Perspectives in Counterpoint: On the Future of Real Organs in Sacred Spaces and Concert Halls
You might know Lukas Hasler for his Instagram, where he shares photos of pipe organs with a collector’s knowing affection, or for his most recent, busy concert tour around Germany and Austria. You might also remember our interview with Lukas from earlier this year – where we spoke about his favorite performance venues and the ugliness of organ shoes.
In “Perspectives in Counterpoint”, we butt heads with the up-and-coming organist over an important issue: digital organs, yay or nay?
Goodbye manual work, welcome machines!
Increased productivity, digitization wherever you look – is this the future we want to face?
What is made today will be out of date tomorrow. No matter the level of quality of a certain organ, the passing of years will wear the instrument out – and soon a new one will be required to take its place. So we have to ask ourselves, what are the working conditions of those who are involved in the production of digital organs? Its components travel through several countries around the world.
The retired devices, which will become obsolete in a few years, will pollute the environment – the ecological footprint is enormous. I also believe that, due to technology, perhaps at some point in the future when the organ might be sufficiently operated by just a tablet, church organists could be rationalized.
Catching onto this development, some parishes are already buying digital organs for reasons of cost – but without asking who is paying the “cheap price” in the end.
The digital organ, no matter how similar it may sound to the real instrument, is an industrial product, identical to thousands of others without the uniqueness of the instrument that was built for exactly one church or concert hall. When it comes to hand-made organs, even at the planning stage, people have an idea of size, the disposition, possible uses, and the timbre of the instrument. Almost every detail is made by hand, every pipe is picked up several times, formed, voiced, discussed, and provided with air. No two instruments are alike no matter how precisely they work and sound. The materials used are almost entirely recyclable. Such instruments are “alive” and have a soul.
Digital organs are best used for practicing reasons. I myself own two in order to be able to practice for my concert programs. The question I’m asking is whether we want to support our organ builders and save the traditions of the art to build this instrument or do we only want to focus on the price?
We all know that the future of our society is digital. We are surrounded by computers, self-driving subways have long been a reality, including supermarkets without staff. I don’t want to be too pessimistic but we have to ask ourselves what will we find in our churches and concert halls in the years to come?
The answer, in my opinion, is clear: The organ built by human hands, not perfect but unique (and uniquely played!) remains the more likely instrument to touch our souls, in today’s concerts and those of the future.
There are, of course, understandable hesitations when it comes to the inclusion of modern technology in spaces considered to be some of the last bastions of age-old traditions – whether they are examples of famous architectural movements, places of worship, or, even more broadly, important cultural institutions.
This argument over digital organs neatly falls into the space between artistic ideals passed down through generations and everyday practicalities of the modern age, which the contemporary classical music world has to continuously navigate.
And, in this case, it has to be underlined just how many practical advantages of digital organs exist – even outside practice rooms.
Classical organs, however beautiful their sound may be, and whatever historical significance they may hold, are notoriously hard to upkeep – the repairs of the large instruments are frequent, costly, and time-consuming. Plus, as more time passes since their construction and implementation, organs tend to accumulate highly specific problems that other classical instruments simply do not – like in the case of churches struggling to remedy mold infestations in their pipes.
In addition to the digital organ’s low cost and reliability, the instrument also offers accessibility and a sense of playfulness. Providing the option of operating the organ with a touchpad instead of commanding the intimidating infrastructure of multiple keyboards, pedals, and stops – the digital organ may prove to be the friendliest place to introduce and educate the public on the endless capabilities of this centuries-old instrument.
The one drawback of the digital organ, admittedly, is that it still hasn’t developed past the point of simple sound reproduction – but even that can be understood as a promise of yet-unfulfilled potential!
Imagine a digital organ set that not only utilizes its sample library to imitate the range of sounds of the classical organ, but has the option to expand it even further – and think of what wonderfully inventive compositions might be created in the future, reimagining and revitalizing the standardized organ repertoire of today.