Wakefield Doc Fest: Bow before the King of Instruments in Pipe Dreams

Competitor Yuan Shen in a scene from the documentary Pipe Dreams. Photo: Van Royko

The Wakefield Doc Fest is about to open its 11th event on Feb. 7 with a packed month of films from Canada and from around the world. The opening documentary is Pipe Dreams by Montreal’s Stacey Tenenbaum, whose film Shiners was at the festival a few years ago. ARTSFILE reconnected with Stacey to ask about this exploration of an organ competition, the people who participate and the King of Instruments. For details on the films being screened please see wakefielddocfest.ca.

Q. Stacey, please tell me about your first experience listening to an organ in competition.

A. The first time I saw the organ being played was actually at the first edition of the Canadian International Organ Competition (CIOC) in 2008. The final round of the competition is held at Notre Dame Cathedral here in Montreal. A friend of the family gave me tickets. I didn’t want to go, since I had no interest in organ music, but it was an obligation. We received the tickets from our friend who also happens to be the artistic director of the competition. As soon it started I was blown away.

The music was like nothing I had ever heard in church. The competitors played everything from Bach to modern music. That was a huge surprise. The bigger surprise was just how incredibly complex the organ is to play. I had never seen anybody play one until that night and it was like nothing I had ever seen. They play a whole keyboard with their feet and then four other keyboards with their hands — and then there are all these buttons and pistons. The only thing I could think about was how could anybody ever learn to play this fiendishly difficult instrument — especially since they can’t take it home to practice. Finally, I was really surprised and intrigued by the age of the competitors who were all under 35. It seemed odd to me how these young, seemingly hip people were playing what I thought was an archaic instrument. 

Stacey Tenenbaum

Q. The organ was at one time the largest machine ever built by man. It is considered the king of instruments. What do you think?

A. It is definitely the king of instruments — nothing is louder, bigger or more complicated. There is so much to love about the organ. First of all it is a work of art in itself. Each instrument is unique and is hand made for the specific church or concert hall where it rests. It is actually the acoustics of the space combined with the instrument which creates the music. Then there is just the range of sounds it can make from the deepest, loudest rumbles to almost imperceptible high notes. Apparently, organs were used back in the day to bring orchestral music to small towns. An organ can mimic a multitude of instruments and it can play many at the same time. So if you can’t afford to hire an orchestra all you need is an organist. I think that’s pretty cool.

Q. The organ, because it is associated with church, struggles for recognition in a secular world. Thoughts?

A. I think that is a big problem. A lot of people associate organs with church so they don’t think of it as an instrument in its own right. I bet most people don’t even know that you can go to organ concerts outside of church. A few cities are getting organs in their symphony halls now which I think is a great thing to be able to bring the instrument to a wider audience. I was just in China showing the film and was really shocked to see a giant concert hall packed with mostly young people who were out to hear four organists play. That was very telling. Since the organ is not associated with church over there the audience just appreciates it for the incredible musical instrument which it is.

Then there is the problem that when most people think of organ they think of church music. Many have no idea about the amazing repertoire of music that can be played on the organ. There are so many great modern composers still composing for the instrument and the music is nothing like what you hear at church. I think my film does a really good job of showing the range of music that can be played on the organ. I hope it turns a few more people onto the instrument. I keep saying the organ is the ultimate hipster instrument just waiting to be discovered.

Q. Are you now a fan of organ music? Who do you listen to?

A. Of course I am a fan. I am ever more of a fan having made this film. Now that I have spent a few years really living in that world I know a lot more about the music and I appreciate it even more now. I listen to and love Bach but there are so many more composers. I love Louis Vierne, Maurice Duruflé and Marcel Dupré. I also really like the Canadian composers Bruce Mather and Rachel Laurin, who I had the pleasure to meet while I was filming Pipe Dreams. 

Q. When did you decide to make Pipe Dreams? 

A. The idea to make Pipe Dreams came from the cameraman I was working with on my last film. We were on a shoot for my film Shiners and out of the blue he told me that he wanted to make a film about the organ competition in Montreal. I was really surprised when he said that. I told him I was friends with the artistic director of the CIOC so I had an in. It just took off from there. The CIOC welcomed us in with open arms and gave us the type of access most documentary filmmakers dream of. I think it really shows in the film. We are everywhere with these competitors.

It’s a pretty cool feeling to turn somebody onto something they might not have thought they would be interested in or to change their minds about an instrument they thought they knew. We actually had a live organ concert after the premiere of Pipe Dreams at Hot Docs and the audience was packed with first time organ-concert goers. That was a real high point for me.

Q. Please tell me about the five people you followed. 

A. They range in ages from 19-31 years old and they couldn’t be more different than each other.

• Alcee Chirss III is a young African American organist from Texas who is infusing his organ music with jazz and gospel flavours.
• Nick Capzzoli is a virtuoso player from Pittsburgh who is really into modern composers — he pays a John Cage piece in the film.
• Yuan Shen is an organ professor 
from Beijing who is incredibly driven and fierce in her playing.
• Thomas Gaynor is just as nice as you would 
expect somebody from Wellington, New Zealand to be. He is the type of talent that makes it look effortless — which is saying something considering the complexity of the instrument.
• Finally, Sebastian Heindl from Leipzig is the youngest competitor to have ever competed in the CIOC. He is a real genius and is mature way beyond his years. I got to film with him in Leipzig in the church where Bach played for most of his career. That was a real thrill. 

All are really smart and sweet people. There are no villains in the film. I love that people who watch the film are often rooting for different competitors. Everybody has their favourites. Of course I love them all equally.

I chose them because of their personalities and back stories and also because I felt they were good enough to make it past at least the first elimination round of the competition. There are three eliminations so I didn’t want to lose my whole cast right off the top.

Q. What did you learn from doing this project?

A. Mostly I learned about organ music. I now have a much deeper appreciation for the music itself as well as for the musicians. I had no idea how hard they work to play at this level. They really are like elite athletes in terms of the amount they practice.  Most of them regularly practiced for anywhere from four to 11 hours a day. Since they can only practice when the churches are empty that usually meant playing through the night. 

Q. Shiners was a lovely film about people who make a living doing something that might seem pedestrian and demeaning with great spirit and pride. Are there similarities with the people in Pipe Dreams?

A. There are actually a lot of similarities with the shoe shiners in Shiners. First I think there is a real feeling among organists that they are practicing an overlooked and possibly dying art. Many churches are closing and many organs are being lost. The audience for organ music is aging and there is not much new blood coming in. I think that is a large part about why they were eager for me to do this film. Organists do want to bring their music to a larger audience. The other similarity was the pride and dedication shown by both. It is in their blood and they clearly love what they do. 

Q. Will people see this film beyond the Wakefield festival? TV?

A. The film is at the end of its festival season but I still have a few more coming up. It will be at Wakefield in Feb and in Belleville and Kingston in March. The film is also screening on the documentary channel on Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. The channel shows some of the best documentary films being made right now and they are also a huge supporter of the Canadian film industry. I wouldn’t be able to make my films if it weren’t for them and other funders like the Rogers Group of Funds, Telefilm, and the Canada Media Fund. We are so blessed here in Canada to have these resources and I think that’s why our documentary film industry is world class.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. I am actually in the middle of filming my third documentary. It’s called Scrap and it is about the places around the world where things such as planes, ships and trains go when they are no longer in use. The film focuses collectors, recyclers and artists and looks at their connection to the things we leave behind. I’m calling it an environmental art film since the imagery is simply stunning. The documentary channel will also be broadcasting Scrap once it is done — probably some time in 2021.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.