Monday, January 31, 2011

Listen to the Lyrical Winds

The lighthouse. The alphabet. The ramp and the lever.

Not to mention the bed and the table.

Did you know all of these were invented by Egyptians?

At this very moment, Egypt is roiled in an epic sociopolitical upheaval which, aside from threatening the current government, has compromised security in and around what has been called the "cradle of civilization."

From Cairo's world-famous Egyptian Museum to Luxor and the incomparable pyramids at Giza, Egypt holds many antiquities and artifacts dating from the time of Christ, and beyond. Yet since today's impoverished Egypt contrasts so starkly with its ancient heritage, Westerners tend to forget the role the Nile River Delta has played in our own cultural legacy.

And speaking of cultural legacy, here's another amazing factoid: nearly 300 years before the birth of Christ, Ctesibius of Alexandria invented the pipe organ. Who'd have thought, right? Not the grand, towering instruments we know today, obviously. For one thing, Ctesibius used water instead of electricity to pump air through his ingenious contraption.

Alas, the pipe organ has not fared nearly as well throughout the millennia as Egypt's other inventions, like the table and chair. Those have become universally ubiquitous. Fortunately, the pipe organ isn't as obsolete as the lighthouse, although, judging by popular culture, it might as well be.

Not a Pipe Dream

Indeed, the fact that most pipe organs today can only be found in historic, wealthy, or liberal churches doesn't speak volumes about the instrument's broad appeal. Most any modern church these days can host a rock concert. But it usually takes patrician congregations in what evangelicals consider marginally evangelical, mainline denominations to appreciate the glory and grandeur that is the pipe organ.

Such a shame, when you don't need to be all that educated or rich to appreciate classical organ music.

How do I know? Well, I don't have an Ivy League education, or a six-figure income, or a home in a prestigious ZIP code. I've never taken a music appreciation course, I'm not a bookworm, and I'm not a world traveler.

I don't even like all types of organ music. Kitschy Wurlitzer stuff makes me gag. Most modern, abstract compositions seem too bizarre to even be legitimate music. But there exists a wide body of work in the classical pipe organ repertoire which can be marvellously worshipful, therapeutic, and enthralling. Since I can't profess to be an indiscriminate pipe organ lover, I realize I can't demean people who don't like it at all. I suspect, however, that most of those types of people haven't really ever heard good classical organ music to begin with.

Pedal Pusher

Fortunately, here in North Texas, a surprisingly rich environment of classical church and civic musicianship flourishes, including some of the largest and most significant pipe organs in the world. Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth boasts the world's largest French aesthetic organ. The Meyerson Symphony Center in downtown Dallas features a spectacular pipe organ as its focal point.

And last night, I attended a concert on the two-year-old, $4 million pipe organ at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, where principle organists from 8 major churches in Dallas' Park Cities enclave displayed the dazzling instrument's virtuosity through a program ranging from Charles-Marie Widor to, of all things, nursery rhymes.

Texas may be many things western and country, but thankfully, one thing it's not is starved of is pipe organs, at least not here in the Dallas - Fort Worth area.

Yet an overwhelming number Biblically-conservative, evangelical congregations actually refuse to consider worshipping with a quality pipe organ. Much of the reason for this has to do, naturally, with the discouraging costs of purchasing and maintaining such a complex instrument. Which, however, still make it a matter of priorities. As I look at the amount of money most congregations pour into their mammoth buildings, acres of underused parking lots, and extensive rosters of paid staff, I suspect money would be far less of an issue if the desire for quality classical music actually resounded among their churchgoers.

Let's not make this a debate over music and worship styles, though. Many battles are won and lost through popularity, and this battle has less to do with democracy and more to do with intrinsic purpose. I believe the best advocacy for classical pipe organ music comes from its ability to depict aesthetics and characteristics of our Creator God like no other instrument can possibly do. In that I find great purpose in the invention of Alexandrea's Ctesibius.

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

If you've already formed your opinions about pipe organ music without having worshipped in a service accompanied by a professionally-trained organist, then might I suggest something? Unlike many opinions which can have integrity without being dependant on personal experience, classical pipe organ playing cannot be easily dismissed as irrelevant if you've never participated in it live.

If you stop and think about it, a pipe organ is a wind instrument, like a trumpet or fife. There is a color to the tonality of wind instruments which reaches its fullest expression and spectrum in the pipe organ. What makes it, as Mozart proclaimed, the "king of instruments," involves its ability to capture the range of other wind instruments while contributing other qualities of resonance to the overall sound.

Expressive in both subtlety and grandeur, the pipe organ perhaps best approximates the regal splendor of Western estimations of God and His holiness. Depending on how the organ is played, its music can envelop the listener in a way few other instruments can, with decibel levels and intonations diffusing shades of emotion, imagination, and perspective.

Perhaps the loss of the instrument's commonality in our culture helps make it that much more provocative. Maybe because we don't hear pipe organ music every day, those times when we do make it that much more exceptional and impressionable. However, I daresay that a daily diet of live classical organ music would greatly dilute my persistent cynicism, and that's saying something, isn't it?

Hear, Here!

Unfortunately, listening to videos online hardly portrays any music in flattering light. But let's whip through a quick tutorial on the basics of organ appreciation, if for no other reason to hopefully convey to you a quick glimpse of why I think organ music should not be scuttled to the periphery of our society.

First, this is what many people think of when they think of organ music. Here is a grainy, choppy video of Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor from the Sydney Town Hall in Australia. Despite the brilliance of Bach's composition, the utter overexposure this piece has had over the years, particularly in unkind contexts like commercials and movies, has diluted how audiences perceive it. Still, if you can strip away other, less beneficent encounters with this piece, hopefully you can capture some of the utter immortality Bach evokes in it.

Next, consider this composition played by organist Jason Payne playing on the Cliburn organ at Fort Worth's Broadway Baptist Church. This time, we're hearing a combination of two venerable hymns played by a younger, less polished artist, but still conveying layers of expression and exuberance which epitomize both the introspective and celebratory opportunities this one instrument can provide.

And if you want to hear something to a tune with which you should be familiar, try this patriotic piece, again by Jason Payne.

Like I said, nothing beats a live experience of good classical organ music, and thus, these YouTube videos are woefully inadequate as eminent supporting proofs for the integrity of the pipe organ. So, if you live in the Dallas - Fort Worth area, why don't you consider these opportunities to hear great organ music throughout the year:
Alternatively, you can check for local pipe organ events where you live by visiting the American Guild of Organists (AGO) website, which lists chapters across the country. Many concerts and recitals are free.

Consider the opportunity to discover that classical pipe organ music is for more than weddings and funerals!

If it wasn't, it wouldn't have survived since 300 BC.
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