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The Art of Wind

Norden, Germany.

The northwest corner of Germany is called Ostfriesland and with respect to organs of recognized historic value it claims to be the most densely populated region of the world: there are nearly two hundred in an area the size of Rhode Island.

By contrast, human numbers remain relatively small, though to judge by the profusion of American-style sprawl and new housing developments spreading over the flat fields, these seem to be growing. Nonetheless, I’d guess that there are still fewer people here than cows.

The fields, steadily reclaimed from the North Sea over the last four hundred years, stretch for miles to the distant dike. Seen from afar this earthen wall is a band of green rising thinly above the expansive flatness. Small villages cluster around brick churches on mounds of earth heaped together centuries ago. Before the dikes and other ingenious labors of the engineers, these humps provided a thin margin of safety when the high water came. In the Great Christmas Flood of 1717 just over two thousand people died in Ostfriesland; five times that many of cows drowned.

In contrast to the older forms of settlement, new houses are built not on higher ground but on the flat fields where cows recently grazed. Against the inexorable rise of the oceans this may seem a foolish way to proceed.

Belief in water management on the one hand parallels a decline in religious belief on the other. Churchgoing is not what it was in this once pious region divided between Lutherans and Calvinists—a confessional mixture to be expected in a border zone between The Netherlands and Germany.

To most, however, such theological and liturgical nuances are largely irrelevant now, just two years in advance of the 500th year of the onset of the Reformation. The faith of the modern flatlanders of Ostfriesland is directed, consciously or not, towards the dike. It can be made higher and wider, and that is what must eventually happen when the land is laid on the sea and the sea inexorable encroaches. To live on reclaimed land is to live on borrowed time, and the loan my soon come due.

Germany proudly leads the crusade to turn back the tides of climate change. The great national crusade is called the Energiewende. It is a term drawn from the Wende—the turning or perhaps turning point—of 1989 that reunified East and West Germany. This last political watershed in German history, one that has taken huge resources over the last quarter century, now serves as the model for the Energiewende (The Energy Turning Point) that must be made in order to stave off—or by now merely to ameliorate—the coming carbon catastrophe.

The long views across the Ostfriesian landscape are all about the political long view. The most rapidly expanding species here is neither human nor bovine, but the windmill. These three-pronged giants rise some hundred feet high in great groves, their white trunks and limbs unapologetically stark against the greenery below.

When I last visited the region a decade ago to play a concert on the most famous of the above-mentioned organs—that in the small city of Norden a few miles from the North Sea—I was astonished at the proliferation of windmills, their extent easily, if frighteningly, to be seen from a mobile vantage point a couple of thousand feet up in the air in a 1947 Piper Cub piloted by a mad genius of an organ builder. In the summer of 2015 there lot more of them—windmills that is, not genius organ builders.

The energy produced by these constructions has to be conducted south to the country’s population and industrial centers. In recent years there have been battles over the rout of these highways of high wires. No one really wants the skeins of harnessed electricity to pass by their village. For the greater good of Germany and the world, sacrifices have to be made.

In the West Country of England where I’ve just come from on this European trip, I could count on my ten fingers the number big modern windmills I saw. The country folk of Somerset and Devon—and for that matter across England—vigilantly preserve the picturesque qualities of the countryside against what they see as the aesthetic ruinations of renewable energy.

Last time I came to Ostfriesland some residents complained that the windmills were eyesores. Accordingly, they invented the word Verspargelung—asparagusification—to lament a horizon thick with huge stalks evoking the white asparagus harvested here in great quantities in the late spring. I haven’t heard the word and related complaints on this trip. The locals have apparently gotten used to the transformation of their landscape and seem glad to help in the fight against climate change. They’re also banking the royalties.

But the sight of cows grazing below windmills is paradoxical, and demonstrates how cultural values supersede so-called scientific ones. Cows emit as much as 500 liters of methane a day. Dairy cows are the worst offenders. But you’re unlikely to convince the Ostfrieslanders—or the rest of the Germans—to give up their butter, cream, milk, yoghurt, cheese and other goodies.

What with the grazing beasts farting and belching below and the rotors turning relentlessly above them there is a lot of wind in these parts. One almost wonders if black-and-white mini-propellers could be fitted to both ends of these Holsteins to harness the myriad gusts steadily produced a few feet above ground level.

Indeed, wind is the essence of the Ostfriesian economy, not only today, but also over the centuries. And the historic organs are wind instruments.

Before the advent of electricity, this wind was produced by a human pumper called a Calcant. Many of the old organs still have a stop knob that, when pulled, rings a bell notifying the bellows-treader to get busy.

The largest and arguably the most important of these organs—though such a claim does rough justice to the many irreplaceable instruments sprinkled across the landscape—is in the city of Norden. () Constructed between 1686 and 1688, it is the work of the greatest organ builder of the north German baroque, Arp Schnitger.

The placement of the instrument is unique in that Schnitger wrapped it around a pillar at the southeast corner of the transept in order to orient the façade more directly into the nave of the church. Typically, organs in Protestant realms were placed in a balcony at the far west end of the church, but in Norden this area did not provide enough space for the ambitious instrument commissioned by the church.

Perhaps not fully satisfied with the result, Schnitger added another division in 1691 that speaks into the choir of the church. Thus, the main tonal force of the organ blows down the nave and directly to the heated balconies of the church council and city patricians, while the more distant pipes crowning the instrument sing in the direction of Jerusalem then echo back to the congregation.

The brilliant, more colorful, and—thanks to Schnitger’s architectural genius—more present sound of the main divisions of the instrument, including the single pedal tower that is another arrangement unique to Norden, reflect the rise of congregational singing to be accompanied by the organ. This development occurred in the second half of the seventeenth century. Previously, hymns had generally been sung without instrumental backing, but following the hundred and fifty years of often chaotic communal singing engendered by the Reformation, Schnitger’s early masterpiece was meant both to “organize” the congregational hymns and to encourage the organist to demonstrate his artistry in fantastical solos.

None of that would have been possible without the labors of the bellows pumper, slogging away unseen somewhere behind the polished pipes, gilded ornaments, and statues of trumpeting angels. For concerts and recordings a Calcant is still engaged, but for practice and services, the organist simply switches on a motor, now powered by the electricity-producing giants in the fields beyond. In more than one way, then, wind is transformed into art.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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