The Public Radio radio program Pipe Dreams, which features organ music played in a lot of different places by a lot of different organists, is one of the most reliable opportunities to hear fine performances of unusual music, much of it very new. Since it’s based in Minnesota a lot of the performances are recorded in the middle of the country, a continuing revelation to someone based on the infamously insular East Coast. You can listen to it and find yourself grinning happily to hear the evidence of great musical culture from cities and even states which are associated with high art in no other part of the media.
A good pipe organ and a good player can go a long way towards taking the place of an orchestra in a town. And good, well maintained, organs are more common than you might think. They are certainly less expensive, and so more common, than good orchestras. The culture of organ playing tends towards having good habits of musicianship. I’d imagine it’s due to all that Bach and the historically informed performance practices a concentration in his music tends to foster. It’s a question of honesty and integrity. Once you learn to try and find how one composer said they wanted their music played, you feel an obligation to try and find out how other composers wanted it done. Organists also tend to have a much better ability to control the rhythm of their playing than other instrumentalists, though this isn’t a universally practiced virtue. Anyway, for whatever reason, organists are often very good.
In this program of Pipe Dreams which contains performances of all four books of his “Gospel Preludes” William Bolcom points out that organists, unlike some other instrumentalists, tend to buy new music at impressive volume. He said that when one of his Gospel Prelude books would come out his publisher would rush it into print, expecting that music directors at churches would buy them up. He suspected that it was a combination of musical curiosity and adventurousness along with having a budget that needed to be used or it would be cut the next year. The 2007 program presented all of his Gospel Preludes, unless he’s written more since then. The performances on different organs and different organists are excellent and evidence of the geographic dispersal of high art mentioned above.
If you were raised with these hymns you might have pleasant or unpleasant associations with them. I don’t, with a few exceptions. Having been raised an Irish Catholic in a French parish, the hymns aren’t the ones I grew up with. A few I associate with cloying religiosity as presented in movies, though that’s not really a reason to condemn them out of hand. It’s interesting, in the interview with Bolcom that’s interspersed with the pieces, he addresses those associations and his trying to do something with them.
One, probably the most famous one, I hate due to having lived next to an impossible person who played a famous recording of someone crooning it every single day for a year. It was a penitential experience. You’ve heard it a million times yourself. That’s the Gospel Prelude that gives me the most trouble in the way of extraneous associations. Though I think Bolcom’s setting could turn it around for me. His most explicit presentation of the melody, minus the annoying grace notes introduced into the singing tradition, perhaps by that famous recording, is probably the best rendition I’ve heard. The others move me in ways ranging from being knocked off balance and having to find my footing to excitement to wondrous raw experience that escapes reflection. Say what you will, these are not demure, well behaved pieces representing the uptight, self-righteous tradition of protestant hymnody.
The one which made the biggest impression is the last one, the Free Fantasia on O Zion Haste and How Firm a Foundation - if you want to find that one, it starts at about 1:14:00. Listing the technical features that are so marvelous might not help you get more of it, so I won’t go into those. Just say that when Bolcom constructs one of his enormous chords you don’t know what direction they’re going to take off in. The last part when he combines the two melodies, after what I’ll just say is an amazing chord, is stirring.
Perhaps most audacious of all is Bolcom’s citation of Black gospel performance traditions, which he was familiar with from his attendance at an AME church in Seattle in his youth. That took real guts for a white composer in the years he was writing these. It is done with such respect and observance of the dignity and validity of the tradition, with such respect for the substance of its intentions, that I don’t see how anyone could honestly fault it. It’s clear that he loved what he heard enough to really understand its techniques and purpose. Other traditions are cited but not, to my hearing, as often or with such strength. At times I suspect I can hear reference to one of his teachers, Darius Mihaud as well as the culture of the organ in general. With Bolcom, you get worlds, many of them, all in one sitting.
In reference to some of the other pieces posted during this brief return from hiatus, listen to Bolcom talking about the jobs he had while he was a student. Listening to one of the world’s finest living classical composers talking about some of the jobs he’s worked might come as a surprise to some. Musicians won’t be surprised, though.
As I said, Pipe Dreams is one of the few reliable broadcast sources for hearing new and exciting music and old music in fresh, informed performances on the radio. Luckily, they’ve got an archive of past programs and a few CD recordings for sale. I’d recommend sampling quite a bit of it if you are interested. Note that some newer Preludes Bolcom has written on Jewish melodies are included in the program as well as pieces by Virgil Thomson and the rarely heard Gardener Read.