Writing Right with Dmitri: Are You Writing Piano or Organ?
I've been practicing a lot of organ lately. Playing architecture (ours is essentially Carpenter Gothic) is pleasing to my soul, and the comments have been gratifying, though I'm beginning to suspect the congregation enjoys anything I play on that pipe organ as long as it's loud enough. They told me the first prelude was 'too soft', so I'm pulling out more stops. We've finally reached the Golden Age, folks: old people actually like rock music, and louder is better. Go figure.
I'm also ordering more music, which leads me to reading descriptions on Amazon. One book I passed on, though it gave me a chuckle. Its title was something about 'volunteer organist', and purported to be instruction for pianists who had 'volunteered' to learn to play their church's organ. It had a chapter on 'what to do with your dangling feet'. Fair enough, and an amusing approach, but the cover art seemed to me to have crossed the line into patronising. It featured a caricatured 'Church Lady' viewing an Allen organ with dread and suspicion. Ha, ha, methought, and went on to order some useful scores. I plan to work my way up to 'Sheep May Safely Graze', hopefully by Christmas.
My greatnephew has been eyeing the instrument with awe, reverence, and longing. 'How old were you when you started playing organ?' he asked me.
I thought. 'When I was about your age,' I replied. (He's a very tall nine.) 'I played a pump organ back then. But I was, er, a lot shorter than you. I had trouble pumping the foot pedals, and had to have helpers.' My greatnephew can already reach the pedals on the pipe organ better than I can, and I predict a great musical future for him as soon as he learns piano. Lessons start next week, I believe. Dmitri Gheorgheni, inspiring musical children since 1961…
As usual, I hear you yelling. 'That's all very anecdotal and interesting,' you shout. 'But this isn't 'Prairie Home Companion'. It's a writing column. So talk about writing, already – not organs.'
Fine. I will now, as usual, link the playing of pianos and organs to the craft of writing. To wit: sometimes, you want to write like a pianist. And sometimes, but less often, probably, you may want to write like an organist. Here's what I mean.
Vaudeville is intrinsically episodic and discontinuous. Its audiences do not demand dénoûements. Sufficient unto each "turn" is the evil thereof. No one cares how many romances the singing comédienne may have had if she can capably sustain the limelight and a high note or two. The audiences reck not if the performing dogs get to the pound the moment they have jumped through their last hoop. They do not desire bulletins about the possible injuries received by the comic bicyclist who retires head-first from the stage in a crash of (property) china-ware. Neither do they consider that their seat coupons entitle them to be instructed whether or no there is a sentiment between the lady solo banjoist and the Irish monologist.
O Henry, 'The Vitagraphoscope'
Now, that's piano playing. Lots of colourful notes. Deft fingering. Staccato-legato changes of pace. Tricksy writing. Like the pianist: fingers fly around, but the feet just use the damper pedal. What's the damper pedal, you ask? Didn't you notice the sly reference to 'lurve'? That's usually what sustains the melody.
Now watch the organ.
But they saw a long shadow come bobbing up the sunlit road. And then came a shorter one bobbing by its side; and presently two strange figures approached the church. The long shadow was made by Miss Phœbe Summers, the organist, come to practise. Tommy Teague, aged twelve, was responsible for the shorter shadow. It was Tommy's day to pump the organ for Miss Phœbe, and his bare toes proudly spurned the dust of the road.
Miss Phœbe, in her lilac-spray chintz dress, with her accurate little curls hanging over each ear, courtesied low to Father Abram, and shook her curls ceremoniously at Miss Chester. Then she and her assistant climbed the steep stairway to the organ loft.
In the gathering shadows below, Father Abram and Miss Chester lingered. They were silent; and it is likely that they were busy with their memories. Miss Chester sat, leaning her head on her hand, with her eyes fixed far away. Father Abram stood in the next pew, looking thoughtfully out of the door at the road and the ruined cottage.
Suddenly the scene was transformed for him back almost a score of years into the past. For, as Tommy pumped away, Miss Phœbe struck a low bass note on the organ and held it to test the volume of air that it contained. The church ceased to exist, so far as Father Abram was concerned. The deep, booming vibration that shook the little frame building was no note from an organ, but the humming of the mill machinery. He felt sure that the old overshot-wheel was turning; that he was back again, a dusty, merry miller in the old mountain mill. And now evening was come, and soon would come Aglaia with flying colours, toddling across the road to take him home to supper. Father Abram's eyes were fixed upon the broken door of the cottage.
O Henry, 'The Church with an Overshot Wheel'
Yeah, that was sneaky. I found a short story with a pump organ in it. I suspect the internet angels like O Henry as much as I do. But this is an organ story, anyway, never mind Miss Phoebe and her accurate curls. Why is it an organ story? Well, you'll see why when you read it. It's BIG. Big like the swelling noise of an organ. Emotionally engaging, like reverberating chords made by forced air through pipes. Enveloping, like the feeling you have sitting in a pew with the whole building pushing sound over you and through you. Yeah, like that.
Now, you may not like this story. It may be way too 'mushy' for you. The contrived use of coincidence and the phenomenon of recovered memory may seem overconvenient to a modern reader. I'm not exactly sure why, considering what happens on 'Homeland' or 'NCIS Wherever', but heck, to each generation its implausible plots. You may find the idea of a young woman being afraid to get married because she didn't have a pedigree unbelievably stupid, which it is, of course, but then, neither you nor I grew up in 19th-century Nashville, thank goodness, with segregation, hoop skirts, Confederate veterans bleating about 'honour', and not a decent bluegrass band in the downtown area. So okay, this story's an artefact. But think about it: the story's really about two people who've been apart for a very long time, and get back together, only to find out that while they were apart, each one acted exactly as the other one would have hoped…which is a pretty cool theme.
I imagine you get the idea. Think Atonement, which is not 'so century-before-last' in spite of the subject matter. Do the 'big ideas' wash over you, whether you read the novel by Ian McEwan or watch the film? Can you think of similar stories? Aren't they like the better grade of organ playing: simpler chords, but bigger, often surprising sounds? A higher-amplitude wave of feeling than a small, tight, clever yarn?
Just like musical instruments, the melodies of our words require a variety of touches for different tales. Pianos are differently nuanced from organs. Take it from someone who's wrestled with pump organs just like Miss Phoebe's, and Wurlitzers, and worse… You can make all the different noises you like. Just match them to the effect you want to get.
How do you choose your tools to match the tale you want to tell? What instruments do you have in your music cupboard? Tell us about it.