tkitching (tkitching) wrote,

In the shadow of the Wurlitzer

One evening, not very long ago, I was in a car heading north on the M74, in anticipation of a weekend's walking in Scotland. We'd been on the road for hours, conversation largely exhausted. Radio 2, to me, rather dull, but a welcome noise at least.

Then it was 11pm, and after the news, a new programme came on.

"Hello, Nigel Ogden here with this week's edition of 'The Organist Entertains'", followed by a startling burst of bright organ chords. I was hooked immediately. I found the breathless pace and vibrant sounds simultaneously oddly comical and hugely exciting. After the cycle of pop songs with verse-chorus-verse-chorus structures and three chords, the tidal wave of ever-evolving sound was too much for me. I couldn't stop smiling. Was this even real? Each track was preceded with a glorious wealth of information about the organ, detailing its construction, history, and viscera.

As much as anything, I couldn't quite believe that such a programme existed. If ever there was an unanswerable case for the BBC, this programme is it. National, weekly exposure for the music of the theatre organ. Niche? Definitely. Would a commercial broadcaster touch it in 2016? Probably not. But one of the most important justifications for a public service broadcaster is to cover the full range of eccentricities of this absurdly varied little island. I knew I'd never miss an episode again.

Two months ago, I'd no idea about the world of the theatre organ, yet today I found myself taking a trip to the Lancastrian Theatre Organ Trust in Salford, for one of their weekly recitals. Having found a friend willing to go with me, for moral support, I parked my flame covered T-reg Ibiza outside, and headed to the entrance, aware of the confused stares of the grey-haired clientele as we strode over the tarmac towards them. Surely we weren't coming in here? Oh God, they're still walking this way, wearing hoodies too, shut the door quick! Too late, we're in and have paid our £3.50.

A former Sunday School, the trust have converted the building into a tremendous listening space, with old fashioned theatre seating, chandeliers, and behind the red curtain, the Wurlitzer 2/6, dormant, waiting. Today's organist is David Ivory - they have a different organist every Wednesday, and we patiently await the appointed hour with our cups of tea and the regulation two biscuits.

At 1pm, the lights dim, and the organ begins, behind the closed curtains. They slide back to reveal Mr Ivory and the Wurlitzer rising from beneath the floor, his back to us, already playing furiously in a red crushed velvet smoking jacket and the shiniest shoes I've ever seen. This is an instrument that knows how to make an appearance! He looks over his shoulder as the organ reaches stage level, devilish smile. We're up and running.

And such sounds! The Wurlitzer is designed to replicate all the functions of an orchestra, including the percussion, in this case with two keyboards, (Some have as many as 5) and a whole array of switches that engage different sounds, in an arc all round the console. The organist is constantly flipping switches and bringing new sounds into play, from soft pipes, to cymbals, horn sounds, great bass notes. A third keyboard is under his feet, and he becomes a dancing puppet, animated in all limbs from above, sometimes gesturing expressively to the console with a hand suddenly and briefly free of work, before crashing back into it.

The first thing I notice is the odd stereo effects. All the sounds are physically produced in great cabinets either side of the stage, so some are on the left, and some on the right. Most of the soft sounds are on my right, but the percussion comes crashing out of the left side. At one point he engages the piano switch, and a pianoforte joins in on the side of the stage, the keys jumping demonically on their own. I knew the Wurlitzers were organs for theatre, but had not expected them to be so theatrical in and of themselves. It is the organ that is presented to the audience, not the organist.

The melody is permanently moving, changing speeds, rhythms, timbre. This music won't sit still, it has no attention span. There are no explorations of themes, just one tune after another after another. A series of Scottish tunes make up one selection, each one a single A part and B part before switching, Ten tunes in three minutes. This is anything but easy listening. Its closest musical descendent must be the brutal Grindcore of Pig Destroyer whose epic, Prowler in the Yard, 23 tracks in 36 pummelling minutes no longer seems quite so revolutionary! Nine Strauss Waltzes follow in immediate series. The whole of Pirates of Penzance condensed completes the first half, before the organ and jockey descend back to wherever it came from, still in full imperious flow as the curtains meet again. We have more tea and biscuits and consider the previous half hour.

There's no way I can review a gig like this, as I don't have the knowledge to say anything clever about the quality of the performance or choice of material. All I can say is I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved the range of music, and the engagement of the audience by the talented and immaculate Mr Ivory.

After the two sets, David Ivory then treats us to a 15 minute performance of accompanying a Buster Keaton silent film. The music so good I stop paying attention and enjoy the film instead.

And the audience are knowledgeable. Average age of about 75, they know many of these selections almost as well as the organist, and when he talks between numbers, are not afraid of asking questions or making statements. Dealing with OAP hecklers with good grace is clearly a big part of the organist's repertoire. My friend and I are made to feel very welcome, although there is a general assumption that she must be my wife. There are a lot of hearing aids and shuffling, as you'd expect from an audience of this age. At one point I heard a very loud whisper "Alf's not so well". But I'm a visitor to their world and nostalgia, and I love it when I stumble into a world I'd never encountered or even heard of, and find it so fully formed and exciting. I wonder, as we hear selections from 'Fiddler on the Roof' (Highlight of the show for me), what the future is for these things. This is the generation above those who attend folk clubs. Who is exploring the future of this amazing instrument? I hope to find out. I'll be coming again, and I'll bring more people with me!
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