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How to Register a Complaint


The Behemoth of Instruments
part one: the console
part two: the pipe room
part three: how to register a complaint


The organ isn't merely another instrument. It's a whole lot of other instruments! Each "stop" controls an entire section, or rank, of pipes with a specific sound. Activating that stop allows the organist access to that particular sound. Deep in the bowels of the organ, however, the airflow has been prevented, or stopped, from flowing through the other groups of pipes, which is what gave someone in the distant past the strange notion of calling the thing a stop rather than a start.

It isn't necessary to use only one stop at a time, however, and the endless combinations of groups of two, three, or a dozen stops is part of what makes organ playing so fascinating. Actually, it is a lot like orchestration.

Suppose you are writing a piece for an orchestra, and you decide that you'd like a flute to come in and play a melody by itself. Or, suppose you change your mind and decide to give the tune to both the flute and the oboe player. Or the flute, the oboe, the horn, and a couple of xylophones (yikes!). One stop could represent each of these players, and pulling the knobs (or, in some cases, pushing buttons) for each one would cause each "player" to join his colleagues in playing whatever noise they are making at the moment.

Unlike a modern orchestra, however, no two organs are quite alike. They don't have the same list of stops, some have quite a few more than others, and the ones they might have in common often have slightly different sounds according to the way they are built.  When used in combination, some stops might overpower other stops on some organs and be well balanced on others. And that doesn't even begin to address the vast differences in organ building in different countries or different centuries. The organ has quite a history.

All of which has caused some composers to throw up their hands when it comes to indicating what types of sounds they want from their piece. Most pre-nineteenth century composers don't bother to indicate what stops they wanted for their music (including Bach), so the organist tries to make an informed decision, mixing practicality, historical authenticity, and his imagination.

The art of making these sorts of decisions is called "registration". In many recent compositions the composer may have indicated which sounds he or she wants with a set of instructions at the head of the composition that may closely resemble the recipe for cousin Ed's pastry:

Sw.  fl 8',4', pr 8' gdt. 16'  ns. 2 1/3'
Gt.   trpt. 8'  sqst. 4'  ob. cl. 4'
ped. 16' fl   32' bombard
couple sw. to gt.

(incidentally, this would call forth a rather odd sound)

Add some vinegar, or a 4 foot flute traverso in measure 9 (where the score politely asks you to "add 4' flute traverso") and you are good to go.

In such a case it is up to the organist to attempt to come as close to these as possible to these concoctions on their own particular instrument. Sometimes that calls for some ingenuity, particularly if your composer worked in a large French cathedral and you are playing a small Midwestern organ which does not have many of your composer's favorite stops.

Still, there are some things most organs have in common. On most modern pipe organs there are three basic families of sound. The first is the flutes. Their ranks consist of flue pipes (missing T) and they sound like...well, flutes. While this may seem a bit dull, there is quite a lot you can do with flute stops. For one thing, you can brighten up your basic tone considerably by combining it with the upper octaves. Using an 8 foot flute in combination with a 4 foot flute (one octave higher) and/or a 2 foot flute stop (2 octaves higher) would have an effect like this. It is a bit of Brahms, called "Es ist ein Rose entsprungen" (lo, how a rose e'er blooming). Notice the change in the sound with the start of each section--first you are listen to an 8 foot flute alone, and then in combination with 4 and 2 foot stops. Since the entire piece can be played on one keyboard, without pedal, that makes a grand total of 3 stops during the 'loud' parts.

Sensitive ears will notice that even 8 foot flutes stops are not created equal. For example, the one on the upper manual of our organ (called a "Bourdon,") does not sound quite like the 8 foot rohr floot on the lower one. In this setting of Bach's "Lord Jesus, I Call to you" (ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ) I use the Bourdon for the melody and the rohr flute for the accompaniment, as well as a soft 8 foot flute for that throbbing bass line in the pedals.

There was a time when organs sounded like that, when only one sound was available instead of many. But the plain vanilla days went out about 400 years ago in most churches; there are still a few very tiny organs with only one or two stops in their arsenal in small chapels and small rooms. One particular organ installed in a conservatory practice room comes to mind. It was possessed of an 8 foot flute and a 4 foot "Regal" whose very unique noise simply can't be communicated in writing. Unfortunately I did not have my digital recorder in those days so you can't hear it. Let me simply suggest that the devil will certainly want one.

The regal, like it or not, is a kind of reed stop. This family of stops adds some unique sounds to the organ. Reed pipes have reeds inside them which vibrate when the air is pushed through them, the same way a clarinet or an oboe produce sound. (Most of the pipes on the organ are known as flue pipes (no T), with no moving parts inside; they produce sound purely by the vibrating column of air rushing through.) On smaller organs, reed stops are rare; the organ at Faith church has only two, one on each manual.  Reed pipes generally sound like some sort of woodwind or brass instrument. our upper manual is equipped with a trumpet stop on our upper manual, the swell.

The lower manual on the organ at Faith U.M.C. comes with a stop called a krummhorn. I'm not generally a fan of krummhorns. I sometimes call them crummyhorns because of their grating and abrasive sound. This one sounds pretty good, I think. Maybe not too pleasant, though. It still seemed like a good idea for a short piece by Bach illustrating the sinfulness of mankind: "Durch Adams fall ist ganz verderbt" (Through Adam's fall everything got corrupted). It was Bach's idea to introduce the falling 7ths (get it?)  in the foot pedals, and the chromatic discomfort in the inner voice; I thought I'd help out by using a somewhat gritty registration, featuring krummhorns throughout. Have a listen.

Then there are the string stops. Some of them pull together two ranks of pipes which are intentionally out of tune with each other in order to make them pulse a bit. While I don't think they sound very much like violins, string stops do have a pacifying sound. I have developed a fondness for music from the Renaissance (1400-1600 or so).  One of these pieces, a short number by Michael Praetorius entitled "A Solis Ortus Cardine" I've decided to register for strings alone (despite the fact that Mr. Praetorius probably didn't have any on his organ). It puts me in a contemplative mood.

Mutation stops have a really curious sound. You can spot them right away because they have interesting fractions below their names: instead of flute 8' or flute 4' you get things like nazard 2 2/3' or tierce 1 2/3.'  Playing a mutation stop by itself is quite an experience, since, for example, the nazard 2 2/3' yields a note one octave and a fifth higher than what you played--thus, a middle C sounds like a high G. Usually they are used in combination with some more down to earth stop like an 8-foot flute, as in the piece I'm going to play for you here. It is a beautiful meditation on the baptism of Christ, Dietrich Buxtehude's "Christ, Our Lord, Came to the Jordan"  and the melody comes to us by way of an 8' bourdon and a 2 2/3' nazard acting in combination. However, for a little fun, I also played the first minute of the piece using the mutation stop alone without "grounding it" with the 8-foot stop and you can listen to the results here. I assure you that I played the same notes in both versions.  In the second version, however, much of the melody (particularly at :41) sounds as if it is in the wrong key. If you've ever heard an organist who seems to be playing in two keys at once (unintentionally), this may be the problem. However, something even more interesting happens on this recording. When the accompaniment enters, there are times when the melody sound mixes with the 8-foot sounds of the accompaniment and sounds as if it is in the proper key again; then, as soon it is left alone, it veers away again. If you love overtones, the pipe organ is certainly an instrument for you!

In addition to the flutes, reeds, and strings, are the mixture stops. This is probably the most interesting part of the organ; when you deploy a mixture stop, several banks of pipes are activated at once. If you depress a C, you might get a C in one band of pipes, and a G an octave higher in another band of pipes, and perhaps an E even higher up on yet another band of pipes; the recipes are quite various, really. Usually the roman numeral on the stop tells you how many pipes are sounding at once, though there is no single recipe for which ones. The mixtures can be really rich (or really harsh) and are generally used as part of a full organ sound, and only then. Violating this rule results in a rather hollow sound. I've done that on purpose in this little duet by Bach in which the master of counterpoint is playing a joke (note: the term duet here refers to two melody lines, not two players). Listen to the goofy opening 'theme' (merely a rapid up-and-down scale) and tell me Bach was being serious. In order to 'play along' I come up with this rather weird registration.

In combination with a solid foundation of principle flute stops, reeds, and possibly strings, mixtures really enrich the sound. There is a majesty that only that full organ can provide, which is why I want to close with a piece by Eugene Gigout called "Grand Cheour Dialogue" in which one loud grouping of pipes alternates phrases with an even louder grouping of pipes, which is pretty close to what our organ sounds like when it is on full blast. It is a long way from the top of the page, when a single 8 foot flute stop was sounding alone. As if that weren't enough, I've piled on the trombones in the pedals for a really bubbly bass. Have a listen.

Incidentally, you were wondering about the title of this page? This will come as a shock to my wife, but I have an occasional weakness for awful puns. This is one of them. A "Complaint" is actually a type of music. It is a lament, and was quite popular during the Middle Ages, as a sung dirge. In rare instances, more modern composers for the organ have titled their pieces after the French version of this "plantus," that is, a "Complainte." If you play one of them, you naturally have to make decisions about what stops to pull, that is, to "register" them. You can send your unflattering responses to this revelation to my cat.  I'll be busy practicing.



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