Tuesday, 31 August 2010


I've just been to Greenbelt, a Christian arts festival held at Cheltenham Race Course. There is music, but I didn't get to much of that, tending instead to be drawn to talks, workshops and worship.

The days are already merging into a sort of blur, but some things stand out.

One of the most memorable and perhaps transcendent experiences for me was an Orthodox Vespers on Sunday night. The room was a small space near the top of the grandstand, and crowded. The east-facing windows looked out over the hills, glowing gently in the sunset. Two icons served as a visual focus for prayers.

There was a short introduction before the start of the service. We were invited to stand, as the Orthodox do, to join them in their prayers, and gently reminded to think of the choir as praying, rather than performing.

The entire service was chanted or sung, in English -- nothing was spoken. We weren't given any service sheets, which left my hands relaxed and my eyes free to look at the icons or out at the beautiful horizon. The portions sung by the choir were beautifully simple and reverent, and repetitive enough that the rest of us could quite easily join in with "Lord, have mercy."

So we did, again and again.

It was very moving, and 45 minutes flew by. I can't speak for others but I was caught up, absorbed, really not thinking of the technical details of the music or liturgy at all after a while. Afterward, I thanked a choir member, and she said it was wonderful that we sang, too, and that her daughter had said it was something special, that there were "so many prayers".

I sat for a while, pondering, with the sound of the repeated song ringing in my ears.

Then I went to an entirely different service. This one, called "Transendence -- an Ancient Future Mass", was using the Common Worship liturgy -- with a bit of a twist. Like the Orthodox Vespers, large parts of the service were sung, and there was near-constant music. Like the Orthodox Vespers, there was a strong visual component. Like the Orthodox Vespers, there were no paper service sheets.

But my impression was not one of reverence and awe but of busy-ness. I found the electronic music more disruptive than meditative, with some disjunct transitions between sections. I found it hard to sing along when the clergy and choir had microphones (with significant amplification) and I did not. I found the visual displays were also distracting, constantly moving, and as all the words for the service were projected onto screens (and it was too dark for me to have been able to read a service sheet even if I had one) I didn't have the option of looking away. The very best parts of that service, for me, were when the background music dropped away and the choir sang a capella polyphony... but that wasn't something that I was able to participate in. Overall, my experience wasn't one of transcendence at all, but of being overly aware of a liturgy which could have been much simpler.

The thing that troubles me about this is that I can see how it could have worked. I think that the electronic music would have been alright had it been selected in such a way that it didn't jar with the other music; I think that the images on the screens would have been much more effective if they hadn't moved as often or as fast. I understand the need to use microphones with so much going on, but much simpler music at a lower volume would have meant that the human voices could have been amplified much less (though in that particular space, full of carpet and not acoustically kind, some amplification would probably still have been necessary).

I mustn't judge too harshly, as I did arrive late. There were elements of the service that worked. There were physical intercession stations of a sort; I didn't visit all three, but some people did. The darkness of the space gave people freedom to sit or kneel, stand or even prostrate themselves, and being able to do that without worrying about what everyone else is up to is a strength. Maybe the whole thing works better in York Minster.

The Common Worship liturgy is far more familiar to me than the Orthodox Vespers liturgy. I'd never been to the latter at all and I attend the former most Sundays. But the intimacy and simplicity of the Vespers service made me feel very much at home, so that phrases I'd never heard were somehow familiar enough to become prayers.

I'm not going to run off and join the Orthodox church, but I do want to think about how to develop that sort of beautiful reverence and simplicity in music at St Andrew's.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

St Albans Organ Theatre and various other sundries

This afternoon, N and I went to the St Albans Organ Theatre, a marvelous museum of various instruments. There were a number of instruments, from tabletop music boxes and cob organs to two impressive theatre organs and four mechanical, "self-playing" organs -- like player pianos but much larger. There were also some player pianos; I don't think I've seen one in action before.

Possibly my favourite specimen was the roll-playing Aeolian Orchestrelle. The picture on the website really doesn't do justice to the beautiful intricate oak. The instrument had been painted black, so someone had to remove all that black paint... but the real beauty of it was a lovely warm tone colour and quite a few drawstops. I'd encountered a parlor organ or harmonium as a child in Canada but they were generally in poor repair. This one had the addition of a roll, similar to a player piano roll -- but with the additional twist that the foot pumps seemed to control the speed of the roll, and the various stops could be pulled to change the tone. The roll demonstrated had dynamic instructions and even some pauses marked.

The various mechanical instruments put me in mind of a sort of steampunk pre-cursor to MIDI files. That in turn reminded me of this:

The video is of a sort of robot that fits over the manual of a pipe organ and plays it from a midi file, made by Dorkbot Alba.

Searching for that, in turn, turned up the Odd Musical Instruments website. Some of the contraptions on there make the serpent look quite tame!

Sunday, 15 August 2010


I've been on vacation for most of the past week, staying in a guesthouse in Mark, Somerset and cycling a lot.

I'm well aware that I have a shiny new job starting in September, and I didn't want to miss too many days of practice. So I rang up the local vicar to ask if I could use the organ in Mark Church. I'm glad I did; it's a lovely instrument in many ways and I spent a few hours on Wednesday morning playing, as well as a bit of time on Thursday. I don't think the organ has the range of tone colour that the one at St Andrew's has, and I'm accustomed to three manuals rather than two and a greater range of pedal stops, but the blowers were much quieter (probably on account of not being broken) and -- this was exciting -- all the notes work. It's being kept in reasonably good tune, too.

Yesterday was back to work, of a sort -- I was playing serpent with the London Gallery Quire at a wedding in the afternoon, and then again in the ceilidh band in the evening at the reception. The wedding itself was very long, with a range of liturgy and music that showed a fair portion of the breadth of the Church of England. After the wedding some Quire members had kindly arranged a lunch, which was very much appreciated, especially by those of us going on to play in the band. Playing the ceilidh was good fun -- I'd like to do more of that sort of work -- but it did mean I got home after 1am!

Today, then, is for tidying, laundry, all the post-holiday stuff, so that tomorrow I can settle into a working routine again without tripping over myself. That's the plan, anyway...