band repertoire.  One of the most dismal contests I ever had to review scores for in my lifetime was when the American Guild of Organists asked me about a dozen years ago to look at 100 new anthems.   Every submission seemed to my ears and eyes exactly the same; I often could not have told one composer from another.  (Hasn’t anyone told that crew of anthem composers that sort of bland quartal harmony went out of style after World War II?  No churchly chord exists evidently without the tonal deflavorant of the obligatory fourth or second replacing the third in a triad, equivocating the harmony to the point of innocuousness; a similar anodyne harmonic idiom is found in music for news programs.) 

Recently my wife and I attended the funeral of a dear friend, featuring the current new-age-though-Catholic church music in hymns and voluntaries.  We were appalled by the dreariness of this music, especially the cringing attempts at bogus folksiness that pass for musical worship these days.  (Thankfully no one played guitar.)  It might be that the 19th-century pope who banned most church music past Palestrina had a cramping effect on music of all Christian denominations.  However I must also admit that my deep love of even Mendelssohn begins to fade when I get to the two big oratorios, written decades earlier than the pope’s edict, that sprang from Mendelssohn’s adopted Protestant stance.   My relative lack of affection for these indisputably great works may come mostly from the fact that they inspired so much moldy kitsch from lesser composers of his time and afterward.  (Maybe inspired religious music is less possible to achieve today, despite efforts by Stravinsky, Penderecki and others; I am one, for example, who finds Mahler’s Eighth the weakest of his symphonies, hobbled by his superhuman, almost desperate effort to become a good Catholic.   On the other hand Verdi’s superb Requiem, the kind of work that a pope of his time might ban from church, is really an opera about death; its rude and forthright vitality compares to that of the great religious music of 150 years before and maybe to nothing between that time and Verdi’s – though I adore Berlioz’s requiem too.) 

I doubt I’ll be asked to contribute to that moribund catalogue of current religious music, especially if the sort of thing I’ve been hearing is what’s wanted.  Still I’d have to say I was lucky to have had a nice heavy run of organ commissions for quite a number of years – the 1970s through the 80s – when I had the privilege of writing several landmark (for me) works for one of the 20th century’s incontestably great composer-organists, William Albright.   My first piece for him was Black Host of  1967, the most fearless stylistic collage I’d done till then, which subject is the Black Mass.  (Fitting such a blasphemous work, I admit to stealing a lot of its ideas and atmosphere  from Bill’s own virtuoso works in writing it.)   Albright’s superb recording of Black Host on Nonesuch, with his own Organbook II on the B side, is probably out of print by now, but it helped both our careers to a great extent; I’ve heard several subsequent renderings of my piece, all of them good, but none to me surpass nor equal Bill’s.   (Black Host even got around the British rock scene a bit; I gave a copy to Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters who I’m told, passed it on to the newly-formed Black Sabbath group, and there are those who tell me they detect Black Host’s influence on their work.) 

Following that commission came two requests  from Bill which resulted in the otherworldly and pagan Mysteries.  The virtuoso extravaganza Hydraulis was inspired by the Greco-Roman water-powered organ of the sinful Roman Empire found at the Circus Maximus and Colosseum, in which I tried to imagine music to feed Christians to the lions by. All this irreligious music was naturally performed in churches, because that is largely where organs are found; no-one involved in these churches ever seems to have minded.   Starting with the Unitarian church in Ann Arbor where he was organist, Bill and I also violated many sacred halls of worship in the the late sixties and seventies with our joint ragtime concerts on piano. 

After Bill Albright all my subsequent requests were from others.  Among these, the American Guild of Organists commissioned the first trio of Gospel Preludes, an Emory University faculty member commissioned three, and Marilyn Mason asked for six.*  Though the tunes in the Preludes come from both black and white Protestant American churches, what I do with them puts them outside the category of religious music – they belong clearly to the concert world. 

My most recent organ commission, also from the AGO – Borborygm, which is a collage of bits and pieces of unfinished works Bill left at his death which I put together – closes the circle of Albright-inspired work.   (I have a bone to pick with my publisher who insists on listing this fruitcake of Albrightiana as my own work; sadly, if you want Borborygm  you have to order it from my catalogue.)  After many years of not writing anything of my own for organ, I’m currently working on a Fantasia dachiesa for the organist Douglas Reed and the Canadian Brass, due early next year; it is now in the stage of making revisions.  (Doug is currently recording the complete organ works of William Albright, playing them superbly.) 

I freely and proudly admit Bill’s example as the progenitor of my own organ catalogue.  I have not had a similar inspiration to write organ music for a long time,  though I recently enjoyed writing Four Preludes on Jewish Melodies, simpler music than the Gospel Preludes andwritten to celebrate the refurbishment of a 19th-century Urban organ at the spectacular Cincinnati synagogue where the famed Rabbi Wise, founder of Reform Judaism, officiated. 

I played my beloved father away with Abide with Me in 1970.  Dad’s funeral took place at our family’s small English-Gothic Episcopal church in Everett, Washington; the pipe organ there was a smallish Odell, which I understand from organists to have been a commercial brand and not an artisan creation like a Casavant or a Holtkamp.    During my undergraduate years at the University of Washington, one of my support jobs was playing services at that church.  (The retiring organist there gave me a few lessons using Alexander McCurdy’s manual; when I played organ once for Bill showing him the heel-and-toe pedal technique I’d learned from McCurdy, Bill’s derisive laugh told me this style had been long obsolete.) 

Perhaps the constant dialogue between the sacred and profane in my music partly derives from the fact that a good number of Sunday morning services at Everett’s Trinity Episcopal followed previous nights in Seattle playing piano at the Rivoli Burlesque or for the female impersonators’ club on Fourth Avenue, or maybe a frat stag party; I would then take a 2 a.m. Greyhound bus to Everett (about an hour away), grab a nap, and be at church for 6 a.m. mass.  After services I would retire to my dorm in Seattle for an intense short sleep before going on to my job as night operator in a nearby hotel. 

The only thing I wrote for that little Odell organ would be the Abide with Me chorale prelude for my father’s service a dozen years after my organ job. (The reason there is a baker’s dozen of Gospel Preludes is because the very earliest organ piece I remember writing, that simple chorale prelude, was added as a “bonus” by my publisher to the third group of  Preludes.).  That hometown-church gig constitutes the sum total of my organ playing for hire (someone else actually prepared the choir).  Playing that organ in my college years was just that, a gig; my scholarship at U-W only covered my tuition and I had to pay for my dorm fees, clothes, and everything else by my own earnings.  Had it not been for Bill I doubt I would have written much for organ at all in my long career.  I certainly do not have the deep knowledge of organ literature any of you presumably has, although I auralized a good deal of Bach, Buxtehude, and other masters in our university library in Seattle and am certainly aware of a good deal of other organ music.  And I did studyesthétique musicale with Olivier Messiaen at the Conservatoire, a fascinating 12 hours a week of analysis, for four months before the American draft called me home in February 1961.   (By the way, out of the blue came a phone call once I was back in New York City; Stanford offered me a doctorate and a deferment.) 

As a non-organist I am usually in deep need of hands-on revisions by organists whenever I’m asked for a piece. Also, unlike pianos or violins or pretty much any other instrument I know, organs vary a great deal in makeup from one to another.  I’d written Black Host with the University of Michigan’s enormous Aeolian-Skinner in Hill Auditorium in mind.   (Which reminds me that, when Bill was to give a concert in Montreal playing that piece, we asked my friend the Canadian pianist-composer Bruce Mather to scope out an instrument for an upcoming recital.  Like me Bruce knows next to nothing about organs and, because he liked its sound, chose a Baroque-style Beckerath for the concert which of course doesn’t have all the pistons and other bells and whistles a romantic organ would have.  At the performance Bruce on one side of the manuals and I on the other became pistons ourselves, pulling and pushing in stops according to Bill’s ground plan; despite much amusement on Bill’s part at our mistakes we evidently got through it okay.) 

I’ve usually had to ask any commissioning organist to work out registrations for publications for and with me, both of us knowing that players will have to adjust to whatever instrument they land on in touring.  Any organist will have to work out compromises when registering for a particular organ, and it would be wise for that person to write down a final registration once it’s worked out for a performance, as I’m sure all of you are aware.  Not doing so invites disaster: I remember the premiere of my organ-and-orchestra piece Humoresk, commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra and one of my works featured during this conference, where the organist in question had carefully worked out the registration for the Alice Tully Hall organ at rehearsal but didn’t write it down, having no idea that the morning before our Sunday-afternoon concert the hall would used for a church service.  That organist would of course change the registration.  Imagine the panic the poor soloist felt sitting down to play with the orchestra, finding all his work lost and having to dream up a whole new registration on the spot with audience and orchestra impatiently waiting!  I hope he learned his lesson. 

I’ll close with a fond memory.  My late uncle, who owned several movie theaters, was a non-musician but had a degree from MIT and a thirst for things mechanical.  In one of his theaters in the small Washington town of Mount Vernon was an elaborate 1920s theater organ he was restoring just for his amusement; it has since become a stop for touring theater organists possessing all the delightful horses’ hooves, train whistles, xylophone and piano played through the manuals and so forth that any silent-movie organist could want.  Uncle Elden had just finished work on it when I visited him, and I may have been the first to play around with the restored monster, spending the whole day trying out every sound with great delight. 

I’m sorry I have never got around to write for such an organ. Theater organs in this essentially Protestant-based culture are nearly the only ones in the US  beside those in sports stadiums (the closest thing we have to the ancient hydraulis) that aren’t in churches.   I am very much a secular humanist, sharing Spinoza’s God with Albert Einstein, so I can’t help wondering what a non-religious organ literature might have sounded like if more organs existed outside churches.  Evidently we shall never know.  Maybe the solution to encouraging such literature might be to invite a  temporary deconsecration of religious spaces while non-religious music like most of mine is played – but this probably won’t be necessary anymore as I guess this sort of concert is what seems to be happening in churches all the time out of sheer necessity. This requires a concertgoer to forget, or try to forget, the fact of being in church. 

Even a believer like me in Deus sive natura – God as equivalent to Nature as Spinoza held, not God as some outside agency – cannot deny the transcendent godly power of the music of a Bach or a Schütz or a Messiaen, so full of deep religious feeling.  I cannot claim anything analogous to such music even in my Gospel Preludes probably because I had too much wicked fun writing them, which is in our Puritan culture a no-no.  Never mind:  I had a wonderful dalliance for a number of years with the king of instruments, and I thank you profoundly here in this room for taking the trouble to continue to perform my organ music whenever the mood or occasion might strike you. 



*The reason there is a baker’s dozen of Gospel Preludes is because the very earliest organ piece I remember writing, a simple chorale prelude on Abide with Me which I wrote to play at my father’s funeral in 1970, was added as a “bonus” by my publisher to the third group of  Gospel Preludes.