Wild Air

It's the REAL Thing

April 1st, 2010

Our culture has done much to blur the distinction between the authentic article and the clever fake.   By many, it is considered a high compliment to say that something is “realistic.”   In fact, the suffix on the word “real” completely reverses its meaning.   Something that is “realistic” is something that is ultimately fake.

“Realistic” is now aided by another clever adjective, “virtual.”   Think about it.   A job that is virtually done is a job that is not done.   You wouldn’t buy a car with brakes that virtually work.

No doubt, artificiality has its place in our society.   I have seen DaVinci’s Last Supper in every form imaginable, from living tableau to plaster sculpture to hook rug.

How does all  this apply to the organ?

Where organ music is an important part of the worship experience, the sound, wherever possible, should be produced authentically by pipes.   This is not just an issue of better sound (it IS better, whatever the salesmen may tell you), or of greater longevity (ditto, the salesmen), it is an issue of offering to God the best fruits of our harvest, in this case a real organ.   The fact that some untrained people might claim to not be able to hear a difference is an even stronger reason to embrace authenticity.

2 Responses to “It's the REAL Thing”

  1. Dan Gawthrop

    This argument always troubles me because its focus is wrong. The real need for the worshipper (as well as for the recital attendee) is for an authentic musical experience, not for any particular instrument. Bach was constantly moving his keyboard music from one instrument (organ, say) to another (harpsichord or clavichord, for example) and no one accuses him of stabbing at the heart of its authenticity. There are plenty of valid reasons for preferring the sound of pipes over other alternatives, but let’s be honest: those are personal preferences, not moral imperatives. Further, whenever a listener has a moving musical experience, we should be grateful for whatever instrument was available to allow this small miracle to occur, not trying to cast aspersions upon its alleged inauthenticity. Digital organs have a real and legitimate role to play and they’re getting better and better at it. This should be a cause for rejoicing, not the occasion for carping. Those are my thoughts anyway!

  2. Thad Reynolds

    Actually, I don’t disagree with you. I use digital voices in my pipe organs at times because they can enhance the experience for players and listeners. I have found that digital voices work better for some purposes than for others, but that, as you say is partly a matter of taste.

    The moral imperative has to do with embracing a fake when the “real thing” is available. Some churches cannot have a real organ, and for those, a fine digital organ is certainly a fine idea. When Bach transcribed music between instruments, he was not trying to pretend that the harpsichord was an organ. His transcriptions are idiomatic for the instruments he was using.

    The problem with the electronic organ, it seems to me, is that except for instruments like the Hammond B3 (which to me is the ultimate electronic organ), the concentration has always been on making a good fake so that most people “can’t tell the difference.”

    The massiveness of even a small pipe organ has always been a problem for smaller churches and homes. A century ago, the problem was solved with reed organs, some of which were very fine. I actually have a friend who is a concert organist, and prefers practicing on his big Estey to any electronic. Sadly, the big electronic organs, with their buttons and lights, encourage many congregations to settle for the realistic when they could have the real.

    One other observation, which is admittedly personal.

    I have heard many large and state-of-the-art digital organs played by accomplished concert organists. There are a few things I notice about these organs that I cannot escape.

    First, the whole of these organs is always less than the sum of the parts. When you play one of these instruments using just a nice flute or string or even a principal, the sound can be quite good. However, the more you add, the less impressive the sound becomes, until full organ is just loud, but not particularly satisfying.

    I also find that these organs tire the ear. I can listen to one for the length of the average church offertory, but not for much longer, without finding that my ear is tired. As someone who tuned 100,000 pipes between Halloween and Christmas last year, I think my aural endurance is pretty good. I am not really sure why this happens to me, and admit that it could be my mind working on ears. But it does happen.

    We have built everything from a digital combination (hybrid) organ with one rank of principal pipes to a large three-manual with full pipes in the Great, Choir, and Pedal. I have found that the more pipes are in the mix, the better the sound. By the way, on these organs, we have “voiced” the digital voices just as we would the pipes. I have found that it is particularly important to have real pipes in the Pedal (at least a Bourdon).

    So, I’m not really a purist except where it makes sense to be. I try to do what’s right for my customers. But I think we should recognize that pipes ARE the real thing, and that digital organ sounds, to the extent they are used, are a significant compromise.

    Thanks, Dan, for your comment. I’m not always right, but I love to discuss!


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