The next series of articles will probably seem, at first blush, like a radical departure for American Dirt. They comprise the full length of an extensive article that I was commissioned to write last year for the Indianapolis arts magazine, Sky Blue Window. The goal at the time was an extensive piece of narrative journalism modeled after a New Yorker article, exploring the cultural pressures on classical pipe organists, largely through lens of some prominent members of the Indianapolis organ community, who I interviewed. Alas, the full article wasn’t meant to be: Sky Blue Window changed its focus, requiring me to cut 85% of the material and the vast majority of my wonderfully accommodating interviewees. I felt so bad about the short-change that I promised my interviewees I would still get the vision across, and so now, well over a year after the interviews began, here I am. Some of the interviewees have since moved to new positions; a few have even left Indianapolis. But their insights transcend the relocations, and the article also discloses a fair amount of my own experience with the pipe organ…why I felt impelled to pursue this mammoth coverage on the instrument.
While it may seem like article with a fundamentally musical focus—and it certainly covers a lot of musical ground—it also ponders the uncertain future of the pipe organ, housed primarily in churches with diminishing enrollment, while more and more churches replace the mighty instrument with keyboards, guitars and drums for the more contemporary praise band service. So, truthfully, the article is about cultural and spatial shifts, with a long esteemed cultural artifact as the anchor—which makes it perfect material for this blog. And, as usual, it features plenty of photographs to top it off.
The article is very long (New Yorker length), so I am spacing it across several blog posts to make it more digestible. It is a testament to the thoughtful contributions of my many interviewees that I feel it is my duty to publish this. They gave me such wonderful material that I felt it deserved a venue, long-winded though it may be. The much abridged, published version on Sky Blue Window is available here. As always, comments are welcome, from members of the organ community or regular readers of American Dirt. And I will return to my more conventional posting in a week or two, after I have posted this entire article. Thanks as always for reading.
“Weddings. Sunday morning. Funerals,” acknowledged Frank Boles, organist and director of music at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on the north side. “That’s where we’re getting the majority of people hearing the organ. Concerts are down here”–holding his hand close to the ground–“and it’s usually the lowest crowd, and that’s where your challenge is. What kind of programming—making it as interesting as possible. Some people use more gimmicks.” I didn’t really need to ask Boles if it’s true that the pipe organ is tethered to the church. He implied it, as did every other organist I interviewed in the Indianapolis area. There’s no way around it. The largest instrument in the Western musical tradition, it is nearly impossible to relocate one of these mammoths. In fact, the churches that show the most dedication to the organ may even modify their sanctuary to accommodate the instrument, which is precisely what happened at St. Paul’s in 2007. Under Boles’ guidance, a team of architects and engineers re-imagined the sanctuary, replacing a muffled old Möller organ whose “failure was imminent” with a brand new commission from the Casavant Frères (opus number 3856 for the Canadian company).
While Boles was describing the reconstruction and installation process for this remarkable instrument, he deployed an ecclesiastical vernacular that I hadn’t heard since I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man many moons ago. Lots of architecturally specific terms I’ve heard but have never learned the meaning. I didn’t have my tape recorder turned on for that part of the interview, and even if I had, I’m not sure I could recall it accurately. To put it as simply as possible, the construction involved rotating the nave 180°; the chancel and the primary organ moved from the north side to the south. If that description already offers a few too many architectural chestnuts, suffice it to say that the transformation of this 1947 building was radical, and it serves as a testament to the parishioners’ dedication to quality organ music. It should also come as no surprise that St. Paul’s seems to be part of a dying breed. Do we even associate the typical church service with a pipe organ? While a handful of Christian denominations preserve their organ traditions through regular maintenance and the hiring of skilled organists, many others have downgraded to the cheaper, more movable (but also less durable) electronic organ, or have divested their churches of the instrument altogether. No other church in metro Indianapolis has broken ground on a new organ since St. Paul’s inauguration of the Casavant, which may, in the long run, prove to be a cultural malady that no amount of structural engineering can address.
Taking this into consideration, how does Indianapolis rank, in terms of the city’s ability to cultivate and preserve this ostensibly fading culture? Obviously “rank” is a crude word—a pun, even, tucked in the pipe organ lexicon—since no major professional association has ever tried to classify cities based on their pipe organs. But Indianapolis, only the 34th largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in the US, is still prominent enough to host a Region V meeting for the American Guild of Organists (AGO) in 2015, and most of my interviewees feel it is easily a contender for a national convention at some point in the future. The individuals that I could snag overwhelmingly agreed that Indianapolis offers far more in terms of the organ that one might expect for a city of its size. Though all of them could be guilty of regional chauvinism, is it even worth doing the basic math to determine these odds?
So Indy has a well-networked infantry of organists, along with a host of instruments upon which these talented musicians can play. But so what? If we were to place your average Hoosier—your typical layperson, your Peoria Pete—in front of an instrument, what would be the result? Chances are after hearing a few chords, he or she would purse the lips, crinkle that chin and nod gently, conceding that yes, a pipe organ can be a pretty awesome way to blow the roof off the house.
But then there’s that whole church deal. Could we even get Peoria Pete or Muncie Maude through the doors? Most evidence says no. And it’s not just because the percentage of Americans who identify with a religion has decreased over the years. As Boles acknowledged, the only way that most people hear a pipe organ is at the funeral for that great-aunt they barely knew. Or maybe in the movies. Most Americans still attend church at least on occasion, and many attend frequently—more than once a week. But regular church attendance isn’t translating to bums in seats for those organ concerts, even if the performance is purely secular.
How does this predicament—the diminishing interest in an instrument for which there still exists considerable expertise—play out broadly? Marko Petričić, currently Music Associate and Organist at Northminster Presbyterian Church, said it has resulted in the organ’s ecclesiastical retreat. “Unfortunately there are a number of churches that do not have great instruments anymore, whether it was a state of demise or they didn’t have them to begin with or they don’t use them so much for the music, because they have different expressions like praise bands. Which means that there isn’t even an organ there,” Petričić informed me over a cup of coffee. “There are some places that have great programs and nice instruments, but unfortunately those places are not the norm. In fact, they’re exceptional, and it certainly doesn’t help our cause”—that “cause” being the organist’s ambition of building appreciation in the instrument. By almost any measurement, Petričić is fortunate: having earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Organ Performance at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in 2004, he has successfully transformed his love of the instrument into a full-time vocation. In addition to his role at Northminster, he serves as an organist at Christian Theological Seminary, and he teaches organ and church music at the University of Indianapolis, a program he has helped elevate from mere organ lessons to a fully developed church music concentration and organ major.
My research put me face-to-face with about a dozen organists—Petričić and Boles among them—as well as a few other individuals who play pivotal roles in preserving the instrument’s viability. I conducted interviews in restaurants, their respective churches, and even private homes. Most would agree that the tapestry of American religious life is becoming more variegated. This makes sense: after all, the nation has grown increasingly heterogeneous. Religious differences routinely foster schisms, resulting in a precipitous growth in the number of Christian denominations, from an estimated 18,800 in 1970 to 44,000 in 2013, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Cornwell Theological Seminary. (This same organization pegged the number of denominations in 1900 at a mere 1,600.) But, concurrent with this intensifying pluralism is that few of the new denominations make a place for the pipe organ, relegating it to a niche feature of the liturgy so polarizing that congregations have preserved or abandoned the instrument with competing ferocity.
But the organ has long depended on self-assertion to remain salient. It’s not an instrument people just pick up and casually learn. Nor is it typically a child’s first instrument; not one of the organists I interviewed began training on an organ. Most took piano for a few years. Petričić arrived there incrementally: first piano, then accordion, then bayan, a variant on the accordion from his native Serbia, with buttons on both sides of the bellows, and thus, a broader range. “I started organ relatively later in life,” he said. “I was 19; I came to the US and I was in Detroit, and that’s when I started the organ, but before that I played a lot of organ repertoire, on especially the bayan. . .and so then I had to put it together on my hands and feet.” Peter Rogahn, precentor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Indianapolis, played percussion through high school and college, but gravitated toward keyboards. “I started on piano when I was about eight years old, although for as long as I can remember I always wanted to play the organ. . . I must have been three years old I guess. After I heard it, I just knew that was what I wanted to do,” Rogahn recalled. “I started [organ] when I was fourteen, which apparently I’ve heard some organ teachers say is a good age to start at. So I had a fair amount of training in piano before then.”
Not surprisingly, most, like Rogahn also grew up in moderately religious environments. After all, if they hadn’t attended church as a child, what would have exposed them to the instrument? John Webb grew up in rural Kentucky and now serves as the organist/choir director at St. Timothy’s Episcopal on the south side of Indy. “I was raised in the Baptist church. [The organist] had a very small organ, but as a kid I was very fascinated by watching her feet and her hands. I just loved the sound of it.” Playing for a church had been an aspiration for as long as Webb could remember, and the Episcopal Church offers many more options than the faith of his childhood. For Petričić, serving as an organist for the church of his upbringing would never work out: “[St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox church in Trader’s Point] does not use an organ; it’s all a capella singing, it’s customary.”
But the most serendipitous narrative comes from Dorothy “Dotty” Huffman, organist emerita at All Souls Unitarian Universalist at the edge of the Brendonwood neighborhood. “My mother said that when I was five, I wanted to be an organist, though I don’t remember it. . .Our church at that time was down on Alabama Street downtown, and I had started a choir there and I just got put on that [organ] committee, but I didn’t know anything about the organ. I was 30,” Huffman recalled. She had taken piano lessons all through childhood, then incorporated string bass and clarinet into her skill set as a teenager so she could play with high school orchestra and band. Even though she primarily worked through the week as a court reporter, music was always essential: she married the principal horn player for the Fort Wayne Symphony, whose career soon shifted them both to the ISO in 1946. In the process of the committee’s designing the new church building to fit the organ, Huffman “got interested in the organ, and I had no idea of becoming an organist. . .I started taking some lessons. . .Our organist quit, and they asked me to play a couple times when he was gone. They wanted me to be the organist, and I knew I wasn’t ready, but opportunity knocks, and you make yourself ready, so I took the job.” Huffman remained the principal organist at All Souls for 35 years, until 1993, and still substitutes from time to time.
My own personal history with this mighty instrument somewhat echoes that of Huffman. Serendipity. I had been living in New Orleans for almost a year when some friends requested that I play solo keyboard for their wedding near the end of the summer. Though happy to do it, I didn’t have any place to practice. My first instinct was to go to the Music Department of Loyola University; I had practiced there before thanks to the access of a friend. But this time in the summer, each practice room required a key for entrance—no luck. I called an administrator at Loyola and asked if I might get permission. Nope. But she said I could try St. George’s Episcopal Church, just a brief jaunt down St. Charles Avenue, where the music director was friendly and open to lending their ivories to a pianist in need. She was right.
With enough practice at St. George’s, I felt more than ready to accompany my friends’ wedding in Chicago on August 27, 2005. Does that date ring a bell? Maybe not, but August 29 does to the vast majority of people along the Gulf Coast—the day that the eye of Hurricane Katrina made landfall near the border of Louisiana and Mississippi. I received news during the wedding’s reception of a possible Category 5 storm headed for the Crescent City. When they organized the wedding’s guests by state and I stood alone in the Louisiana section, people around me remarked, “Looks like you’re in for a doozie!” Little did we know.
I didn’t make it back to New Orleans for a month, when I was hired as an emergency management planner. At that point, the city had no potable water, and electricity only serviced a few of the least affected neighborhoods. For most of the fall of 2005, I lived in various hotels around the area and worked out of a trailer, negotiating with locals in an area midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, to lease their land as emergency housing for evacuees. Only in the early spring of 2006 could I return permanently to my minimally affected apartment, along the “sliver by the river” that never suffered any flooding. By the end of the spring, almost a year after I had first begun my hunt for a piano, I received an unexpected phone call. It was the music director at St. George’s Episcopal.
“Glad to see you’re still here!” he crescendoed.
“Yep—I was lucky. No plans to leave any time soon.”
“What a relief! Well, I was really taken by your ability last summer. Now I have a request for you: I think you might be a good fit as our organist?” He glissandoed toward the higher register—a question apparently. “Our current organist is moving his family to New Jersey later this summer, and we’re at a loss for a replacement, given the shape that the city is in. We’d love for you to take his place.”
Me, in portato: “Gosh. Well. Umm.” I was dumbstruck. “I have no idea how to play the organ.”
“That’s perfectly okay!” Now sotto voce: “Our rector doesn’t need to know yet. You’ll have time to learn the service music on a crummy piano, because unfortunately our organ suffered during the storm. We’re holding services in the undercroft, but eventually we’ll get everything fixed. Pedalwork is the biggest challenge, but we have a special ‘cheat’ button that amplifies the bass note, to sound like a pedal. You can use that, and eventually we’ll pay for your lessons so you become more comfortable.”
And that commenced my relationship with the Episcopal Church. Within a few weeks, I was situated and learning the liturgy. I rehearsed with the choir on Wednesday nights and familiarized myself with the The Hymnal 1982 that serves as the standard throughout the Episcopal Churches of the United States of America. While the hymns sounded pallid on that modest little upright, the less self-important “American traditional” spirituals in the alternate hymnbook, Lift Every Voice and Sing, generally transcended the instrument’s limitations.
Repairs to the chancel and the organ took less time than we expected. The majority of St. George’s sublime interior survived Katrina well; nothing along the venerated St. Charles Avenue really took on floodwaters. However, according to long-time parishioner Ed Brown, the roof sustained isolated damage in a spot directly over the console. It was soaked. Fortunately insurance covered a replacement: a Johannus digital console model Rembrant 379, customized to match the Möller Opus 10377 pipe organ built and installed in the late 1960s. The resulting hybrid instrument has 27 actual ranks and 90 digital voices.
By mid-fall of that year we were situated in the sanctuary and could conduct all our rehearsals there; the organ’s bellows were back in full operation before Christmas. I started taking lessons with the music director at another Episcopal Church in the suburbs. And the church chipped in the funds for some OrganMaster shoes, a customized design that completely lacks a welt—the strip that adheres the outsole to the vamp , which generally has the effect of widening the shoe. OrganMaster shoes remain as narrow as possible and possess soles made of felt, intended to improve maneuverability. They almost look like ballet slippers and would rip to shreds if I ever wore them outside.
I was hardly proficient by the spring, but I was confident enough to make it through a full service without major embarrassment. My high point was the eminently Anglican Te Deum in B-Flat by Charles Villiers Stanford, not terribly well-known standard repertory among Episcopalians. Weddings increasingly dominated my weekends, so I’d be spending a fair part of both Saturday and Sunday at St. George’s. Combined with my regular job in emergency management, I remember Holy Week topping out at nearly 80 hours.
By spring of 2007, I felt almost completely at ease in this part-time job. Through lessons, I grew comfortable with the standard service music and broadened my repertoire of hymns. Little by little I weaned myself off of the “mega-bass” cheat button, and, over time, both the teacher and music director agreed that I was playing adequately for the purposes of St. George’s—lessons were no longer necessary. By this point, the temperatures were rising and air was thickening—New Orleans summer usually begins in April—and, after confronting a few successive June Bridezillas, I learned that bluffing my way on the organ was the easy part.
Originally I was leery about taking on a job that would require my presence on the vast majority of Sunday mornings. But by this point, I looked forward to every Sunday morning—at times, it became the high point of the week. Not only did I enjoy the company of the choir and congregation, I loved the music—the sensitivity to hymns from all different time periods, different cultures, and occasionally the inclusion of other musical instruments. It was such a fantastic experience that I successfully recruited non-Episcopalian friends to join the choir.
Part II explores the Indianapolis organ scene from the angle of the performer as well as the manufacturer, honing in on the local organ building company, Goulding and Wood.