organ pipes - photo by Eric Mak

The Pipe Organ Rocks – Modal Toccata

When someone says “pipe organ”, most people probably think of someone playing hymns on it. Well, these players play a lot more than hymns.

Organic Pipes

Pipe organ manuals (keyboards) and pedals

I’ve been playing pipe organ since I was in graduate school. To my good fortune, Mr. Emmett G. Smith was solely at TCU to teach this instrument. So, he was my teacher at that time. In those days, I did learn a lot of hymns and other “church” music.

But I also learned a lot about “registrations” (which stops are pulled to shape how the pipe organ sounds) and pedal work. Oh yes: learning to play a full set of pedals at the same time as two or more manuals (keyboards) was fun and frustrating.

Rehearsing my first toccata on the pipe organ is quite memorable. In my case, it was the last movement of Suite Gothique, Opus 25, by Léon Boëllmann. At first, I thought that I’d never get that repeating phrase solid. Fortunately, over time, I did.

This Pipe Rocks, Too

metal organ pipes on a wooden wind chest

Still, I was influenced by a host of different styles of music. I grew up a preacher’s kid. Obviously, this meant spending time in the church, but I was also in the youth culture of the 1970s and 1980s. Plus, I was in bands of several diverse influences.

One of those bands was a jazz-rock-fusion quartet. The players were exceptional, especially for teenagers. Besides learning tunes, we would improvise for hours.

Typically, one of us would create a “theme”. From there, other players would embellish or create counterpoint. Eventually, we’d wander off into other musical tangents during this same improvisation. However, the goal was always to come back to that initial theme. Often, the player who originated the theme would not be the one who brought it back. Another favorite improv technique was that we’d all play the theme in unison to complete the jam.

Improv Organ

A church chancel

Because of the repetition, those themes would often stay in my memory for days, weeks, or months. A few of them stayed with me for years.

I know this because several years after leaving that band, I played some of them again. As I was improvising during a church service on the pipe organ, I played one of those fusion improv themes. It sort of snuck back into my brain. Later that same day, I began to compose “Modal Toccata” using the influences of some of those previously improvised themes.

Finally, to bring this piece full circle, as I recorded the toccata, I improvised a brand new cadenza. It was not the first time I had spontaneously created this third section. However, for now, this one is my favorite version.

Tech and More

Modal Toccata cover art - organ pipes and cathedral stone columns

Now, you get to hear the influences of church, jazz-rock, improv, and who knows what else in one piece. Listen to “Modal Toccata” in all its glory on a grand set of pipes.

Well honestly, the instrument in this recording is not one pipe organ. Instead, I’ve layered several. In other words, it would take a lot of work and technology to hear this instrument “live”. That’s because it would require that we synchronize the sound from at least five different cathedrals and theatres.

For those of you interested in adding “Modal Toccata” to your repertoire, I am creating sheet music of this piece. It will be available very soon. Write to me if you’d like to be notified when you can pick up your copy.

The featured photo (top of the page) is by Eric Mak and the Modal Toccata album cover art is by Michael Jasmund. Both were obtained through royalty-free services.

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