TEDxUCLA 2012: Open

Open up to the organ


About Christoph

Christoph Bull is a concert organist, pianist, composer and singer-songwriter who has performed around the world at venues ranging from the Catholic Cathedrals of Moscow, Saint-Denis, Salzburg and Los Angeles to concert halls such as Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Lincoln Center in New York City to rock clubs like The Viper Room, The Roxy and The Whisky A Go Go.


Open! Have you guys opened today? Do you have some more room for opening a little bit? Or a lot?

I love the theme that we’re having today, open and being open-minded. And incidentally, the sound that comes out of this instrument is generated by wind moving through openings in the pipes. And I’m always telling people that when they want to know what’s the difference between an organ and a piano, the piano has hammers hitting strings and the organ has wind moving through pipes, and I think that’s very significant because I think it affects people in a certain way.

Another thing about the organ that affects people is that we have a vast range of pipe sizes and of dynamics. Some organs have pipes that are as high as 32 feet and they are the ones that create that subsonic rumble that’s more felt than actually heard. We also have pipes that are as small as a little pencil and they generate a very high, sometimes clear, sometimes even piercing sound.

Dynamically we’re having a range from a barely perceptible pianissimo to a mighty roar that shakes a building, and I think all of these things contribute to people being affected by the organ in ways that range from soothing to downright disturbing. Maybe we have a little bit of both today. I hope so.

Before we start, I’m gonna give you a little bit of historical background on the organ. The organ is the oldest keyboard instrument and one of the oldest instruments, per se. We’re going back as far as about third century B.C. in ancient Greece. They had something called the hydraulis, which is a water organ. The wind pressure needed to generate sound and move air was created with water. The organ as we now know it today was developed throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance period, and really almost perfected during the Baroque period. And probably the greatest composer for organ music, Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote during that time in the 18th century or early 18th century.

And in the 20th century, we saw a whole range of other instruments that are organ-related. For example, the theater organ, you might have heard of the mighty Wurlitzer, and that’s an instrument that was put into theaters, movie theaters and used for accompanying silent movies. Then somebody invented an instrument called the Hammond organ, and rock bands used that instrument.

In this modern day and age, people sometimes go to organs all around the world, to pipe organs, take their microphones and sample them, and then they feed them into a computer. And then those sounds can be reproduced through sampling technology. Today, though, we’re having the real deal. And you might find it interesting that this is actually a portable organ. It usually lives in a room slightly east from here. So about six people working for UCLA wheeled it out there. So it’s portable like a Casio keyboard, it just takes a little bit more manpower.

And actually, that was one of the early uses of the organ in a secular way. Certain courts had little portable organs, then sometimes during a festival in a given town they would put a portable organ on a wagon that was pulled throughout the city and it was played.

The Christian church, the early church was somewhat skeptical about the use of any instruments and the organ in particular, probably because it’s very sensual. And some people, for example, Reformers, Calvin or Zwingli, were not into that. They did not want that much sensuality. But eventually I think the motto, “If you can’t beat them, join them” won over, and the organ did become the main instrument for church music by the time of the 20th century.

Nowadays we’re facing some competition from something called praise bands ā€” I will not talk about them! ā€” but organs are still running very strong. And recently we’ve seen a little bit of a resurgence of pipe organs being put into concert halls. For example, the Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA has a magnificent new pipe organ.

And sometimes some people have a little extra cash, they might put an organ into their house. One such example is the magnificent Villa Aurora in the Pacific Palisades, maybe some of you know it. And there is one room in that villa that’s dedicated to housing a bunch of pipes. So for an organist like me, that’s also very exciting to be able to go to a house and play an organ there.

So you’ve already heard in what I’ve been talking about that the organ has been used in different ways, both secular and sacred. And that’s a very fascinating topic to me, because in my professional life I’ve sometimes encountered people who thought it should always be sacred music and one should always play very reverent music on it.

Now, with my personality, that doesn’t really work because I don’t always want to be reverent. And I think one of the great things about the organ is that it is so versatile, it can be used to accompany silent movies, it can be used by a rock band like Emerson Lake and Palmer or Yes. And I think that’s what makes a great.

But also for me, there really is no secular versus sacred music. In a way I believe that all music is sacred because it’s a language that can be used to communicate between people who speak the language themselves and between people who don’t necessarily speak it. You do not have to be a musician to appreciate music. Sometimes I think non musicians appreciate it more because they’re not going, “Okay, and that note, that probably was wrong,” and they’re getting analytical.

So music has that power. It has the power to uplift people. I once heard Paul McCartney say that he had a headache and he went home and he listened to a rock and roll tune and the headache went away. And he was a kid and I thought, “Wow, that’s a powerful thing.”

So I think that all music has that potential, whether you play it in a rock club or in a concert hall or at a church or whether you sing a song to somebody in the parking lot a little bit later. So I don’t like to draw that very strict distinction. I like the idea of playing a sacred piece of music in a club, or I like the idea of playing a piece of rock music at a church. I think in this 21st century we have these boundaries disappearing.

With that, I’m getting to talk a little bit about the piece we’re going to do tonight. It’s called “Open,” right in with our theme tonight, and it’s based on words from the biblical Song of Songs, which is attributed to Solomon, and he was the guy with the many women, he loved women, and he fell a little bit short of in favor with God. God didn’t like to see quite that many women. But if you’re reading the text, it’s very romantic, even sexual language. And if I’d known that the Sex Squad was here I would have asked them to join us! But I just met them a little bit earlier in the green room so I really enjoyed their performance. I’ll line them up the next time.

So in this context, “Open” is really, it has a physical connotation about humans opening up to one another. But in a spiritual sense it’s also opening up to life, to inspiration, and to God. It’s a very powerful text. So the piece we’re going to do is is based on that.

And with an instrument like this, you do not really need to have other people to perform with you. In a way, I have like a whole orchestra at my fingertips. I can make a lot of noise by myself, and sometimes that’s very liberating when I get to do that. I play and if I want to just go somewhere else and improvise, I don’t really have to take anybody else’s feelings into account. Is it going to throw them? Are they going to be able to hang? Do they want to hang? So I can just do my own thing.

However, I find myself increasingly seeking out collaborative situations. And the reason for that is because of the intangible individual creativity that other people bring to the table. I feel that our combined creativities are stronger than just my creativity.

And when we rehearsed our piece a couple of days ago, it really moved me. It touched my heart when I heard what my colleagues and the students that are going to perform with me had done with the piece in practice because they made it their own. They gave it their own interpretation.

I gave them a guide with some dots on paper. That’s the music, so they know how the shape of the music goes. But they made their own decisions: “Oh, I’m going to stretch those two notes a little bit,” or “I’m gonna sing that passage a little bit louder,” or “I’m gonna lay back that note, I’m gonna pronounce a certain word a certain way.” And I found, by handing over my music to others, but by letting go of it, I gained so much back.

So I feel that’s a lesson for all of us, because if some of you are like me, maybe a little bit of a perfectionist, we kind of like to do things a certain way, Iā€™m not sure if there are any of you who ever say, “Well, you know what, I’ll do it myself because then it will be done exactly the way I want it.” I’m really trying to learn from my music and not doing that always, sometimes creating some space, opening up, opening up space for others to fill in. And then it’s more than the sum of the parts.

My final collaborator is a very special type of performer, so I’m gonna say a couple of sentences about him. He’s an interpretive painter. That means in, in a minute or so he’s gonna walk up, you see the empty canvas, and he will create something completely new and it will be completely improvisatory. So in other words, he is open to hearing the music. He hasn’t heard it.

He actually asked me about it and should I play it for him and I said, “No, let’s not do it. Let’s just give it a blank start.” And so he’ll be open to the music, listen to it, and he will be open to the inspiration that comes from and create the piece. And if you stick around long enough to wait, what happens after we’re done, he’s going to wipe it off and the painting will cease to exist. Of course, there’s some cameras here, so maybe we can watch it on video afterwards. But the painting, per se, will cease to exist.

And I think that’s another lesson in non-attachment. Often I go, “Oh, did you record that?” Sometimes it’s good to just let it go and be open for the next adventure.

So I’m going to ask you to, after we’re done, open a little bit more, open up to all of the ideas you heard today. Open up to your own ideas. And then, then rise, literally rise from your chairs, and implement those ideas and share them with others. And I’m very grateful, very honored to be able to do that. And thank you very much for listening.

Now, I could fill another talk just talking about the great things that the performers that are going to sing with me have done. I’m not going to do that. Just please refer to the programs. I’ll let the music do the talking. Just rest assured that they’re absolutely awesome, they travel the whole world and we’re very lucky to have them, both professors and students. And with that, please help me welcome my awesome UCLA colleagues.

We’ll start with a short prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach as the intro to our original piece “Open” and a short second movement called “Rise.” So first you open and then you rise.

Open. Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one. My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.

Where has your lover gone, where has your lover gone, most beautiful of women? Which way did your lover turn? Which way did your lover turn, that we may look for him with you?

My beloved has gone down to the garden, to the beds of spices, to browse in the gardens and to gather lilies. I am my lover’s and my lover is mine; he browses among the lilies. He browses among the lilies.

You are beautiful my darling as Tirzah, lovely as Jerusalem, majestic as troops with banners. Turn your eyes from me, they overwhelm me, they overwhelm me.

Sixty queens they may be, and eighty concubines, and virgins beyond numbers; but my dove, my perfect one, is one, the only daughter of her mother, the favorite of the one who bore her, who bore her.

Come back, come back, O Shulammite, O Shulammite, come back, come back, that we may gaze on you!

May the wine go straight to my lover, flowing gently over lips and teeth. I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me.

Listen! My lover! Look! Here he comes. Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.

Look! There he stands behind the wall, gazing through the windows.

I am a wall, and my breasts are like towers. Thus I have become in his eyes like the one bringing contentment.

How beautiful you are and how pleasing, O love, with your delights! Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.

I said, “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.”

Rise. Rise. Rise up my love, my fair one. Rise up my love, my fair one. And come, and come, and come away.

The flowers appear, the flowers appear upon the earth, upon the earth, the time of singing has come.

The time of the singing of birds is come.

Is come, is come. Rise, rise, rise, rise. Rise up my, rise up my, rise up my, rise up my love!

TEDxUCLA 2012: Open

Open up to the organ