TEDxUCLA 2017: Gravity

Going out on all limbs


About Christoph

Christoph Bull has concertized around the world, including Europe, Russia, India, Taiwan, China, Japan, El Salvador and many U.S. states. He’s performed at national and regional conventions of the American Guild of Organists and the Organ Historical Society. He recorded the first album featuring the organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, entitled First & Grand. Christoph Bull has been university organist and organ professor at UCLA since 2002 and Organist-in-Residence at FCCLA since 2013.


Hi, I’m Christoph and I’m sitting about 50 feet east of center stage. And unlike some of my colleagues that went on before me I actually have the luxury of recognizing some faces instead of staring into the dark space. I actually borrowed a cell phone from somebody earlier, so it’s great to be sitting amongst you.

I’m sitting at the console of the 1930 E.M. Skinner pipe organ which has been an integral part of Royce Hall since it was built. And I’m very thrilled to be awarded the gravitas of concluding this day of ideas with a festive piece by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Before I do so I would like to talk a little bit about how this piece makes me feel. I think most of you will have heard that there’s numerous studies that demonstrate that music has a positive effect on the brain, both listening and playing. And I contend that playing the organ has an especially positive effect on the brain because, as organists, we use our left hand and left foot, thus stimulating the right hemisphere of the brain. We also use our right hand and right foot, thus stimulating the left hemisphere of the brain. So when we’re playing with all limbs, we’re hitting the brain at all kinds of different spots.

And sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I’m not really a morning person, so I’m groggy and drowsy and I stumble through the instrument at my home, and after only playing a little bit of music, my juices start flowing and I start remembering what I’m supposed to do that day and I’m starting to have some ideas for new projects. So I’m so appreciative of having been given this gift of of playing organ with all of my limbs.

And there’s one genre of music that I especially like because it’s especially conducive to using all four limbs, and that’s the fugue. A fugue is a classical genre that starts with one line of music, then a second line is added, a third, maybe a fourth, fifth, sixth, and all of those lines have to operate pretty independently. So having four limbs comes in very handy.

And the master of that genre was Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived in the Baroque era, and in my opinion he wrote the most beautiful fugues, a whole bunch of them, and I’m going to play one of them.

What also fascinates me about these pieces is that they remind me of planets and stars in space because these bouncing notes and pitches, they have relationships to each other just like stars and planets have relationships to each other.

For example, pitches are frequencies. The first pitch in the piece I’m about to play is a D and it has a frequency of about 293 Hertz, and then the next pitch after that is a G which has about 392. In music that’s called a fourth, the interval of a fourth, and the second pitch is about 1.33 times higher than the first. That’s just the first two notes. But all of the notes in the piece have these relationships. So it’s like a whole bunch of stars and planets that are on the score sheet.

Another very important relationship in music is time, just like space and time is very important for stars and planets. So the composer prescribes certain rhythms. There’s eighth notes, and there’s sixteenth notes which are twice as fast, so I have to follow that. But within that grid I get to make some personal choices. I can delay a beat a little bit, I can make a note a little bit longer, I can make it a little bit shorter, so I get to be a co-creator of the universe of music.

And I could go on and on about this, but I do want to leave you with this piece and I’m striving to, to create with the help of Mr. Bach a positive upbeat effect in your brains. When I first learned this piece I was a child in Germany and my first teacher, a wonderfully musical man by the name of Hermann Schaeffer, told me this was a champagne fugue. And by that he meant it has the same effect as a glass of high-quality dry champagne without any negative alcohol effects.

This piece also has a bouncing propulsive rhythm which I feel simultaneously is rooted in gravity and defies gravity. Thank you so much. Her is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fugue in G Major.