Most tools spend far more time in the toolbox than in the hands of the craftsman. Likewise, most musical instruments are silent not sounding, seen (or hidden in their cases) not heard.
This relationship between action and inaction is most extreme at the organ. Whereas the solitary violinists of yore could practice and play for hours on end, the organist needed at least one other person (often an indigent, an inmate, a wage-slave or a woman) to pump the bellows in order to supply the essential wind.
Church officials often laid out rules to prevent unauthorized, after-hours forays by musicians into the organ loft. If the organist wanted to play on his (and very occasionally her) own, candles would have to be lit, their holders built into the case on either side of the keyboards. Through the high drafty windows to either side of the organ loft the wind could whistle sending the candle flames to guttering dangerously near to the paper of the hymnal or score placed on the music desk.
Ideally, the pipes of the church organ sounded only during the service or at special demonstrations of the instrument, which by the 18th century began to take the form of something we now know as concerts. Given the immense expense and expertise that went into the organ, the sonorities produced were all the more powerful for the rarity of their sounding.
The organ’s silence resounded in inverse relation to its size.
As no other musician, the organist is dwarfed by his instrument. That is doubtless one reason many are drawn to play it—to have at the tips of the fingers and the soles of the feet control over such monumental musical means. The largest pipes of the great instruments of Johann Sebastian Bach’s day were six times his height. The largest instruments that filled the west end galleries of churches from the 15th century on towered over the organist. Often these organs had a division on the gallery rail behind the organist, the Rückpositiv; it was typically designed as a smaller version of the main case and had the effect of enclosing the player so that he (and in the rarest of cases she) could not be seen from down below in the church. Large organs made it difficult, even impossible, for the player to sense exactly where the boundaries of his instrument lay.
What other musical instrument can you not take full measure of as you play it? Almost all others can be carried, moved, or even destroyed with one decisive blow. Even the harpsichord—or a modern grand piano on wheels—can be pushed or pulled across the floor. Not so the King of Instruments. Dismantling it is a job for a small army. The organ is itself a piece of architecture and cannot be carried from the church in case of fire. Massively anchored to their surroundings, too many of the great organs of the European tradition could not be spirited to safety but instead went down in flames when the bombs of World War II fell. In that catastrophe the organ’s stature was its greatest enemy.
The Latin word organum means tool, and the organ was a “Wondrous Machine,” as the aria from Henry Purcell’s Ode to St. Cecilia put it. In theory, that machine could produce sound without end or interruption, its pipes singing without need for taking a breath—as long as there was wind.
With the replacement of bellows treader by an electric blower the instrument’s duration could now truly aspire to unlimited duration. The John Cage Organ Project in Halberstadt, Germany presents ORGAN2/ASLAP (As Slow As Possible). The “work” is being “performed’ over 639 years. The last change of tone occurred in February of this year.
Halberstadt was one the great organ centers of Germany. The city and its organs were destroyed by Allied air attack in April of 1945 a month before the end of the war. That crime is confronted with devastating detachment in a ground-breaking book first published in 1977 by the great and endlessly prolific writer, philosopher, filmmaker Alexander Kluge, who was born in the city and lived through the bombardment as a twelve-year-old. (The German title of his book is Der Luftangriff auf Halberstadt am 8. April 1945—The Aerial Attack on Halberstadt on the April 8th, 1945; the title of the English translation, Air Raid, misses the quality of unblinking clinical observation of the prose inside.) A sometime organist, Kluge celebrated his 90th birthday in February of this year, a week after the last chord change occurred in ASLAP in the town of this birth.
Played on a small deconstructed organ that hearkens back to the portable instruments of Antiquity, ASLAP is a chamber piece that aims for the eccentric rather than for shock and awe. But the sheer scope of the vanished monumental organs of Halberstadt and the timbral range of the thousands of pipes housed within their magnificent cases suggested infinite power and possibility.
The perceived perfection of the organ derived from its technological complexity, a sophistication that allowed it to rise several stories from the gallery which was itself already high above the church floor. The organ was also likened to the human form, itself perfectly constructed by God: the organ’s keys were teeth; the pipes were throats; and the openings where the sound was generated were mouths. Many instruments Bach’s time had a division of the organ just above the organist’s head in the middle of the case: this was called the Brustwerk [division in the breast], since it nestled in the living, breathing chest of the anthropomorphized instrument. Continuing the analogy, the bellows were lungs that breathed so long as they continued to be filled by the hidden Calcant—the bellows treader. ASLAP exploits one of the most awe-inspiring capabilities of the organ: its unique power to sustain sound without interruption. Such unwavering sonorities resounded as a simulacrum of the eternal chord, the harmony of the spheres. The diverse stops placed a compendium of musical sonorities at the organist’s disposal, sounds imitating the human voice (likened often to the basic Principal stop or, more explicitly mimicked by one called the Vox humana) and all instruments—from strings and flutes, to crumhorns and trumpets.
These anthropomorphizing gestures only brought an awful 20th– and 21st-century truth into towering relief: the organ cannot run from church when the bombs begin to fall.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at email@example.com.)