Monthly archives "January 2016"

TAO February 2016–The Stained Glass Organist

Christopher Cook

The Stained Glass Organist

Even after many years, I am still surprised by a certain moment during practice: solitude in the sanctuary, an accumulation of silence as the music dies away, a rainbow of glowing stained glass, a sense of time standing still. For me, this moment is a privilege of our calling and an opportunity for deeper reflection. Our work calls us into the sanctuary. Truly, organists come as close as it gets to living out the Psalmist’s prayer, “This only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life (Ps 27).” How often do we pause to appreciate all the beauty surrounding us?
Most churches, however humble, make an attempt to express “the beauty of the Lord” in their sanctuaries. Just look around the room: tall doors, high ceilings, large windows, a carved communion table, pulpit and lectern, and flowers, all bearing silent witness to the faith of those who built your church. Over the years, my unplanned meditations have confirmed their hopes: that beautiful things would point toward their source, our Creator God. Stained glass illuminates the creedal affirmation, “God from God, light from light, True God from True God.”
Even when it was new, stained glass was as much a luxury item as it is now. The twelfth-century French abbot of St. Denis, Suger, laid out a strong case for its use: “Marvel not at the gold and expense but at the craftsmanship of the work. The noble work is bright, but, being nobly bright, the work should brighten the minds, allowing them to travel through the lights to the true light, where Christ is the true door.” That’s the intention behind all the arts, in fact—to be a vehicle for revealing God’s presence in the everyday, material world.
Here is the challenge for all of us who work in the arts: to be more sensitive and more responsive to our primary media, whether light, or sound, or word. In the ordinary busyness of our business, how often do we truly experience within ourselves the variety of sounds we work with? It might be worth the time to explore the way we receive light in our eyes or sound in our ears. To feel the sound in our bodies would be a significant step toward renewing our relationship with the source of music itself. Where does that 2’ flute vibrate in you? Where do you receive the power of that 16’ reed? What emotional quality does your 8’ principal bring to you? This kind of exploration might lead to a deeper appreciation for the tools of our trade: there is a pathway to peace, healing and hope in there. How much do there is to know!
Developing a physical connection with the sounds of the organ will renew your relationship with the amazing quality and variety of sounds available to you. Once you have begun this exploration, the world of harmony will become richer. The power of form to express music’s unique, life-giving message will emerge more clearly. Maybe you will find hints of the poetic overlap between light and sound. After all, there is a reason we describe sound in terms of “tone color.” What if our playing revealed the warm glow of muted Victorian windows in our 8’ combinations, the transparency of clear colored glass in our principal plenums, the sharp glint of fractured glass shards in our mixtures, and in our pedal sounds, the depth and richness of those receding blues and purples that contrast with all that is bright and shiny above?
This kind of crossover vocabulary is useful in enriching the way we work with sound. The more we engage in other arts, the more fluid we will become in our own. Besides, developing the musical imagination is fun! Who else do you know whose work assignment is to listen to more Romantic and Impressionistic orchestral music? Would you be willing to explore how you respond to some of the unusual color combinations in an abstract painting? How about searching for a poem that sparks images in your imagination? The artist’s work is play, and all the arts are on the same playground. So, go play!
Now, bring all those new experiences right back into the sanctuary for your next rehearsal, where we are going to make what might seem to be supremely impractical bottom line useful. One of my favorite music directors told me that our job as musicians is to tickle the ears of the congregation with new sounds that will make them alert to the newness and freshness of the Gospel. How long has it been since you discovered a new sound on your instrument? Now that we have explored our response to sound and examined new sources for sonic inspiration, let’s get practical. I challenge you to cancel all your pistons and start over again. Try out one sound. Listen carefully. Add another sound that you normally would not choose. Then, add another rank that would surprise your old organ teacher. What is unique about that combination? Does it remind you of any particular mood? Write it down and move on to another trial combination. By building a new sonic vocabulary, you are adding more feathers to tickle your congregation with. They are ready to hear how you have expanded your ability to make colorful, new sounds that better illuminate the particular mood the music wants to express.
The stained-glass organist constantly seeks to let just the right color through the sonic window into the sanctuary. Rare reds, fiery oranges, and gorgeous greens are dim compared with the brilliant flashes of pure light that invade us when we least expect it. Quaker theologian, William Cowper, once wrote, “Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while they sing.” And play. Dare to plan a surprise this week!