Pulling Out All the Stops to Understand a Distant Father

Interior, Hallgrímskirkja Church, Reyjavik, Iceland. Photo by Krista Stevens.

At The Walrus, in an excerpt from his book The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind, Mark Abley deconstructs the pipe organ, examining its components, appearance in history and popular culture, and its powerful capacity for meaning via sound as he recounts his distant father Harry’s obsession with the instrument and with musical composition and arrangement — often at a cost to his personal relationships.

Above all, my father was a musician. He played, he conducted, he taught, he accompanied, he composed. When I was a boy, he would sometimes appear at the dining table with a pencil behind his right ear and an abstracted distracted look in his hazel–green eyes. After a few bites of food and a cursory exchange of words, he would excuse himself, return to the piano—the central item of furniture in each of his many homes—and play, over and over, some musical phrase. Just a few bars at a time, with tiny variations. Listening to him, short sighted as I was, I thought about how my optometrist would keep toying with the refractor’s glassy settings to arrive at a correct prescription. When a melody or chord had been fixed to my father’s satisfaction, and he had scribbled it down on the back of a used envelope or the previous Sunday’s church bulletin, he would resume his meal. My mother could be a stickler for proper manners and polite behaviour. But she tolerated these whims without complaint, knowing they were anything but whims. When my father was composing music—for choir, organ, solo voice, or piano, and occasionally, for other instruments too—he was happy, or something approaching it. Those were the good times, the times when nobody had to worry about his state of mind.

In each of their homes, my mother placed a crucifix on the living–room wall, and my father hung a portrait of Bach on the wall above his desk. Music ruled his life.

It did not rule mine, and therefore, his was a life I could not fully enter. I never took an organ lesson; maybe he was waiting for me to ask, or maybe I was waiting for him. More likely, he needed to maintain a private space away from the demands of his family, just as I needed to create an imaginative world in which my parents would not be dominant. An organ, any organ, no matter how shrill its tone or limited its range, would give him the space he craved. Not every organ held stops that allowed my father to speak with both the voix céleste and the vox humana. Yet he was a master at coaxing beauty out of unlikely vessels, making even the weakest instrument sound sweet or strong. To his wife and child, the language he lived and breathed was a foreign tongue: the language of a distant nation. The language of organists.

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