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The Organs of Houston

Music Among the Bushes and Halliburtons

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Any musician on the road, especially one who plays the organ, frequently confronts the contrast between suburban periphery and urban center—or what’s left of it. Typically the best instruments are in venerable churches in the old city, and to get to them, especially if flying in, one has to traverse ever-expanding layers of urban sprawl. In the cool expanse of a Gothic cathedral in Utrecht or the more modest spaces of a 19-century brick church in Boston, one is literally insulated not only from much of the sounds of air and car traffic, but also from the malls and freeways that stretch beyond. Music enhances this sense of removal, fueling virtual transport to a place of beauty. I often think that the escape from the modern—even when I’m performing or practicing contemporary works—is the reason I play the organ, the most escapist of instruments. The console of many organs, especially old ones, is often in a loft hidden even from the congregation or concert audience.

But such fantasies of distance and seclusion often founder when one recalls the problematic sources of the funding for the self-indulgent isolation that precedes the concert and even extends into it. The most complex of pre-industrial technologies, musical or otherwise, organs are typically the most expensive instruments. If even a modest example has more than a thousand pipes and each of those has been painstakingly cast by hand and individually voiced in a long and laborious process, then it is the equivalent of a thousand flutes, many of them very large. Indeed, it is precisely in these terms—as the master of hundreds of aulos players—that Bach was praised by one of his contemporary admirers. The organ has always required wealth, whether derived from a medieval monastery or from a modern corporations.

The tension between the beauty of the instrument and the ugliness of the larger setting was particularly noticeable on my recent trip to Houston to play an organ built according to models known to J. S. Bach.

On leaving George H. W. Bush international airport one encounters first a massive Halliburton campus. The proximity of Bush to Halliburton speaks to the long and close relations between America’s first family and the heart-of-darkness corporation. One glimpses buildings only fleetingly if at all through the foreboding fence thick with creepers. Looking at the place is more chilling than the taxi’s air-conditioning.

The Halliburton complex is abutted by another huge one belonging to G. E. Oil & Gas. This presents a slightly more visible but hardly less frightening face to the eight-lane roadway. From here it’s miles of freeway and grinding urban sprawl, before the towers of downtown present themselves.  In the district I was staying, once home to live oaks spreading over craftsmen bungalows, the so-called townhomes invade at an alarming rate.  Like almost all of Houston, the district is hemmed in by huge roads and strip malls. Some of the newer gentrified restaurants and cafés try to reclaim bits of their parking lots as terraces, but the traffic hurtles by so near that the latté quivers in its cup.

Big money brings to Houston lots of organs and lots of art. Light artist James Turrell’s Pavilion on the dead flat academic prairie of the Rice campus is a square pergola rising above a geometrically precise berm. In the middle of the roof a square is cut, starkly framing a patch of the sky for those looking up through it. Each night beginning forty minutes before sundown the pavilion hosts a show called the Twilight Epiphany. Against the bright white ceiling, hidden lights project gradually shifting colors, from greys through purples, greens and oranges. Pink granite benches with inclined backs allow one to gaze up at the ceiling and the sky beyond. If lots of epiphanies were had by the art tourists and meditative students who were at the show I attended, then I’d say the term has lost most of its meaning since the three kings road into Bethlehem a couple of thousand years ago. Nonetheless, the effect of the changing lights on one’s perception of the sky is fascinating. As the natural light fades, the grey and blue projections meld with it. Just when you think that there’s nothing left of the dying day, that the sky is as dark as the overlit city will allow it to be, the hidden lights cycles through their spectrum again until orange reclaims from the night a brilliant cobalt blue.

But these aesthetic and cognitive tricks cannot change the fact after the show the city is still there: traversing it by car leads us through the light show of huge corporate stadiums ringed by endless parking lots.

The next day and evening are thick with thunderstorms that eventually flood the freeways. But I make my way through the weather to the Menil Collection housed in a long modernist building designed by Renzo Piano. It is clad in clapboard to match the surrounding bungalows. All these small houses were bought up by the foundation and are painted the same grey-green as the museum itself. While there is something praiseworthy about saving the old dwellings and keeping a neighborhood visual feel to the environs, it soon becomes oppressive, as if the houses, once painted all different colors, have become props in a set, a backdrop for Art. In the nearby Rothko Chapel, the dark Houston afternoon presents these ponderous canvasses of black and dark purple at their gloomiest.

Then it’s back through the strip malls to the organ. Paradoxically, getting to know this Houston instrument takes me far from Houston.

After the practice, my host drives me through super rich River Oaks where muscle-bound chateaux consort with neo-ante-bellum plantation houses and Tudor manses. My host allows that he often goes running here because it’s a great place to meet some of the important donors to his musical projects. Thanks to similar efforts by him and other musicians and fundraisers, Houston has seen an upwelling of organ projects in recent years.  “We’ve been fortunate to have such affluence in Houston,” a retired lawyer and organ enthusiast tells me after my concert. “That’s why we continue to get these great instruments.” When the American Guild of Organists holds its biennial convention in this city next summer there will be a tremendous stock of fine instruments to play among the Bushes and Halliburtons, the air-conditioning and the asphalt.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com