Instruments that Speak to/for/against Us


I started out Roman Catholic in the 1970s, which was a mixed time for Catholic hymnody. On the one hand, the conservatives who still hadn’t gotten over Vatican Council II (1963-7) still insisted on the organ (and thankfully we didn’t have one of those arrghanists who play at half speed and twice the loudness!) and on the other hand us younger/more liberal crazy kids wen to the so-called “folk” masses with guitars and hymns that had actually been written by somebody who wasn’t dead. (You can clearly see into which camp I fall, yodeling.)

In theory I understand a friend who finds the idea of anything less grand than an organ being an affront (I guess) to God’s grandeur. But let me tell you a story. Sometime about ten years ago I was in a Catholic church in Boston that in fact did and still does have an arghanist of the kind I described above. But to this particular Mass, the pastor had invited some young men from an orphanage in Haiti to come and speak to the congregation (and collect money, natch). I don’t remember what the processional hymn was but the two young men had their long drums suspended from their necks and were drumming away behind our singing—that is, until they reached the altar, when they stopped and the organ picked up the accompaniment. Well, I say, accompaniment, but in fact I found myself drowned out. As a female in the Catholic Church, I had felt that way before from time to time, but only metaphorically. But that experience—of the big, loud, low and therefore symbolically male voice of the Organ drowning out not only my female voice, but also the “voice” of young men whose country had been colonized by the western church—that was probably one of the last times I set foot in a Catholic church as a Catholic.

Now I am mostly happily Protestant—Episcopalian (we have women priests! and bishops! and gay priests! and bishops! Ask Me How!)—but I still get that icky feeling when I hear organ music, like somebody’s voice is being drowned out and nobody is even noticing except me. They invented the piano for a reason, people!

And I think about this because one of my Facebook groups, Scottish Clans & Families, had a post about how you know you have Scottish blood when the pipes speak to you like no other instrument could. And I started thinking about how we identify ourselves not just with things you can see, like pictures or desk toys, but also with things you can hear. The organ fills me with moral outrage. Bagpipes make me cry (in a good way, but I am also an old softie). Last summer at the alumni reunion at Middlebury, they had a piper standing just below Mead Chapel playing for an hour before the big convocation. On the other side of campus, I heard the music and immediately moved in that direction, in tears, like there was some big emotional switch in my bone marrow that the fellow had turned on from a quarter mile away.

I’m not quite sure if I have a conclusion about all of this, unless it is “humans are weird.”

3 comments on “Instruments that Speak to/for/against Us

  1. Widdershins says:

    Hmm … I have that exact time I hear bagpipes too, all my life. 😀


  2. PJS says:

    As do I, and I’m 99% sure that I have no Scottish blood.


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