Pipe organ vs. organ, or How Dare You Evolve Your Tool

Also brought to mind by Cameron Carpenter‘s musings:

I don’t know how we wound up in the situation where electric guitarists can play their instruments and investigate the new things they can do, but not be seen as pissing on Segovia’s grave … but classical musicians can’t change their instruments and investigate their new possibilities without being seen as disrespecting the old ones. No one accuses Neal Schon of disrespecting Segovia by playing an electric guitar, and even performing exclusively on it. It’s very strange. It’s simply seen as its own instrument on its own terms. Different from an acoustic of course, and capable of doing other things.

It started out as very similar and approached in similar ways, but people began to see the new things it could do as features and not bugs. Distortion? Feedback? I don’t care for them often, but the players on the device began to say, “Okay, we’re not going to call this a problem anymore because an acoustic guitar doesn’t do it. It’s a sound that the device can make, let’s see how to use it artistically.” And now it’s its own device, taken on its own terms, which can investigate new areas of music that are not open to acoustics. Acoustics are still around, and still beautiful, but these new devices exist alongside them. That’s all it is.

In my mind, it also makes me think of how fretless bass players will sometimes use instruments with inlays, while classical string players refuse to do so in what seems like an attempt to keep the instrument as difficult to use as it can be.

The argument made is usually that it locks one into a specific tuning, but I would say that the bass players who use inlays don’t seem “locked” into anything if they don’t want to be. Just because you have a line on your fingerboard that suggests a whole step interval doesn’t mean that you don’t have the freedom to still put your finger any damned place you want.

Besides, my quite good and well-respected teacher encouraged me to look at the fingerboard and use my eyes to make sure where I placed my fingers anyway! If we were relying only on our ears, we wouldn’t be told to look at the fingerboard in the first place! There’s tragic comedy someplace in the fact that string teachers tell students to look at a device with no set tempering, and piano teachers insist that their students not look at their discrete and tempered instrument to play it.

What goes for bass players goes for string players as well. There is zero logical foundation to the statement that inlays destroy musicality. If your musicality is that fragile and your free will that easier overtaken, you shouldn’t be playing the instrument in the first place.

It just boggles me how string players will act like the existence of inlays on the fingerboard will suck their free will out through their eyeballs. What an idiotic opinion. At bottom, it’s nothing but a desire to keep the instrument relatively unplayable without a lifetime of effort, in order to make sure that as few people play it as possible. Keep the fraternity small and exclusive, a sort of country-club mentality. It’s also a way to ensure that one must pass through that fraternity before one is able to play, so that the fraternity gets its chance to take control over what you will say on your device, that you will only communicate approved ideas in an approved way. If you have to pass through that fraternity first, then that gives them the opportunity to make sure that whatever message you send has been dogmatically approved by them first.

Yet why shouldn’t the thing be made easier to play, so that more people can communicate more things on it? It’s technology, isn’t it? We don’t stick to horses and buggies when we can use cars, nor pinces-nez in place of glasses. We don’t incise stone tablets when we can use pens and papers, nor stick to pens and paper when we can use computers. We simply use the right tool for the right job, and where the tool makes things harder, we change it. If people want to use the old-school tools because they like them, then fine. But again, no one says that Tommy Shaw hates and wants to destroy all acoustic guitars just because he sticks to an electric more often than not. I have no doubt that he likes to listen to Pepe Romero.

So why the hell can’t other instruments evolve in multiple directions? Why do people insist on feeling threatened just because someone somewhere doesn’t do something exactly the way they do it? Because someone somewhere insists on being not them? You over there! You’re disrespecting me and calling me into question by not being me!

I also think it sometimes comes from classical music being seen as a geeky thing to do, which causes those who do it to overcompensate in an effort to make themselves seem tougher and more “hardcore.” It’s an insecurity at its heart, a fear that one will vanish if one’s being is not continually validated, along with a fear that, if a player isn’t forced to pass through a monastic order first, they might say Unapproved Things through their instrument.

No, Cameron. What do you really think?

Boy, you don’t go away from a conversation with him wondering what he thought, do you?

  1. Chapter 1: Dancing the Organ
  2. Chapter 2: Changing the Image of the Organ
  3. Chapter 3: Expanding the Repertoire
  4. Chapter 4.1: Advocate of the Digital Organ Part I
  5. Chapter 4.2: Advocate of the Digital Organ Part II
  6. Chapter 5: The Artist as Creator
  7. Chapter 6: Dangerous Obsession: Klaus Kinski
  8. Chapter 7: At Home in Berlin
  9. Chapter 8: Composing “Der Skandal”

He’s right about a device being soulless. The musician is meant to empty their soul into it.

And I wish people had the same realistic acceptance of the issues of a piano, and other instruments. And I completely agree with him about having one relationship with one instrument. As a pianist, I’m sick to death of not knowing what the hell is waiting for me. That’s probably the best part of having a viola. As I play it, I come to know it. The unportability of keyboard instruments is a constant source of stress and annoyance to keyboard players, as is the unfamiliarity of whatever instrument that may be waiting for you. The instrument ceases to be a barrier between the musician and what they want to communicate. Besides … think about that article about Horowitz and the others jerry-rigging their pianos.

Although I do think he’s oversimplifying; Joshua Bell has not played the same violin since he was eight for pete’s sake (an earlier comment he made elsewhere). I’m thinking of that RBP podcast where she rattled off a litany of the various fiddles she’s played. Few modern string players own their instruments outright, which introduces a significant uncertainty to their lives. No one organist is expected to own the Wanamaker.

I also agree with him about the value taking music out of its typical context. I would go further in that one can sense new things in pieces once they are played in new settings, which organs haven’t thus far been free to do. Making an organ mobile reveals new facets to even the standard literature by simply playing them in new places, facets that would never have been revealed otherwise.

I would disagree about there being nothing negative about people not being able to make music anymore. There’s nothing negative about making music on amplified instruments by any means. But yes, it’s a problem that people don’t make their own music anymore. The communication is so much more profound when it goes both ways, and when performer and listener have each been in the other’s shoes.

BTW, don’t invoke quantum mechanics unless you have studied it. Thanks. 🙂

Also … how fortunate that he’s male. With his attitude, he’d be burnt alive if he weren’t. America doesn’t love or forgive mud-covered women nearly so much, does it?

I recall hearing that he once remarked that organists can burn out, “live-fast-die-young,” etc. I don’t know if anyone can sustain that level of manic brilliance for a very long time. It will be interesting to see how he evolves as he ages.

An extra finger? Try an extra arm.

Cameron Carpenter pushing the envelope

I recall watching a scene from the movie “Gattaca” about genetically engineered humans blah blah blah yadda yadda Our Hero Struggling Against The Odds And There’s A Hot Chick etc. etc. etc.

Anyway, in one scene, they made some hay about watching a pianist who had been Specially Engineered™ with six fingers on each hand.

The first thing I thought was how no pianist would bother with an extra finger. A violinist — certainly a violist or cellist — yes. But not a pianist.

An extra arm, though? Okay, I might take that.

Organists might like a few more legs, too.