Heavenly Resonance: Self-Care and the Pipe Organ
For many, 2020 provided seemingly endless obstacles to sound mental health. I don’t feel I need to recap its headlines again here- to be human in the past year was to experience entirely uncharted territory. We felt sustained threats to our safety, both physical and financial. If you go by Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, when our fundamental need for safety is not met, we are unable to pursue the more elevated needs of self-esteem and self-actualization. Moreover, to deal with this malnourishment in the social isolation of quarantine seems nigh impossible. The statistics bear this out: according to the CDC, 36.9% of Americans experienced symptoms of anxiety of depression in December of 2020, though the average goes up to 44.1% when considering ages 18-49. In tandem with the increase in anxiety and depression, the WHO has documented the decline of mental health services in 93% of countries, with lower-income countries less able to transition into telehealth services being hit the hardest. For myriad reasons, self-care has become the default treatment option for most people, tragic as that is.
The term “self-care” is vague, and may entail something different for every individual. It could be something as stringent as a half-hour transcendental meditation every morning before yoga, or something as stringent as eating a transcendental pint of Ben & Jerry’s every night. The only common factor is that you find the time and energy to do something only for yourself, and perhaps most importantly, that you acknowledge you deserve it. Anxiety and Depression so frequently sap our time, energy, and self-worth, so it is no small task to perform self-care, whatever it may be. That is to say, this post is in no way meant to be prescriptive, but merely a way to share one of the self-care strategies I’ve used in the past year.
Aside from watching the ever-comforting Peter Falk in the first 6 seasons of Columbo (ok, that I do actually prescribe), listening to music that heavily features the pipe organ has been the most soothing aspect of my self-care. As a music therapist, it may not be surprising that I have turned to music to provide therapeutic benefits, but such is the specificity of my experiences with the pipe organ that I’d like to explore more deeply why I’ve found it so helpful in diminishing anxiety. For several reasons, pipe organs have almost mystical properties. They often tower above halls of worship, ricocheting notes off florid depictions of long-deceased saints, their silver pipes ascending above the keyboard consoles like inverted icicles of sound. Access to pipe organs is extremely limited; unless you attend church services, you may never even see one, and even then, it isn’t guaranteed that someone will be playing it. A pipe organ out in the wild? Not likely. Functionally, when I consider all the different levers and foot pedals required to play it, I have little idea of how the instrument works. As such, the pipe organ carries a great mystique before I even hear a note of music.
I should clarify that the application of the pipe organ I’ve gravitated towards is more aligned with the minimalist and drone genres, as opposed to the classical repertoire. While I of course admire the work of a composer like Bach, I find his organ music to veer away from the attributes I’m looking for, namely the emphasis of the instrument being a breathing, living thing in a physical space. The coronavirus, such a definitive part of being alive right now, primarily affects the respiratory system. We are all very conscious of our breath right now, face masks creating a necessary barrier between us and an unfettered, cool inhalation. What better music to listen to than an instrument that constantly sounds like it’s deeply breathing? On an album like Kali Malone’s Sacrificial Code (two hours of slow and repetitive compositions, my current favorite album in this sub-genre of experimental pipe organ music), you can hear each note being powered by the air traveling up the pipes. It always reminds me to take a few deep breaths.
While I may not know how to play it, I do know that all the interrelated parts of a pipe organ make it a wonderfully imperfect instrument, easily affected by things like temperature and humidity. If you listen closely to extended notes, perhaps those on Sarah Davachi’s Cantus, Descant, there are constantly shifting oscillations that occur when two notes are not quite in tune- no second of the music is the same as the one before it. On his recent album Quellgeister#3 Bussd, Stefan Fraunberger even went out of his way to record an abandoned pipe organ that had truly been relegated to the atrophy of time. The days of being in quarantine can often blend together in a gray mush of time. Though somewhat morbid, when I hear the labored breath and clacking machinations of a past-its-prime organ, I am reminded of my own mortality, and subsequently, that I am currently very alive.
As mentioned, pipe organs are primarily situated in cavernous spaces of worship. Many recordings will emphasize this space, such as Anna Von Hausswolff’s All Thoughts Fly. The way in which the sound echos and reverberates is as much part of the experience as the notes themselves. We have lost most of our access to interior spaces during the pandemic, including those in which we can hear music being performed. As a resident of New York City, my experience of the past 10 months has mostly been limited to 3-4 rooms, with all the cabin fever and claustrophobia that entails. Music that purposefully foregrounds being in a large interior space has been extremely useful in providing escape for me.
As an inaugural post for my blog, experimental pipe organ music is a laughably esoteric subject. I want to emphasize that self-care needn’t be complex or erudite. I have certainly spent plenty of time traversing my island in Animal Crossing to find the fourth fossil of the day, or watching the entirety of season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race in two days. At the same time, as a creative arts therapist, I will advocate for some kind of engagement with the arts to provide self-care, especially if you have no access to any mental health services. The arts are fundamentally about processing the world when no other expression is sufficient. For me, there has never been so much to process and so few outlets to do so; I’m grateful that I’ve been able to step out of myself once in a while, into the expanding breath of the pipe organ.
E. (n.d.). UN Warns of Mental Health Crisis Due to COVID-19. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://www.ehstoday.com/health/article/21135466/un-warns-of-mental-health-crisis-due-to-covid19
U. (2021, January 06). Mental Health - Household Pulse Survey - COVID-19. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/pulse/mental-health.htm