The heart is an organ

. April 22, 2015.
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Gail Archer has been hailed as one of the world’s best organists, and her performances of great German Romantic composers Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann have received remarkable praise. Archer is a professor at Barnard University, and also serves as director of the Barnard-Columbia Chorus and Chamber Choir. As founder (and director?) of Muse Forum, she is an advocate for female musicians, specifically fellow organists. To preview her April 26 appearance in Toledo,  I talked with her about overcoming challenges in her professional career, and her favorite memories from her extensive world travels.

You’re an inspiration to a lot of musicians, and you’ve managed to overcome so many obstacles in your professional career. Can you talk about that a little bit?

GA: I applied for all the major church positions in New York that opened, for about 10 to 12 years. I would apply and apply, and be passed over in the application process. I finally just decided that I was going to go in a new direction entirely and leave the church work. I love liturgical music, and sang in choirs from the time I was very young. I still direct choirs here at [Barnard], and choral music's always been at the center of my creative life.

After being rejected a number of times, I just decided the only place to make progress is at the colleges, because there there is respect for education, skills and accomplishment. I have built my career here at Barnard directing the choirs and advising students. We have a strong choral program, strong voice program and it's been a joy to do that over these past 26 years.

I heard so many stories of women being disappointed either in applications or being treated unkindly in the workplace, or being dismissed when they succeeded. I said, "Well, that isn't right."  All people should be supported when they succeed. It's made me feel better about the barriers that I've faced at various times. You just say, "Well, let's bring the barriers down by uniting together. Let's get together and point out that there are no women teaching organ in a conservatory.”

None?

No. There are no women teaching organ in a conservatory in North America. And there are only two women serving as Cathedral musicians in a major city: Jennifer Pascual here in New York at St. Patrick's Cathedral and Crista Miller at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston. There are women in some large churches in the Midwest. Down in Texas, there are large numbers of women organists in Houston and Dallas because there are so many strong Protestant communities of the various mainline Protestant churches—Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists.

Then in colleges, there are about 80 women teaching organ in liberal arts colleges across the United States. But the vast majority of those are in towns and villages, the same as I am teaching at Vassar College. Vassar College is a wonderful place but it's in the small town of Poughkeepsie [NY].  That's the case with most women teaching organ in our country. There are very few women teaching at research universities, mostly in the Midwest or the far West that can immediately comes to mind, a number of women teaching organ in some of the Big 10 universities and in the far West in research universities. But those numbers are tiny—Tiny, tiny numbers of women who will lead a college organ program at a big university. In the East, there's virtually no one. No one at all.

Do you think that's because it's a traditional Anglo-Saxon instrument? A male-dominated profession?

That's part of it, that the clergy for many centuries were gentlemen and the musicians for many centuries were gentlemen. That is part of it but I don't think it's all of it. I think it's just a field that's resistant to change. Think of the orchestras. In the '60s and '70s, the orchestras of the Unites States and elsewhere too were predominantly gentlemen. But then the unions…I actually looked into this. I was going to conclude that in my article but then it got away from me. It was just too broad a category to talk about in the article. It made it too long.

I did talk to them. The local musicians union here in New York, Local 802, began to petition for blind auditions to change the system because the first violinist would give his chair to his favorite student. That would inevitably be a young man who would simply follow his mentor. The organ world still works like that. A gentleman will pass his position on to his student. There will be very few searches.

There are some colleges or conservatories that have particularly generous scholarship programs. They will control a lot of the placement of their own students. That makes it difficult for outstanding women, too, because if you don't graduate from that particular school and you have nobody to be your advocate in the system, you might be a really wonderful player, but no one wants to talk to you because you're outside of this circle of persons who are exchanging opportunity with one another.

Women should move forward on the basis of their education, skills and accomplishment. Everybody should. It should not just be that someone can place you in a position on a verbal recommendation. It makes too closed and narrow an opportunity for people. It's got to be a more objective process.

That makes sense, and leads us to your work with MuseForum.

That's why I started [MuseForum]. I wanted to draw attention to the beautiful work that women are doing in so many corners, but they're unsung because they won't be in the major cities. They won't be in a cathedral church or teaching at a conservatory, or working at a research university. The political forces working against them getting the job or even being considered for the job are tremendous. They're not going to get the chance to even apply let alone get an interview. You have to have a sense of humor about it because it's not an open system. That's what I'm speaking about in the most kind and positive way. I'd like to see more openness and more opportunity for people based on their education and their skills.

I wonder how much of that has to do with not just the demand for the organ but the specialization of the organ . . .  because there's plenty of pianists.

Right. There are plenty of women pianists but it's tougher for women organists. It's much tougher. The survey also showed was that the majority in towns and villages, the majority of the organists are women. Many, many women in the field. Many, many. But in the major cities where the prestige is in the cathedral churches or in the large universities, or in conservatories and conservatories virtually never have a search. It's an internal appointment.

That's why there are no women teaching organ in conservatories because it's all internal appointment. You can't even apply for the job. There's no process. So what I'm suggesting is that there needs to be a fair process. That's what the orchestras went to, a fair process where you don't know whether the players are gentlemen or ladies. If the fourth person plays the most beautiful bassoon audition, the fourth person gets the chair whether it's Mary or Mike.

But that’s what we do in every other industry. There's equal opportunity for everything else.

Of course. That's part of the problem in the organ world too. The American Guild of Organists holds a meeting every other year and there is equity in that week-long meeting. They're very careful to make sure that half the performers and half the lecturers are women and half are gentlemen. But that's only for the space of time of the conference.

I just would like to see greater equity in the workplace, a process involved that would allow women, highly educated women, to move forward in all institutions that engage organists; churches, conservatories and colleges.  

How do you choose the composers, the music that you're going to work with, or the music, the sets that you'll perform? Do you just choose what speaks to you the most or do you have a more thorough process for that?

That's an interesting question. With early music, my dissertation was on a 17th Century woman, Barbara Strozzi. She worked in Venice in the 17th Century, so I started out doing a lot of work with performance practice and early fingering, and trills and ornaments and all sorts of things like that. It always was interested in that, still am. I look across the board in the early music. Yes, we all have to play the Bach but I try to look at music that's a little bit off the beaten path there. I've played quite a bit of early Dutch music, some of the composers before Bach. Buxtehude is very well known but there are many other composers in that group. Vincent Lübeck is one of them.

I'm always interested in playing pieces that other people may not play. So I like doing that. Then in the 19th century [pieces], I got very interested in the German Romantics particularly, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Max Reger, all of that music was very interesting because it was inspired, much of it Brahms, too. I wish Brahms had written more organ music actually, but he didn't.

I was interested in all of that because it was sparked by the Bach Revival in the 19th Century by the scholarship in Germany and Mendelssohn and Schumann had a lot to do with that, bringing Bach back. We can't imagine Bach not being with us ,but he wasn't for quite a while after his death, not until the second quarter of the 19th century when Mendelssohn and his contemporaries started to investigate what for them was old music.

I'm interested in all that Bach Revival music, and I was interested in Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, some of the women who were associated with those composers. I've played quite a bit of their music for that reason. Modern music, I was interested in Messiaen because I was drawn to all the Gregorian Chant and the spirituality in that music. I played all of that. I'm a Roman Catholic, so I was keenly drawn to Messiaen. I played his complete works here in New York. That has led me in a lot of interesting directions, to commission pieces from women composers.

I'm always looking for interesting new music that's got really challenging rhythms. I play a piece by Libby Larsen, for example, called Aspects of Glory. She's the composer in residence in Minneapolis at the Philharmonic there. They had three movements but it draws on American hymn tunes and folk songs. But it's really challenging rhythmically. It's demanding and I like that. I like demanding music that requires a lot of me technically. That's what attracted me to Messiaen too, all these tiny gradations of rhythmic gestures. I always found that really interesting, so rhythm is a big issue for me.

You've played all over the world. Can you talk about maybe one most memorable experience, either with a set that you were doing or a particular organ that you were able to play and have some kind of significance?

The most distinguished organ for me is the great Arp Schnitger organ at St. Jacobi Church in Hamburg. Arp Schnitger's gate. He was born in the Hamburg, Germany area. He was born out in one of the villages outside Hamburg. His life dates are almost exactly the same as Stradivarius. It's interesting these two great instrument builders were on the planet exactly at the same time, one in Germany and one in Italy.

There are about 150 instruments still in Europe in the low countries and in Scandinavia, and in Germany and Austria built by Arp Schnitger. And one of the greatest of them all is in St. Jacobi Church in Hamburg. I've played concerts on that organ three times, one of the great thrills of my life ever to play on that organ. It's so powerful. It was built in 1693. It's four manuals in a beautiful, beautiful church. It's a really great organ. So those concerts were very special for me. My great-grandmother was born in Hamburg, so my mother's family is from there.  After the first one and I came home and gave the program to my mother. It was her grandmother. It was really meaningful all the way around. It's really connected to my mother's family and the fact that we were from there long, long ago. That was meaningful.

That sounds amazing. Is there anything else that you'd like to add, either about your current work or the future?

I want to investigate music I don't know. Some projects that are on the horizon, I'm doing a new project with Jewish organ literature because I work over at Central Synagogue. I present concerts there. I'm not the musician there but I do work with the Wiener Foundation that presents concerts there every month. There's a wonderful body of Jewish organ music and I'm going to be learning some of that and presenting that in concerts. It's music I don't know and I'm interested to do some hunting around.

I'll plan to be recording probably the end of the summer or in the early fall of this year. That won't be released for a while after that. But I've found the venue and I know where I'm going to be doing the project, so that's something that's on the horizon, too. I'm always looking for music I don't know.

You’re always learning.

That's it,  I'm always learning. I'm always looking to shed light on dark corners. I think that's a good thing to do. Sometimes I think the organ world focuses a lot on 19th Century French music of all kinds. I think there's a lot of beautiful music there but some of it is overplayed. I think we need to have wider horizons to keep the organ itself fresh, to bring something new to the listener . . .  a healthy open investigating kind of spirit.