STEAM PUNK MUSIC FACTORY
Behind the sacred looking wooden façade of NCBC’s “rood screen” stands a large assemblage of machinery two stories high ; the church organ installed in the early nineteen fifties. It stares everyone in the face Sunday by Sunday, but in spite of that the congregation is only conscious of the all too familiar sound of traditional organ music, music that gives every appearance of not emanating from behind this holy façade, but instead from where the synchronizing initiating action is seen to take place: At the keyboard.
In the Middle Ages the chancel was the sacred domain of the priests. These priests dispensed the sacraments in accord with their divinely ordained authority. The mystique of this authority held the serf congregation in awe and (mostly) in their God ordained place. But how times change. The Protestants who built churches like NCBC had a tradition that was apt to erode the distinction between laity and clergy. But during their socially up and coming years after the repeal of the Test Act, the Protestants often built churches along similar lines to the architectural styles of the established Church of England. They thereby gave themselves the problem of what to do with the chancel as they had no priesthood to make use of it. In NCBC’s case, however, the chancel was half filled with the machinery of music – a large two tare organ containing resonant pipes whose number must run into the hundreds. It is so large that it is one of those machines you can walk around inside of. It is, in fact, a semi-automatic music factory controlled by the human operator stationed at the keyboard.
When music machines were introduced into nonconformist chapels in the nineteenth century, thus serving notice on the traditional music leaders, there was, needless to say, resistance to them. As is so often the case a peripheral matter bound up with convenience and taste was cast in the mold of a vital issue endangering the spiritual life of the church: Charles Jewson, NCBC Church historian, tells us of the stormy introduction of a harmonium in the second half of the 19th century:
The year 1863 saw a revolution in worship, when for the first time, a musical instrument – a harmonium – was introduced into the Chapel with the consent of the Church. Thirteen years before, when the pastor had offered to present such an instrument, Robert Tillyard, a deacon and a leading shoe manufacturer, had raised a strong objection to the introduction of an instrument as “imperiling the rights and spiritual interests of the church.” The idea had been dropped, and James Colman appointed to lead the singing instead.*
When it comes to new innovations the moral of this story seems to be to keep trying until people get used to the idea! However, today things have come full circle: The modern tendency to replace the traditional organ with a leading band is often met with disapproval. But the circle may have turned yet again: I suspect that there are Christians out there for whom the bulky steampunk organs of the past are just too steeped in stultifying tradition to express spiritual life. Thus, any revival of the organ’s fortunes is likely to be greeted with dismay by Christians who instinctually feel that an airy spontaneity and exuberance is a requisite of authentic worship and that this is incompatible with the traditional heavy duty mechanisms associated with large organs. I suspect therefore that the issue of music will, once again, likely be argued from fancied spiritual mandates.
For me the experience of entering the internal world of NCBC’s organ was very reminiscent of my time amongst the fully automatic organs at the Thursford collection (See here). To be frank the experience is slightly unnerving; it reminds me of those last scenes in the Wizard of Oz when an awe aspiring apparition of the Wizard is revealed to be the contrivance of a bumbling man operating some machinery. In some ways the NCBC organ is a fitting symbol of the demise of the medieval priesthood whose mystique of authority, an authority which help sustain it for hundreds of years, was in due course revealed to be merely a contrived interface not unlike the Wizard of Oz.
As I walked round the NCBC organ interior I was struck by the apparent discontinuity between the experience of its music and the mechanisms behind that music; the former is, if the organ is well played, seamlessly integrated into an apparently indivisible experience, whereas the latter is analytic and reductionist. There is a metaphor here for the human psyche: Human experiences are so well fused and orchestrated that their coherence seems axiomatic. And yet get inside the human skull with the latest probing technology and these experiences appear to map, on a point by point basis, to the operations of neurons, connections, signals, fields, neurotransmitters and the like. This dichotomy between the qualities of human experience and their formal tokens realized in matter must, I submit, be accepted and embraced as is. To make full sense of reality both perspectives must be held in the mind as complementary accounts of reality. We must come to terms with both accounts - one perspective should not be done away with at the expense of the other. It is a dichotomy that is an irreducible feature of our world, a dichotomy giving meaning to the cold and heartless formalities of mechanism and yet giving coherent scientific account of the qualia of experience: The formal objects of science give account of our experiences, but those experiences are required to provide science the observations it needs; the relationship between the two is one of mutual dependence.
"I can't see any music in here - just pipes, wires and valves"
*From the Baptist quarterly 1941