I’m having a difficult time composing or actually doing anything creative musically. They say one truly doesn’t appreciate what one has until it’s lost or taken away. Well, in my case I know all too well what it’s like having had one organ after another essentially yanked from me over the years. This last time was especially pernicious, having been deceived (again) by clergy. I suppose it’s my fault for actually putting my faith in a clergyman. As a church musician (being an organist) I’ve worked with and known a considerable number of clergy of different denominations, liturgical and non-liturgical; and, of all these clergy persons only one turned out to be a truly sincere and trustworthy person; i. e., some one who is not a hypocrite. I guess because of this one pastor with whom I worked and got to know, whose sincerity and honesty are above reproach, I allowed myself to be duped into thinking that maybe other church officials — namely clergy, but also church musicians — can actually be veracious individuals. Silly me.
Without going into the litany of the times I thought I had finally found an organ on which I could be able to practise and learn the repertoire I had always wanted to play, only to be thwarted for some reason or another, I should have realised at least forty years ago that being an organist was a very, very lamentable life choice. Finally this last time, at Christ Church Episcopal in Quincy, MA it happened one last time. Again my naïveté, my actually thinking that this rector was different for the other clergy (with one major exception) and musicians with whom I had dealt, came back to smack me in the face again. And to add bitter icing on the cake this clergyman has the same name as my favourite jazz trumpeter.
The parallels between the other aspects of my personal life and my problematic relationship with music are somewhat intriguing if not particularly compelling. But, more on that some other time.
Notwithstanding, this last act of my evulsion from an organ (inasmuch as my having become singularly fond of this particular instrument) was particularly demoralising, so much so that I find it harder to concentrate on the one thing that had always been my principle motivating factor in my life — music. Being able to play an organ had always given me the sense of purpose and energy that spurred my interest in other things — notably in other art forms. The organ was my wellspring. It was my interest in the organ that inspired me to compose, roused my desire toward conducting, and interest toward everything musical. Now I feel as if part of my soul has been torn from my being. As I look at my life, where I am in my sunset years, the effect on me is immeasurable. It’s become so problematic for me that I can barely stand to listen to classical music anymore — especially organ music. It didn’t help that my relationship with the organ and organ music was — shall we say — iconoclastic. But, that’s another story.
Although I’ve come to focus more on composing, the inspiration comes harder. I used to improvise for hours at the console, and would be a source in inspiration and ideas. I no longer have that. I have a piano; but, for me it’s not the same or nearly enough. So, to help ease the pain I’ve divorced myself from the organ. I’ve quit most of my organ groups and pages on Facebook (with the notable exception of the Virgil Fox group); I’ve removed my name from the AGO substitute list, and will let my membership expire.* I may continue to write for the instrument and may even continue to write sacred music (for some curiously anomalous reason).
For a pathetic touch of irony, whilst I was still active as an organist I couldn’t get arrested as a substitute; but, since I made the conscious decision that the organ was no longer to be a part of my life, I’ve received more calls than ever to substitute or interim at various churches. Go figger.
*This is no real great loss since the AGO is still obsessed with the traditional church, which is dying, and has consistently refused to seriously consider the organ as a concert instrument; which to me is it’s only future.
It seems that every morning lately I awaken with this depressing sensation that no matter what I do only contributes my increasing sense of futility. Ever since it became apparent that I was no longer an organist — much less a decent one — I thought that if I devoted my time to composition I might find renewed inspiration and finish a number of works I began at various times which have been sitting around waiting for my brilliant and visionary creative prowess: that I would find new purpose — new meaning — to these final years to my life. Well, maybe not so much. I find it more and more burdensome to find even ounce of creativity. Maybe it’s the Mass I’ve been trying to write, knowing 1) there isn’t a choir in the world who will sing it (not that it really matters anymore), and 2) my agnosticism seems to have put a bit of a damper on everything: not just music, everything. It leaves me in even greater of awe of RVW’s ability to write some of the most gorgeous church music whilst as a bonafide agnostic.
But, it’s not just la musique du chœur with which I struggle; it’s pretty much music in general. For so long music has/had been the central point of my life; even when I wasn’t directly involved in the art form I always managed to keep one foot in the water, as it were, as either a music director or a substitute organist a some church somewhere, notwithstanding the mindlessly simplistic and pharisaical theology of most (not all, but most) clergy and the gratuitous hypocrisy of their congregations. Now, I can barely stand to listen to music, especially newer music, especially newer church music. I listen to contemporary composers, people who are considered important, highly respected —prize winners, etc. — and I think what the hell has happened to the craft of composition? It seems that with orchestral and instrumental music it’s either: 1) the still irritatingly nondirectional, atonal nonsense continually perpetrated by academics preoccupied by their obsession for complexity and peer indulgence, or 2) it’s the mind numbing minimalism by moronic composers who have no sense of melody or line, or worse, are too dame lazy to care. With choral and vocal music, in lieu of the nonsensical repetitive haze of gurgling and swirling keyboards or various instruments over static harmonies, you have initially pleasing, moderately dissonant harmonies, but ultimately stupefacient stasis which ends up leaving one wanting something more.
So, as I sit here pondering what to do with myself, I look as Blaze who’s lying in his old bed with his head hanging out onto the floor, and is perfectly happy to hang out, just to be with his Daddy today(other days he’s with Mommy upstairs when she’s working); and, I think of my beloved Rosemary, who for some inscrutable reason, loves me as much as I adore her; and I realise how fortunate I am. Otherwise I’d either be living on some street in Philadelphia, or dead on some street in Philadelphia.
And yet, I am anything but fulfilled. As a musician I am, and have been since WCC, obviously an unqualified failure, not having achieved a single musical goal: not as an organist, not as a conductor, not as a composer, not even as a sheet music store owner. And the worst part about it is I have no one else to blame but myself and the incalculable number of bad decisions I’ve made, many so as to accommodate others, thinking that eventually it will all pay off. Rationalisation, delusion, through acquiescence is artistic suicide. Unfortunately it’s too late for me to learn that.
So what do I do? Well, that’s an easy question: I just keep composing whilst trying to learn French (another dreadful mistake I made at WCC, for which I will never forgive Frau Silz). When I finish the Gloria to the mass I’m writing, I’ll put the thing aside and work on something completely new. Hmm maybe I’ll write a communion service for non-liturgical Protestants (Presbyterians, Methodist, Congregationalists, etc.) who once a month do a simplified or modified version the eucharist. Who knows maybe this will be my ticket to getting published or performed (at the very least). And so, the rationalising, the delusional thinking goes on.
When I decided to be the interim organist at this Baptist church near where I live, I didn’t think it would take me through December; nevertheless, I came to the decision that Sunday (19/XII/21) would be it. I really can’t deal with it anymore. Now this is NOT a Southern Baptist church, which makes it marginally less intolerable; but, intolerable just the same. My problem is not that it’s a non-liturgical church; it’s that they there is nothing there. After all, they don’t even have a creed. At least the Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, etc. use the Apostle’s Creed (sort of a “cliff notes” version of the Nicene Creed). Like most other non-liturgical churches they only do “Communion” (the Lord’s Supper, i.e the Eucharist) once a month; and even then it’s pathetically abbreviated, just this simple recitation of I Corinthians XI: 23-26 chowing down this ¼ “ square of stale “bread” and a tiny slurp of grape juice (both of which are contained in this “convenient” little hourglass shaped container: open up one end, crunch the square, open up the other end, slurp the juice). It has about as much spirituality, about as much mystery of faith as a stock car race. THEN they declare — not the Christian creed (i. e. testament of faith) — but this thing called a Church Covenant. Now I don’t know if this is strictly a Baptist thing or if it is unique to this church; but, that’s what I have been experiencing once a month for the past 5½ months.
This is the problem with sermon based, non-liturgical so-called Christian churches; because, even when it comes to the Communion service, it’s not the Lord’s Supper that’s paramount it’s the bloody sermon! It’s always the sermon. What happened to the mystery of faith: that mystical union between the alluvial and the transcendental? This is their communion with God?? Part of my ennui is that the other services are just as prosaic. MY question is: What is there to believe?
Anyway, I have two services to play at a UCC church which, at least, has a decent three manual Austin/Czelesniak organ; and, from what I’ve surmised from the past year’s bulletins will at least not be a totally miserable experience.
So after 9 January 2022, unless the organ at Christ Church Episcopal in Quincy (or something not dissimilar) is made available to me, I am done with organ and performing period. I’ll just return to the futility of composition.
Monday (8/XI/21) I played for a funeral at the Baptist Church for whom I’ve been interim organist. About 30 minutes before the service I began playing various quiet, meditative/reflective pieces to help set a peaceful mood. Among such pieces as Bach: “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” “Alle Menschen müssen sternben,” Peeters “Monastic Peace,” even Franck’s “Panis Angelicus,” among other similar pieces. A considerably large number of people arrived (compared to the Sundays I’ve been playing) and as a result the noise level had reached such a point I stopped in the middle of the Franck. And stared out from the console in disgust. Of course, nobody noticed because they were so loud.
Is it any wonder why I have decided to dump this gig at the end of November (yes, I know, right at the beginning of Advent — not that they really care about what THAT means)? My only regret is that I’ll be without an organ, again, on which to practise; unless I can work something out with the Episcopal church in which I had been practising up until November of last year. That’s another idiotic story as well.
I have one more gig for the first two Sundays in January at a large Congregational church on 3 manual Austin of recent vintage with two anthems (separate conductor) with communion (1st Sunday of the month). After that I’m done. I just don’t enjoy playing for the church — any church — at this point. Oh, and from what I’ve seen from previous bulletins the hymnal is large and full of “modern” tunes which they seem to like to use. Another reason to break away from this torture. We’ll see.
Okay, look, I’m not what one would call a pious, or traditionally religious person. In fact, the only time I ever regularly attend church is when I’m playing a string of services on the organ, no matter the denomination; as long as I’m able to make music I’ve pretty much found my spiritual ground of being (to paraphrase Paul Tillich). So this little diatribe is not about me: it’s about the supposed faithful who, knowingly or unknowingly, show little or no respect for their God in church. I’m referring to the behaviour of these pecksniffs just prior to the “official” service/mass; i. e., before and, especially, during the prelude.
It’s pretty evident people don’t care nowadays. They simply don’t: either out of ignorance or protrusive self-indulgence. The time before the service has become a social hour in which the din of conversation sometimes borders on the raucous (depending upon the number of attendees). So, I wonder, why do I go to the trouble of learning a beautiful, quiet, meditative prelude that, in most cases, I can barely hear myself, much less set a contemplative mood or setting for worship? It’s come to the point where I have found myself in the same position as a more than a few organists in so far as I really don’t like practising the organ anymore. Let’s be certain here. This is not a recital. It’s not about drawing attention to the organist performing some stunning, difficult piece of music. It’s really not even the music per se. It’s what the music is suppose to do in establishing a peaceful, meditative, spiritual and —most importantly — respectful milieu in what I’ve always considered to be a holy space. But why bother when the end result is the congregation’s apparent floccinaucinihilipilification of the music before service.
There was a time when churches were deliberately built to have subdued lighting (even Gothic cathedrals with their long and many windows [albeit brighter than the Romanesque buildings] utilised natural light and still were considerably less obtrusive than most contemporary churches). Additionally — more so in Roman Catholic and other highly liturgical churches — you were taught or simply knew that you were entering a place of worship. It was where you left the secular world behind and were entering a sacred space, and therefore behaved accordingly. Simply put: IT’S NOT YOUR HOUSE! And if you don’t get that; if you are not predisposed to comport yourself then don’t come inside. It’s as if I came over to your house, and instead of engaging with you — in your house — and a whole bunch of other people came by, and we all chose to chitchat amongst ourselves instead of you. It’s bloody rude. And that is exactly how pre-service congregations, especially non liturgical (Protestant) churches behave today.
Entering a church sanctuary should induce a sense of awe, of humility. One should be humbled, penitent. After all you are entering the house of the Lord. So, forget about the organ, forget about the gentle, soothing, contemplative music; and, more importantly forget about the other people. You’re in God’s house. Show some respect.
I’ve been an organist most of my life. I loved the organ (and perhaps I still do, but that’s a matter with which to be discussed later). There was a time in which I could not imagine myself not being an organist. For decades I was at most peace with myself, most focused, yet free when I would be alone for hours in a dark church or auditorium practising or — especially — improvising at the console. Improvising at the organ was often the inspiration for my composing. Not that I would remember much, if any, of the ideas which passed through my hands and feet; rather, I would come away with insights and the confidence to put musical thoughts on paper (and yes, I still compose with a pencil and several handy erasers). It was nice. The only person’s expectations of whom I was concerned were my own.
But, that’s changed now. A number of factors have occurred since I last played the organ, particularly regarding at the church I had been practising up until a year ago when the Diocese instituted a shut down of its churches. Since then (November 2020, apparently there has been some opening up of the church; notwithstanding the my last communication with the rector (July 2021) who informed me that for insurance reasons I still couldn’t come and practise the organ, even though I’ve seen numerous groups and individuals (outside of the rector and the church administrator) come and go.
Now, I’ve been here before, under different circumstances mind you; I’ve gone with “dry” periods of not having an instrument upon which to practise in the past; and it’s very frustrating. Just as I feel I’m regaining my technique, even progressing, some circumstance (too many to numerate here) comes along and I’m sans organ one more time; and the quest to find a decent instrument is renewed. But, this time it’s different. In this case I’ve decided that I’m fed up being at the mercy of duplicitous clergy. Concerning this last situation, since I haven’t received any communication from this clergyman, notwithstanding the obvious change from our last communication (e-mail), as if I’m blind and can’t see the comings and goings at the church, I’ve decided not bother. It’s pretty clear that my presence, no matter how careful, unobtrusive and deferential I’ve been, is simply no longer desired. At least that is my conclusion. I’ve pondered, a lot, as to whether I should ask one more time now. The issue is not that I’m afraid of what he’ll tell me. No, my concern is what I might say.
So, what does this have to do with my attitude to the organ? Well, I simply don’t like playing it much anymore. I’ve had the rug pulled out from beneath me too many times. And at my age I just don’t feel like starting over for ninth or tenth time. It’s a shame; because, I’m currently the interim at a church where the congregation (at least for now) truly appreciate my playing. The organ is much smaller than the one I used to play, and it’s decent for its size; but, at this point I’m totally uninspired and have no desire to learn anything new, much less work on another recital programme.
So, there it is. Unfortunately having had the instrument I have loved to play and has been so much of my inspiration for all the other aspects of my love of music taken away — again, has taken its toll on them and my whole thinking as to who I am.
I guess I should just stick to gardening.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything. I hope that will change, since I’ve decided that these utterances are for me, primarily; thus, I’m giving myself a certain latitude toward self-indulgence in expressing my thoughts.
The first issue, or course, has to do with music, that dismal lover who has broken my heart more times than I can quantify. And yet, not unlike the proverbial drug addict, or perhaps more accurately, the abused spouse, I keep grovelling back in hopes that maybe, just maybe, things will improve. But, of course they don’t.
The music world, especially the world of classical music, exemplifies the fallacy of the bootstraps to success scenario that we all, Americans in particular, love. The legend of the self-made successful person continues to give false hopes to thousands of young aspiring people, who actually believe that, by simply working diligently, and getting to be really, really good at what one does the world will eventually come knocking at your door. Of course, it’s a myth. Self-made successes rarely ever happen. For every self-made successful person I can guarantee that there was another successful someone who happened to be at the right point in the novice’s life who opened the right door at the right time, usually by means of introduction, whether to another influential person, or group of people (often via academia), or a publisher. In short, if you don’t have someone “going to bat” for you early in your career, you’re out of luck. Of course meeting the right person is only part of it. The other aspect is being at the right place at the right time; and yes, that is, more often than not, simple luck; i.e, again, a rarity.
Then there is the matter of unfortunate decision making. When a young person doesn’t have the good fortune of a mentor, or have academic standing one is left only to one’s devices; and that, often leads to unfortunate consequences at best. When left to one’s own devices, without some sort of guidance, a person has no clear path to achievement, even if the person knows what that ultimate goal is. Now, on the journey one may digress, or even diverge from the path; one will have setbacks, sometimes serious ones. Nevertheless, the person who ultimately succeeds manages to get back on track because of the good fortune of having had that person or those persons earlier in life who supplied the necessary skills, and — more importantly — network of support to help right the ship, so to speak.
Many (I dare say most) “self-made” people often do not realise, or are unwilling to recognise, that their success has been built on the foundation of knowing the right person or people, being at the place at the right time (nowadays for the artist it’s usually academia). Frequently this is the result of misunderstanding what it means to be successful.
One of the biggest misconceptions regarding the achievement of success is talent. As we habitually see in our current popularity saturated cultural environment one does not require talent to become successful. The concept of success has been construed as having achieved some pinnacle of recognition by one’s peers, even fame. All one need’s to do is observe television shows such as “The Voice” or “America’s Got Talent,” to see what passes for talent in our present culture. That, of course doesn’t include the insurmountable amount of dreck that permeates the various social media platforms.
Howbeit, success doesn’t have to go that far. Success comes in many layers. It all depends on what goals one has set for oneself. They can be the achievement of fame and acclaim by one’s peers in the profession of one’s choice; or, it could be something much more modest such as developing a fruitful music programme at a church, or seeing one’s students become proficient; or, having one’s ideas accepted and implemented and seeing the positive effects of those ideas.
So, what about failure? Now it becomes personal.
I’m in a bit of a quandary. I’ve come up with the main idea for the “Christe” to my Mass in a and for the third movement to my Quintette in e for piano and strings. But, as I try to figure out how do develop these ideas, I think to myself: “Why bother? Why am I wasting my time composing? Nobody is interested in my music. In my lifetime only one other person has thought my music good enough to perform.”
I’m approaching the last few decades of my life (if I’m lucky) and nobody, NOBODY else has expressed enough interest — or considered me good enough — to give my music a hearing. Oh, I’ve had a few tell me how good my pieces are; but, they lie. Yes, lie. Because, for some inscrutable reason they just can’t find a way of actually performing my work. And God forbid that they find it worthy enough to pass on to a colleague or student or friend. And when I inquire, boy musicians are the best at excuses.
Then there are those who say how much they would like to see/hear a piece. Okay, I send it to them — crickets. Is it really that bad that it doesn’t deserve a response?
It’s not as if my music is inaccessible. I’ve given the website to it (https://mpropinc.wordpress.com) and the PDFs are easy to download, and it doesn’t cost anything. I’m literally giving my music away so that it simply can be heard.
So, why should I bother? AND PLEASE don’t give me that BS about the act of composing is its own reward, or that one composes because one “has” to do so. That may have worked forty years ago; but, there’s a point of diminishing returns with that crap, especially from those either don’t compose or have been successfully published and performed. The disingenuousness is just a little hollow. And that disingenuousness is why music friends — aren’t.
To go with Parts I & III
I realise that a number of my colleagues (at least those of certain social media groups) might have been a little upset with Part I of my little personal analysis of the dismal state of church music — particularly my opprobrium of of those large numbers people (“masses” if you will) who are more than willing to subjugate the rational to the simplistic answers or dogma of similarly predisposed religious leaders. Maybe what I say here will help to clarify a few things. Some may have been reluctant to respond, because I’m sure a fair amount of them have perfectly fine working relationships with their bosses.
Notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear that the clergy bear most of the responsibility for the dismal state of music in the church: if for no other reason the clergy are the leadership in the church. This includes the supposedly more democratic non-liturgical denominations (Presbyterian, Methodists, Baptists, United…
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