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Theatre Organ Registration

The Interplay Between Performer and Instrument

Registration is the art of selecting the correct combination of stops to achieve precisely the sound and effect one wants. It is indeed an art, for it is one of the ways in which an organist's style of playing can be instantly recognised, and it is an art which can only be learned, not taught - only the player knows precisely the sound wanted, from his or her own vision of the music. Only by patience and perseverance is it able to be achieved exactly and instantly.

It goes without saying that the more stops an organ has, the greater the possible combinations of those stops. No-one ever heard every possible combination of stops available on the great manual of the Regent, Brisbane's organ. Excluding the couplers, there are forty-four stops on first touch. A simple mathematical calculation will reveal that there is a total of 17,842,193,544,415 possible combinations of those stops. To sound each of these for ten seconds apiece would take nearly six million years non-stop. Simply by turning on the tremulants, this number of combinations can almost be doubled. Even on a very small organ with a dozen stops on one manual, there are 4095 possible combinations on that manual, giving plenty of scope for imagination and experiment.

With the possible exception of modern synthesiser-type instruments, there is no other instrument which offers so much scope for a musician's imagination and creativity. Add to this that the theatre organist has in any case to create his or her own arrangements of the music played, and it will become apparent why the theatre organ calls for a musician with a very different approach from the church organist. It has been said, perhaps a little unkindly, that an ideal performance of a piece of classical organ music will sound the same as any other ideal performance of that piece, and all that is required is the technical expertise to follow the composer's instructions with the mechanical precision of a player-piano. The theatre organist, on the other hand, has to be composer, orchestrator, arranger and performer, all rolled into one, and thus "ideal" performances of a particular item by two top-rate performers will be totally different in both approach and execution.

Of course, a remark such as the above, which was made, not by a theatre organist, but by a connoisseur of organ music of very catholic tastes, is exaggerated and intentionally controversial, but nevertheless it is not without some foundation, and does highlight the essential differences between the concepts of performances on church and theatre organs. It also explains why few organists can be equally successful in both spheres of musical endeavour. It is important not to take the judgmental approach that church organists are better musicians per se than theatre organists, or vice versa. The two art forms are essentially different, and those who appreciate and value that difference will gain understanding and help to break down the barriers between those in one "camp" who deride theatre organists as purveyors of musical trivia, and those in the other who dismiss church organists as musical snobs. What makes an outstanding performance in either sphere is musicianship and contextual integrity.

There is a considerable body of feeling in the classical world that theatre organs and their players are in some way inferior to classical organs and organists. Although without doubt there was a rush by less than total musicians around the world to get rich quickly, or even just to earn a living, by grinding out less than inspired arrangements of current popular songs on what in some cases were small and raucous organs, these same critics tend to overlook the fact that scattered around the world's churches are literally thousands of appallingly mediocre organs played by equally mediocre performers, who would be hard pressed to survive playing for a night in a local pub, let alone give a concert performance, which is what theatre organ interludes amounted to.

We are concerned, however, not with the dross, but with the top-rate, with organists who have the imagination and musicianship to take full advantage of the vast tonal spectrum afforded by the theatre organ's resources, and who possess the complementary technical expertise and dexterity to create artistic performances of the highest order. They will also be endowed with personality attributes to present their performances to an audience, in other words, an appropriate degree of showmanship.

The selection and blending of tone colours is an art, gained through long periods of experiment and experience at the console. It is an essentially personal art form, a kind of musical dialogue between player and instrument. When, for example, one was privileged to hear the late Jackie Brown play that wonderful Wurlitzer at the Granada, Tooting, England, one felt one was listening almost to a conversation between two old friends.

Any theatre organist will know that every organ has a "personality" of its own. No two pipe organs respond in identical ways, even though they may be identical in specification. Each is different, and much of the skill of an accomplished organist is revealed in the way he or she can "get to know" a particular instrument and establish a "relationship" with it, so that organ and organist each give of their best.

Organs can be like people, and again, any organist can tell of that dreadful feeling on first playing a strange instrument, when after a few minutes one knows that one is just not going to empathise with it, and that playing it is going to be an uphill fight. On the other hand, nothing can be so exhilarating as when the reverse happens and an instrument responds instantly to one's musical style, and seems to know what one is seeking, almost playing itself as an extensions of one's own musical personality.


Registration and the Style 260 Organ

Let us see how an organist might select and blend the tone-colours of the Style 260 organ, referring to the list of stops in the "Tonal Resources" part. We have already discovered how the individual ranks sound. How these can be blended and mixed may vary widely from one instrument to another, but the following are suggestions of some of the combinations an organist might use.

General ensemble sounds are based mainly on the foundation ranks (Tibia, Diapason, Flute) plus strings and maybe the Vox Humana. More volume can be gained by adding the Tuba Horn, extra brilliance by adding higher pitches or the octave coupler.

So, assuming that our organist is to play right hand chords on the great manual, an ensemble combination of medium volume might be: Diapason 8, Tibia 8, Viol 8, CÚleste 8, Flute 8, Vox Humana 8, Piccolo 4, Viol 4, CÚleste 4, Flute 4, Piccolo 2.

This basic combination could be altered as follows:

- if it is too "thick" - omit Tibia 8

- if it is too "bright" - omit either Viol 4 or CÚleste 4, or both

- if it lacks definition - add String 8, or Clarinet 8, or Saxophone 8, Oboe Horn 8, or even Orchestral Oboe 8 as preferred.

- if it lacks brightness - add Tibia 2, or Fifteenth 2, or octave coupler

- if it lacks depth - add Diaphone 16 or Tibia 16 OR (but not as well as) sub octave coupler.

Other stops may be added or subtracted, colouring the sound in the process. The swell pedals can also be used to change the quality of the sound, but not necessarily its volume, opening one and closing the other, highlighting the ranks in the main or solo chamber as desired.

The above is just one simple example of how a basic combination can be modified to suit the wishes of an individual organist.

 Other types of sound can similarly be "tailored". A basic string sound (Viol 8,4,2 and CÚleste 8,4) can have the Vox Humana 8 added, or the String 8, or even the Orchestral Oboe, Saxophone or Kinura for special effect. The number of possible string effects alone is starting to be come almost endless.

The skilled and experienced organist is able to select by careful practice of the art of registration precisely the combination which will give the exact sound quality to match the mood and style of the piece he or she is playing, and its position in the overall programme, whereas the second-rate performer will use one "standard" combination for a string sound, ignoring the subtle variations which could be introduced to achieve this precise match. The result will then be that, through no fault of its own, the organ seems to lack tonal variety, and the performance rapidly becomes monotonous and uninteresting.

All but the smallest and most raucous organs contain a balance of louder and softer ranks, but many in an audience will fail to realise that if their ears are blasted throughout a concert by a power-happy "organist", the fault lies squarely with the performer, and not the instrument. An organ does not have to be loud all the time, but some performers do...


This concludes what I hope has been an interesting and readable "tour" through a large theatre organ, without overburdening the text with technicalities. By now,you should possess an adequate working knowledge of just what a theatre organ comprises and how those components are used by organists to produce what can be some of the most thrilling sounds around.

It has been deliberately written very informally, as most such descriptions I have encountered have been somewhat daunting, in that they assume that the reader has a D Sc in physics and much experience in organ playing. I have assumed nothing more than a healthy curiosity on your part.


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