Thursday, May 30, 2013

Theater organs; Adventure Time; and the Grateful Dead

This is a long entry.... But for what was from beginning to end a quiet and often fun event, it was a big day.

Today marked the end of an era. Quite possibly the very last time I'll ever sit at the console of the Mighty Moller organ at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

After forty years of being a commencement organist, it's over.

Strictly speaking, it was over last year, which was my final performance. (You can hear a sample of some of my music that has been heard at this event here and here, I'm at the organ console and conducting from same. I don't remember whether I was using the pedals when the recording was made, and if neither I nor you can tell... well, that does say something, doesn't it?) But today, I passed the torch to another organist, taking him through the stops and divisions of the organ (which, for those of you who know anything about "church" or "classical" organs, has absolutely nothing to do with anything you're familiar with; theater organs like this one are a completely different species).

Time was, when I'd crawl into the chambers and up the ladders and do some touch-up tuning myself. Today, I was very nearly totally unable even to get onto the bench. Organs are not really built for people with next-to-no control over their legs... Well, of course there are all these pedals and such, but it took a huge amount of effort, plus the assistance of a strong friend who's even taller than I am, just to get me onto the bench. I don't know if the picture reveals the desperation with which my right hand was keeping me from falling off the bench, but trust me, there was plenty of desperation.

And if anything needed to be driven hammer-blow-style into my head to reassure me that yes indeed, I had made the right decision to hand off this gig to someone else, well—today certainly did... It took at least a minute by the clock just to get onto and off of the bench, and that's a minute each time, not total. God only knows what would have happened if I had tried to stay there, and play the instrument, and conduct from the console (which has been the way I've done this gig for years).

It took quite a bit of effort just to do anything with the expression pedals, The boxes started closed (makes the organ softer), I opened the boxes (makes the organ louder) just so my friend could hear things better; and that's about all the control of "expression" I was able to provide. I don't really consider "on" and "off" as "expression," Baroque terraced-dynamics notwithstanding, and damn if there's one thing you probably ain't gonna play on this organ, it's Baroque music. Well, not for long, at least.

Now, everyone who cares for us MSers will talk a lot about "not giving up" or "if you believe you can, you can, even if not today" and all that sort of thing. But for many reasons, foremost of which is my.. I think I need to use the word disability, it was time to say goodbye to this gig, which I've been doing since 1973.

If my legs come back to "under control" can I play the organ again? Of course. Could I do commencements on this organ again? Oh heck yes, I've done gigs for colleges there that now are holding events in the Shrine Auditorium because they outgrew the Civic. (The last gig I did for them, which I think was the last they ever did in the Civic before they moved across town, took ten minutes on the clock to get all the graduates into the building.)

Hell, I've even risen out of the pit on the elevator that the console sits on, playing music from The Phantom of the Opera in full theater-organ mode. I have quite a history with this instrument.

I think my relationship to "being done" would be different if I had decided that I had had enough fun, time to pack it in, it's been a good run but it's OK to move on to something new. However, the decision was made for me.

Legs (at the moment) are, from the "playing the organ" point of view, completely worthless, even worthless to the point of not being able to get onto—and stay on—the console. This particular gig involves a lot of stress and adrenaline-charged-creativity, which frankly lives more in the world of "Use the Force, Luke!"... which right now, I could maybe summon if there were simply no choice—the building's on fire and people will die unless I, of all people in the world, don't play the processional—but the way I'm feeling nowadays, assuming that I would be even vaguely able to do that is...let's call it imprudent.

Had a wonderful time with my organist-friend to whom I'm "passing the baton," he really enjoyed (and was very thankful for) the "here's how to use the organ for the music that I wrote for the show" session, I very much enjoyed  hearing, and using for (so "quite possibly" to be "all-but-certainly") the very last time, this really amazing instrument,,, It is what may be the world's only touring pipe organ, it has been all over Europe, it has quite the amazing pedigree, and it has been and always will be my friend.

Could I pull strings and, at the right time of year, get into the Civic and play it again? Yeah, maybe, probably, but I ain't gonna even contemplate such things as long as my legs are in the state they're in today. I mean, c'mon, I can't even get onto the bench without a lot of help, it's on the edge of dangerous to even try to do that.

So it's time to say goodbye. I've handed it on... I'm done. And before I left the Civic, I wheelchair'ed my way onto the stage, and said, in the words of Finn the Human in Adventure Time... "I'm not coming back."

I suppose I could have quoted Milton, or scripture, or some sutra, but Adventure Time said it best.
I'm not coming back.
And I needed to say that. It was time. Is it "Goodbye forever?" Who can say?

But for now, at least... it's over.

But it was one hell of a ride. As the Grateful Dead sang...
What a long strange trip it's been. 
Please forgive my prolixity, but... taking the irrevocable steps in saying farewell to forty years of performance is quite the bidding of "goodbye." And I gotta be honest with you... I'm still processing it.


Judy at Peace Be With You said...

As I read this post, I had to work at not feeling agonizingly sad at your loss and the stupid unfairness of it all. I kept thinking, Robert is always the first to find a more "gifted" way of assessing the situation, and I am sure you will in the end. But, it would be denial of the first order to suggest that this is not a huge loss. And, I am just royally pissed off that you and the world will deprived of your talented performance.

Muffie said...

I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for you.

Pamela Kohl said...

Oh, Robert! I am crying right now! I remember the old days, crawling around inside the organ in Connecticut to get it ready for the next Sunday's services. I find it hard to believe that that part of your life has been ripped away from you. The world has truly lost a marvelous conduit for the magic that organ music can bring to life.
That being said, I have no doubt that you have found new ways to express the music in your soul, and that you will be instrumental (no pun intended) in the development of new ways for those around you to experience your magic.
I guess, though, that I shall have to remove your name from my list of musicians to play at my wake! (Sorry, bad joke!)
Thank you for wonderful memories of Toccata and Fugue in D Major!

nicole said...

I can't imagine doing anything for forty years! You should indeed still be processing it. Take your time.