COURTESY STEFAN COHEN
Organist Paul Jacobs travels the globe playing 30 to 40 concerts a year. He says every pipe organ is different.
Pulling out all the stops
Paul Jacobs has heard tell that the two most opinionated musicians are opera singers and organists. Hmmmmm ... well, the opera isn't over 'til the fat lady decides it's over, not when she sings. As for organists, they're usually flying solo at the controls of the mightiest musical instrument ever devised, making every noise from a fairy's whisper to Godzilla's bellow. The pipe organist is both captain and crew of that musical dreadnought, both feet and hands flying across the pedals and keys.
Pipe organist Paul Jacobs
» Place: St. Andrew's Cathedral, Queen Emma Square
» Time: 7:30 p.m. Friday
» Admission: Free (donations welcome)
» Call: 550-4717
Like they say about aviators, you can always tell a pilot, but you can't tell him much. Get Paul Jacobs going on the splendor of the thunderous pipe organ, and the boy pulls out all the stops.
Boy? At 25, Jacobs was posted to head of the organ department at the Juilliard School, and that was only four years ago. Hailed as one of the modern age's foremost fingerers of concert organs, Jacobs travels the world, playing 30 to 40 concerts a year and spreading the joy of the pipes. It's the nature of the beast that Jacobs travels to the organ, and not the other way 'round, as concert organs are pretty much permanent fixtures in their structures. Friday night, Jacobs stokes the boilers of the organ at Honolulu's St. Andrew's Cathedral in a free recital.
"Pulling out all of the stops, ha!" chortled Jacobs, reached by phone at a party in Washington, his Pennsylvania hometown. "Organ jargon! The more stops you pull, the more powerful the sound, you know."
The pipes, the pipes are calling. "I became fascinated with the sounds and power of the pipe organ as a boy attending church," Jacobs recalled. "I would gaze in fascination up at the instrument on the back wall, and I knew when I heard this instrument that I had to play it. When most boys were out playing sports, I was busy taking pictures of the mechanisms and parts of pipe organs. I was always up on ladders and creeping into pipe chambers, trying to figure out how this complex instrument worked."
Understanding what makes a pipe organ work is even more complicated than a Republican health plan. We're talking miles of tubes, adjusted down to hairsbreadth tolerance. According to Jacobs, until the 19th century, the pipe organ was "the most complicated invention of mankind. One can trace the origins all the way back to ancient Greece. It certainly predates the piano and harpsichords, and is both a wind and keyboard instrument.
"Before electricity, it took up to 10 strong men to pump the bellows for enough wind for larger instruments. They could be heard for miles. The wind is then stored in a reservoir under constant pressure and when the organist 'pulls a stop,' it admits wind or pressure under that particular row of pipes or keyboards. When you press a key down, it opens a little pallet admitting air into the pipe."
Each pipe organ is a different and difficult creature, built in varying styles and tuned in various ways. They can contain thousands of pipes. "Some of the largest can contain between 20,000 to 30,000 pipes, ranging in size from a drinking straw to one 64 feet long," Jacobs said. "Absolutely, it can be like building a battleship, taking years to make by hand. There is no mass production of pipe organs."
UNLIKE MOST music instruments, the pipe organ is not standardized. Because of the variety of constructions, coupled with the wildly variable acoustic properties of each setting, the same piece of music sounds quite different from organ to organ.
"Different ranks of pipes are tuned differently, and there are two categories of pipes -- flues and reeds. And there are three subcategories of flues: principals, flutes and strings. Reeds are like a oboe or a clarinet with a vibrating reed. A flue is like a big whistle. The pipe is the resonator, a vibrating column of air. You sharpen or flatten the sound by tapping the length of the pipe."
Notice how it's hard to pinpoint the source of pipe organ music in a cathedral? It seems to come from the very ground and sky itself; this everywhere-ness makes it godly. "In reeds, sound comes out of the top; in flues, the sound also comes out of the mouth. The placement and voicing of the pipes is absolutely critical and voiced for the specific room. Months are spent perfecting the sound of an organ once it's emplaced."
The aural contrariness of each organ requires prep time.
"For each concert, I have to program a separate playlist. Specifications are sent to me -- it looks a bit like a menu at a restaurant -- all of the details of a particular instrument," Jacobs explained. "From the specs, I can determine the size of the instrument as well as the style of it, and decide which repertoire works best.
"For example, what I'm playing in Honolulu will be much different than what I'm playing in Maui a few days later on a smaller organ. I get there a day or two early to become acquainted with the instrument, getting to know its personality."
OK, THE bellows are filled, the stops are pulled, the organ player is hoisted into the cockpit -- what are we likely to hear? "A Whiter Shade of Pale"?
"One of the great joys of being an organist is that we actively perform five centuries of music," Jacobs said. "Even music that predates Bach, all the way through contemporary times, like the music of Olivier Messiaen as well as Samuel Adler, and there are new composers writing for the organ all the time."
Besides the opinionated, does-not-play-well-with-others personality of the average pipe-organ musician, there's another critical difference with most classic musicians. "We still improvise regularly!" Jacobs said gleefully. "In the classical world, this is an art that's not as prevalent. We vamp all the time! Of course, jazz instruments improvise. But most classical musicians will NOT do that. But an organist, in concert, will improvise a sonata or even a whole organ symphony on a given theme. I find it absolutely exhilarating!"
In case you're wondering, theater organs are different creatures from pipe organs. "They became popular with silent films, because it was more reasonable to have one musician playing than hiring a whole orchestra," Jacobs said. "Theater organs are under much higher wind pressure -- it's a different tonal concept -- plus a lot of percussion, with bells and cymbals, maybe even a glockenspiel or vibraphone."
Whatever you're playing, the "goal of the musician is to stir the emotions of the listener, to engage them, not just to entertain," Jacobs said.
The next generation of pipe organists are lined up outside the music schools.
"Part of my job at Juilliard is to sort through applicants. I wish we could accept more than we're able to," Jacobs said. "They're already at a very high level, 17-year-olds who are very accomplished. No shortage of stellar talent. Remember, this instrument has been around for a long time, and it's going to continue for a long time.
"There is no instrument as daring, bold and exciting as the pipe organ. No wonder Mozart called it the king of instruments. And to be able to play with all four appendages is most gratifying!"