Musique Concrete from the Wanamaker Organ

Musique concrete usually makes use of everyday sounds–automobiles, trains, ambient noises, machines, and other sources that would not be considered musical in the conventional sense. But there is another approach, too, one which I’m pretty sure Pierre Schaeffer discussed in his journals–that of using musical instruments themselves in unconventional ways to make musique concrete.

My full time job involves working in the repair shop of the Wanamaker Organ, the world’s largest functioning pipe organ.* I thought I would climb into the innards of this instrument and make a soundtrack out of it. Among other things, you will hear:

–the enormous winding system of the string division, along with several of its lowest notes on the diaphone stop, which speaks at 32′, i.e., two octaves below written pitch. I stood next to them as I worked the mechanism that played them. This created problems with the microphone but I decided to let it be for now. Lesson learned, though.

–a screwdriver banging on a wind reservoir

–a screwdriver being slid along a large spring connected to a hollow wind reservoir, which creates a sound not unlike a gong

–percussive noises from work being done in the organ shop


Notice that in the picture of the console included in the recording, I have Olivier Messiaen’s Le Banquet Celeste on the music rack. This is not inappropriate, since Messiaen was not only an admirably unapologetic composer of avant-garde organ music, but also a practitioner of musique concrete, who worked with Schaeffer, et al.

Interestingly enough, friends of mine who I’d have thought would enjoy some of my pop-influenced stuff more (much of my work has a “beat,” whether it’s established by a train or whatever) have enjoyed this one the most. I hope you enjoy it too.

*There is some argument these days about which pipe organ really is the largest in the world. It’s a bit like the debate about which skyscraper is the tallest: it depends on what you count, and how much each thing matters. These are largely stupid arguments, as the beauty of the sounds coming from the instruments matters far more.


Wedding Processionals: the Cure for Perfectionism

For about fifteen years after college, give or take, the primary source of my income was as a church organist. This might not sound too exciting, but there are a lot of challenges in the job to keep you on your toes.

As a high school and college student I had terrible performance anxiety. I would pick apart everything, even while it was still happening. There was no sense of flow. I was stuck in my own head and worried entirely too much about what other people thought. And I was an incurable perfectionist, which kept anything I did from being all that good.

When I graduated from college, I took a job playing the organ for a church, and I soon started playing for weddings, which are probably to this day the most stressful gigs I do. Not playing with my youth orchestra at Carnegie Hall at age 15. Not trying to remember a rock n roll set with three drinks in me. Weddings.

Every wedding is different, especially the processionals. Some have more bridesmaids, some less. Some have a ringbearer; others don’t. Some use one song for the bridesmaids and then switch to a different one for the bride, and others don’t. Some people print programs that contradict what they asked for in the first place, leaving everyone unsure of what to do.

If this sounds like a pain, it is. On top of it all, there are always curve balls:

The ringbearer stops halfway down the aisle and cries.

The nervous bridesmaids sprint like there’s a fire, laying waste to good timing.

The bride hesitates.

The biggest problem for the organist is being able to see all this happen, as church organs tend to be buried, mercifully, in lofts and around corners, or behind a pillar. The musician shall not be seen. As an introvert, I’m fine with that. But then I can’t see anything else. So there I am squinting into a mirror trying to watch a procession that might as well be a half block away, and I’m trying to coordinate the right cadences with other musicians.

St. Patrick's church

The cavernous St. Patrick’s Church near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, where I recently played a wedding that was the impetus for this essay.


But not just any old cadence will do. In much of the traditional wedding repertoire, there are cadences on the dominant rather than the tonic, which would make the song sound “not done yet,” which is no way to leave a bride at the altar, unless you want to play a prank in very bad taste.

The most consistent thing about a wedding processional is that it never goes as planned. I recently did a wedding with a trumpet player, and to make matters more interesting, we were doing a very nice but uncommon piece of music. Not exactly hard, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the music much, either.

WE had a game plan set up, but of course we were in the middle of no man’s land in the piece when we suddenly realized the bride was only a few steps from the altar. This left us to rely on ESP, for lack of a better word. In these kinds of moments, you are literally listening for what the next note is that the trumpet plays, and then you guess (!) which measure to jump to. One time I had a trumpet player suddenly jump back to the main theme of a piece. I caught up, eventually. I couldn’t blame him.

Needless to say, these performances are far from perfect. I guess the good news is that people rarely seem to notice, though that’s no excuse to be sloppy.
In such circumstances a perfectionist will go nuts. It’s a totally different world playing for a chaotic wedding versus playing under the red pen of a professor or a critic. Conservatories prepare musicians for exams, but not for life. Weddings are one area in which I felt the sting of this difference.

But I’m grateful for the baptism by fire, such as it is. “Perfection is death,” a friend of mine says. A perfectionist will get eaten alive playing a wedding. The good news, though, is that he’ll also get shaken up a bit and learn to play fast and loose, to dive in and make the best of it. This can only improve overall musicianship, reduce nerves, and induce a higher state of flow.

When I first started out I had some very bad weddings, even embarrassing ones, but because of the challenges they contain, I learned to let go and play with joy, and that has carried over into all the playing that I do.

Calvin Hampton: An American Genius

Originally published in the Broad St. Review on November 4, 2014.


I was improvising at the organ a few weeks ago when I realized I was emulating Calvin Hampton, specifically his composition In Paradisum, which employs an eerie polytonality. This isn’t unusual. I’ve been accused of composing like Hampton before.

“I went to school with Calvin. He was a genius,” one of my teachers told me. “We didn’t even bother to be jealous of him, since he was head and shoulders above everyone else.”

Combining the incompatible

Hampton dared to take musical chances. While the results are uneven, his better compositions deserve a place in the repertoire. One of his greater successes was the establishment of a Fridays at Midnight organ recital series at his church in Gramercy Park during the ’70s and ’80s. His rock band, Sevenfold Gift, gave the earliest of these concerts. Adding to the unconventional approach, he’d use flashing lights with the music and invited audiences to lie down while they listened.

He was not afraid to combine two seemingly incompatible things. Apparently even his concert programming demonstrated this, with stylistic “right turns” that dashed many listeners’ expectations for a chronological program order. Instead of going from Baroque to Classical to Romantic, he paired pieces from disparate styles, using Bach as the centerpiece rather than the opener. In a sense, he was the inventor of the iPod shuffle manner of listening to music.

More than this, Hampton played organ transcriptions and advocated symphonic style organs at a time when such endeavors were considered passé. The mid-20th century saw the rebirth of the putative classical organ and historical performance practice, which are more suited to early music, but he wasn’t afraid to buck this trend. “He could just sit down and play a symphony from the full score. He had that kind of talent,” one friend of mine reports.

Saying what he had to

He was not merely a shock artist, though. Calvin Hampton broke molds because they couldn’t help him say what he had to say. His unique sense of melody, rhythm, and tonality, albeit not as distinct as Messiaen’s, makes his music instantly identifiable as his. Angular, disjunct melodies, sometimes playful, sometimes sweet, were one of his favorite toys, along with offbeat rhythms that grew out of “added” eighth notes — a device that many modern ears, accustomed to monotonous pop music, find annoying. Yet if there were an organist on Earth you’d see playing pop music, it would probably have been Calvin Hampton.

While Hampton was still alive, Erik Routley called him “the greatest living composer of hymn tunes,” and his biographer, Jonathan B. Hall, notes the rock influence on his hymn melodies de Tar and St. Helena. Not everyone loves his music, though. I once attended a concert at which There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, using the tune St. Helena, was sung. Although the building was filled with the musically inclined, the audience stumbled through the hymn, to many grumbles. But original minds like Hampton’s are not meant for ordinary audiences, and full acceptance often doesn’t come until the artist is safely dead.

Unfortunately, Calvin Hampton’s demise came all too quickly. He died 30 years ago, an early victim of the AIDS epidemic. In spite of his short life, he left a treasure of music behind him that goes far beyond the confines of organ and church music, one that can truly be called American.

I’m not at all ashamed to be accused of trying to imitate him.