Later this morning I will be meeting at South Church with a young woman named Sharon who wants some tips about playing the organ. She is a pianist who has a summer job in a small church and wants to get some advice. The organ, of course, is a tremendously seductive instrument, and I think she’s feeling the pull. (She writes enthusiastically about practicing and playing services on Face Book—a dead giveaway.) As my professor Hubert Kessler used to say, back in the day in Illinois, the thing that is so majestic about the organ is the “effortlessness” of the thing—all that enormous sound, produced with so little effort. (On the part of the player, at least.)
Sharon is a college student who lives in the greater New Haven area. In the summer she comes to the shaped note singings we have here in Middletown. The connection between organ playing and The Sacred Harp brings to mind a project of a few years ago, which I mean to reinstitute later this morning. In the summer of 2003, and for some time thereafter, I began my practice sessions at South Church by improvising on Sacred Harp tunes. My intention was to work through the book in a systematic fashion, then write a sort-of-shaped-note-tradition response to J. S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. This project came into my mind at the same time I was writing “The Sacred Guitar,” a set of seven free pieces, “take-offs” as it were, on Sacred Harp tunes. There were two immediate effects—first, I played “The Sacred Guitar” on the organ (with appropriate elaborations) and found it worked beautifully. Then I began to introduce this sort of improvisation into the services at South Church. (For this purpose, by the way, I use a copy of the 1936 edition of The Sacred Harp I inherited from William Satler.) I kept a notebook of what I thought was working particularly well. When the South Church sanctuary was restored and painted two years ago the notebook, like everything else in the choir loft, was packed away. It’s time to dig it out and resume systematic practicing along these lines.
This meeting with Sharon will also be the occasion to stick around and practice Tom Johnson’s Organ and Silence. I’m playing this unique collection of pieces in Kansas City on Friday, September 4th of this year, as part of the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music. I’ll be writing a lot more about this conference and Tom’s pieces in future blogs. If you’d like more information right now see:
Practicing the organ, and writing organ music, are very satisfying activities. Writing this blog is firing my imagination and making me want to get more performances of my organ pieces. There are over seventy of them, composed over a period of almost fifty years!