Gunther Rost

Edited version of a lecture at the German Association of Organ Specialists conference at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, May 2013

On the term “organ” in general

The meaning of the term organ is remarkably universal in many languages. In some, it does not describe a specific instrument, or even a group of instruments, but rather an “instrument”, “tool”, or even an implementing body in general. We only need to glance at a few languages: the ancient Greek work “organon” has a very broad semantic field and the German loanword “Organ” covers a range of meanings, as does the English word “organ” and the Russian and Polish equivalents in the Slavic language family.

On the origin of the organ and its concept

One concept, or even the fundamental concept, of the organ, i.e. the ability for a single person to replicate a range of sounds, was developed in ancient times using the technology available. Attempts were made to imitate the sound stimuli of the time, including percussion effects and sounds of nature, and integrate them into the instrument – as far as technically possible and desired.

Digital and analogue – the organ and the computer

The concept of the organ is related to that of the computer, since the organ functions similarly in a remarkable number of ways. Operated like a data processor with binary choices, organ playing is the accumulation of a large number of surprisingly discrete individual decisions. The organ facilitates (or forces) countless numbers of these binary (or black and white, as it were) choices which are input into the instrument not only in analogue form, but also in multiple stages through pre-programming. (We can make these decisions individually or delegate them beyond our conscious control.)

Perhaps it is the particularly large number of these binary choices to be decided by the player that makes the organ a very idiosyncratic instrument, particularly when we compare it directly with the violin, for example, or the human voice. When it comes to feeling, the organ appears to be in in a different category, although – or perhaps because – it attempts to imitate the voice, the violin and other sounds. Perhaps it is reverential repulsion – such as we may experience towards a robot that imitates our linguistic customs, or the feeling of being needed we get from that successor to the household pet, the tamagotchi. Perhaps we also feel repulsed by ourselves, because we recognise how we are “knit together”.

Whatever the reason, the organ is seen by some not as a musical instrument, but as an extra category of instrument. Many also consider it emotionally distanced, theoretical, almost unnatural – probably because of the characteristics mentioned.

Instead of reassuring us, the reference back to the natural, to our brain, which is after all a kind of computer and is therefore related to the organ, tends to repel us even more. The theory that the universe itself is a computer is likely to finish us off, rather than giving our emotional responses a helping hand.

Let’s remedy the situation by getting back to the pipe organ:
on the organ we can discern black and white decision gates in a very clear, stepped, selective manner – in other words, digitally. To follow my line of thinking, let’s turn to the ideal score of a modest organ piece to illustrate this point:
→ Second 0: motor “on”;
→ Second 2: flute stop active;
→ Second 3: C key (2 octaves below middle C) active;
→ Second 4: C key (1 octave below middle C) active;
→ Second 8: C (2 octaves below middle C) and C (1 octave below middle C) inactive;
→ Sec. 10: motor “off”.

It is true that we can play this game for a flautist as well:
second 0, the flautist picks up the instrument; second 2, she activates the C sharp key, second 3 she blows into the instrument, etc.

But with the flute there are far fewer point by point decisions that can be localised in a way that makes sense didactically for our thought process, and a far smaller number of presets in the stepped localised structure. The algorithm, the instructions for carrying out the work, is much less explicit, and therefore less effective.

Organ playing, by contrast, has more of a nuclear pixel structure, which has the advantage of point by point access, but the disproportionately greater challenge of bringing the particles to life as emotive, animated lines.

Perhaps the challenge of marrying ratio with emotio, and innumerable digital decisions with analogue feeling, planning with spontaneity, sense with sensuality, is particularly great on the organ.

Excursus – original and counterfeit

The terms original and counterfeit are only ostensibly distinct:
After all, every instrument, every composition, every statement, in effect everything, is actually an imitation, a quote, a copy, “a counterfeit”. Everything that comes after uses what has come before – whether consciously or unconsciously, whether openly or by displacing its prototypes. Thus music itself is based, for instance, on the elemental sounds of mammals, which were in turn based on earlier elemental sounds, and so on.

Insistence on the so-called original tends to be tied up with political, e.g. power-oriented and pecuniary, considerations. Examples include patent law, or the question of whether the “Man with the Golden Helmet” is a genuine Rembrandt, or even the authentic performance practice label that adds value to a CD.

When we consider this further, we realise that it is impossible to identify the original. What is the original version of the G minor fugue BWV 542, for example? Is it the folk song, or the preliminary version improvised by Bach in Hamburg, or one of the notated versions or manuscripts? What is the original version of Buxtehude’s F-sharp minor prelude? Which manuscript? Which transcription in modern notation? What is the original version of Schübler Chorale no. 3? Which text does that mean?

Anyone who continues to be interested in this cascade of what appear to be archetypes, supposedly original texts and concepts, allegedly genuine birth dates, reputedly actual beginnings, etc. should be pointed in the direction of Thomas Mann’s Descent into Hell, the prologue to the tetralogy of novels, Joseph and his Brothers.

The “quest for originality” can easily mislead us when we use it as a line of thought without a counterpoint. What is an original instrument, what was the intention of the author or composer, what is an “interpretation”, an “arrangement”, a “paraphrase” or what allegedly misses the intention and has been “wrongly sung or incorrectly performed” – these are all simply conventions, something agreed by a jury or a group with a particular interest at a particular time in a particular place, but in no way the absolute truth or an immutable reality.

On imitation and autonomy in pipe organs and e-organs

As shown above, imitation is unavoidable, even if it is not always in everyone’s best interests: Vivaldi may not have been entirely happy, for example, that Bach copied his concerti and learned from them. Everything that comes after must imitate what has gone before, whether this fits the model of teaching or not.

Similarly, we must not forget the way in which the pipe organ imitates the human voice using the vox humana, voix humaine, voce umana, or other instruments in an uncoordinated, autonomous manner, such as viols, flutes and trumpets. The pipe organ has also imitated stringed instruments or even a whole orchestra, as Hildebrandt did with the Baroque orchestra or Cavaillé-Coll with the romantic symphony orchestra. Even weather phenomena like the orage effect or the calls of birds such as the nightingale are not safe from imitation.

And the musical score itself instigates imitation: through its proportions, e.g. the golden ratio, through performance directions, such as timpani, cantabile, sotto voce, through references to, or direct quoting of, other compositions, through mood and character instructions such as allegro, maestoso, martiale, mesto, gloomy, bright, etc.

Even today, we are happy to produce almost exact copies (imitations, or “counterfeits”, as it were) of historical instruments, not least when building pipe organs.

But through the mix of different models and disciplines peculiar to the pipe organ, the instrument has also became thoroughly autonomous and able to be referenced itself: metallurgy, wooden construction, materials research, the integration of the Barker Lever machine, the electric motor, the punch card storage medium, semiconductor technology – entire modern computer systems are represented comprehensively in this musical instrument alone. Incidentally, the pipe organ has long been imitated by the harmonium.

Like the pipe organ, the e-organ is also an imitator. Primarily, it copies, simulates, “counterfeits” the pipe organ, of course – sometimes with startling precision – but also the cinema organ, the harpsichord and orchestral instruments. What is new in the spectrum of possibilities is that any sound that can be digitalised so, in principle, any accessible sound source can be imitated.

The e-organ also imitates piano-forte playing techniques with impulse-sensitive keys and much more. Thus the digital organ as an instrument is now emancipating itself, as the pipe organ once did, through its own combination of various models and disciplines: Playing techniques from other instruments are being imitated and used in new contexts, e.g. through parameters that can be controlled using after-touch functions – these enable the dynamic development of a note, the vibrato, or the structure of overtones to be controlled live when the key is pressed in different ways.

As well as sampling all accessible sound sources, through a process known as physical modelling it is possible to create completely new, individual sounds.

Interpreting scores, pipe organ repertoire and repertoire from other instruments on the e-organ

The impact of the e-organ on the way the repertoire is played is actually nothing new, but it can raise new awareness, given that all instruments presumably originally used adapted “borrowed” scores, so it took some time for an independent repertoire to be developed for keyboard instruments. Until then music was arranged in various ways, including intabulation.

An additional consideration is that, in the case of the pipe organ in particular, there is always a need for adaptation because there is no such thing as a standard instrument. We have to adapt, transcribe and translate, because we want to play a piece of Bach in 21st century Austria, and we won’t find the original conditions anywhere else in the world anyway, for that matter. We won’t find the original instrument (which never existed in the first place), we won’t find the original audience with the musical and emotional background it would have had in, say, 1723, we won’t find their astonishment when confronted by the organ as the most complex machine of the Baroque era, we won’t find the experience of first hearing the genius, J. S. Bach. In fact, on closer inspection, nothing is original or authentic.

There was a time when we came close to reproducing the effects of music from past epochs as regards many of its parameters, while in terms of many others we alienated ourselves from it – albeit often unintentionally. Nowadays we are beginning to discern that we will never pin down the “original”.

This raises interesting questions though: what are the factors that we would like to emulate more closely to so as to convey the important core message of the scores? On which factors do we want to focus consciously so as to give us a better understanding of this message? Which aspects of a work do we particularly want to prioritise in order to highlight them nowadays? We can’t deal with all aspects at once! Which aspects are especially worthwhile at present? Which message is current? Which world view might be outdated or even dangerous?

All this can give fresh illumination, when it is played on the e-organ for instance, and can awaken new interest.

Let’s take one final example from the world of the theatre, where we find interpretive usages that can have a fundamentally enlightening effect on music. In Shakespeare’s time all the characters – even the female ones – appear to have been played by men, since women were hardly ever allowed to take to the stage. Do you believe Shakespeare would have felt strongly that we would understand him better if his Juliet were only ever to be played by a man? Would we be fulfilling his wishes if we refrained from making films of his works or translating them?

So new possibilities, and new instruments for fresh illuminations of art, clearly propel us forward.

Appearing authentic or understanding and being understood?

Do we really want to hear the works of Dupré, Messiaen, Hindemith, Reger played by the composers themselves? No! In fact, those who hear Messiaen himself or Dupré on a CD say: “I can’t play that exactly like that, nor do I want to.”

But what about the intentions of the author? For one thing, these intentions can be extremely contradictory – for example, Messiaen taught that his rhythms should be played almost “without interpretation”, but his recordings give a very different picture. For another, they often change during the author’s life, since intelligent people are keen learners.

What is more, it’s impossible for the authors to be fully aware of their own statements because – as Paul Watzlawick stated – they “communicate unconditionally”, that is to say, they set down everything in the score, including the unintended and the unconscious. Ultimately we say everything about ourselves in every second of our life, whether we intend to or not.

This means that authors can have only a very limited perspective of themselves and that interpreters help them to achieve self-understanding, as well as to be understood individually.

It’s not just people that need constant fresh interpretations and meta-perspectives – instruments such as the pipe organ do as well, through the e-organ, for example. The pipe organ itself is also a meta-instrument which comments on the world of music and is reflected in it, in Bruckner’s symphonies, for example.