I thank Mag. Peter Donhauser for his interest in the new digital concert organ at Graz University of the Performing Arts.

Graz, 10 January 2013
Gunther Rost

1 The decision to acquire an electronic instrument for a university was driven presumably not by financial considerations but rather by an artistic concept. Or is this not so?

That would be nice, but of course financial considerations, a financial calculation, are also behind the decision. Within this framework, the intent was to realize the basic idea behind all organs, namely to enable a single instrumentalist to bring to life an almost endless range of sounds using the means and technologies of the historical moment. In addition, we wanted to make the instrument mobile, physically and otherwise. The organ, with its extraordinarily numerous 0/1 stops, being binary in operation, anticipates in essence the modern computer. Max Planck’s discovery of the quantum suggests that the organ is not alone in this.  Perhaps everything is digital, even the universe. That is the larger background.

2 The space in which the instrument is set up lacks proper acoustics and is not suitable for concerts. How is this being dealt with?

This question is based on false assumptions. The new organ is mobile and not bound to any one room or space. It is likewise flexible as to almost all parameters of volume and acoustics and can be adapted to its surroundings.

Is the questioner familiar with the room? Are other spaces in which organs are usually set up any better? Are churches acoustically better suited to the production of clear, sharply contrasting music at any tempo? Are the spaces in which organs are usually played really suitable for organ concerts, are they conducive to free thematic and emotional expression, are they warm and cozy? Do they offer better contact between audience and performer, and if so, are they affordable? Can organists hear themselves better elsewhere? How ideal are the circumstances for practicing? Are traditional organs in churches, universities and concert halls easier on the ears? Not that I know of!

Anyone who looks closely at organ culture must come away depressed. Composers have more or less shunned the organ for more than two hundred years. Festivals, conductors, labels and audiences are not interested. The job situation here in Austria is a catastrophe. The organ is practically nonexistent outside   liturgical service. In this situation we cannot afford to be suspicious of new approaches.

3 How important is the imitation of »genuine« pipe organ sound with this instrument? What are the implications for playing the classical organ literature?

Imitation is important, but not the primary aim – unlike copies of historical instruments. And let us not forget that the organ always copies sounds (the viola da gamba, flutes, trompets, the orchestra or sounds from nature) and that this is part of its identity. In general, everything that comes later imitates everything that went before, so what is »genuine«?

The implications for playing the classical literature are thus not new. Today we can approximate many parameters of the music of the past. This brings up different questions: What factors demand exact copy in order to transport the fundamental message of a composition? Must everything be copied, or is the composition flexible as to certain factors? Which aspects of a work demand special attention, which are especially valuable? In Shakespeare’s day, all stage roles were played by men. Women were not allowed on stage. Would Shakespeare feel better understood if his Juliets were played by men today?

4 What implications does the new digital organ have for teaching? How will students react?

Students and teachers alike must learn to transcend taboos and listen with new openness. We can no longer hide behind traditional ways of playing and say that, for example, principal 8'+4' sounds good because that’s the way it is done and that’s the way we have always done it. We can no longer quite so easily blame our own shortcomings on the instrument or the acoustics.

5 Re imitation and using the term organ for electronic instruments: Would not a new name solve the argumentative problem, or is that beside the point?

What is the »argumentative problem« and who has provided any arguments? But be that as it may, the question is not entirely beside the point.  A piano is not an organ, and our new digital organ is not a piano either, but an organ.  As to whether it is an imitation, see my answer to question 3 above.

6 Electronic instruments have been denied artistic status since the 1930s. How do you see this problem?

I see a serious problem indeed here! Can there really be musical artists who would say such a thing? Must I really count up all the compositions, composers, institutes, festivals and professorships in the realm of electronic music? Are there artists who deserve to be taken seriously who have missed all this? And what authority has the right, or had the right in the 1930s, to grant or withhold artistic status?

7 Is the acceptance of electronic instruments, in your view, a social, an aesthetic, an artistic or an economic question?

What is acceptance? When everybody likes something? A dangerous criterion! But, as we know, nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come. Acceptance of electronic instruments is all of the above and only a matter of time.

8 The new Graz instrument is the only one of its kind. In order to realize its potential, it will have to be transported, even taken on tour. Isn’t that prohibitive and the instrument just your hobbyhorse?

It seems to me that the assumption that something new could be prohibitive, i.e., impossible, in contradiction of the idea of progress to which universities, including universities of the performing arts, are committed. What else could the newly won mobility of the organ be but a wonderful opportunity? How can an additional option prohibit anything other than perhaps the perpetuation of the current unsatisfactory situation?

9 What is the ratio between purchase price and service life? As an electric apparatus, the instrument has a limited service life.

The Grazer organ is basically digital information, and electronic data transmission to a compatible receiver is all that is needed to make it audible. A sufficiently powerful computer (ideally with a similar keyboard) enables the organ to be played essentially anywhere. Sound reproduction can be over headphones or using larger or smaller loudspeaker systems. That is relatively inexpensive and involves relatively little wear and tear.

10 Do you feel that an airing of the topic »pipe organ versus electronic instrument« by qualified discussants might be necessary and desirable?

I have no interest in so-called discussions with the declared or undeclared aim of playing off one good thing against another good thing. I trust that no one wants that. Reality cannot be averted by discussants, no matter how qualified, and we can only hope that no one volunteers for such a harpsichord-versus-piano discussion.

I am always interested in suggestions leading to an emancipated organ culture in the future.