Musings


As an organist I sometimes feel a little neglected when it comes to new music being written for my instrument, and I get it, the pipe organ is weird and locationally restrictive. Nonetheless, I think the pipe organ offers composers a unique set of sonic capabilities, and with this post I hope to shed some light on what those are.

Sustain: As long as the bellows motors keep running, you can sustain a note or notes indefinitely on the pipe organ. You can achieve this with hands or with heavy objects placed on the manuals (keyboards) or pedalboard (played with the feet). Depending on which stops are pulled, this sustain can result in some nice overtone-interplay in the air. And while you have sounds sustaining you can also have other things going on depending on how many of the performer’s hands or feet are engaged in the sustained portion.

Footwork: Most organists are as versatile playing with their feet as they are with their hands. This means that you have another line to play around with besides the hands, and it’s also possible to play chordal/cluster structures in the pedals (e.g., by having the right foot depress two adjacent keys and the left foot press two other adjacent keys; see the ending of hell und dunkel by Gubaidulina).

Timbral variety: Depending on the size of the organ, you usually have several different types of stops to choose from. Here’s a good guide to the classification of stops. In addition to 8′ stops (which are essentially “at-pitch” with the piano), 4′ stops (one octave higher than 8′) and 2′ stops (two octaves higher then 8′), many organs will have 16′ stops (one octave lower than 8′), and “mutations” like 2 2/3′ (a twelfth above 8′) and 1 3/5′, and “mixtures” (which play multiple ranks usually including 5ths and/or thirds). This Encyclopedia of Organ Stops is pretty handy. The variety of stops means that there is a lot of flexibility with register and complexity of tone. Want a certain line to be played very high? Indicate that part should be played on a 2′ stop. Want the sound to be a little more colorful overtone-wise? Indicate that a mutation stop should be pulled.

I will keep adding to this post as I think of more info that might be useful to composers. In the meantime, just as you—a composer—would (I hope) consult with a pianist, or bassoonist, or cellist about what is and isn’t possible to do with the instrument, how certain things sound, etc., please consider consulting with an organist about the organ’s capabilities. Feel free to comment here with thoughts or suggestions.

A good way to start with any organ is to ask the organist (or office admin) for the “organ specification”, which will tell you which stops that particular organ contains and also other details. Sometimes the organ specification will be available on the organization’s website. Here’s a good guide to understanding organ specification lists. (Thanks to Melita Lara for her comment which led to this addendum.)

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A few days ago Rachel Hacker hosted a regularly recurring Twitter meet-up called musochat. The topic was failure, about which I have many feels and opinions. My response to one particular question elicited some interest so I thought I’d expand on it here.

Here’s Rachel’s question and my response:

For reasons I can’t remember, in my undergrad years (late 90s/early 00s) Virginia Woolf’s question, “What if Shakespeare had a sister?” was floating around my milieu quite a bit, resulting in my participating in a lot of informal debates and generally confronting my own internalized misogyny. I’d been aware of structural inequality before this, but it was that particular question and all the discussions (sometimes arguments) I got into with my peers that really got my early-20s brain thinking about what I was capable of versus what opportunities would be available to me out in the big wide world.

Fast forward to the here and now, and I’m following several Twitter accounts whose business it is to bring to light the (often long-buried) work of hundreds of flesh-and-blood “Shakespeare’s sister”s: i.e., marginalized artists. 20th-century electronic music pioneers who were women (e.g., Daphne Oram)! A 19th-century sculptor who was a woman of color (Edmonia Lewis)! A famous (at the time) Shakespearean stage actor who was an African-American man (Ira Aldridge)! Painters other-than-my-beloved-Frida-Kahlo who participated in the surrealist movement who were women!

All throughout my education (which, admittedly, took place quite a while ago) I’d been fed this canon of white and almost entirely male artists, along with the sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit idea that women and people of color just didn’t create art “back then,” when all along they were there, they were there. I could’ve been seeing myself in these histories and feeling like I belonged as a creator but for the actions of bigoted gatekeepers.

And gatekeeping is where we get to the crux of Rachel’s question: When have we as musicians failed? Is it when we fail to convince the gatekeepers to let us in?

For a long time I felt like a failure for not convincing a hiring committee to promote me from a part-time to a full-time musician position (previously always held by a man) because they perceived me as “too young,” seemingly disregarding my seven years of strong experience in that kind of role. Should I have dressed differently (even though I barely had enough money for food at that point, let alone new clothes)? Should I have acted differently? In the end they split the full-time position into two and hired a much older white man to do the less-specialist part of the job with me. As a result I had to take on two other non-music part-time jobs to make ends meet, and guess what suffered? My development as a professional musician. I was never able to work up to the level of people in my situation who had only one job, because I simply did not have the time or resources (or energy) that they had to devote to professional development. Nowadays, I see the failure as belonging to the hiring committee, not to me, because I am 100% certain that a man of my age at the time with my skill level would’ve been given the full-time position. (I need to acknowledge here that the only reason I was even considered for the job was most likely because I am white; a woman of color would almost certainly have faced even more prejudice regarding her ability to hold that leadership position.)

Musicians—devalued as we are in a capitalist society that sees music as “magic,” the “easy A” class, or in general just not worthy of compensation—are apt to feel the sting of failure because we’re almost always trying to shove our way in to an unwelcoming economy. This sting is even worse when you add onto it additional societal prejudices. We as a society fail when we don’t raise up marginalized students and practitioners into paying positions; we fail when we don’t rewrite our histories to include all of the heretofore buried talented marginalized people of our musical past.

I’ve come to believe that the only real way we can fail as musicians is by failing to use our power (no matter how large or small) to combat the insidious prejudice that says only one race and only one gender are deserving of attention. You didn’t get that grant you needed? That’s not a good thing, but it’s not really a failure (there are always more applicants than there is funding to give out). You didn’t perform well at a concert? We’ve all been there, usually because we’ve been too burdened with the need to work multiple jobs to survive and don’t have the time we need to practice. No one bought your last album? I hate to break it to you, but the music industry is deeply, deeply flawed and hardly ever working in your favor.

So, take heart, musicians. The fact that we exist and create and perform at all is a resounding success in and of itself.

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For the past eight months I have worked with several wonderful women as a collective on creating female:pressure’s FACTS 2017 survey. Some quick background:

  • female:pressure is an international network of female, transgender and non-binary artists in the fields of electronic music and digital arts founded by Susanne Kirchmayr, aka Electric Indigo.
  • The first f:p FACTS survey was created in 2013, and has taken place every two years since then. The goal of the survey is to count how many female, male, and mixed acts are programmed at electronic music festivals (mixed acts are acts that contain both female and male members).
  • The 2017 edition of FACTS was presented at the Pop-Kultur festival in Berlin on August 25th, 2017, and its scope is the largest yet. You can read more background in the Introduction to the survey, examine our Methods, review our Results, read through our Discussion, and get more info on who participated (there are also three appendices).

Working on FACTS 2017 was both exhilarating and depressing. Exhilarating because of the women I got to connect with (our Skype meetings were particularly fruitful) and depressing because, as I counted festival after festival, it became clear just how MANY men get programmed on festival line-ups, and how FEW women get that same opportunity. It was something I knew already going into this work, but having to tick “male” over and over and OVER again as I counted the line-ups made me feel quite grim.

Before joining the female:pressure network I knew that the lack of women getting stage-time wasn’t for lack of women performers. I’ve been covering various music scenes—significantly, at the underground and/or small-to-medium venue level—since 2008 and encountered just as many women creators and performers as I did men. However, since joining f:p I now know that the ONLY reason women don’t get the highly visible festival dates is because festival organizers are simply sexist.

Through the f:p network, hundreds of women share their new releases, their new videos, their latest gigs (usually at smaller venues) with all the other members-—women are creating SO MUCH electronic music and putting it out into the world every single day—and f:p is just one of many such networks out there. What excuse, then, can festival organizers have for the lack of parity in their line-ups? The message is clear: Electronic music festivals don’t care about women DJs and producers.

So here is my call for anyone who programs music, whether you’re programming an electronic music festival or an indie show or a one-off avant-garde concert: Make sure your program contains 50% women creators. Go ahead and swallow back all those excuses (“there aren’t enough women!” [yes, there are] “programming women will bring in less money!” [completely untrue] “you’re taking away opportunities from white men!” [please just stop]) and program more women. I know you can do it. And while you’re at it, please make sure you’re programming people of color, too. Understand that the reason, the ONLY reason, that festival line-ups are *dominated* by white male creators is because the system lifts them up (often without them even realizing it) while completely ignoring everyone else. You are part of the system, and you can make a change for good.

This is my write-up of the research I did at the Paul Sacher Stiftung back in ’08. It’s been twice rejected by academic publications and at this point I’m too lazy to submit it to anyone else. Posting it here on the very off chance someone finds it useful. Enjoy!

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I’ve had the privilege to listen to some pretty awesome music lately:

From bachtrack.com

Dreams and anxieties, religious and otherwise, were the dominant themes at Thursday night’s New York Philharmonic performance.

The concert program worked backwards in time, starting with Phantasmata by composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse (completed in 1985), followed by Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo (1916), and finishing with Brahms’Symphony no. 1 (published in 1877). The effect was such that the newness of the first piece conferred upon the following pieces a sense of freshness; the Bloch and Brahms felt just as “now” as the Rouse…

From OUPblog

In December I blogged about composers whose works challenge listeners to reconsider which combinations of sounds qualify as music and which do not. Interestingly, The Atlantic recently ran an article relating the details of a study that tested how much of our perception of what is “music” – in this case, pleasant, consonant music – is learned (and thus not innate). For me (and perhaps for you) there is nothing too surprising about this — there are far too many types of music in this world of ours for the perception of consonance (or, what is pleasing in music) to be innate — but it serves as a fine backdrop for what I’m about to write…

And another from bachtrack.com

“Wheel: mechanical, circular motion. The brake was invented later.”

Enno Poppe’s words about Rad(“Wheel”), the first piece on his Composer Portraits concert at Miller Theatre on Saturday night, express well the experience of listening to it. With their two keyboards connected to computers that allowed them to play a huge array of scales in multiple tunings, Laura Barger and Ning Yu of Yarn/Wire gave a dizzying, athletic performance of the piece, which Barger related afterwards left her and Yu feeling almost like madwomen…

Last year I posted an interview with Ekmeles director Jeffrey Gavett, which included a clip of a recording made by Ekmeles of the first movement of Kaija Saariaho’s From the Grammar of Dreams. A reader promptly emailed me to ask why I hadn’t gone into any detail about the Saariaho piece, as it was a challenging listen for her. Well, here’s my very belated response to that reader!

Background info: Kaija Saariaho is an internationally acclaimed Finnish composer, born in 1952; you can get a quick rundown of her life and work on her wiki page. From what I can gather on Google–and please, readers, correct me if I get something wrong here–From the Grammar of Dreams began as a five movement work for two sopranos, written in 1988 (you can see a page of the score here). It has since developed into a sort of mini-opera, with the original five movement work at the heart of a larger work that also involves instruments and electronics (see this track listing for example).

Back to the original 1988 work. The texts come from Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar as well as her poem Paralytic; Saariaho has fragmented these texts and distributed the fragments between the two soprano lines in an arcane manner.

Yes, Meg, but why does it sound like that? my reader seems to ask. Well, without having studied the score, I can say from listening to Grammar that it seems like Saariaho is channeling the troubled mind of her author, Sylvia Plath, in two ways: 1. Fragmentation: I especially like that she’s not only fragmented the text, but she’s fragmented the voice itself by splitting the text between two different sopranos, and 2. Extended Techniques: Saariaho is exploring the capabilities of the human voice beyond what is traditionally considered “singing.” My guess is that Saariaho, as a composer, wanted to challenge herself and the performers to come up with some unique sounds, and that the Plath texts served as a kind of springboard for this challenge. The extended vocal techniques Saariaho uses in this piece definitely bring to my mind the oppressive psychoses that Esther endures in Bell Jar.

Enough of my speculation, what do you think? Here’s the clip again:

By the way, you can hear Ekmeles perform live at NYU on Feb. 4  They are definitely worth the trip.

Being an avid attender of both indie and new music concerts in NYC, I’ve noticed these two beginning to share the stage at shows.  I experienced this just the other night at Zebulon, a no-cover venue in Brooklyn (employees come around with wicker baskets after each group plays to collect donations).
The show opened with Kidambi/Bracken Ensemble, performing voice and percussion works by Cage, Feldman, Polanski, and Brooklyn composer Dave Ruder.  All of the pieces Kidambi/Bracken played seemed to share a pursuit of the unpredictable, and it definitely took guts to perform such sparse, often very quiet music in front a large crowd in a leisurely bar setting.  Tartar Lamb followed, an electric violin and electric guitar duo, with trumpet, clarinet, and electronic manipulation/effects, whose “long-form” songs painted sprawling, Siberian landscapes.  Then finally there was Seaven Teares (a Charlie Looker project), opening with a “cover” of John Dowland’s “Flow my tears”; with guitar and two-part vocal harmonies playing central roles, instruments such as a hand-held Renaissance-style organ, bowed vibraphone, and timpani were also used.  Interestingly,  the vibe morphed from “new music concert” to more “indie-rockish concert” as each group took the stage.
I wonder if this kind of thing is just an NYC phenomenon, or if it’s happening elsewhere in America, too…anyone else come across this, in NYC or elsewhere?
Until next time,
Meg

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