Music in motion

Austrian organist Gunther Rost is bringing the instrument into the 21st century with his groundbreaking mobile digital organ

At first glance, you might not link the central principles of a university – critical thinking, open-minded exchange, and freedom of thought – with my subject, the organ. At the Graz University of Music and Performing Arts (KUG), however, we’ve tried to transfer the idea of the organ into the 21st century.

Our goal is to empower a new generation of organists and composers to discover and develop new ways of seeing, playing and using the instrument in the future. The general idea of the organ has always been the desire for a universal instrument, playable by a single person. Using the technologies of its time, the organ has tried to combine all existing instruments, sounds of nature and additional voices into one instrument; the Baroque era called it the ‘wondrous machine’.

Some of the world’s greatest composers used the organ to express themselves, and I believe it’s an instrument capable of moving audiences through its power and huge range of colours. Today, we often forget how versatile, stunning and emotional the organ is. We tend to use very traditional techniques when building new instruments, and refer to ancient treatises and follow their advice carefully when playing or teaching the organ.

Normally we hide the organ and its player on church balconies behind the audience, avoiding the stage spotlights. The refreshing exception of Cameron Carpenter only proves the rule.

If you had told me some 10 years ago that I would launch two mobile concert organs – one of them being fully digital – I would have declared you mad. Coming from a traditional background myself, I studied sacred music, was awarded a Leipzig Bach Prize in 2000 and studied with Marie Claire Alain in Paris. I’m not saying that the rich history and culture of the traditional organ is a negative thing; rather I’m saying that we should start thinking outside the box, outside strict traditions that prevent our instrument from reaching and touching people.

It’s time to reassess our view of what the organ can and should do, and to show that off to the public. As part of an EU-funded research project in 2012,we developed two mobile, high quality concert organs at KUG. One is a modular pipe organ, built by Slovenian organ builder Tomas Mocnik. It’s a masterpiece of craftsmanship that can be partitioned and transported in 10 blocks.

The tuning is mechanically adjustable to 415, 440 and 465 Hz, adapting the organ to the respective pitch of both period and modern instruments. With a particularly exact and solid construction, it can easily be reassembled on stage: a fine Silbermann copy ‘to go’!

The second instrument is a customised digital organ made by Rodgers Instruments, US. As a traditional organ contains thousands of pipes generating a vivid, three-dimensional sound, a sophisticated loudspeaker system has been essential to our project. I’m proud to say that our new electronic organ – with more than 300 different voices and an endless range of adjustments – is a serious and truly artistic classical instrument.

I can’t deny that a player new to these mobile instruments would face innumerable challenges. You can choose between countless voices and adjust each one in terms of colour, pitch, dynamics and characteristics. There are so many options that you become involved in the creation of the instrument itself while actually preparing your musical performance.

In my opinion, all this is well worth the trouble. When my students and I presented the two organs in concert in January 2013, the direct comparison of pipe and digital organ sound was amazing. A Schumann piece sounds beautiful and sensual through a clever arrangement of loudspeakers and artificial reverberation. In terms of playing with an orchestra, the digital organ creates many opportunities.

As organist in residence at the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, I know that the first joint rehearsal is always crucial. What if your registration doesn’t fit the conductor’s vision of sound or dynamics? How will you respond to a simple instruction like ‘bar 25, more piano’, when your instrument is bound to play exactly as loud as before, if you don‘t change the stops (which will also change the sound characteristics)?

This is just one example of where an electronic organ is a major advantage. Another critical feature of the Graz digital instrument is its adjustable console, adaptable to the player’s body height – allowing children to play the organ for the first time. The organ certainly fascinates children; the weekly organ workshops for school classes at KUG have been sold out for almost two years.

I’m confident that the organ has a great future in the world of classical music, in our hearts and in the midst of society. We just need to exploit its inherent potential and impartially use the technologies of our time.

Gunther Rost is head of organ studies at the Graz University of Music and Performing Arts and organist in residence at the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra