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March 12, 2003
Vol. III, No. 8

"GUEST RAMPAGE: It Ain't Easy Bein' Green"
[This Guest Rampage comes to us from Peter Stapleton, organist and frequent contributor to -Dan]

"Isn't that the kind of organ they use at roller skating rinks and places like that?"

I was being introduced to an accomplished visiting pianist. I'd been introduced as "an organist."

"Isn't that nice. Do you play here sometimes?" Then I was introduced as "the organist."

"Oh, well, you make it sound lovely." Yeah, right. The damage was done.

Organists face many unique problems, but here's one that's plagued me lately. Other instrumentalists strive to make their instruments sound like what those instruments are. Violin, trumpet, piano; they are real instruments and you work to make them sound like real, beautiful instruments. I sit at an electronic which I must strive twice a week to make sound like what it's NOT. Think about it.

"You make it sound just like a pipe organ." Well, that's nice but the base assumption is that I made it sound like what it's not.

My electronic has some passing fair sounds: a chiffy flute on the choir, pretty soft strings with a rumbly 32' Contrabourdon, ok oboe, ditto krummhorn.

As I recall, electronic instruments have usually been better at solo voices and effects than at ensembles. OK, I know pipe organ builders who do good individual stops and unsatisfying ensembles.

I have a terrific tech who managed to get the 8' Principal from woof to, well, OK Principal. So it's better. But the most convincing ensemble is still on the Swell with lots of reeds and subs and supers.

My pianist had nabbed me on a stylistic problem, though. We were singing a John Dowland dance tune. So I arpeggiated, ornamented and marcatoed to try for an Elizabethan style, even though the galliard wouldn't have been played at the organ, or sung, or sung in church. My people liked it and said so. My visitor saw through the cracks and heard my instrument sound like what it is.

A friend and avid player of pipes has come to the conclusion, when pushed, that given the choice of a lousy pipe organ and a good electronic, the choice is a draw. We both agree, though, that trying to make something sound like what is isn't wears thin. It might sound OK once, or even for awhile, but the end result is unsatisfying because the organ we try to play isn't an organ.

My status is slipping too. I aspired to be an organist. Failing that, I called myself a church organist, a definite come-down. Now I'm slipping to the bottom of the scale: I'm a church electronic organist.

My conclusion is that to live a lie, those of us in the population of artistic untouchables, must be on Condition Orange permanently. Constant vigilance is the only answer. The congregation gets used to it. We don't have the luxury of getting used to it. This isn't all bad. It means the never-ending quest for convincing registrations must be twice what it is for the Real Organists. Actually, I found a new way to make a good Franckian chorus of 8' foundations for a solo the other week.

We must also pay greater attention to swell pedals. The electronic is good at making fine gradations and I need to use volume tricks to make up for the lack of genuine organ sound. That way, just as it's sounding electric, I can change the sound before the "roller rink" effect kicks in.

I'm an alien in the world of legitimate music. I see it as a challenge, a twentieth century branch of organ practice. But I'm still an alien and, as the saying goes, "It ain't easy bein' green."
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Thanks, Peter! To all, have a great week!

Dan Long

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