Cinderella or SHE who Must Not be Named

The Organ and Electronic Sound Production
From the presentation given during the Signale Soirée, 14.12.2015, IEM

What is the organ? It’s actually a kind of historical, intelligent computer, with which people can control instructions for sound; this is done with astonishingly discrete binary decisions.

The organ integrates and imitates sound stimuli, string and wind instruments, percussion effects and sounds of nature. At the Centre for Organ Research we are investigating the opportunities electronic sound production opens up for the organ and researching what interesting results might be produced by combining them. Why this is still sometimes debated is explained below.

I believe it is important to see the organ as more than just a keyboard instrument that sends wind through pipes. A traditional musical education, including mine, taught pupils to believe that this was all the organ was. And yet that myth has long since been refuted – as already mentioned above, there is the claviorgan, a Baroque instrument that combines the cembalo and organ, the organ with integrated celeste and many other examples. But this tendential unquestionability of an instrument is not limited to the organ scene. The Procrustean bed to which we must conform is a phenomenon that pervades the music scene. We adapt ourselves to the grand piano, hardly ever the other way round.

But back to the term “organ”: It’s easy to forget that in jazz, the term organ is not associated with pipe organs and is generally understood to mean a synthesizer.

Depending on their background, readers may wonder why I am saying this, but, I think it is important, because the question of whether an organ without pipes can be an organ at all is raised time and time again, usually with a predetermined negative answer. The key issue is one of origins, of who holds the right to a name and who asserts that right. It is a matter of various (industry) lobbies and being confused with art or research, and ultimately, of quod licet lovi non licet bovi, in other words, this is a battle over the question of who defines language, and thus thought and reception. So it is a question of whom one believes.

We are familiar with this from the oil industry, which shows little interest in electromobility, and from discussions about the pharmaceutical and tobacco industries...

The topic is explosive – and not just on the organ scene. After all, how would it be if one took a string section and compared a Stradivarius with an Asian imitation, or even an electric violin, on the grounds that many people are unable to distinguish between these instruments or because it appeared to be unclear when certain advantages outweighed others? We would have to change our way of thinking.

Where the organ is concerned, it has long been obvious that electronic sound production has astronomical potential. Yet this is precisely what alarms people, so that it is understandably suppressed for as long as possible. In the novel Brother of Sleep the first tuning of the village organ has a troubling, ultimately lethal, effect on the church musician.

The potential includes ergonomics, flexible tuning (the long-standing dream for keyboard instruments), the mobility of the instrument, recording techniques – the impact is therefore huge.

But we now move on to consider the reservations people have about electronic sound production. Regarding the possible underlying reasons for these reservations, here are some more theories:

The pipe organ has become isolated, and not just because of its normal location in a church, or the fact that it is “immovable”. It is much more to do with the fact that – as a machine – it intimidates. This was especially true for previous generations, because it imitates other instruments or the characteristics of the human voice – the fear of being replaced as a human being has always been present.

Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that the basic concept of the organ, whether pipes, sampling, physical modelling or other techniques are being used, represents a type of meta-instrument with a bird’s-eye view. After all, "organ" simply means “tool”; when compared with other instruments, it is a tool that can do everything, but nothing really well. Could it not be said that, in terms of the evolution of instruments, the idea of the organ is somewhat similar to the idea of the human person? Does it not correspond to the idea of the human being among other animals, an animal that cannot do anything really well? A being that can neither run fast nor swim like a fish, but that can think in a special way. This is the way of thinking we use to invent our tools, this is how we evolved to assert ourselves. These tools increasingly seem to be irreducibly complex. Smartphones will soon appear to be as indecomposably complex as an eye seems to us.

Still, as human beings, we often cannot, of ourselves, feel that we are part of nature. We consider that birds fly “naturally”, whereas we feel that an aircraft flies “artificially” – even now. Even with something as ancient as our brain, we still need to be reminded didactically that it is an organ that is part of our body, and not some kind of external device. If we don’t yet have a feeling for something, then we say that it must be “highbrow”, as if our head must be doing well if we haven’t absorbed something emotionally.

The same phenomena allow us to experience the music of the old masters as natural and appropriate, whereas the avant garde, by contrast, is unnatural, engineered, not accessible to the emotions, undigested.

This is the source and probably also the destination of the generally backward-looking focus of our music education establishments. The emotions prefer to attribute artistic skill to what is old, to traditional scholarship. Logic demonstrates the opposite, namely that refutation of theories moves science and art forward. It is easy to hold the mistaken idea that a university exists to reproduce what is familiar, tried and tested, to communicate the contents of a physics or music textbook, rather than setting out to scrutinise and question it and to differ from it. The excuse for this is that everyone needs first to be brought up to the level of current knowledge, even though this is merely an alleged, apparent level of knowledge. This happens by imitation, i.e. unthinkingly. Those of us in music education establishments are strongly focussed on this kind of imitation. On the other hand, how creativity and autonomous thinking and feeling can be stimulated is a mystery. (So perhaps it is not always a disadvantage to achieve a high PISA score.)

For instance, this problem led to the recognition that – on the classical music scene – originally enlightening knowledge of historic practice performance has long since congealed into a new “religion”. An attempt was made to enlighten students to reject the older “religion”, the religion of Karajan and co. New axioms, not yet systematically analysed, were in turn derived by imitating the new protagonists, not by digging deeper.

Accordingly, the following idea seems to be an axiomatic assumption:

The greater the extent to which the performance practice of the original period is reproduced, the more clearly it conveys the message of the composition. This is true in theory, but not in practice because it is logically excluded, since we cannot turn back the clock. To paraphrase Friedrich Gulda: Give me the original audience and I’ll go along with it... Despite this, we create a cycle of endlessly new sub-religions within our subject areas, which is associated with the rapidly growing challenge of communicating between the religious persuasions that all conceal subconscious hereditary benefices.

Be that as it may, in the case of the organ, this axiomatic theory has reached astonishing heights – a series of sometimes enchantingly beautiful sounding so-called copies of historical instruments. Such a project generally begins with a selection of parameters being adopted by unconscious convention, and this is then treated, in terms of the supposedly significant, as a complete whole. For example: A historic organ is being conscientiously restored. To provide the organ bellows with air, the idea of a horse walking in a circle is tacitly abandoned in favour of a chip-controlled electric motor, while at the same time, tiny decorative porcelain platelets that have no influence on the sound shape are the subject of elaborate discussion.

In conclusion, I should like to consider a further secondary effect of these axioms:

The belief that these stylistic copies come as close as possible to the original idea of a score leads to the following misconception: an instrument with access to 21st century technologies that differs from the unconscious convention, e.g. one with electronic sound production, would obviously not be able to interpret the music of past epochs in a meaningful way. For such an instrument we would initially have to create future compositions, composed exclusively for this instrument...

All this brings me to the question of what music actually intends to achieve, or what I want to achieve with music or from music. Is it intended to be comfortable or intelligible or an impenetrable mystery or a purifying evolutionary tool, or do I want to earn money with it, or all of the above? Maybe music is also a safe place, which is why psychologists recommend it as trauma therapy. In other words, an imagined space in which one is unconditionally protected from attack, a separate dream world, a jardin suspendu, as Jehan Alain called this phenomenon. If music is such a safe place, then what about the development of conservatoires into music universities? Doesn’t the explanation of music that results from research keep on taking away these safe places? Or does it only create future-proof places through new knowledge?...

It is clear that the organ research undertaken at Graz stands within this field of tension. That is why I think these are fundamental questions.

Thank you for your attention.

Gunther Rost, 2015