Beyond the Stops: Finding the Organ’s Voices

2018 EROI Festival, October 24-26

Some Reflections

Judy Congdon, DMA, DWS

In late September this year a few members of Musforum engaged in an email discussion in which some wrote of their disappointment in the very minimal inclusion of women in conferences of the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative, both past and (especially) present.  It was noted that there were no female performers slated for this year’s conference, and no women as keynote speakers either.  In fact, the only woman listed in the advertising was Kerala Snyder, musicologist and Eastman Professor Emerita, who was to serve on a panel.  I added a few sentences to that discussion, including the fact that I had registered for the conference, and Gail Archer invited me to write about it for this online journal.  This essay is my attempt to share with Musforum readers a bit about my experience at this conference.

The conference material provided, both online ahead of time and in printed form at the conference, included language describing the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative (EROI) which began in the early years of the 21st century, building on the excellent Eastman organ program which dates from 1921.  The aim of EROI is to “make Rochester a global center for organ performance, research, building, and preservation,” and to do so in part by “assembling a collection of new and historic organs unparalleled in North America.”  The project is ongoing, but three significant instruments were completed in 2008, and this year’s EROI conference was in part a celebration of the tenth anniversary of these instruments.

The Craighead-Saunders organ, at Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Rochester, is a research copy of a historical organ preserved at the Dominican Church in Vilnius, Lithuania, built in 1776 by Adam Gottlob Casparini.  Most of the parts were manufactured by GOArt in Sweden, a research center for interdisciplinary studies of the organ and related keyboard instruments, established in 1995 at the University of Gothenburg.

The Craighead-Saunders organ was the focus of presentations on Thursday, October 25.  The panel assembled to discuss the creation of this instrument was one of the most stunning features of the conference.  Literally a “who’s who” in the world of historically-informed organ building were all sitting together at the same table, enthusiastically talking about the same instrument!  Panelists included Paul Fritts, Bruce Fowkes (of Richards & Fowkes), Michael Kraft (President of the C. B. Fisk company), Martin Pasi, George Taylor (of Taylor & Boody), and Munetaka Yokota, Japanese organbuilder who had the primary responsibility for voicing the instrument (though each of the builders in the Reference Group approved the voicing).  These builders are perhaps most typically in competition with one another for contracts, but the visionary EROI leadership, around the year 2000, called them all together to be a “Reference Group” to provide advice and research for the instrument.  Also part of the Reference Group, and the panel, were musicologist Kerala Snyder (mentioned above), Swedish organ builder Mats Arvidsson, and Hans Davidson, former Eastman organ professor and founder of the Göteberg Organ Art Center (GOArt).  This group met twice a year for five years, together overseeing every detail of its research, design, construction, and finishing.  Many brilliant minds worked together to create a beautiful instrument, valuable both artistically and pedagogically.  Their panel discussion, entitled “What Did we Learn from This Project?” was rich and memorable, inspiring in the degree of collegiality evident in this group of luminaries around this project.

A second panel discussion on Thursday focused on the question “How Do We Use the Craighead-Saunders Organ?” and featured Eastman students and faculty.  Emphasis was placed on the value of the instrument in teaching, and the “choreography” involved with playing it.  One student said, “This instrument rewards good touch and scolds bad touch!”  Eastman professor and noted concert organist Nathan Laube said that “Every aspect of physical choreography [when playing the organ] affects the sound.”  William Porter agreed with Laube, stating that “Teaching has become more physically oriented with this instrument.”   An important question posed in this discussion was “How do we take what we’ve learned here to make things better ‘out there’?”  The response from the panel, that “instruments like this are influencing the organbuilding craft,” was powerfully felt by the speaker, but possibly not completely convincing to the questioner.   Thus came into focus an interesting quandary of the conference and its topic: there is much to talk about and celebrate with regard to the EROI process and the beautiful organs so thoughtfully and painstakingly produced for the Rochester community.   But how is the knowledge and experience gained at the conference useful for those who go back home to less spectacular instruments and quite possibly churches without budget for purchasing new ones, let alone new ones by any one of the builders from the reference group?  (More on this in a bit)

Events on Friday brought conference attendees to the two other organs completed in 2008 and celebrated in this conference:  In the morning George Taylor spoke about his Opus 57 at First Presbyterian Church in Pittsford, NY, modeled in concept and in manual measurements after an 1802 Tannenberg organ in Madison, Virginia.   In the early afternoon Paul Fritts led us through a description of the Paul Fritts & Company organ (Op. 26) at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester.   Each of these talks included a demonstration of the instrument in which one stop at a time was played from bottom to top, allowing us to hear the development of timbre through the registers, and simply to enjoy the beauty of carefully crafted and voiced organ sound.   A few improvisations were also supplied (thanks to William Porter) using designated stops, and the session at Pittsford First Presbyterian also featured hymn-playing by church organist Bruce Frank in which attendees were invited to sing.

These demonstrations of organ sound brought to life the stated focus of the conference imaginatively described in its title Beyond the Stops: Finding the Organ’s Voices.   It was perhaps this topic that also led the conference planners to invite the participation of Thomas Lacôte, French organist who teaches analysis and composition at the Paris Conservatoire and is Titulaire of the organ at La Trinité in Paris, one of the successors to Olivier Messiaen.  Mr. Lacôte presented a workshop entitled “Composing from the Organ’s Sound: Instrumental Phenomena as Musical Ideas.”   In it he described his desire to embrace the organ sounds for themselves, not as metaphors for orchestral instruments.  His compositions, demonstrated in the workshop and also performed in a recital at Sacred Heart, had little in the way of melody or even clearly defined harmony but featured organ sounds as the main attraction.  One could see and hear him moving quickly between manuals, often repeating the same pitch or sonority using a different sound, and usually developing gradual transformations of sound between tones of similar color, without sudden contrasts.  His was appropriate music for a focus on organ sound, though his music was not (for me or for anyone else with whom I spoke about it) one of the musical highlights of the conference.  There were momentary sounds reminiscent of Messiaen, but without evidence of the deeper layers of significance that define Messiaen’s music.

The discussion back in September that led me to join the conversation and then to agree to write about the 2018 EROI conference caused me to be particularly observant of the place and voices of women in this conference.  There were in fact two women who  made presentations, and very fine ones, both addressing the question posed a couple paragraphs ago: “How do we take what we’ve learned here to make things better ‘out there’?”  Two Eastman DMA alumni, Annie Laver and Crista Miller, responded to this question with reference to their present contexts.  Dr. Laver, now Professor of Organ at Syracuse University, posed and then answered the question “How has EROI informed my teaching?”  She named several trends in organ education that she embraces: 1. No matter what kind of instrument you have, teach listening.  2.  Embrace the organ that you have and play to your instrument’s strengths.  Demonstrate (in recitals) what the instrument does well.  What registrations are most compelling?  Let students figure out and solve registration problems.  3.  Include improvisation in the curriculum, as a way to teach listening.  4. Work on giving students a nonjudgmental vocabulary for talking about sound.  5. When possible, visit other organs and invite students to draw comparisons.

Crista Miller is the Director of Music and Cathedral Organist at Houston’s Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, where she chaired the Organ Committee for Martin Pasi’s Opus 19 pipe organ.  Her talk centered on taking what she had learned in her years at Eastman and her involvement with EROI and applying it to her situation in Houston, where a new instrument was sorely needed upon her arrival.  The Martin Pasi organ now at the Co-Cathedral is eclectic, not patterned after a historical model, and the architecture of the space did not allow for a historical-type case.  Yet she learned at Eastman to value the sounds with which she became familiar in the various historically-based instruments, and this knowledge has resulted in the addition of an excellent instrument in the southwest U.S., thus expanding the geographical influence of the EROI vision.

I learned, from speaking with one of these women presenters, that they had been invited to do their presentations just two weeks ahead of the conference.  Negative interpretations of this are possible, but I will choose the positive interpretation that David Higgs, who responded with grace in writing to our organization’s critique of the dearth of women in this conference, also responded in practical terms by inviting two women to make presentations—among the strongest of the conference in terms of clarity and usefulness of content.

The 2018 EROI conference was richly packed with inspiring moments—many more than I what I have described here—including world-class recitals and many reunions with dear friends from years past.  As I sat in conference events and scanned the crowd, because of my interest in the topic of women’s inclusion, I tried to count heads (never was able to get a good count—always got distracted by good presentations!), and it appeared there were significantly more men than women, unsurprisingly.  What did surprise me on Friday morning was a soaring, full, strong soprano descant that rang out on one of the congregational hymns in the workshop at Pittsford Presbyterian, when sopranos were invited to sing a printed descant with the hymn.  There were women present, and gifted musicians at that.  It is my hope that women’s voices will always be welcome, along with men’s, at EROI.  And it is certainly my hope that women will have more visibility, audibility, and opportunity to soar in future EROI conferences.






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