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Musings of a minority organist

Updated: Feb 25, 2023

Sometimes, I love the power and potential of the pipe organ. Other times, like today, I sincerely wish it to go the way of the dodo.

An image of pipe organ frets and stops
This was a slap-dash image I took of one of the organ consoles I currently play, to aid my memory for a recording session the next day.

CW: racism, classism. And before anyone nitpicks, yes, ethnocentrism is a form of racism.

I've had many friends in the game dev and game audio communities express their adminration and curiosity over the fact that I do play the pipe organ, the most recent of these being Jared of Su Madre Podcasts, who recently interviewed me on one of his podcasts, Indie Games International. I've felt compelled to share with them my experiences playing the organ, and the feelings surrounding them. I briefly touched on these feelings in a previous post, On my experiences with the concept of "music theory." Today, however, I'd like to elaborate on that a bit more, and focus on the pipe organ, an instrument that, due to some of the people defending it, has frequently given me grief.

I want to state for the record that my knowledge of this field is limited, in that I go about my particular liturgical circle, the (Catholic) Diocese of Lancaster. It is a widely agreed fact across denominational divides that organists are in short supply, and so are organ technicians. Some of us, myself included, have seen pipe organs fall into irreversible disrepair. Many people lament this fact, but I'm not so sure we need to lament it anymore.

* * *

I've made multiple allusions in my blog posts to the fact that I did not grow up in the UK, but rather in an English-speaking country in Southeast Asia which I don't feel safe to name yet.

In the parishes where I grew up, the tradition of using an organ was absent, except for the use of the much more contemporary Yamaha Electone. Anyone with the competence and emotional capacity to play an instrument of any kind would find a place in the music ministries of these parishes. There were pianists, guitarists and bassists, brass players, violinists, flautists, drummers, the list goes on. It was the intentionality behind it that mattered. The question asked of each musican was, "Can you bring forth the intentions and emotions of this piece, this hymn, this section, through your playing?" That was all.

For a long time, I didn't understand the meaning of that question, as my birthplace wasn't exactly the most emotionally literate. We were disempowered from speaking past a competence level high enough for business or STEM use. As individuals, as a society, we couldn't explain what we were feeling, and why. I'm fortunate to be in the UK now, where emotional literacy is a vital part of the discussion on mental health -- not widely enough to be talked about in schools, but accessible enough through therapy. The minute I gained that understanding of my emotions and the reasons behind them, I sought out ways to apply them in my life, and in my musicianship as well.

And I've come to understand that every instrument has its own methods of expressing the full spectrum of emotions. Many of these methods revolve around the heart of the player, as well as the various techniques used to bring out the full gamut of sounds from each instrument. Only an instrument played without any respect, towards it or towards other people around the player or to the song being played, is going to sound bad.

But in circles where the organ is expected to be played, many people would have you believe that the only way a guitar, or a piano, or a set of drums, or literally any instrument besides the organ can ever be played, is badly. There is an "us versus them" dichotomy. On the "us" side, there is the organ, choir, and cantors singing chant. These people would have you believe that their specific form of music, by virtue of being what it is, is reverent and pure, emotionally expressive, and far superior to the stuff on the "them" side.

And what, dare I ask, is the stuff on the "them" side? Literally anything that is not the organ, choir, and chant. Remember this dichotomy for later.

It is an ornate building with gold everywhere, and in the centre a pipe organ that looks like it has been plated with gold. This is a scene from Ocarina of Time 3D. Ganondorf is seen playing that pipe organ. Floating in the air, on the same level as the pipes, is a pink, crystal shaped force field; Zelda is trapped in the force field.
The iconic scene from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D where Ganondorf plays the pipe organ. © Nintendo.

I mean, we game audio people know that organ music can be cool -- look at the Castlevania OSTs, the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts boss themes, and anything that uses the pipe organ -- heck, look at the above image from Ocarina of Time 3D where the recurring villain, Ganondorf, is said to be, according to Zelda Wiki, "culturally inclined" for playing the pipe organ. Yet, we also know it's not everything. Ask any video game composer and they will happily talk about the soundtracks and songs that stirred their hearts the most. (Spoiler: the vast majority do not use the pipe organ, but are still deeply emotional and uplifting.)

And why am I, a game audio composer, talking about the pipe organ and liturgical music? One, because I also work in liturgical music; I am an organist in two parishes. I have a duty in my field to call out what is wrong. As it happens, I am in a network of music directors, a plurality of whom cling to this "us versus them" dichotomy I mentioned. Two, because musicians routinely diversify the work they do; I am one of many who do this. Many of us who compose music for films and games also teach our respective instruments, engage in live performance, sell sheet music of our compositions and arrangements, arrange covers, and / or engage in another artistic pursuit.

In my specific case, and in the case of many musicians I know, there is no stylistic clean break between any of our various different musical pursuits. My musicianship is consistent across my various fields. One could say that they're comparable to different sides of me that I refuse to compartmentalise into boxes, or hide in closets. These are all parts of the whole, and separating these parts makes my musicianship and expression incomplete.

* * *

This whole "us versus them" dichotomy that I spoke of in previous paragraphs may seem snobbish at best, until we remember that it disproportionately affects generally poorer communities that do not have the funds for the upkeep of a pipe organ, let alone very many musical traditions involving the pipe organ (with maybe some exceptions for gospel music or other hymn traditions outside of European ones, and even then, an organ is not strictly necessary).

The two parishes in which I play the organ have failing organ consoles: one is a pipe organ with pedals whose lower register does not work, and stops that have entirely broken down. The other is a purely electric console with sticky keys, and keys that straight-up do not work. They do need to be repaired soon, but imagine what would happen if they needed replacing? Replacing these would easily hit a five-figure sum, which is impossible in many smaller parishes with dwindling numbers in this day and age -- and besides, we are in a cost of living crisis here in the UK. Frankly, I'd sooner see people around me fed and kept warm than a pipe organ being replaced!

Poverty is, of course, intersectional, so this would also disproportionately affect Black, Asian, Indigenous, Latine communities for example. And as a woman of South and Southeast Asian descent myself, it more than hurts to know that there is a blatant refusal on the part of many proponents of organ and chant and choral music -- not all, but a sizeable number -- to ever acknowledge the richness of musical traditions that are not their own.

Organ, chant, and choral music in English-speaking circles has had centuries to develop, and has received constant encouragement. Only a few pinpricks on the map even attempt to give other musical traditions the light of day. Even something as simple as introducing contemporary music, or bringing a drum, can be met with bigotry and hatred. I know, for I've been on the receiving end of that hatred more than enough times. These are the grounds by which organ, chant and choral purists constantly shoot down any musical innovations. Not content with putting down other traditions, they accuse them of "not being emotionally literate enough" or "not being suited to prayer." They never say the quiet part out loud, about how they perceive European music as superior to other forms of music, about how they perceive their prayers to be superior to the prayers of other groups of people.

Say it with me, loud and clear: this is ethnocentrism. This is racism.

* * *

The other thing worth mentioning is that many of us seem to forget how it all began. Traditions are not always deeply entrenched things that have been with us since the dawn of time; they started as innovations once.

The pipe organ wasn't always this majestic, awesome, fearful thing designed to evoke the fear of God. It began in Greek and Roman music as a purely secular instrument; the earliest form of pipe organ, a water-driven one called the hydraulis, was used in ancient Roman circus games. Below is a video example I managed to find of one being played, and I find it has a pleasing sound, comparable to softer organ stops of today:

What prompted the organ's use and association with churches was political introduction by kings: the Byzantine emperor, Constantine V, gifted an organ to Pepin the Short, king of the Franks, in 757. Pepin's son, Charlemagne, requested a similar organ, and that was when it began to become widespread. We -- both I, as well as you, the reader, can make several jabs at the fact that religion and political power have been deeply intertwined to exert control.

What would eventually be considered "profane" music, therefore? By the simple process of elimination, it was the music of the poor, which used folk instruments that were distasteful to the rich. For example, Terry Jones' Medieval Lives (both the book and the show) details, in the episode / section about the minstrels, how wind instruments were deemed vulgar because the embouchure needed to play them, in Terry Jones' words, "distorted their features." Drums also received equal amounts of disdain. "Vulgar" comes from the Latin vulgus, meaning "common people," and it is clear that the definition of the word from a quick Google search, "lacking sophistication or good taste," is a jab at the poor.

Minstrels' and folk musicians' lives are scarcely recorded, and much folk music that we know of today either survives in a handful of medieval compilations, or rendered by popular period composers for concert halls -- an example that comes to mind is the folías that evolved from Portuguese folk dances, done by the likes of J.S. Bach and C.P.E. Bach, Arcangelo Corelli, and Sergey Rachmaninov. Of course we know their names. But will we ever know the names of the musicians who first pioneered that art form -- or, will we not, because they were just shepherds and peasants?

Say it with me, loud and clear: this is the fruit of centuries of classism, and it needs to stop.

* * *

Once, I read a book, The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson, and I couldn't finish reading it due to trauma. There was a side story arc in the book where the main character, a priest, came across someone longing after a violin in an instrument shop but could not afford to buy it. That person was a skilled violinist who only had a cheap violin. The priest, with time and with help from parishioners, managed to get in touch with the makers of an expensive violin that the violinist was longing for, and organised a collection to get that violin so that violinist could play it.

I was retraumatised, because I know that there are many of us musicians in liturgical circles who would not be given that same treatment today, especially if our instruments are deemed "secular," "profane," "savage," "demonic," because they belong to different traditions. In poorer places where people know what it's like to be disadvantaged, I can see people acting the same way as the priest from The Cardinal, because they all know what it's like to be disadvantaged, to not have their voices heard. They know not to repeat what was done to them.

But here? This seems to be a trait common to the UK and the US, and I fear a good few other countries as well: those of us who have new songs to sing, new music to bring, who are often not cut from the same cloth as the organ, chant, and choral purists, are inevitably sidelined and often receive elitist, classist, racist remarks. Religious or not, we can at least be clear about one thing: this is wrong.

I am that violinist from The Cardinal. Except, replace the violin with a drum. I am not merely an organist for the weekends and certain events. I am a composer, a drummer, a pianist, a vocalist, an arranger, a ukulele player, a harpist, a bassist, a commentator, a lyricist, an artist, a teacher... Each facet of my musicianship deeply enriches the other, and makes me appreciate the beauty of music even more. I have so much to give, and it screams within me -- it demands the barriers to its full expression be torn down immediately!

Anyone of you feeling that sense of longing to play your instrument out in the open in your particular fields, replace the violin from that aforementioned book with your instrument. I know the pain. I see you!

And it is my fervent hope that our songs will one day be heard out in the open, that nobody will silence us for expressing ourselves with our music any longer.

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