Pump Those Pipes at the Annual Organists Convention

This weekend organ players and organ music lovers convene in Houston to celebrate this classical instrument.

By Leah ScarpelliJune 22, 2016 9:19 am,

More than a thousand people are gathered in Houston this week to celebrate – organs.

Players and enthusiasts are attending concerts and workshops at the bi-annual American Guild of Organists national convention in a city, the Houston Chronicle noted, is perhaps better known for its organ transplants than its organ music.

On the face of it such a celebration would not be easy or convenient, since we are talking about, for the most part, massive instruments that are as portable as a couple of side-by-side refrigerators strapped together, not counting the pipes. And the popularity of organ music in the 21st century?

None of this bothers Dr. Matthew Dirst, an international award-winning performer and professor of musicology at the University of Houston.

Dirst says the Bayou City has acquired a number of new organs, like the Pasi organ at the Co-Cathedral downtown to the Fritts organ at Saint Philip Presbyterian Church.

“There are all sorts of new instruments in town and we haven’t hosted this convention since 1988,” he says.

Playing an organ is comparable to flying a plane, Dirst says, in that both activities require doing several things at once.

“You’re moving both fingers, typically both feet, hitting various buttons and knobs,” he says, “… and trying to pay attention to music and sometimes even the conductor and colleagues at the same time.”

Dirst says his mother was a church organist, so he was exposed to organ music early on. “I think it appeals to a certain mechanistically-inclined musician or perhaps other musicians who simply grew up in a church environment and had a strong dose of it as children,” he says.

Many concert halls have excellent organs, so people can listen to organ music outside of a church setting. But many of us associate organ music with hymn-singing and choral-singing in church.

“They have a significant literature of their own that dates all the way back to the 15th century,” he says, “and that’s only the stuff that we know about.”

Organs feature prominently in more modern songs like “Green Onions” and Dirst says digital organs have been popular in modern music since blues musicians began using them in the 1940s. The annual convention focuses more on the classical side of organ music: from roughly Bach and Handel to contemporary composers who write for the instrument.

“In fact, one of the main purposes of the convention is to commission new music from prominent composers and to make it heard,” he says.

If you’re looking to jump into the world of organ music, Dirst says there’s one easy way to get started: “Anything with Bach on the label should be good.”

The American Guild of Organists National Convention is in Houston through tomorrow. Find more details here.

Post by Hannah McBride.