By Dr. Carol Williams | Civic Organist News
“Keep Calm and Like me on Facebook.”
That is the final statement on my YouTube series, “On the bench with Dr. Carol.” In this series, I interview the finest organists of the world in an informal, coffee shop chat-style format. There’s nothing highbrow, just down-to-earth, nitty-gritty conversation about music, organs, students, hobbies and life.
So, you’re thinking, what’s this all about?
Well, in this week’s column, I thought I would deal with the two extremes — the “pipe organ,” which is one of the oldest instruments in the world, and “social media,” which is currently the world’s foremost innovative instrument. Can there be a historical partnership found between them? Here goes!
The earliest recorded use of the organ was in Roman times — not a particularly nice thought, as they were used in the arenas to announce when Christians were being fed to the lions. Some poor chap would obviously play the organ in the corner someplace safe.
In that form of social media, we would think of it as really rough and crude, and I’m sure the organ was not at all the topic of conversation in their social chatter, but rather the talk of how great the lions ate the Christians. I’m glad I wasn’t around in those times as an organist! After all, I’m a vegetarian and don’t like the sight of blood. OK, so this is just a sample of early social media relating to the organ.
Getting rid of this image was a problem for centuries, but organs eventually found their place in churches, town halls, castles and modern day concert halls.
In baroque times, an organ installed somewhere — like in a church — was a statement of how wealthy a town was. Word would travel from town to village to hamlet, by their then-social media, mouths. People would inform each other to gather and enjoy the instrument.
Perhaps the Facebook post would have read, “A complicated and massive-sounding instrument requiring many disciplines to achieve a complete build and play. Must come hear this thing at our town hall by our civic organist.”
This would have been, of course, back when almost every town would have a civic organist. San Diego’s civic organist position is one of the last in the world to survive.
By the way, some of the baroque German organs of yesteryear were very advanced. The organ cases were generally made of fine wood, with hand carvings and hundreds of ornate pipes, and they often covered an entire wall. It was important that the organ looked magnificent, even when they were not in use.
The great composer and organist Johann Sebastian Bach designed organs, and some of them are still playable in their original form today. The organ built by Heinrich Gottfried Trost in 1739 at the Castle Church in Altenburg, Germany, was one that Bach knew and played. I have had the privilege of sitting on the bench and touching the very keys that Bach sat on and touched!
Can you imagine how humble I felt? It was like a dream. Maybe I would have tweeted, “Just got on the bench after Johann S Bach warmed it up for me.”
These organs in their day were using the latest technology of the time to enhance the music and amazingly, that same technology is still in use today. Over the years, of course, newer instruments have newer inventions.
So again, what does that have to do with us today?
Well, our own Spreckels pipe organ in Balboa Park has all its original workings and pipes from 1914 (comparably, not so long ago) along with more modern technology to operate the instrument in a more sophisticated way from the console (that’s the keyboards).
Remember, a pure pipe organ (as is our Spreckels) makes its sound only by wind pressure moving through the selected pipes. Some hybrid organs operate wind sounding pipes, but with additional pipes that are speaker-driven electronic pipe sounds. Then there is the pure electronic organ, which nowadays can sound like anything you like.
I have, on loan from Rodgers Instruments, a 484 Infinity organ that can play an entire ensemble of instruments imitating an orchestra, a symphony, pipe organ, or a combination of all of the above, if you are so inclined. My husband and I play jazz on this instrument. I play sax, piano and bass, and he just plays (Rodgers electronic) drums. You can find me using this instrument on my YouTube channel.
But I digress … as I was saying, with our own beloved Spreckels organ, I can use many combinations of sounds to color my music because of the modern computer controls added to the console, but the pipes still sound because of the air pressure created by the large blower in the basement.
Our social media text reads, “Largest outdoor organ still plays for thousands attending.” In addition to our texting and tweeting, we also “live stream” every organ concert in the park over the Internet. The Spreckels Organ Society has viewers all over the world watching our organ in Balboa Park.
So in conclusion, it is my observation and opinion that it is simply astonishing how the aspect of gossip, word-of-mouth, texting and tweeting — i.e. social media — has totally outgrown the actual events taking place.
I think it’s amazing how we can incorporate today’s technology with the social media of a 100-year-old instrument. I may be old fashioned, but I am slowly catching on to and using social media even though I am from the old school classical days.
So … Keep Calm and Like me on Facebook: Dr. Carol Williams. I bet all the great classical composers would have just loved today’s social media. See you at a Sunday concert.
—Civic Organist Dr. Carol Williams is proud to serve as an ambassador of San Diego’s arts and culture arena. Through her concert performances at home and abroad, Carol offers a fresh take on the classical organ concert. She is committed to illuminating San Diego’s colorful romance with the “King of Instruments,” always seeking to bring the organ to new audiences. For more information about Carol visit melcot.com; to learn more about the organ society, visit spreckelsorgan.org.