R. J. STOVE reflects on life as an antipodean performer on the King of Instruments
‘“What?”, said [piano manufacturer] Herr Stein. “A man like you … wants to play on an instrument which has no sweetness, no expression, no piano, no forte, but is always the same?” “That does not matter,” I replied. “In my eyes and ears, the organ is the King of Instruments”.’ (Mozart)
Disheartening to report, Bismarck never uttered the epigram so often attributed to him: ‘Laws are like sausages: it is better not to see them being made.’ But each time I undertake a commercial recording – and I have undertaken three such now, all devoted to organ music – I am painfully reminded of this misattributed quotation.
Because if you contemplate classical music in recorded form (as the vast majority of journalists discussing it do contemplate it) through a haze of aestheticism, assuming that nothing ever happens in front of the microphone without the loftiest and most disinterested of motives, then the best cure for such kumbaya soft-headedness is actually to make recordings yourself. The procedure is death to entitlement culture, death to the near-enough-is-good-enough mindset, and death to all romanticist whimsies about artistic ‘inspiration.’
Among didactic processes, only an obligatory course in obstetrics would strip away more illusions from the novice, and strip them away faster, than recording production does. I cannot help musing over how much polysyllabic Marxist verbiage Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno would have spared us – how much Teutonic vamping about ‘the aura of mechanical reproduction’ and ‘bourgeois commodification of ritual’ they would have eschewed – if they had experienced for themselves, which they did not, the perils of needing to perform as flawlessly as possible within seconds of a producer turning a red light on. Not to mention the still greater perils of needing to keep one’s temper each time a producer is obliged to halt a take because of extraneous noise issuing from (i) seagulls overhead, (ii) a helicopter overhead, (iii) a passing ambulance siren, (iv) revving-up from a motorcyclist, or most frequently (v) all of the above.
A producer of classical recordings, if he (and, whether we like it or not, it remains a male-dominated profession) wishes to survive, has to be part surgeon, part electronic engineer, part Cecil B. De Mille, part Grand Inquisitor, part concierge, part therapist, and all musician. His role entails some of the attributes perceptible in the great symphonic conductors: notably an X-ray ear which can descry faults in even the most imposing wash of sound. When an orchestra gives its all in the mightiest of Respighian climaxes, the producer must be able to detect the third oboist who, amid the hubbub, mistakenly played an F sharp instead of the score’s indicated F natural: and to call out that oboist – politely, one trusts; rudely, if trust be impossible – over the error.
Yet that is almost the least of what the producer needs to do. He requires a retentive memory not for various takes’ musical contents alone, but for various takes’ volume levels. Should consecutive takes differ from each other in this regard, or in regard to the venue’s atmosphere (known among the cognoscenti as ‘atmos’ for short), he has to minimise those differences. No surprise that, even before the compulsory post-production chores, his copies of the sheet-music will have become so scribbled-over in red Texta as to resemble Jackson Pollock’s action-paintings.
Physical strength is a prerequisite as well. Especially if confronted with an unfamiliar site, he will be expected to lug prodigious quantities of cords, plugs, microphones, power sockets, monitor speakers, and computer hardware from his vehicle, before he assembles them: only to carry out the whole boring process in reverse when the session concludes. In this assembling and disassembling, he cannot and must not be rushed. It is hard for even the most arrogant performer to demand, with a clear conscience, additional haste from someone who can accidentally electrocute the entire dramatis personae if an exposed cable proves insufficiently earthed or a wire has worn through its sheath.
Therefore it is understandable that for every thousand good classical musicians out there, scarcely a single good classical recording producer can be traced. The best ones – they have included Walter Legge, Brian Culverhouse, and John Culshaw among the dead, and my own brilliant producer Thomas Grubb among the living – can charge whatever fees they like. Although COVID might have decluttered their timetables, it has not reduced (nor should it reduce) their invoices. Sir George Martin, at a period when the Beatles’ fame had yet to transcend Liverpudlian city limits, produced many a classical recording for EMI. He entertainingly recounted this function’s more bizarre aspects in his 1977 memoir All You Need Is Ears.
Nevertheless, whilst the good classical recording producer is as rare a bird as a left-handed red-headed Christadelphian, the good classical recording producer who can skilfully capture organ music is analogous to a left-handed red-headed Christadelphian who can do five hundred consecutive push-ups. With an orchestra or a chamber ensemble, after all, a producer has the luxury of operating in a more or less conventional studio. The designers of that studio will have taken some pains to soundproof it. In that studio he will be visible, albeit behind his desk, for at least some of the time to at least some of the musicians involved. He can rely on none of these advantages when recording organ music.
For as all organists – but all too few non-organists – know, pipe organs are not just musical instruments. They are, by definition, musical instruments ensconced in particular buildings, and habitually irremovable therefrom through any methods less radical than Semtex.
Many church instruments are installed in such a way as to force the organist to play with his back turned not only to the altar, but to the producer. Rear-view mirrors at the organ console possess limited efficacy. (During my own most recent sessions – cooped up as I unavoidably was in the loft – the worst thing which I could have done was the thing which all halfway decent musicians, by default, do: constantly listening to fellow performers. Instead, I needed as a deliberate procedure to play well ahead of the beat, purely so the final product’s hearers would have the aural impression of my keeping time with the five singers. All five, for balance-mandated rather than COVID-mandated reasons, remained invisible to me in the nave below. It took a crucial half-second for the organ sound to reach them from the loft’s phalanx of pipes.)
Whether a pipe organ be sacred or secular, its tuning will be always expensive. Rapid tuning is downright impossible. In a climate as manic as Melbourne’s, where two consecutive days will often enough be respectively 32 degrees or 14 degrees (not to mention vice versa), even the best-built instrument can unexpectedly acquire several out-of-tune pipes: without fail, the pipes most suitable to the music’s content. Ten times more worrying is the organist’s greatest dread: a cipher, whereby a particular keyboard note or pedal-board note sounds and cannot be switched off. Imagine the most persistent ambulance or police-car ululation which you have ever heard; then imagine such an ululation in an ecclesiastical context, when the nearest organ-tuner is unavailable through being hospitalized, or on holidays, or repairing an instrument in a different church, or simply drunk.
But you have not yet supped full on organ-related horrors. The 1970s Anglo-Saxon mania for carpeting what had been perfectly acceptable wooden or stone floors ruins many a church’s acoustics. Beautifully manufactured though a pipe organ might be, ubiquitous carpet will frequently make it sound like a Casio burp-box vended below cost price on eBay. Even churches free from carpets are apt to be located on main roads, their architecture dating from an epoch where internal combustion engines were largely unimaginable. However impressive their stonework, they offer almost no insulation from modern traffic noise. Factor in the tendency of churches to support church schools, and the aural complications are aggravated threefold. If you have never attempted to record a beautifully soft, French impressionist organ prelude while shrieking infants gallivant in the playground during their lunch break, your personal acquaintance with existential anguish is automatically limited.
Given these and other nuisances, you could be pardoned for asking why anyone would wish to record organ music in the first place: let alone to record three CDs’ worth of it, as I have done, with a fourth CD currently awaiting issue. Speaking as a middle-rank Melbourne organist with twenty-one years of remunerated public playing behind me – neither enjoying the rarely-conferred benefits of sustained cathedral employment, nor suffering the griefs of the overworked tyro frantically having to pad out an exiguous résumé – I find myself caught in not one but three perfect storms.
First of these storms is, naturally, COVID. Useless, and redundant, for me to expatiate here upon the damage which Wuhan’s most renowned export has done to live classical music performance in general; live classical music performance in Australia especially; and live classical music performance in Melbourne above all.
The second among these storms is one which foreigners will be able to predict with a little thought: Australian churches’ continuing sex abuse crisis, primarily (though not exclusively) afflicting Catholicism. Every dollar which dioceses are ordered to spend upon paying off an abuse victim’s lawyer, is a dollar which dioceses cannot spend upon professional musicians. Australia’s Catholic parishes were in demographic free-fall long before front-page headlines screamed about the pandemic.
As far back as 2011 – in other words, not solely pre-COVID but pre-abuse scandals too – 87% of Australia’s Catholics could not bestir themselves to attend Sunday Mass. We all know the only branches of Australian Christianity where the churches are full: the Pentecostal brigades, of which Hillsong is the most celebrated. Anyone gullible enough to believe that Pentecostal jamborees are likely to include organ-playing, or any musical contributions whatever except those supplied by sub-Hendrix guitarists and gyrating Taylor Swift wannabes needs (to borrow a felicitous, long-ago phrase from Esquire) not merely his head but his entire anatomy examined.
One much-loved hymn tells us: ‘There is a happy land, far, far away.’ There are in fact several such happy lands where university posts can, and do, recompense organists for the uncertainties of ecclesiastical occupations. Unfortunately, these happy lands do not include my own. In any analysis of today’s antipodean academe, the third perfect storm afflicting organists can be at once recognised. Australia’s ever more shambolic federal government has added, to its widely-shared record of COVID-related ineptitude, a malice all its own when it comes to higher education.
The most vituperative surviving Khmer Rouge commissar, and the most frenziedly anti-intellectual Mississippi Klansman, might well blanch at the overt hatred towards humanities departments that routinely emanates from Scott Morrison and his Canberra colleagues. These legislators expend their hatred not specifically on left-wing and/or spendthrift humanities departments, but on humanities departments per se. For all their mismanagement when it comes to public health, they have demonstrated impressive populist cynicism on pedagogical issues. They discern the absolute monetary dependence upon the welfare state which has characterised Australian academe from its beginning; which is certain to characterise it until Judgement Day; and which has resisted four decades’ worth of libertarian think-tanks’ harangues about the private sector’s alleged enthusiasm for acting as Maecenas. More and more, the very concept of private universities for Australia is proving as mythical (indeed, in its bogus promises, almost as pernicious) as those other nostrums propounded by fantasising savants: The Classless Society; Sex With No Strings Attached; Exporting Democracy To The Third World; No-Fault Divorce; and – who can doubt the essential illegitimacy of this doctrine likewise? – COVID Zero.
Last year I had the privilege of an academic post, necessarily casual in nature, under Sydney University’s auspices. Having written earlier about the pleasure which I took in this post (and about how gratified I would be if the post continued into 2022, which perhaps it will), I obviously must not repeat myself here. But I would be crazy to nourish sanguine hopes that Australia will permit for me an academic – dare I even employ so ‘elitist’ a noun as the following? – ‘career.’ My sixtieth birthday fell shortly before last Christmas; and quite apart from my innate lack of youthful cred, it is hard to envisage any status less welcome to modish Human Resources departments than my own Google-aided identifiability as a white straight male Catholic.
No individual, therefore, will be more delighted than I to gain further academic emolument. Equally, no individual is less prone than I to take any such emolument for granted. My research background has been the opposite of fashionable: last year I completed my doctoral thesis on Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s organ output. In any contest between a candidate who has specialised in Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, versus a candidate who has specialised in transgendered rappers from Bali, no prizes are offered for guessing the probable victor.
This all explains, ultimately, why I find myself investing greater and greater sunk costs in the project – which is, I concede, a First World problem – of capturing my organ-playing on record. By so doing, I might (I repeat: might) convince university employment’s arbiters to overlook my chronological, ethnic, and religious disadvantages.
Going to the effort and expense of issuing no fewer than four CDs indicates, at least, exceptional dedication and single-mindedness. So, of course, does becoming a kamikaze pilot. Time will pronounce whether the former occupational choice supplies any better long-term prospects than did the latter.
Meanwhile, in defending my own gramophonic incontinence, I am tempted to quote Maurice Chevalier’s brusque retort to a question about how much happiness he experienced in old age. What (the straw-hatted Gallic divo inquired) is the alternative?