The Pipe Organist’s Dilemna

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I recently featured a new CD of organ works (pipe organ, not Hammond B3) on my show.  It’s called First & Grand (which happens to be the location of Walt Disney Concert Hall, where it was recorded).   The spindly pipes of the Disney Hall organ, instead of rising vertically, project outward like arms of a sea anenome.  It’s unusual and striking, just what you’d expect from Frank Gehry.

Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging
Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Pipe organs are enormous, complicated, and immovable, by far the most complicated musical contraption ever invented. And, unlike the Hammond B3, you certainly can’t bring a pipe organ with you to a gig.

There have been attempts to circumvent the considerable expense of buying organs.  Around 1855, Hohner and company invented the bandonéon, the accordion-like (though it has buttons on both sides and no keyboard) instrument that would be poor parishes’ substitute for provincial German churches that couldn’t afford a pipe organ.  A soprano, tenor, and bass bandoneon would do the trick. The bandonéon of course went on to become the signature instrument of Argentine tango, going straight from German churches to Buenos Aires whorehouses.

The organist is Christoph Bull and the CD is the first to feature the stunning pipe organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall.  The album has both classic repertoire, new arrangements for organ of classic warhorses such as Barber’s Adagio for Strings, as well as original works by Bull. I’m sure it’s getting airplay on classical stations, especially since it’s the first CD featuring the Disney Hall organ, but also because it’s so beautifully recorded by the likes of veteran pros Alan Sides and Fred Vogler.  And, of course, the recorded sound is swathed by the pristine acoustics of Disney Hall.

First & Grand

It’s sometimes said that the problem in being a jazz piano player is that the clubs you play in don’t always have a 9-foot Steinway at your disposal.  I’ve heard many a jazz and mambo recording where the piano was so badly dilapidated that you wouldn’t even want a six year old to play chopsticks on it.  But you can’t take your own personal piano around with you (like Ryuichi Sakamoto does on his gigs, bringing them from NYC where he now lives.).

But being a pipe organ player is exponentially worse.  You have to play in churches.  How are you going to branch out and reach new audiences when your audience is primarily made up of parishioners?

How can you ever become a rock star or even a hot new jazz voice if you play this immense, complicated, and ungainly contraption?

Do you have to go to the gym and pump iron for a year, wear tight black tee shirts with holes in them, get studs in your ears and nose to attract new listeners?

Or maybe do what the hunky monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silas did a few decades ago to cross over to a bigger audience?  Look like a bunch of hot guys in black?

If you’re a female organist, do you have to wear a wet tee shirt or skimpy attire? In church?  Buy a Hammond B3?  Or just buy a bandonéon and make a little cash at the local brothel?  (Though beware, a bandonéon is fiendishly difficult to play.  Astor Piazzolla said so).

These are the nagging questions for the small coterie of pipe organists, purveyors of music that many associate with austere and excruciating Catholic masses, rules and regulations, parental and paternal authority.

Maybe new artists like Christoph Bull can change the way audiences hear organ music.  He plays around town, not just at Disney Hall but also at UCLA and the First Methodist Church in Santa Monica. And then there is the magnificent organ at the First Congregational Church near Hancock Park. Maybe he’ll play there soon.