Organic Questions Answered

Jonathan Rudy, a graduate student in organ at Indiana University, was in touch recently, asking some questions about my compositions for organ. He agreed to let me reprint his questions and my answers here.

1. In general, how would you describe your musical and extra-musical approaches to composition, and furthermore, how would you describe the musical style that results from this approach?

My approach is eclectic, varying widely depending on the expressive goals of the project at hand. I have written atonal pieces, pieces with key signatures and pieces that occupy many points in between on the technical spectrum. Sometimes a composition will be focused on a relatively small range of expressive means, but other pieces include a wider range of materials. For example, my work for sextet and electronic sound, Sacra Conversazione, alternates between tonal and twelve-tone movements.
2. Did you have to make any adjustments to your traditional approach to compose for the organ?

 No, I did not adjust my approach – it seemed like a natural medium, probably because of my experience as an organist – see below.

3. How did you become interested in composing for the organ, and have you had any prior experience with the instrument?

My principal instrument is the piano. However, my interest in the organ extends back to my childhood, probably because I was raised Catholic and heard the instrument at Mass. My own direct contact with the instrument began in high school when a spinet electronic organ, a Baldwin, was given to my family by a relative. Using the skills I had acquired through earlier music study as a basis, I taught myself to play the instrument and I began accompanying church services at St. Paschal Baylon church (see photo at left) in Highland Heights, OH. (I want to say that I do play the pedals, unlike many pianists who try to play the organ!)

Books and recordings at the local library were a big help. I also made it a point to seek out live performances of organ music such as the regular performances at the Cleveland Museum of Art (I recall a Messiaen festival there when I was a student) or the lunchtime programs at Trinity Cathedral, the Episcopal cathedral across the street from Cleveland State University, where I studied (A new Flentrop was installed at the Cathedral during my undergraduate days.) Radio broadcasts also nourished my interest in the instrument. I recall the regular series offered by John Obetz on the Auditorium Organ broadcasts heard weekly on WCLV-FM in Cleveland.

Although I am self-taught as an organist – and a real organist would justifiably laugh at my technique – I have long functioned on a paid professional basis as a church organist, in my hometown of Cleveland, OH and in New York City. (I have been less active since my move to Philadelphia in 1988, although I continue to play the piano at services.) This probably bespeaks the low level of competence among Catholic church musicians these days more than any talent on my part. But it also reflects the fact that I am a composer, for as a composer I have a vivid imaginative sense of how a piece of music should sound. Having in mind an intense sound image can overcome a lack of technique, for the body will follow where the ear leads. I also think my composer’s ear serves me well in choosing registrations. I have a sense of whether, for example, adding a mixture for the final verse of the hymn will either encourage or overwhelm the congregation’s singing, something that some organists with a bit of training seem unable to calculate.

4. In terms of your output for organ, did you have any inspiration or guidance, such as the works of other composers (past and present) or performers? 

The most important organ composers – Bach and Messiaen – are, of course, primary inspirations. But I am interested in a wide range of organ compositions from Frescobaldi and Buxtehude to the present day. The Messiaen influence is readily seen in certain treatments of texture and layout of musical material. For example, in my “Meditation on ‘What Wondrous Love is This?’”, the use of the 4’ pedal for the melody and the dissonant figures over sustained slow moving chords come right out of Messiaen.

I owe a great deal to Karel Paukert, organist and long-time Curator of Musical Arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art (now retired), who, through his playing, programming, and support of my compositional work, was a tremendous inspiration and resource.

5. I’ve read in your biography that sacred music plays a deep role in your compositional work. Especially considering the organ’s origins and usage today as a “church” instrument, how do you feel sacred music plays into your works for organ? Furthermore, how do feel these works would function as practical pieces in a sacred setting?

Ever since my “Three Sacred Songs” for voice and piano, I have made use of pre-existing sacred melodies in some of my compositions. That set began in response to a friend’s request for folk song arrangements to perform at an upcoming recital. I was not especially interested in folk music, but chose to arrange melodies that I had learned in my work as a church musician. The use of older melodies worked well with my eclectic compositional approach in which tonal and post-tonal materials are integrated. All three of my published organ compositions make use of pre-existing tunes. Although the program note for my “Little Suite” speaks of the three movements as possible prelude, interlude, and postlude at a service, in reality I don’t suppose that my organ music would actually find a place in the vast majority of churches today, at least in my own denomination.

6. Finally, what did you enjoy most, or perhaps find most inspiring, about writing organ literature? How is it similar and/or contrasting from writing for other instruments? First of all, I simply enjoy the instrument with its vast range of expression and technical possibilities. I enjoy working with an instrument with which I have had hands-on experience. And I like the idea of working in a somewhat esoteric niche, of being in on the trade secrets of a special guild, so to speak. Most composers wouldn’t know a bourdon from a salicional, but it is fun to be someone who does know the difference. There is also the somewhat childish thrill of simply being able to make a big noise!

Technically, the chief issue in writing for the organ compared with other instruments – besides knowledge of the instrument’s capabilities – is keeping in mind the highly resonant spaces in which the instrument is typically found. The organ is a public instrument, and although you can write intimate music for it, that music is always perceived at a certain psychological distance compared with, say, a solo piano or string quartet. A Bach trio sonata is like chamber music, but it is not heard in a “chamber” – literally, or metaphorically, in the mind’s ear.

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If I am completely honest, I think seeing this film at an early age influenced my interest in the organ, especially the second portion of the clip.

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