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Pipe Organs: The Real, the Good, and the Beautiful

Pipe Organs: The Real, the Good, and the Beautiful

The American Guild of Organists’ magazine recently featured an electronic organ on the front cover. 

This cover photo (which is a paid ad) validated organists whose primary instruments are electronic, but dismayed others by implying that these instruments are on par with pipe organs.

These feelings arise from basic questions: What is a real organ? And how does being a real instrument relate to what is beautiful and good?

Aura and subjective physical experiences help us think through these questions and understand why electronic organs elicit strongly negative feelings in many organists.

In a basic definition, aura is the intangible experience of being with a work of art. The philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” discusses the problem of aura when a work of art can be mechanically reproduced. Benjamin’s essay is not specifically about electronic instruments, but his ideas about originals and copies illuminate the deep-seated frustration many people have with electronic organs and why they say that these organ are not “real” in the way that pipe organs are real (this series of articles is a thought-provoking example).

However, even though the relationship of original and copy—of real and fake, genuine and knock-off—is a valid way to assess an instrument's worth, another legitimate way to evaluate organs is through subjective physical experiences. Feeling good while playing an instrument and hearing a sound as beautiful are important factors—maybe the most important factors—in determining the musical worth of an instrument. 

A definition and a disclaimer

By “electronic organs,” I mean instruments that are used for the same repertoire as pipe organs and whose makers intend them to be like pipe organs in terms of their sound quality.

I am not against electronic organs. I wouldn’t be an organist if not for all the churches who’ve allowed me to practice on their electronic organs, and I routinely play church services on them. However, I prefer to play pipe organs: while there are some terrible instances of both kinds, I’ve never been delighted by an electronic one.

Are Electronic Organs Real Instruments?

Here are three takes on the question: 

1. An electronic organ cannot be a real instrument because it is an imitation of a pipe organ. In other words, because it’s an imitation, it cannot be real. In this view, “real” is about a qualitative difference between being genuine or a knock-off.

2. Electronic organs are real because they exist. As in, here’s a electronic organ, really there, existing in the sanctuary at Broadstreet Baptist. 

3. Real instruments make sound waves. The sound waves are no more and no less real regardless of their source. Since electronic organs make real sounds, the instruments are real.

I want to focus on just this first view: an electronic organ is a knock-off, while a pipe organ is authentic. 

This view is about the relationship between original and copy, and this is where Benjamin’s ideas about aura are helpful.

The aura of electronic organs

Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” argues for a qualitative difference between an original artwork and its copy. According to Benjamin, a copy lacks the original work of art’s capacity for aura because it lacks the original’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

Do electronic organs lack pipe organs’ capacity for aura? Are electronic organs copies and pipe organs original works of art? Many organists would say so, and this is a major factor in their negative views of electronic organs. In this view, electronic organs are a cheapy substitute, and a church installing an electronic organ is like one who decorates with postcards instead of investing in an artist's painting. 

But what if the relationship between electronic organ and pipe organ is analogous to the relationship between live and recorded music? 

Some people experience live music as an original work of art and experience recorded music as a comparatively desiccated copy. But other people (such as Richard Taruskin in Text and Act) think that recordings have their own kind of aura, their own unique existence apart from live performance.

What if electronic organs are like recorded music in this model? Electronic organs could have their own kind of aura, distinct from that of pipe organs. (In fact, some electronic organs are experienced as a hybrid of live and recorded sound, that is, recorded pitches that are played live.)

In other words, an electronic organ—even though it’s intended to be an imitation of a pipe organ—could still be considered its own kind of instrument, with its own capacity for aura.

Are electronic organs authentic?

In order to think through this possibility—whether electronic organs can have their own kind of aura—we have to think about authenticity: are electronic organs knock-offs while pipe organs are authentic? 

To begin answering this question, we have to untangle the sounds of electronic organs from the stories surrounding the instruments.

Here are some of the stories—really, the fantasies—that can come with electronic organs:

1. Electronic organs allow for sounds that, in the pipe organs they imitate, would never fit a particular sanctuary (or living room!) in literal spatial terms or in terms of stylistic appropriateness.

2. As a friend pointed out to me, electronic organs allow a church to self-describe as having a “high standard” for their music, as having a love for “quality” when they didn’t bother to allow space for a pipe organ in their sanctuary or don’t care to put funds toward a pipe organ (or, in the event that would never be possible, to instead purchase an excellent piano).

3. Electronic organs are often advertised as being indistinguishable from the originals they imitate. Which is, of course, not true. (For some historical perspective, this kind of advertising hyperbole is nothing new. It goes back to the earliest days of recorded sound in the late-1800s.)

From the angle of these stories and the claims they make, an electronic organ is categorically a knock-off. It cannot be authentic.

However, if we return to those views above on what makes something “real,” #3 is that a real instrument is one that makes real sound waves. From this perspective, electronic organs are just as authentic as any other instrument. The issue of authenticity becomes irrelevant because anything making sound is “authentic.”

(In July, I’ll be posting at length on authenticity. But to briefly clarify, authenticity here is not an aesthetic judgement. A beautiful sound is no more and no less authentic than an ugly one. The term authenticity is also used to talk about trueness of personal emotion. People often use this meaning of authenticity when they perceive acoustic sounds to be more authentic than electronic ones—think of the stories surrounding unplugged concerts and recordings, stories that say this music is more “raw” and “revealing” of a musician’s “true” emotions than their plugged-in performances. However, this “true to one’s inner self” sense of the term has no bearing on the relationship between pipe and electronic organs, because they are, of course, not human persons.)

The Good and the Beautiful

Instead of arguing about electronic organs’ collective worth using models of realness or authenticity, organists and listeners can more thoroughly evaluate them by focusing on the subjective physical experiences of playing instruments and listening to them.

What I’m saying is that the physical world is real, that it is fundamentally good, and that the sounds organs make can be, and often are, beautiful. For these reasons, goodness and beauty are legitimate means of evaluating an instrument's worth, even though they are also subjective factors.

Sometimes we unknowingly lean toward Gnosticism by talking about “merely physical” experiences—thinking of physical experiences as fleeting, deceptive, or superficial—in comparison with the Really Real mental things we experience.

This is especially problematic for Christians, who may treat mental connection with God or knowledge about God as far more important than physical experiences. But Christianity teaches that human bodies are good: it is fundamentally good to be made in God’s image, and it is fundamentally good to experience God’s world as an embodied person who will one day realize Job's foretelling that "in my flesh shall I see God."

The physical action of playing an instrument

The physical experience of playing an instrument is real, significant, and subjective. It should also be good.

Here’s my subjective read on playing electronic organs: it doesn’t feel good.

In contrast, while some pipe organs have uncomfortable actions, many of them allow musicians a physically pleasant experience. 

Why do organists often ignore this? The string players I know speak of their physical relationship with their instrument in glowing terms. For example, Elisabeth Le Guin's Boccherini's Body is an extended ode to the physical nature of cello playing, and to the embodied experience of music-making in general.

Unfortunately, many organists must be resigned or acclimated to a life-long practice of unpleasant physical sensation. It’s like having a dull ache that you can push into the back of your mind. But if one day you wake up and the ache is gone, suddenly you realize what a burden you were carrying, what lightness of being you missed.  

Can electronic organs make beautiful sounds?

Finally, there is the issue of beauty. Like physical experiences, beauty is significant and subjective.

Here is my subjective evaluation: All things being equal between a pipe organ and electronic one (we’re comparing two horrible instruments, two average ones, or two of the best), an electronic organ doesn’t sound as beautiful as a pipe organ. 

An electronic organ’s sound production—at least in the many instruments I’ve played—is more abrupt than a pipe organ’s. It doesn’t have the softened edges of a pipe organ’s usual sound in each pitch’s onset and completion. Its sound doesn’t reverberate through a space in the same way as a pipe organ’s sound.  

For these reasons, as well as the actual timbres produced by electronic organs, the sound is not as beautiful.

But can it be beautiful in its own way? 

Since beauty is in the ear of the listener, you have to decide for yourself.

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What do you think? Are electronic organs real, good, beautiful—or something else entirely? Get in touch on Facebook or Twitter. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

UPDATE: About the organ pictured in this post—it's the Juget-Sinclair at the Church of the Redeemer in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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