Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Robert Plimpton became an organist because of what he calls a chemical reaction, at first sight.
Once upon a time, in the days when there were many ogres, some pretty flutes were playing in a clearing in the forest, running and laughing, hiding in the deep meadow grasses, then jumping up, crying, “Surprise!” when all at once they heard the sound of branches breaking, and a fierce roar, and they stopped their play and hid in the flowering grass, some behind columbine stems and others under meadow lily petals — and just then an ogre burst into the clearing, saying, “Little voices, I’m going to eat you, one by one.” The ogre had been dining on cornets, violas, chimes, and all the other little instruments that played like the flutes in the forest. Now he was hungry again, and he was looking for little instruments to eat.So the good angel Gabriel came down and bound the flutes with magic bands — and when he called them out from their forest hiding places, outstepped all the other little instruments, first one by one, then by tens, then by thousands — cornets, violas, celestes, and many more. With magic bands he bound them too, and then bound them all together: reeds and strings and brass, and even a little drum. Then Gabriel said, “Say your names out loud together”—and when they did the ogre heard them, and he heard that there was something in the forest that was louder than his voice. And all at once he shrieked and fled, in terror. But the magic bands were strong, and now Gabriel was gone. And ever since the first day that they sung their names together in the forest, no ogre has ever returned.
St. Brigid’s organ is better revealed in its new situation, now that the church has been stripped of its residential carpeting and its tacky vinyl floor tiles.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Picture yourself in your car, your foot on the pedal, windows and doors gradually moving outward, away. Let the pedals multiply — five, then ten, then thirty in banked rows that are sinking a little, lengthening. Notice the dashboard: its changing, expanding, rising into tiers of keyboards, each new tier recessed a little — two, then three, then four, and stop. Hardwood panels are rising up around them, knobs pushing through, popping out. Sense the drivers seat hardening, widening. Now let the roof rise as high as an arrow released straight upwards — note that the windows and doors are still expanding, retreating. Remark: you’re in the biggest room you’ve ever seen now, your fear stripped away. Then let the great musical vision course through you, and feel the warm skill radiate from the mysterious center through your body to the ends of your tingling fingers and toes. There, you’re an organist now.
Lyle Blackinton inside Spreckels Organ. Blackinton, has voiced more pipes in San Diego than he says he can remember.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Real organists, forgive us.
Real millennialist, is there room for just one last alarmist on the flying saucer out of here? It was the other way around in the Cold War years: flying saucers were arriving, not departing — and an engagingly paranoid type of science fiction kept trying to make its readers make believe that there were aliens among us. Well, now it turns out that there really are. And they’ve come all the way from Jupiter’s big moon, Europa. It’s a boy-who-cried-wolf sort of thing, but remember: there really was a wolf. I’ll bet you don’t remember “I Fell into a Vat of Chocolate.” The comedy, such as it was, was that no one responds when you cry “chocolate” — to get rescued you have to cry “fire.” Real rescuers, would you respond if I cried pipe organ? It’s just that we don’t know our pipe organs very well. Their ancestral home, Europe (or Europa, same difference), seems as far away as Jupiter from San Diego—which may be mainly liberating distance for us, but it’s also like losing your keys.
Alison Luedecke at Spreckels Organ console, seen from behind façade pipes
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Not that we should worry any more, now that everything is equally alarming. On the other hand, it’s not as if the Council of Elders had gone ahead and outlawed self-development, again. It’s good that music shines on human chlorophyll, that the tidiest gardens revert. And if that’s not incentive enough, I want to see Ethel Merman stride into your unflappable repose, singing: There's! No! Business! Like! Show! Business! — No! (pause) Business! in the World! An organist is as perfectly capable of scandal, and as starry-eyed or disillusioned, as any other member of the group that the public eye watches, fantasizing wildly: entertainers. As for pipe organs themselves, all that you need to know them better is a field guide and a map, on top of very little enterprise and almost no courage at all — because they’ve always been right there beside you in your neighborhoods, hidden, and there’s not much else that immediately masters you for free.
Mayor Golding has placed a curfew on large musical instruments.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
It doesn’t help if you and I don’t go to church. But even churchgoers are likely to know only one of the hundred-plus pipe organs in San Diego, the one that they hear where they worship — and that’s if they’re fortunate too, since most churches lack the money or magnificent obsession that it takes to bring in something so improbable, so ultra as a pipe organ. For most churches, for budgetary reasons, electronic organs will do.
As usual, the matter has been settled by Baywatch. Here’s an episode synopsis from TV Guide, and let me warn you — it’s compelling: “Strange weather stirs up trouble in April’s love life, while Mitch hunts a deadly sea creature. Kelly Packard, Jose Solano.” So it turns out that the deadly sea creature is (somehow) a freshwater species, an electric eel. At first we find April and Mitch busy suspending plot development, just before the first of several hair-raising “eel” encounters. They’re sitting way up in these nonangular, hollow-tubed wind chairs that hum with the wind blowing through them, in a ’90s relationship trance shot through with New Age implications. It’s hard to focus my thoughts here, but they sure look good in skimpy swimsuits. Now I remember what I wanted to say — it’s good if you’re sitting in pipe organs (wind chairs); watch out for those electronic organs (electric eels) — and always dive with a buddy! Is Bay-watch just making things up? Not me. I’m learning how to tell the truth.
But most pipe organists, when pressed, complain that electronic organs are driving pipe organs from their church habitat. At present, there are those who do and those who don’t accept or even acknowledge them, with the anger on both sides unspoken, even smiles — and that’s how the nervous decorum maintains: awkward pauses follow pertinent questions, then politic sidestepping. It’s an electrical storm without thunder.
It’s a holy war, says Jared Jacobsen, present dean of the San Diego chapter of the American Guild of Organists (AGO), and San Diego civic organist before Robert Plimpton. Bob Plimpton and Jared are anomalies in the mute ’90s — they’re expert and congenial conversationalists, with Bob the more inwardly lit and Jared the festival lighting. As such you can hear them on duty at the great civilian instrument in Balboa Park, Spreckels Organ — where Bob Plimpton presides as civic organist. Bob became an organist because of what he calls a chemical reaction, at first sight. I like the way he speaks of organs as magnetic north. It’s nothing to lament, but he’s really had no choice at all. In the era of misguidance he stands out as an oriented man.
In the differently principled time before exurban malls, you’d find organs installed in municipal halls in every big town in America — and civic organists to play them. Now that’s all gone with the vanishing past. But not for us, not as long as we live in The Lost World, San Diego — in Jurassic Park for civic organists. As for the rest, let Elvis sightings satisfy them. The last civic organist left in America makes a better, more tangible quarry; seek him out.
As an outdoor organ, Spreckels is exposed for the whole world to see, like a nude in a painting. A florid diadem in curving arms of colonnades, it looks as if someone had dropped a giant tiara in the park while rushing to the giant opera, and in a way someone did — the sugar brothers, John and Adolph Spreckels. On New Year’s Eve, 1914, they gave us the gift that’s unwrapped every Sunday at two, and then over ten summer evenings, in the form of a free concert series: the Spreckels Organ, built by the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut. It’s always been a celebrity venue. You’ll hear the word “Spreckels” in Paris. This is the organ that puts San Diego on the map.
Understandably, organs frighten animals (including us). Jared tells me that Spreckels scares the excrement right out of birds as they fly overhead — an occupational hazard, along with unregulated insect fliers: bombardier beetles, june bugs, and sphinx moths. In retaliation, Spreckels distresses animals from every continent: the San Diego Zoo is built on a canyon just beyond. On the other hand, when Spreckels really rumbles, you’d think that the zoo let an animal go — a very big one. What’s all this national fantasy about us anyway? Outdoor Spreckels, T. rex loose in San Diego — perhaps we’re meant for great things here.
If you want to, you can feel for yourself a little of the fear that organs inspire in animals. The goose bumps that organs regularly raise are atavistic responses to danger: they used to raise our hairy coats, to make us look a little larger in front of something larger still, and hungry. Surely someone somewhere must have fainted in ancestral response to an organist who really let a chord fall, playing dead.
San Diego maintains the last post of civic organist in partial obligation to a gift, Spreckels Organ. It’s Spreckels that built up what’s probably the largest audience for organs in the country, and in years of audience attrition by nearly any other measure. For us, those were (and still are) Jacobsen-Plimpton years, marked by passionate advocacy and by organ programs that leapt from alpha to omega like athletic boys and girls, from deep-minded Bach to the unminded toy counter, the organist’s name for the secret life of certain special organs: their drums, chimes, and train whistles—and all this and more drew the whole city in. Portland, Oregon, may have more and better instruments, but they don’t have wild weekend organ parties like our recent Fete Vierne. With relatively few great instruments, San Diego is an organ town.
It’s a Blackinton town. Behind the scenes, a gently mannered, limpid-eyed man goes about his quiet business building, rebuilding, or maintaining pretty well every instrument in town. This is Lyle Blackinton, organ builder. As curator at Spreckels, he’s there on Sundays, providing endless strings of answers for the endless strings of questions, as long as organs still perplex even one of us—and after 40-plus years in his trade, he’s a national repository for the nuts-and-bolts lore of the organ. He stands tall and erect, like a lighthouse on a solid rock. He’s the way I imagine the last man on earth — evolved to be strong, committed to his situation, by temperament passive while waiting.
The day that I met him at Spreckels, things were turning cold and silvery. I was early. The park was empty. So I say to myself: I’m evolved to be strong, committed to my situation, by temperament passive while waiting —but something’s wrong. It’s the way that I’m looking at Spreckels: huge, glorious, its arc of colonnades, the entablature plaster facade. There are doors, but you can’t see them from where I’m sitting, front row center. There’s not a soul in sight. I’m the last man on earth. Now I know what’s wrong: it’s a Hitchcock set—I’m an innocent man, hypervigilant, exposed on the plaza of a national monument, mysteriously pursued. What do they think I’ve done wrong? What have I done wrong? That’s a crop duster there in the distance. Wait! — there are no crops in Logan Heights! And then the next thing I know, there’s Lyle Blackinton, shaking my hand.
I’m led through a door into rooms linked like boxcars, end to end; from the outside, you’d think they couldn’t possibly exist. Then it strikes me: I’m inside a façade! I’ve followed Alice through the looking-glass. But the atmosphere is changing, from Hitchcock to David Lynch—and now we’re sitting on widely spaced, plush, velveteen couches, talking. Lyle tells me how it started. By the time he was 11 he’d found his way to Spreckels. On weekends he’d hang around. And that’s how Lyle, years later, came to be known by and then apprenticed to his predecessor at Spreckels, Leonard Dowling. When Dowling retired in 1974 — but you get the picture. The other, inner story starts in the San Diego Public Library. “When I was a kid,” Lyle says, “I used to go down to the library and look through the catalog of patents on pipe organs.” There’s an organ builder built in him already! And that boy is this man, unmistakably: he can’t hide his endless love for organs, and for Spreckels. “I don’t know anything else,” he tells me. He delights me now.
A few years ago, Lyle Blackinton built his magnum opus for First United Methodist Church in Mission Valley. Today it’s the dominant organ in town, partly because of its size, and because of good acoustics at First Methodist its a big double organ, and it’s perfectly matched to the big, reverberant room. There are controversies though. Several organists complain that the console is hard to work. They’ll also tell you that too much distance separates the organ in back from the organ in front: what the organist hears at the console in front from the pipes of the organ in back is delayed by the distance it travels, causing slight but significant aural misalliances. No one would say that First Methodist doesn’t deliver on its promise. But some organists feel that certain higher-pitched, quieter pipes are too plainly voiced; they’re not what they like to call “sweet” or “pretty” pipes. Either way, the builder who voiced them, Lyle Blackinton, has voiced more pipes in San Diego than he says he can remember, that quite understandably. With more who pay him homage than detractors, San Diego has a Blackinton sound.
Freud thought that opinions were symptoms of unresolved sexual tensions. If so, then there’s something that needs to be said, though it taps on the little glass animal of sexual repression. Speaking frankly now, the word “organ” has many denotations and the one that causes conversational problems for organists (just you try to refer to your organ) is the one that’s popped into your head. Shame on you! Furthermore, it’s organs that your friends refer to when they tell you that you’ve pulled out all the stops again: they mean organ stops. And once again, shame on you!
We’re back in God’s Mailbox. Some call First Methodist God’s Mailbox because it’s shaped like the kind of mailbox that looks like a bread loaf — the kind of bread loaf that looks like a chef s hat. Still having trouble? You’re holding one of McDonald’s double arches; now pull it open like a Slinky. That's what First Methodist looks like. You’d better go see for yourself.
The scale at which the organ at First Methodist speaks makes it quite a proposition. “It’s the most fabulous organ in town, it’s a big organ,” says Jared, an arbiter of taste who tells me how he came to feel vocation in his teens: “It was hearing the mighty sound that got me hooked, the same as Lyle Blackinton.” Organist Jim Simonton likes a mighty sound too, to judge from body language: on organ crawls, when the resident organist meets his request to “uncork it,” there’s earthly paradise in Simonton’s smile—he leans forward, elbows on knees, rapt. How does it feel from the other side? Organ Stop owner and electronic instrument wizard Wayne Seppala says “it’s an ego trip.” After all, a mild-mannered organist can give us a visceral sense of the end of the world. A few organists, when I pressed them, admitted to benign power fantasies begat by their organ’s resources: Clark Kent squirming into sky blue, red-caped latex; Diana Prince spinning faster and faster, becoming Wonder Woman right there in front of you, or more discreetly in the loft in the back, where churches kept their organists hidden from view, French-choir style — and still do in traditional instances, such as St. Brigid’s, where flickering television monitors relay the action from the altar to resident organist Jenny Nolan, for liturgical timing. Next in line to talk to Jenny there, a bridegroom is looking around, saying, “I’ve never seen the inside of an organ before!” Ah, young love.
The relation between the organist and the priest who has liturgical concerns varies from church to church: sometimes it fits like glass slippers, sometimes it’s estranged — and you can tell which is which, if you listen. It’s an old quarrel between artists and art and theologians and religion, though it doesn’t seem to need to have to happen, and though they might ultimately need each other. In a few successful partnerships you can hear it in spades in results. First Methodist is one of these.
The big, fabulous organ at First Methodist vies with others like it for position. The challenger is a formidable instrument at First Presbyterian, with 101 ranks against First Methodist’s 107. Jared calls the First Presbyterian-First Methodist title match “a Hertz and Avis thing”—presumably undecidable, though opinions on the matter fall the one way or the other with punches. But it’s better to think of them as coconspirators rather than as enemies: these are the two that respond tit for tat to state power, and church power when they’re aligned. Organs are antipathy to legislative bodies, including legislative bodies in the church—they’re too multiply voiced for consensus, too windy for permanent settlement. They’re either too unquiet or too mystically silent to sponsor alliances of nearly any kind. When Divine was alive she was a pipe organ. In a world that’s growing slender, pipe organs are the last big performer.
There’s one more instrument to rank by size: the third largest. This one’s in an entirely different category, to judge from the way that it’s praised: it’s the great Skinner organ at St. Paul’s on Fifth Avenue. Mayor Golding has placed a curfew on large musical instruments, but you really wouldn’t want to meet this one in a lonely place. Still, it’s not all about size, as any organist will tell you. For one thing, there’s the matter of acoustics. Think of the hall as the shell of an instrument you sit inside, its resonating chamber. The concrete cathedral St. Paul’s speaks back to its organ—you’re caught between thrilling conversationalists. This matters when you think that from the musician’s perspective, dead acoustics pretty well define the American church — with exceptions of course, such as First Methodist.
The trouble is that American organs are updates of instruments built for reverberant stone cathedrals, for European churches. Lyle Blackinton says that it would have been better if we’d imported their churches instead of their organs. Another problem is that carpets muffle sound. Yet we must walk together as a nation on wall-to-wall carpeting, and what’s a church to do? Many gave in and went fluffy.
St. Brigid’s, now in recovery, is haunted by the ghost of its plush carpets, which resident organist Jenny Nolan left me thinking were fuchsia or puce. I thought that all the carpets in Pacific Beach were brown, to match the varnished driftwood clocks. St. Brigid’s astonishingly beautiful organ is better revealed in its new situation, now that the church has been stripped of its residential carpeting and its tacky vinyl floor tiles. Acoustic wall tiles are another of the banes of church interiors. In the ’50s, acoustic tiles enjoyed a vogue in the Catholic churches; for some reason, priests thought that organs should play into rooms even deader than the room before.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened at the Immaculata, where we find a transplant with a story: we used to hear its modestly sized, exquisitely beautiful von Beckerath organ in what Jared Jacobsen calls perfect, jewel-box acoustics at the Mission San Luis Rey; now we try to hear it in the acoustically tiled, cavernous Immaculata. Because it doesn’t reach the altar from the loft, the priest would ask the organist to play a little louder, when she (now he) was playing as loud as she could or ought to. Alison Luedecke, the previous resident organist there, tells me that the Immaculata action (the term for what connects pipes to keys) isn’t good and needs redoing: too many compromises were made when the church installed an organ that was too small for the house.
There are other regrets for what happened here. A cloaked informer who has chosen anonymity accuses the Immaculata clergy of spiritual theft from the parish of Mission San Luis Rey. “It belongs to the parish, to the people there,” he says, with principled conviction, even though the mission clergy, in a strangely misguided moment, had been seeking to discard it, when Immaculata agents overheard them. Its story is told and retold around town. Every organist I asked had the same thing to say: it’s a beautiful instrument, but it’s in the wrong place.
The classy von Beckerath organ helps us reassess the virtue of size. But large organs can possess the virtues of the quieter, beautifully crafted instruments that we find at the Immaculata, All Souls’ Episcopal in Point Loma, and First Church of Christ, Scientist, in La Mesa — and all do, in their degree. Large organs can be beautifully voiced, as St. Brigid’s organ is. And there can be, in massive organ sound, a clear articulation of the pipes or stops that built it up. At St. Brigid’s you can hear glistening columns of tone rising up in the musical unity — and at St. Paul’s too, though the tone may have less distinction there. The organ at St. Paul’s has the compensating virtue that Paul Carmona (past interim organist) calls focus, and you hear it: a photographic clarity pertains in its musical details, printing arabesque patterns on color and tone, though each color or tone in itself might not have drawn attention to its isolated beauty. But as ethereal piccolos come misting down at Paul Carmona’s bidding, I’m not so sure. My sense of things is changing while the colored glass starts gleaming in the morning sun. An elderly woman in front of me turns and smiles. On the win-daw ledge, curling in a pool of ruby light, a honeybee is dying in the right place.
If you want to hear both isolated beauties (or separate stops distinctly heard) and the musical idea that unites them, try All Souls’ Episcopal Church. There you’ll hear each complicated counterpointed voice in Bach both shine apart and blend into big pictures—for All Souls’ built its organ in the tradition of the instruments that Bach listened to and played: it’s modeled on an early Dutch organ (close enough). Resident organist Bob Thompson told me that I had to tell you that every stop of this organ is beautiful. That they are, Bob — it’s a poppy garden.
An organ case can be something marvelous itself. You can’t help marveling at this one, which comes with a church publication for children, and for me too: the Sea Monsters Coloring Book. A church that’s staffed entirely by vertebrates will be prone to call invertebrates monsters as long as we recoil from them as if they really were. You can help. It would alleviate tensions if you would lift and hold an oozy sea hare. Can’t you try to feel the little kindness that can build into waves of affection? I wonder, is it difference or resemblance that we dislike in sea slugs? Either way, here they are, our Master Plan companions, the fringe of mottled beauties that encircle land masses, the glossy opposites — the invertebrates— carved and justly gilded on the pipe shades of an organ case: sea hare, sea slug, octopus, and many more. How do you feel about lifting (then gently replacing) large rocks? Do you understand your role in the feud between invertebrates and vertebrates? You can find these formless horrors in their tidepool habitat, a mile or so from the church. Don’t forget: they’re not edible.
Meanwhile, I’m greeted out front by a woman dressed in long white robes, arms outstretched — a church official. Her expression is warm and interested — and nothing like the radioactive smile on the face of a collector of souls (such are my fears). From the outside, All Souls’ looks like a landed flying saucer, but the architecture prospers when you enter — it’s a Judean meeting tent. Railed lamps hang like go-go booths or shark cages, so tend my low associations. Sunlight passing through a kelp bed made of colored glass bathes the psychedelic altar in green, blue, and yellow luminescences. We’re lucky because this is the day that the church explains its many, many rituals to outsiders. They explain their outfits too, and all their liturgical props. But Pm tuning in to the beautiful organ beside me. It’s like sitting right next to the fire. I’ll soon learn that this is the instrument that strips away adult fears for a minute, when a stop known as a cymbalstern revolves a gilded starfish and tinkles tiny bells. Keep your eye on the centerpiece.
Pipe displays are variations on a theme — each unique, all alike. In facades, pipes are arranged like the tightly packed cigarettes in an elegant case that someone opens, one pushed out — for you. Nonsmokers may imagine Oldsmobile grills, Chicago, or the railed gates in Citizen Kane—vertical anomalies in Flatland. The truth is that gravity will flatten everything, sooner or later. Just look at what’s happened already: the typical building, the shrubs that outnumber the trees, dachshunds, red carpets, the whole fallen world. Canada’s famed radio host Bob Kerr told me that the thrill of pipe organs courses through him if he should even happen to glance at an ordinary iron railing. It’s the Vertical! he says — a word I’d never heard before. Probably all words are like that — day, sky, I: nearly everyone is talking in their sleep (I know I am). If there were an alarm clock for that, it might sound like a pipe organ—wordless, huge.
First Methodist and First Presbyterian unleash auroral storms above you. They spin the upper story like a lariat, to borrow Jared’s description of like effects in Garden Grove’s Crystal Cathedral. At First Methodist, you’re trapped in a glass-bottomed boat overturned at the bottom of a mighty river flowing over you, surprisingly calm. That’s what made First Methodist the perfect venue for a recent weekend of pipe-organ nerve and nirvana, the Fete Vierne. So who is Vierne? A French composer. He died at his console, blind, in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, in 1937 — and a certain French musical gloire ended at that moment. Let’s think like him, extravagant, persistently Romantic: he sourced and leased a Nile River for the organ, in turbulent musical currents, in air. Cathedrals have stormy microclimates.
The Fête Vierne was bestowed on us by Jared Jacobsen, dean, and Jim Simonton, his heir apparent, under AGO auspices. And here we all are entering: the local organ glitterati, music lovers, the budding curious. We’re sitting in comfortably padded, cream-colored Naugahyde pews. We’re sitting in the biggest convertible that ever was, top up. I look forward and left for someone to think of as the driver; I choose a woman with a bracelet in her hair. And everyone is here. I’m counting celebrities now, starstruck: John Churchill, Jerry Witt, Jared, Jim. There’s Lyle Blackinton! Bob Plimpton waves hello. I’m in pipe-organ heaven.
Then things start in earnest. Alison Luedecke has undertaken Vierne’s First Symphony for organ with moving comprehension and involvement. I feel part of this — I’d helped her turn her pages in rehearsal! I learned a lot about Vierne from her then, and about pipe organs too, and more than that: I liked her impatience with the politics of silence at a time when there’s much to be said. But then Bob Plimpton put his finger in the socket of Vierne; his performance of Vierne’s Second Symphony imprinted an indelible memory, I’m certain, in many listeners. The next night, something beautiful and rare: Sylvia Wen singing three prayers in delicate settings by Vierne — the mystical Les Angélus, with accompaniment by Daniel Burton at his organ. Then Kathleen Scheide, like Daniel Burton a composer herself, and music director at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, gave us something to remember forever in her deeply realized Symphonie IV. She looks like Alice in Wonderland but she plays like the prophet Cassandra. These have been quick, memorable nights.
It’s Sunday now, and we’re here for the matinee. Past the altar, through the great window, stands the little Mount of Olives that First Methodist is building. The olive leaves are flashing silver undersides in wind — and mockingbirds, scrub jays, and mourning doves are darting in and out of them, out of the rain. It’s a gray world outside, and it’s playing Vierne.
But now I’m late, and I’m barreling down Sixth, and Nina Simone is giving me goose bumps all the way: Sinnerman, where you gonna run to? Sinnerman, where you gonna run to? To First Presbyterian Church, at Date and Third. And luckily, there’s a parking spot, right in front of the San Diego Sleep Disorders Center — cunningly located where the flight path and 5 inter-sect. There’s a scattering of earplugs, apparently discarded, by the entrance to the center. They might be signs of miraculous recovery, like crutches on the steps of the cathedral at Lourdes. Or maybe that’s all that the center offers — earplugs. Or could they have something to do with the magnificent organ across and down the street? It’s hard to tell an ear plug from a hearing aid in church.
Sometimes a sorry church politics puts wraps on a beautiful instrument. At First Presbyterian, I asked Pastor Webster, What’s the purpose of the organ? It deepens faith, he told me, and then turned away. “But it can draw attention from the focus,” he turned around to say — and I saw something change in his eyes. He doesn’t like strangers. His boyish expression belies a deep-working mind. I’ll bet he’s thinking that I want to draw attention to the organ — away from the focus. The focus that day had been love; but Dr. Webster’s sermon had lost its footing in some mucky, ultra-trite Hallmark card verses — which were read with stock gestures suggesting profundity: rigid limbs, arched back, and lifted chin. There’s a troubling history here. Several years ago, I’m told, as part of housecleaning to make way for the new, conservative Pastor Webster, the church pressed its organist out.
The issue was sexual preference. In Pastor Webster’s boyish eyes, to be gay is offensive to God. Since then an unofficial boycott maintains, among organists and others (as someone said, “It’s not that the world is boycotting them, it’s that they’re boycotting the world”). I go anyway, thrilled with my own offense to God in his eyes. In my eyes, he stands like the border between me and a pipe organ that I’d like to know better. It’s an area of disrespect I have for him, and encourage. There, Pastor Webster, I’ve drawn attention to your focus—what you wanted. But look who has the muck on him now! Blessed Casavant at Blessed Sacrament, cleanse me.
Months ago at Blessed Sacrament, Renata Bieniek stood up and told us that she plays for the glory of God. This was meant as a disclaimer; she’s not, she says, an organist with regular credentials—what she didn’t tell us was that she holds a master’s in music from the University of Krakow, in Poland, where her instrument was the piano. Now she’s learning the organ at her instrument, and what an instrument to learn at: a Casavant! When she sat down to play, she opened up hot lines to God, which Casavants are built to do. There were little epiphanies too. On the organ crawl that took us to Blessed Sacrament, I overheard Jim Simonton saying with cradling sweetness, “pretty, pretty flutes.” He made me listen; he helped me hear them his way. These Casavant flutes fluttered like the moth in behemoth.
The First Presbyterian instrument is in essence a Casavant too, built by star Casavant breakaway Larry Phelps. This pedigree gives it a lucid sound, warm color, and size. When it follows the rare paths of musical logic that lead to mighty chords, it sounds like it’s creating God. These great organs are waiting to exhale. All wind is potentially music.
But Pastor Webster makes a good point. It’s strange in a way that churches and pipe organs bonded, given the organ’s capacity to enthrall and distract, and given the profoundly different natures of wordless musical expression and scripture. But bond they did, for reasons that Alison Luedecke put well when she recounted someone saying that pipe organs envelop us in what’s captured by the phrase greater than you. All but alone now in the First Presbyterian sanctuary, I listen to greater than me—Tom Leonard is building things up in a postlude to services. It fills the air with Christmas presence. It sets its atoms spinning and humming like tiny, colored tops. It makes me forget where I parked my car. I know — in front of the.. .San Diego Memory Disorders Center? No, that’s not it. The San Diego Sleep Disorders Center, that’s it! And when I turn the key in the ignition, there she is, Nina Simone, right where she’d left off: Sinnerman, where you gonna run to, all on that day.
Far away, at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in La Mesa, a black rubber spider is crawling out of a jack-o’-lantern just inches from where John Churchill sits calmly at his Martin Pasi organ, rightly and visibly proud — he’s parenting, and he’s also still learning what will come to profoundly involve him, an instrument of subtlety and depth. This is the new kid in town — a white maple beauty, all graceful arcs. It’s the talk of the town. At the inaugural concert last November, Bruce Newton came to play, among other things, the meditative, mystical Le Banquet Céleste by Olivier Messiaen. He floated its quiet, cirrus structures over us until he reached and held its soft, concluding tone for what seemed like a long time. That’s what this organ can do: its steady, scaled perfections. Then silence fell, and before the suspended applause began, someone next to me turned to her friend and said, “That was weird. — He must have been sleeping at the console.” I wondered, has she wondered what made her atoms stable—who fell asleep at what console for that? But Messiaen is a difficult modern composer for many, and the charm is on her as on anyone else. But it brings me to a point, and the two greatest things that an organ can do: it can hold the note forever, and the volume can be held just such in endless perpetuity. This must be why composers so often write for organs when what they want involves the idea of immortal existence, world without end.
Later, in the reception room, I find myself standing in lemon chiffon dripped on key lime green crinoline gauzes, or so it strikes me — but my eyes adjust and then I’m over it. Martin Pasi is here and he makes me think that organ builders are by nature shy and quiet. Martin Ott, for example. When I was waiting to meet him at St. Brigid’s, I could hear his disembodied voice inside the instrument he’d built He was there tuning pipes; and Jerry Witt was sitting at the console playing this one or that one, when Martin requested. Paul Carmona calls this the most elegantly voiced instrument in town (most agree). Of Martin Ott himself he says, with supernatural tinges: “I think he’s kind of an unknown master.” I think he’s invisible too, until he comes out from his pipework. When he does, I’m struck by his eyes. They’re full of undisguised being — it’s enough to have to look away. He barely says a word.
On the other hand, Jerry Witt talks — and conversation with him is a memorable pleasure. He’s vertical. He tells me what I’ve probably been waiting or ready to hear. I like the way he answers unposed questions, as if he were talking to your eyes. What I best remember (the tape had run out) makes up for word count by reducing things to one way of putting essentials. These are like foundation stops—the base on which the organ builds its pyramid of sound. They hold organ talk back from descent into chatter. The ears are tired, he says, with a faintly compassionate sigh. In churches, an organ is dealing with silence — and space. And then you have a memory. That’s the way to talk to me—using non sequiturs, burning bridges. On any serious, difficult matter, four consecutive statements with logical linkage and clout make me freeze like a rabbit. I can actually smell the anaconda. So I like to use Jerry Witt’s roughly jointed phrases and share them with you. They’re good for building other phrases. The organ is dealing with memory. Silence is dealing with space. My ears are getting tired. Later on, what I’ll
Let’s cut to the chase. Here are the 1998 MOO (My Own Opinion) awards:
Best Instrument, the St Brigid Parish Organ, builder Martin Ott (runners-up St. Paul’s & All Souls’ Episcopal)
Lifetime Achievement, Spreckels Organ
Best Performance by an Organist, Robert Plimpton, for Vierne’s Fourth at Fete Vierne (runner-up Kathleen Scheide, for Vierne’s Fifth)
Best Event, Jared Jacobsen and Jim Simonton, for Fete Vierne
Best Technological Development, Lyle Blackinton, for the unpatented and much-copied action at First Methodist, for which he ought to get more than more respect;
Best Organ Case, All Souls’ Episcopal Church (runner-up First Church of Christ, Scientist, La Mesa).
And now the lights go down in Copley Hall — the hush of expectation falls. Off to the side, in disrepair, the old Fox Theatre pipe organ is sobbing audibly. On a dark, empty stage a blue spot shines on the last presenter. Ladies and Gentlemen, as always, Mr. Rene Descartes.
René Descartes, the great 17th-century French philosopher, has agreed to participate on the condition that his envelope be empty—that the envelope itself does not exist. He shows his open hands, smiling. This is Descartes, renowned for his ability to doubt the existence of anything else but himself, including, unfortunately, the last MOO award (a tie), for
Ultimate Genial Spirit, which would have gone to — but I can’t say a thing, not with Descartes standing there.
To prepare for the next appearance by Descartes, let’s prove the existence of pipe organs in a philosophically satisfying way. St. Anselm’s argument that God exists first asks us to imagine a being than whom none greater can exist Then God must exist, for if one conceives of God as having ultimate greatness but lacking existence, then a greater being than that can be conceived —or that’s how the argument goes. Now let’s imagine a musical instrument than which none greater exists, &c. Then organs must exist! Real philosophers, forgive me.
Now, if you’re wondering when you should start, then know that according to Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics, pipe organs won’t always be there for you. Nothing will, at least nothing very well organized, after what Newton predicted, the heat death of the universe. Later on, there’ll be no atoms either: it looks as if protons decay after all (there goes the neighborhood). Picture yourself in your car, your foot on the pedal, windows and doors gradually growing fainter. You re trying to lift the keys to the ignition but you cant. What’s my n — then Gabriel said, Say your names out loud together. And there’s never been an ogre since that day.