altivo: From a con badge (studious)
[personal profile] altivo
(As opposed to one-upsmanship, wretched excess, and destructive enhancement? Well, maybe...)

A week ago, good friend @RothRWolf and I went up to Organ Piper Pizza in Greenfield, Wisconsin, for a little entertainment and lunch. We've been there before, and will be again I'm sure. The restaurant has a Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ (enhanced with a lot of additional traps and pipe ranks) installed and a regular round of organists who perform daily. This time some questions about the mechanical controls on a theatre organ console came up, and I did my best to answer in simple terms. (Though I'm no virtuoso, I do have some playing experience and a lot of hours of disappointing practice behind me.) Concepts such as "second touch" and "reversible pistons" can be tricky to explain, even to other musicians if they don't play the keyboards or don't have exposure to the way things were done before MIDI came along.

I won't go into the history of the electro-pneumatic action or the tragedy of Robert Hope Jones, its inventor and primary promoter, here. Let's just say that the organ console is a hugely intricate device that rivals a mechanical computer, even to the point of some pretty impressive programmability and non-volatile memory.

Anyway, it's always difficult to point out the details of these functions at a live performance. For one thing, you don't have a close enough view of the performer's hands and feet, or of the controls available to him/her. Even in a venue like the Organ Piper, which is a lot more intimate than the original theatre setting of the instrument and is designed to let the audience see the pipes and mechanics at work, it would be pretty rude to stand next to the console and stare at the performer's hands or feet. I haven't seen anyone, even little kids, doing that and I'm not about to do it either. (Let alone point at things and shout out explanations while they are playing...)

In my non-copious spare time at work this week, I trolled through YouTube looking for music videos of theatre organ performances that showed some of the functions I was trying to explain. I did find some, but was distracted by some other issues that appeared. Hence this essay, which will link to more bandwidth consuming nonsense than any entry I've ever before posted I think. The videos are not embedded, so you can choose to follow the links if you have the time and interest. They are all impressive and entertaining, though as I will note, I'm not sure how musical some of them are.

Of course, we all know that music is subject to individual preferences and tastes, and I allow that mine are probably not in agreement with everyone else. Let's start off with something almost seasonal, a rendition of LeRoy Anderson's familiar piece, "Sleigh Ride." This performance by artist Cameron Carpenter takes place on a pretty massive concert church organ at the Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. Carpenter is a noted young virtuoso who in fact wrote the specs for this instrument if I understand it correctly. He pushes the capabilities of the physical console to the limits, bridging two manuals at once with each hand frequently, playing complex polyphony on the pedals using both feet independently, and essentially making an athletic and acrobatic feat of the performance. It's certainly impressive to the eye and ear, but nonetheless, my inner critic feels that it is really overdone so that the drama of the performance obscures the wit and brilliance of Anderson's original tone poem.

Sleigh Ride - Cameron Carpenter

I note that Carpenter seems to dress more like a gymnast than as a traditional musician (not even a rock star) but I have only seen him a few times and always on video. His abilities as arranger and performer are not to be questioned, I think, though I have to at least hint that this and other examples I've seen appear to contain more ego than music. ;p

Now to another example, this time organist Richard Hills, playing an arrangement of "Tiger Rag" on a Wurlitzer 3 manual at the Assembly Hall in Worthing, UK. I do not know whether this is Hills' own arrangement, though it seems likely to be. Certainly it displays extreme virtuosity at the console, and achieves that without the athleticism required in the previous piece. This is partly due to features of the theatre style console that are lacking in a normal church organ system. In particular I note the "second touch" being used a couple of times, where a different set of sounds is produced from the same keys depending on how hard they are pressed down. This is often used for adding percussion, though here Hills uses it to add some reed ranks for a little brassy accent. As with the previous piece, while I'm overwhelmingly impressed with the artist's skill at managing the console, I feel the pyrotechnic display obscures the underlying jazz standard so much as to risk pushing it off a cliff into oblivion.

Tiger Rag - Richard Hills

One contrast between Hills and Carpenter that I particularly enjoyed is Hills' almost deadpan calm as he negotiates all those runs and cascades, bouncing his hands from one manual to another so quickly the camera can barely follow, and still he arrives at the finale almost effortlessly, with a little self-satisfied smile. Great performance, if a bit overly ornamented. At least the drama is in the music, not in the performer.

I have had the fortune of seeing and hearing live performances by a number of organ masters. The greatest dramatics were actally those of Virgil Fox, who was to the pipe organ what Liberace was to the concert grand piano. When I saw him, Fox arrived on stage in a batwing opera cape with top hat and gold headed cane. To thundering applause, he allowed an assistant to take his cape and props before sitting down to play. He had a custom built electronic instrument, Rodgers I believe, that he took with him on tour so he could be sure of all the features and tonal properties rather than having to adapt to widely varying instruments and consoles. Understandable, though it takes away some of the challenge that other performers (and we'll see one of them in a second here) do take in stride. He wore rhinestones on the heels of his shoes so a spotlight would emphasize his footwork at the console, and typically a smoke machine was activated at some point in the performance to suggest that his feet had lit a fire under the pedalboard. This was all way over the top. I cannot, however, fault the music itself. Fox never marred a composition just for the sake of display or dramatic effect in any case where I heard it. (Of course he may well have done so, I just never heard it happen.)

Anyway, here's a sample of modern theatre organ great, Walt Strony, who can play in any style you name from classical to Baroque to jazz to real theatre and does equally well at all of them. This performance is a deliberate spoof that he often does, formally dressed in tie and tails and giving a massive fanfare introduction to his own "variations" on a simple little tune, the "Oscar Meyer Wiener." Here we see, as in Virgil Fox's case, the dramatics as window dressing for the music, which in fact stands on its own in wit and satire. Performed at the Kansas City Music Hall, on a four manual Wurlitzer.

Oscar Meyer Weiner Song - Walt Strony

In this case, I can't complain about the clowning or showmanship upstaging the music, since the music is part of the farce. It's rather like a live rendition of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck at the piano. It's meant to make us laugh, and those of us who recognize the composers and styles that are being parodied probably laugh longest. That's likely the weakest point: much of the humor here is an inside joke for those with very broad musical exposure and memory, much like the performer himself.

Lest you think all I can do is say negative things, here are some links to other performances that are much more to my liking. First, let's hear Richard Hills again, playing "La Sambalina" by Vic Hammett with a little help from two assistants. The organ console and Hills' own ingenuity and ability should let him do this all by himself, but for whatever reason or limitation on what he could configure, he opted for the added hands to change some stops and strike some percussion highlights. The instrument is a Compton (one of England's finest theatre organ builders.)

La Sambalina - Richard Hills

And here is Walt Strony with a rendition of "Over the Rainbow" that is neither overdone nor understated, on the great symphonic organ at Wanamakers Department Store in Philadelphia. The Wanamakers organ has a whole history of its own well worth reading. It was built along with the department store building and has always resided there, and remains probably the largest and best maintained symphonic instrument of this kind in America. (The larger instrument at the Atlantic City Convention Center was never complete and has never been fully functional. Much of it is always in a state of decay.)

Over the Rainbow - Walt Strony

Last, but by no means least, Ethel Smith, the "Queen of the Hammond," renders the popular Latin tune "Tico Tico" in this clip from the 1944 film Bathing Beauty. Playing the role of a cautious coach and chaperone for beauty pageant contestants, Smith steps from behind that facade to take a swing at the console. Since it's a Hammond B-3, quite new at the time, and lacks the traps and tricks of a full theatre organ, she asks her charges to help out with the percussion and they happily oblige. Plenty of flash and virtuosity, as well as (gasp) bare ankles, but the music still runs the show. Hollywood's addition of a hidden studio orchestra takes nothing away from Smith's keyboard pyrotechnics.

Tico Tico no Fuba - Ethel Smith

Thanks for bearing with me while I was being overbearing. I don't mean any disrespect to these performers, all of whom are great virtuosi whose abilities I can only envy and admire. I just think that there's a practical limit beyond which dramatics can overshadow the artistry of a performance.

Wonderful music!

Date: 2013-01-07 10:21 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Firstly, thank you VERY much for a delightfully entertaining sequence of wonderful music and virtuoso performances!

Secondly, Vargr learned something new today! Many of the electronic keyboards this wuff has enjoyed have had velocity and 'after-touch' features, but this wuff had NO idea that some of these "wonderful monsters" of the past age had "2nd touch" too! Considering the era they were built and what they had to work with, that is pretty amazing. Of course, the word "amazing" pales to inadequacy when describing these fantastic instruments, in any sense. As a side note, Vargr loves watching all those tabs and stops shift and flicker when the pre-sets are touched. Marvelous!

But on to other points...

The gist of your essay seems to be; when does showmanship eclipse the performance? It's by no means a unique question for Theater Organ performances. After all, the phrase, "Sell the Sizzle, not the Steak" comes out of a totally different industry, but is just as appropriate to the subject.

Or, to use yet another completely different venue, look at Cirque de Sole. Their gymnastics, acrobatics, and artistry are essentially derived from the same skills displayed at any gymnastics competition, or the Olympics. They're just choreographed to vastly different purpose. And then they're wrapped in the world's biggest layer of over-the-top showmanship. In the case of Cirque, the "Show" is the thing and skills merely the engine that moves it. We're not going to look for a "Judges' rating" for the precision of a handstand, or if the acrobat separated their legs during the somersault.

They're not selling gymnastics. They're selling the over-all experience. So, how much of what we heard during those selected performances was the artist selling the music, and how much were they selling "the show". If we were in the audience and had closed our eyes, turned our backs, and just listened, would we have enjoyed it as much?

Where does the "Sizzle" end, and the Steak begin? Would the Steak taste as good without it? Would the audience enjoy the performance as much if they couldn't see the performer's hands flying across the console or bridging the manuals?

And, perhaps the YouTube medium itself is a factor: We're able to watch in full detail by virtue of the close-up camera. Is it giving us a different perspective? If we were looking at Broadway stage actors, with their over-exaggerated gestures and outrageous 'grease paint' makeup using the same close-up perspective, would it seem "too much" as well? Are the people attending getting a different performance than we did, by their distance and the "live" presence?

Were they feeling the energy the artist added through his "gymnastics", through the shared experience? YouTube can display the moves, but has a much more difficult time conveying that energy. Just as you can hear the sounds, but unless you have a really, REALLY good stereo (and possibly some very tolerate neighbors), you don't get the visceral impact the pure power of those pipes bring to a live performance - especially those huge 64' pedal notes.

In that context, might we have a different opinion of the performances we just watched?

Not saying you're wrong, since there is manifestly a HUGE difference in performances between the first segments and the last couple. But where is the line when showmanship begins to detract from the experience? That's a very difficult question.

A couple other things wuff noted: First, Cameron Carpenter's shoes. Those custom made, rhinestone-studded, hi-healed moccasins; WOW! I can certainly understand the desire to have a soft-soled shoe to better feel the pedal board. But even in the era of glitter-spangled gymnastic leotards, those stand out. It was a bit jarring in the context of a organist's performance. But how did they "play" to a more distant live audience?

Secondly, quite a bit of the more violent movements (not all, by any means, but a lot) of the initial performers seemed to be related to shifting tabs and setups without interrupting the flow of the notes or changing the timing of the piece. It was pretty obvious that Richard Hills could have changed a lot of his own settings, had he been willing to make such extreme moves, but chose not to.

And wuffy noticed that Walt Strony chose the other "extreme"; he purposely extended the pauses at the end of several phrases so that he could manually adjust the tabs when the pre-sets didn't have the proper options. If wuff were listening to his performance off a CD instead of watching it on the streaming screen, those extended holds would likely have detracted from the experience.

In any event, thank you VERY much for this post. It certainly gave this wuff something to think about. And if DEFINITELY entertained Vargr once again, and renewed interest in a subject this wuff had been much more active in, in his past, and really should be once again.


Re: Wonderful music!

Date: 2013-01-08 10:33 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Vargr is a "lapsed" theater organ fan. But still have the love for the instrument.

Wuff will offer a rather interesting find you may find fun. The organist for the Mormon Tabernacle, doing a holiday bit and "playing footsie" rather intensively with the pedals. Not only does he pull the same thing Carpenter did with base and melody both from the feet, but he does it with chord/harmonys, and in "street shoes". *grins*

A somewhat short clip, but fun!

Thank you once more for renewing wuffy's joy in this music!


Date: 2013-01-17 05:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks, Altivo! I listened/watched all the videos.

Yes, I like me some organ music. And a B-3 to round it out!

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