The Lower Registers
by André Forget
I arrived in the city on a Tuesday afternoon, under low clouds. I walked out of the train station, and the statues in the park, the grey faces, the homeless people shuffling beneath the trees seemed to belong to another time. My hotel was up the hill, across from the citadel, but I followed the station road twisting down to Bishop’s Wharf. I’d seen the water from the window of the train as we came in along the port. Grey like the weather.
Everything on the waterfront was new and clean but the water itself. I smoked a cigarette and threw the butt into the filthy scrim licking the wooden piles. The smell of salt and kelp and dead things clung to the pier. I was completely alone.
On the far shore, I could see the holding tanks and cooling towers of the derelict refinery flat against the horizon. The pilot flame of the flare stack extinguished. In between, the sleek back of a small island rising from the water, and in the distance another, larger one. It was the harbour I was interested in. It was one of the deepest in the Maritimes, and for years had been the place where Europeans stepped out of their histories to become happy, provincial Canadians. And now, below its surface, a machine was being built—the first in this country, the largest in the world. Yet there was no evidence of it at all.
It started to rain, and I walked up to my hotel. The lobby was sepulchral. A long, washed-out man standing behind the front desk pushed his glasses up his nose and asked if he could help me. He didn’t look like he wanted to. I told him my name and he consulted his computer screen. He began looking for the plastic key card.
“Business,” he said, and I realized he was asking why I had come.
“I’m writing a piece about the organ.”
“Oh that.” He gave me a look. “What a stupid idea. Typically stupid. This city is always coming up with these stupid ideas. It’s because of the money. They keep thinking one of these stupid ideas is going to be make a pile of money for the city. Never occurs to them to invest in something that might actually feed some folks, but there’s always a hand-out for some halfwit professor with a bonkers idea that will ‘really put Halifax on the map.’ You heard about the refinery? Turning it into terminal for cruise ships. Say it’ll boost the local economy. Bring in those American dollars. As if someone on a goddamn cruise is going to stay at my hotel.”
I tried to look sympathetic. He hadn’t handed over my key yet. “Perhaps with the organ it will be different,” I said.
The proprietor nodded. There was a twitch around his left eye that made it look like he was winking. “Listen, I’m United Church myself, so it’s not like I’m against organs as such. Used to love listening to my gran play the one they had up at St. Matthew’s. Beautiful sound, especially with those old hymns. You know, ‘Holy Holy Holy,’ ‘O God, Our Help In Ages Past’—get all choked up just thinking about it. They took it out when the young minister decided to get rid of the hymns and play everything on his guitar. Real asshole. No sense for the tradition. I’m telling you this only so’s you know I’m what you might call sympathetic to the organ, generally. What I don’t understand is, if they were going to build the biggest organ in the world, why did they decide to put it at the bottom of the harbour?”
The origins of hydroörganonology are deeply contested. Print references to underwater organs are almost non-existent before the 19th century, but this has not stopped some of the more enthusiastic hydroörganonologists from arguing that they are nearly as old as their more famous terrestrial counterparts. Archaeological evidence suggests a hydroörganon may have been among the many pleasures Tiberius arranged built as part of his Villa Jovis on Capri, though it is so scant—and the possibility so unlikely, given the villa’s placement high on a rocky outcrop—that most scholars view it with extreme suspicion. A more substantive find was discovered off the coast of Spain in 1977, consisting of several large pipes and a wind chest dating from the fifteenth century. But given that the remains are a mere kilometer from the site of a galleon known to have been wrecked en route from Genoa, the argument that it is a primitive hydroörganon, and not simply the scattered parts of a conventional organ, rather stretches credulity.
Most scholars agree that the first indisputable reference to an underwater organ comes with the publication of Giovanni Bonavista’s Catalogue of Musical Instruments New and Proposed in 1833, which includes schema for a rudimentary hydroörganon featuring ten pipes and a bellows operated through an ingenious series of hoses and manual pumps. While Bonavista claimed that the hydroörganon was a completely novel instrument (and was, in fact, the first to use the term “hydroörganon” to describe a subaqueous organ), this claim has been hotly debated. Skeptics point out that Bonavista was hardly scrupulous about offering credit where credit was due, and had a tendency to claim authorship for ideas for instruments that had venerable, if usually obscure, theoretical pedigrees.
Speculative hydroörganonics became a popular exercise for engineers and organ makers in the decades that followed. No less an inventor than Isambard Kingdom Brunel came up with a design for a hydroörganon to be built off the coast of Cornwall, while Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky are both reputed to have written works for the theoretical instrument (autographs are yet to be found of either).
But it was after the Second World War that hydroörganonology really came into its own as a discipline. During the postwar construction boom, several of the more experimental architects placed miniature (non-functional) hydroörganons in artificial ponds, marine parks, waterfalls, etc. John Cage’s journals are filled with references to the instrument, and he made several attempts in the sixties and seventies to raise funds to build a test hydroörganon off a rocky stretch of coastline near Eureka, California. It has been argued (most notably by Dr. Susan Shaw, the maverick director of Winnipeg’s new music festival during its turbulent and anarchic period in the late 1980s) that Cage’s legendary 4:33 was inspired by the paradoxical acoustical possibilities of a subaqueous organ. Shaw believed the piece’s famous four and a half minutes of silence were a tribute and gesture toward a future in which that silence could be filled by the deep tones of a hydroörganon. She even theorized that Cage had written a companion piece to 4:33 consisting of a score exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds in length to be played on a hydroörganon, once it had been invented.
But the beginning of modern hydroörganonology— hydroörganonology as a fully actualized musical discipline—is precisely datable.
On August 15th, 1993, an unknown aquatic engineer/architect/amateur organist named Kenji Saito announced that he had completed his “Senritsu,” the first full-scale, fully-functional hydroörganon to be built in the modern era, on a promontory off the coast of Numazu in Japan’s Suruga Bay. Overnight, hydroörganonology went from being a armchair science to a controversial new form of public art, one that united disciplines as diverse as acoustics, oceanography, architecture, and musicology.
Saito’s masterpiece offered both a concrete example of the challenges of practical hydroörganonics, and a new way of thinking about the musical (and musicological) possibilities of the instrument. The first public performance on the “Senritsu” featured a program built around Bach’s Clavier-Übung III, with some of Saito’s own improvisations thrown in to show the range of the instrument. A recording was made, but issues around ownership and copyright have kept it from public release. Those who have heard it note that it is vastly inferior to the experience of seeing the “Senritsu” in action.
But even at this, the first recorded performance of a hydroörganon, the audience members were sharply divided as to the nature of what they had witnessed. Most found the music itself completely secondary to the spectacle of watching the air jet and bubble out of the great pipes, and acknowledged they were at best only able to hear a rich humming sound, with a few quavering variations as new pipes were opened. But others, a decided, though not insubstantial minority, claim to have heard a completely breathtaking range of sound. Not the music of a terrestrial organ, but a completely faithful transformation of them, as though they were hearing Bach performed by whales. One account, from a professor of Baroque music who had been personally invited by Saito, likened the experience to listening to a skilled and inventive translator render Goethe into English.
Over the course of the late summer and early autumn of 1993, Saito brought several diving groups down to view the hydroörganon, and word began to spread in avant-garde musical circles and among the more speculative branches of musicology of this massive organ built into a rock face at the bottom of a Japanese bay. The question of what the hydroörganon meant, having been completed at a time when the traditional pipe organ seemed little more than an anachronistic hold over from a time when people didn’t have electricity and believed in God, quickly overshadowed the actual experience of listening to the hydroörganon being played—except for those stubborn few who insisted they heard something remarkable when the pipes were opened. Musicians and theorists made the pilgrimage to Numazu because they felt it would be gauche to write about the “Senritsu” if they hadn’t actually heard it. Some of them came away utterly changed; most of them managed to get something about it published in Music Perception or Interface.
As the winter of 1993-1994 set in, Saito stopped bringing groups down to “Senritsu,” citing the unpredictable weather conditions in Suruga Bay. He spent the winter in his cabin on the slopes of Mount Fuji, where he could see the restless waters and dream of his hydroörganon. It is generally agreed that it was during these months he wrote what would stand as his own most complete theoretical account of hydroörganonology: 深い音, usually translated in English as The Bass Note.
Saito resumed his tours the next spring, to redoubled interest from both the local and international Baroque and Classical scenes: he received letters from Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, and Kaija Saariaho, and was interviewed by the BBC. It was an odd story, and people liked its oddness. This young Japanese renaissance man, with a quasi-mystical theory of harmony and a deep love for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, had created an instrument that the professional music world had always imagined to be nothing more than a curiosity. And he had made it beautiful. Some even believed he had made it sing.
But Kenji Saito’s burgeoning career as the first professional hydroörganonist ended early in the morning on June 18th, 1995, when his body was found floating off the coast of Nishiizu. He was wearing his wetsuit and his mask was off, though his oxygen tank was still at thirty percent. It was clear he had drowned. No one, however, was ever able to explain why.
Saito’s tragic death, and the simultaneous publication of the English edition of The Bass Note, provided the impetus for the first academic conference dedicated to hydroörganonology. Held in Fuji in early 1996, it drew scholars from across the vast range of disciplines connected theoretically to the hydroörganon. But by far the most widely-attended panels were led by musicologists eager to establish that their own theories of the hydroörganon had the greatest explanatory power and revolutionary potential.
The Bass Note was a fascinating document, but it did not lay out any kind of coherent theoretical programme. Saito had seemed less interested in explaining what the hydroörganon meant than in exploring what it could do—and specifically, what it could do to Western music. Saito’s lens was highly idiosyncratic. Starting with Psalm 42:7 (“Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me”), Saito, whose father had been a Presbyterian minister, set out in brief an interpretation of the entire Baroque organ canon as an exploration of the idea of depth. Whereas traditional representations of Christian cosmology imagined the divine as being “above,” Saito posited that organ music is at its most powerful, and its most unique, in the lower registers. After several chapters dedicated to technical digressions on the nature of lower frequencies of sound, Saito arrived at what would appear to be the kernel of his argument: the divine is most present in the literal, sonic, geographic, and symbolic “depths.” God is the throbbing hum of an inhumanly low frequency, a bass note that sustains the universe. This, Saito believed, was the true meaning of the old musica universalis. By placing an organ, the instrument most capable of rendering deep registers (and the Western instrument most closely associated with divinity), in the literal depths of the ocean, the hydroörganon became a nexus of spiritual power.
Hydroörganonologists who read The Bass Note fell in love with it immediately, both for its technicality and its outrageousness, long and durable academic careers having been forged on far less.
What quickly came to be considered the mainstream of hydroörganonological theory derived less from Saito’s text itself (though it is generally, and, perhaps, carefully, acknowledged to be a classic of hydroörganonic theory) than with the secondary work of James Whitney and Nicola Fanucci, both of whom argued that the hydroörganon represented the end and apotheosis of Western music. In his book Trans-Musical Expressionism and the Aural Aquatic: Critical Essays on Kenji Saito’s ‘Senritsu,’ Whitney argued that in a world where most musicologists are still trapped in a logocentric obsession with sound as the essential basis for music, hydroörganonics heralded a rupture in its rejection of auralnormativity as a basis for the study of music, one that liberated musicology from the heteropatriarchal colonialist logic of late capitalism. What could be more revolutionary in the history of Western music, he argued in the final, incendiary essay, “Subaqueous Rhapsody,” than an organ that didn’t make any noise?
From a strictly musicological standpoint, Fanucci’s thesis followed a similar trajectory. Starting with the argument that, with the “Senritsu,” Saito had finally completed the long process of the deconstruction of the Western music tradition that began nearly a century earlier with Arthur Schoenberg, she garnered significant praise among eco-critics for showing that hydroörganonics also operated as a kind of environmentalist guerrilla aesthetics. Acknowledging that the building of Senritsu had caused some environmental damage to its immediate location (in order to accommodate the massive wind trunk, and the pumps bringing air down to fill it, a sizeable portion of rock had been blasted away), “Senritsu” ultimately symbolized a more “harmonious” (readers were coyly asked to pardon the pun) relationship between humans and their natural environment. And a side-effect of having such a valuable tourist attraction in what was still a commercial harbour meant local governments had to be more thoughtful about how they disposed of industrial waste: with scores of scuba divers descending to witness concerts every day, an unprecedented degree of attention was now being paid to water quality and biodiversity in Suruga Bay.
Not everyone, however, was equally taken with the novelty of “Senritsu,” nor was it universally understood to be the culmination of musical postmodernity.
Johann Schröder argued that the principles underlying “Senritsu” were the same that had governed Ctesibus of Alexandria’s 3rd century BCE hydraulas, which had established the essential blueprint of all future organs and hydroörganons: air forced through pipes of varying lengths and sizes to create vibrations of specific pitches, which were manipulated by opening and closing pipes. While Schröder conceded there was a degree of novelty in Saito’s idea of building a full-size, functioning pipe organ in Suruga Bay, he upbraided what he saw as an overly “fetishistic” tendency among the new stars of the hydroörganonics movement to paint the innovations of Saito and his followers as heralding a completely new era in the history of organ technology. What was really interesting about the hydrörganon, and about The Bass Note, Schröder argued, was Saito’s relationship to the tradition. Rather than seeing him as a kind of radical deconstructionist, Schröder suggested that Saito resembled no one so much as old Bach himself, who had likewise seen very clear parallels between the formal structure of music and the structure of the cosmos.
Of course, there were reactionary voices, too. Harold Johnson-Jones, a research chair in musicology at UCLA, gave a withering denunciation of Seito’s work at the Conference for Musical Aesthetics in Heidelberg in 1998. In his opening keynote, Johnson-Jones suggested “Senritsu” had as much artistic merit as the London Eye and about the same function. An earlier generation of musicologists, he argued, would not have been fooled by this kind of stunt. But the rise of postmodern theory had had such a corrosive, degrading effect that the once fine minds in his own department were now more interested in pumps and bubbles than the hard historical and theoretical work required to really understand the genius of the great composers. And as for the organists sucked in by this nonsense, well, what kind of commitment to craft could there be in playing a Bach chorale prelude, if no one could properly hear it? Where was the discipline required to master the old instruments and techniques, Johnson-Jones wanted to know. At least Picasso could paint like a realist when he wanted to. These young hydroörganonists had barely mastered their first concerto and already they were trying to reinvent the wheel. If these hydroörganonologists were so impressed with gimmicks, what did they think of the “wave organ” in San Francisco? Was this, too, a bold new aesthetic movement?
The hydroörganonologists present did not take this well, and insisted they had as much in common with the “wave organ” as a Stradivarius did with a plastic guitar.
Over the years, they would go to great lengths to distance what they believed was the purity of their own art from such vulgar popularizations as the cretinous “sea organ” of Zadar, with its inoffensive, repetitive harmonies, smug Croatian street vendors, and American tourists gasping at the middlebrow cleverness of it all. Likewise, the family-friendly hydraulophones, with their cute watery burbling good only for playing irredeemably banal pieces like Pachebel’s “Canon in D” and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” were mere circus games compared the grandeur and might of the hydroörganon.
To everyone’s surprise, after being little more than an academic curiosity during the first years of its official existence, hydroörganonology became a serious concern. Local and national governments began to take an interest in the economic possibilities of the hydroörganon. Following his death, Saito’s remarkable accomplishments, and the tragic, made-for-television arc of his creative life began to attract media attention. Profiles followed in The New Yorker, Der Spiegel, Le Figaro, and National Geographic. Television crews interviewed his artistic peers, his assistants, his bewildered parents. They interviewed Schröder and Fanucci, whose expensive words and Ivy League diction cast the enterprise in an excitingly intellectual light. Attempts were made (in vain) to unmask his mysterious financial backers. Famous organists agreed to give performances on “Senritsu,” and tourists flocked to Suruga Bay to watch them.
There was still a clear divide, among those who witnessed performances on the hydroörganon, as to whether they were, in fact, listening to anything. Those who said they were (always a minority) claimed they simply had a more refined musical sensitivity. Those who said they weren’t tended to assume those who said they were (“sonicists,” they called themselves) were hopeless exaggerators and poseurs, the same kind of people who believed they could tell the difference between a Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2002 and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2006. But as “Senritsu” was such an awesome sight to behold, spectators continued to don their wetsuits and descend for the daily performances. As for the musicologists, such questions generally didn’t interest them; they settled on whatever accounts best suited the critical narrative they were trying to build around hydroörganonology.
Plenty of cities have made a tourist industry out of music. But whereas the restaurants and hotels of Salzburg have benefitted from the Mozart festivals, Numazu, the nearest town to “Senritsu,” also raked in cash from the rental of SCUBA gear, the chartering of boats, and tours of the various sites associated with the secretive Saito’s life.
Other coastal cities realized that there was a substantial economic incentive for backing similar projects in their own jurisdictions. Given the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, a working hydroörganon cost significantly less than a new concert hall and provided a similar kind of high-culture prestige, the early 2000s were a feverish period of hydroörganon construction.
The first to be built after the “Senritsu” was the smaller but in many ways more elegant “Mission” outside of San Francisco, followed by the “Imperatore” in the Gulf of Naples, in honour of the legendary hydroörganon Tiberius was supposed to have had at Villa Jovis. Hydroörganons were built in New York, Marseille, Seattle, Dubrovnik, Edinburgh, Copenhagen. It became a symbol of status, a way of establishing a city’s cultural, cosmopolitan bona fides. New pieces of music were written with the hydroörganon in mind, which dovetailed nicely with the development of popular electronic drone music. The “Senritsu” was even featured during a chase scene in a James Bond film, the air bubbles from its pipes providing a screen for Bond’s escape after a particularly tense encounter with the agents of a Russian cartel.
Construction tapered off after the recession of 2008, however. It was hard to justify spending money on something so frivolous to a population being asked to surrender its retirement for the sake of austerity. There was also the matter of the aging ideological combatants in the theoretical world of hydroörganonology, who could drum up little sympathy for the cultural wars of the nineties among the new generation of hydroörganonologists, all of whom were much more interested in critiquing the barriers facing upcoming women hydroörganonists and hydroörganonists of colour in accessing the resources needed to enter the highly competitive world of professional hydroörganonics than in designing newer, larger, more creative hydroörganons.
And so it came as exciting, though somewhat puzzling news, when the Chebucto Project announced it would be building the world’s largest hydroörganon in Halifax Harbour. Rumour had it that the same family of oil billionaires who controlled most of the industry on the East Coast were behind the venture, but it has so far proved impossible to either confirm or deny this. And hydroörganonologists have never been particularly zealous about following the money trail behind their favourite projects.
The bar below Prince and Argyle was not the kind I would have walked into if I weren’t travelling on an expense account. Everything in it was old except for the servers, who were very young. I took off my jacket and sat at the bar and ordered a dark beer. I asked the bartender what she thought of the organ. She looked at me as though she wasn’t sure what I was talking about.
“The organ being built in the harbour,” I said.
She told me she thought organs were supposed to be in churches. When I told her they didn’t need to be, she shrugged. Someone else sat down at the bar and I was left alone with my beer.
What am I doing here, I wondered. And then I thought of the years I had spent sending out pitches, covering concerts, doing profiles. Writing about who was getting funding, what pieces were being played in the upcoming season. Which alcoholic European maestro had landed somewhere uncritically provincial to drink away the last third of his career. A photograph of a pipe organ wrapped in swaying strands of kelp above my desk.
I first heard of hydroörganonology in 2008. I was living with a cellist in Montreal. She had a part-time job playing with the OSM, and one night, after a performance of Mahler’s 2nd, she invited some of her friends from the string section back to our apartment after the bars closed. I still thought I was an artist, then, and was supporting myself by teaching piano. I didn’t have many students. Most nights I stayed up late, and most mornings I slept in. My afternoons I spent in the Latin Quarter, or walking through Parc La Fontaine. I sat on benches reading biographies of great composers. Realizing no one would ever write mine.
When the strings section descended on our apartment, I dug out our last bottle of Canadian Club from the cupboard above the fridge. The kitchen and living room were packed with euphoric, sweating artists. They were all very happy, and I was miserable. I ended up on the roof, where I was joined by my girlfriend and Andrew, one of the first violists. They had not realized I was there (this was, I later learned, shortly after they had started sleeping together). He had just returned from Venice, where Antonio Carpaccio was building his “Serenissima” off the Lido di Venezia. He told us all about it. He’d gone to the Milan Conservatory with one of Carpaccio’s assistants, and when they reconnected over dinner after a concert Andrew had played in at the Teatro Fondamenta Nuove, the assistant had invited him to dive down to the build site the next day. Andrew said it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. I wasn’t sure what to think. My tastes were more conservative then. But I never forgot the picture he showed me, of the great pipes glowing softly in the blue light of the Adriatic.
Two months later, the cellist asked me to move out. Her career was taking off, and she was in love with Andrew, and by then I had given up on playing music. I only wanted to write about it. It was purer, somehow. A photograph of blue sunlight playing over a set of stainless steel pipes eight fathoms down had convinced me of that. Of all the arts, the beauty of music is the most unreliable. One can only experience it in time. The idea of music, however, is eternal.
I thought about all of this in a bar below Argyle Street, as I drank dark beer and watched the young servers bring minimalistic plates of seafood to the old and wealthy. I wondered what the men in cravats thought of the hydroörganon.
But the bartender didn’t say anything more about it, and neither did I.
The next morning I woke hung over at 8:25. Rain on the window. I was supposed to be meeting a man named John Philips at a café on the other side of the harbour at 9:30. I didn’t know what schedule the ferries ran on, or whether I should take the bus. The hotel’s complimentary coffee tasted like tree bark. The shower never got warmer than tepid. I hadn’t unpacked my clothes. I hadn’t written my questions. I only had a general idea of what I wanted to know. Why build a hydroörganon in Halifax. Why build a hydroörganon now. Why make it the largest in the world. What was there to prove?
The whole thing felt meaningless and absurd.
When I got to the café, I was fifteen minutes late and soaking wet. Philips had already had a coffee and a croissant. The café was famous for its croissants, he explained. I really had to have one. It was part of the experience. They were the best croissants in the Maritimes. I told him I’d eaten at my hotel. The water from my jacket dripped onto the floor below me.
Philips was the kind of Easterner who, despite never having really spent any time on a boat or outside of the city, feels that being born in a certain proximity to the sea entitles him to pronouncements on the nautical life. He spoke about the beauty of the Atlantic, the tragedy of the fishery, the humble nobility of fishermen—all that Lost Salt Gift of Blood shit.
He seemed more comfortable when speaking about the importance of Nova Scotia, the vibrant cultural scene. Halifax, he told me, was a “world city.” Haligonians had music and the ocean in their blood. He himself was a great music lover. Listened to music all the time. Had I heard of Joel Plaskett? Great local musician. And did I know he lived just up the way? Also a great city for fiddle music, Halifax. If I couldn’t get to a “genuine east coast kitchen party,” I should check out one of the excellent bars along Argyle Street. Had I heard about the first-rate nightlife in Halifax? People who visited Halifax loved to hear that wonderful, authentic, totally unique, world famous East Coast fiddle music played at open mic nights. People from all over the world came. Nova Scotia was like “no other place on earth.” Which is why it was the perfect place to build the largest organ—sorry, yes, hydroörganon—the world had ever seen. He was proud to represent the provincial government’s interest in the project. “Music and the ocean: you won’t find two more authentically Nova Scotia things in all your born days.”
Something about the way he said this made me wonder if he used phrases like “all your born days” when talking to people who actually lived here. But what I asked was whether or not he had any qualms about the fact that the organ was going to be underwater. Were Haligonians, with their famous love of music, going to be diving down to witness the dull heaving of the pipes, the careful fingerwork of an organist they were barely able to hear?
Philips simply chuckled. Had I heard of the legendary “Citibank Colossus,” by the base of the Statue of Liberty? Well, the “Chebucto” had fully double the footage of pipes, and three times the power—and people thought there was nothing happening in Halifax!
He refused to answer any of my questions about where the money was coming from.
“It’s a private-public partnership,” he said. “All the necessary paperwork has been filed with the province and the Halifax Regional Municipality, and I’m sure if you file a request for information, they would be happy to let you access it.”
He asked whether I would have a chance to meet the architect while I was in town. I told him we’d be speaking later that afternoon. She’d arranged for me to take a tour of the worksite. He laughed professionally.
“You’re a lucky man, seeing our beauty without her clothes on.” I assumed he meant the organ. “This is going to go down in history. Largest of its kind in the world. Make sure you mention that in your article.”
I told him I would. He said it had been a pleasure.
Philips walked out of the café, pinstripe suit creased around the oval of his shoulders, sweat glistening on the skin of his neck that bulged over his collar. His shoes were carefully polished. Hair arranged to minimize the growing bald spot on the crown. I wondered what he thought had happened during our conversation.
The weather cleared up around noon, and the sun came out, and the entire city seemed different. I was standing on the pier going through my notes when I saw a tall, broad-shouldered woman staring at me from a nearby bench. She had short grey hair and the kind of advanced fibre shirt people who go hiking in the Himalayas wear. She was, I realized, Rebekah Schumacher, chief architect of the “Chebucto” project. And she had recognized me before I recognized her.
“You must be the journalist,” she said when I caught her eye.
“It’s a nice day.”
“Above the surface, yes. But the rain means more silt in the harbour. We can still go down this afternoon if you want to, but I’d advise waiting until tomorrow.”
“I leave tomorrow night.”
“We can do it in the morning. The weather is supposed to hold overnight.”
“Are you still free for an interview?”
“Yes. But I’d prefer not to speak in public.”
“You understand that I need something from you on the record.”
“Of course. I just don’t like speaking in public.”
Schumacher got up from the bench and started to walk away. Not knowing what else to do, I followed her.
Rebekah Schumacher. I had spent weeks before arriving in Halifax trying to trace the outline of her life, with great difficulty. It wasn’t only that she had zero social media presence, and no webpage—already unusual for a musician. It was that the information that did exist was tantalizingly suggestive of a life lived in close proximity to some of the most interesting musical movements of her time, but in the final analysis inconclusively so. Even after employing some of the more arcane journalistic tricks for digging up buried identities, I had only been able to put together a cursory biographical sketch.
Born in London in 1959 to a Jewish family from Königsberg, Schumacher was accepted to study piano at the Royal College in 1976. She graduated with honours, having switched her specialty to organ, and seems to have left London in 1980 following a brief stint at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. No record exists of where she went, or what she spent the next six years doing—which in and of itself is quite astonishing, for someone of her accomplishments. Stranger still is the fact that when she resurfaced it was in Tokyo, playing organ at an Episcopal church. She met Saito there at some point in the late eighties, and even played a series of concerts with him. He was known to have been working on his plans for “Senritsu” at that time, but it is not clear whether she was formally involved in the project. She does appear in a very peripheral way in some of the documentaries on the construction of the hydroörganon, and in photographs taken during that time. A tall woman with short black hair, smoking a cigarette outside Saito’s cabin. Standing in the background while Saito pores over the blueprints. Sitting in the boat with two of his assistants, eating a sandwich. It is even likely she played “Sentritsu” at some point, though it is not clear how close she was to Saito—if, indeed, they had any sort of personal relationship at all. She returned to the West before his death, to study marine engineering at MIT, but did not complete a degree.
In 1998 she came to the attention of academic musicologists after publishing her remarkable first monograph, On the Ontology of Sound: Notes Towards a Hydroörganonology. Noted for its lucid prose, On the Ontology of Sound was the first work of hydroörganonology to really wrestle with the implications of what was by then known as the “sound question,” i.e. how to understand the radically different experiences audience members had during concerts on the hydroörganon. Her monograph made the novel argument that, regardless of whether one heard or did not hear music, the hydroörganon provided a purer way of “listening to”—and therefore, a better way of understanding—the works for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach and Dieterich Buxtehude.
It was thoroughly savaged by her more militant peers, who saw in it a conservative and even theological sort of essentialism. Few scholars have picked up her line of reasoning in the years since.
In 2000, Schumacher landed a job as organist and choirmaster at St. Augustine’s in New York City, where she remained for seven years. During this time she published a few minor pieces on hydrörganonology, including a controversially negative review of the “Citibank Colossus” then under construction mere kilometres from Schumacher’s home on the Lower East Side. In 2008 she took a sabbatical and did not return. She was credited with having worked alongside Carpaccio on the “Serenissima” in an advisory capacity from 2007-2008, and following its unveiling was one of several resident hydroörganonists, a post she returned to intermittently over the next few years. In 2014, the Chebucto Project announced that, following a rigorous international hiring process, she had been chosen to design and execute the building of the largest hydroörganon in the world in Halifax Harbour.
It had been much harder to discover anything about Schumacher’s personal life. Even establishing her connections to other prominent organists and hydroörganonists had been difficult. Those she had worked with spoke of her in tones of awe, but never warmth. None of the team that worked with Saito responded to my requests for information (not surprising, given the language barrier, the time elapsed, and the understandable wariness with which they treat media requests, given how his story has been sensationalized over the years). I had been unable to establish whether or not Carpaccio sought her out to work with him on the “Serenissima” or what exactly she had advised him on. Were they, perhaps, friends? Impossible to know. Carpaccio, generally a loquacious in interviews, was coy when asked about Schumacher. She was “an artist whose work he respected,” which is the kind of comment one public figure makes about another when they either have nothing to say or far too much. She was, so far as I was able to ascertain, unmarried. No children.
All of this left me with a notebook full of questions.
She brought me back to her car and drove us out of the city, toward the end of the peninsula. Pulled over halfway to Sambro Head, near a conservation area. “I like walking here,” she said. “You can interview me while we walk.”
As we made our way down a path toward the ocean, I asked her what had drawn her to hydroörganonology in the first place.
“I like the ocean. And I like the organ. Next question.”
“Why did you apply to work on the ‘Chebucto?’”
“I needed a job. I was tired of playing organs and hydroörganons for audiences who didn’t or couldn’t understand what they were hearing.”
“What is your vision for the ‘Chebucto?’”
“I’d like it to work. And I’d like it to play nicely.”
“I’d like it to be played only by people who understand what they are doing.”
“This is the third hydroörganon you have worked on. How do you see your vision being different from Carpaccio’s, say, or Saito’s?”
“Kenji made ‘Senritsu’ because he believed in God. Carpaccio made ‘Serenissima’ because he believed in himself. But I only believe in the ocean.”
“I’m not sure what that means.”
“When one is in the ocean, there is always the possibility one is a few moments from death. It strips away one’s illusions”
“Would it be fair to describe you as a nihilist, Ms. Schumacher?”
“No. As I said, I believe in the ocean. I subscribe to an ocean-based metaphysics. But no one who has not spent as much time in the ocean as I have would understand it. And I’m sure that isn’t what your magazine wants to know, either.”
“What was your relationship with Kenji Saito?”
“We were lovers.”
We were walking across the smooth rock of the shoreline. Schumacher was staring out at the Atlantic. There was no sign of the city we had so recently left. No houses. Just the grey waves of the harbour. She stopped walking and removed her hands from her pockets, let the strong east wind raise her arms as if there were aerofoils. I think she wanted me to be quiet, share the moment with her. So I put my notebook in my breast pocket and let the wind blow cold over me.
“We liked to talk about music,” she said, eventually. “And about the ocean. I thought what he was doing was important. But misguided. Because he believed that God had created the ocean, and he believed that putting an organ in the ocean would bring him closer to God. I suppose you could say it did, if you have a certain sense of humour. What Kenji didn’t understand was that the ocean is God. And the hydroörganon is our means of worship.”
“In your monograph you say that only by playing the great baroque masterpieces underwater can we grasp their full symmetry and order, and the terror this order should inspire in us.”
“I wrote that a long time ago.”
“You’ve changed your mind, then?”
“My mind has been changed by the ocean.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wouldn’t say that now. I would say that once you have heard the Leipzig Chorales played on a hydroörganon as dusk is approaching and the water is growing dark around you, you understand that to be terrified of the ocean is to be terrified of death, and to be terrified of death is to be terrified of symmetry and order. To be terrified of the world. To be terrified of art. And there’s no sense in that.”
“Do you ever worry that hydroörganonology is a dying art? That, years from now, divers will swim about their wreckage the way they now visit drowned cities?
“I am going to answer your question, because you have come all the way to this provincial city to ask it. But I will not answer it on the record, for my hydroörganon is not yet finished. I would ask you not to mention it in your article.”
“The greatest mistake Kenji made was telling the world about ‘Senritsu.’ It was his act of hubris. Just as the hydroörganon allows us to fully experience the reality of sound, playing the hydroörganon for no one but the ocean allows us to understand the ultimate truth about all human art. Nothing degrades a hydroörganon so much as the human eye. The hydroörganon should bring us closer to the ocean itself, and the closer we are to the ocean the further we are from humanity. The day no one will pay to dive into the harbour to hear me play the ‘Chebucto’ is the day the construction will have finished, and the hydroörganon can begin its true work.”
“Do you plan to stay here, then, once the project is over?”
“I think so. The ocean is everywhere, but here it feels very present. And there are so few people. Perhaps you will understand when we go down to see it tomorrow. Perhaps not.”
With that, Schumacher began walking back to the car. Our interview was over.
Perhaps I would understand. Two days later, the words still bothered me, sitting silently in my Pullman seat as the train cut its way north. Had I understood anything I had seen or heard in my short time in that city? What, indeed, might it mean for me to have understood. I flipped through the pages of my notebook, and thought about what I would tell my editor. There was a story here. There must be a story. There is always a story, even if the story is that there is no story.
Outside my window, the thick brush was endless. From time to time the monotony and darkness was punctuated by the gleam of water slipping over river stones in moonlight. And all I wanted was to have someone tell me that this was only an illusion of light and shadow. But I knew I would never believe anyone who told me that again.
When I met Schumacher on the docks on the morning of our dive, she said nothing of our conversation the previous day. In her silence I read no discomfort, only the certainty of a person who speaks only when she wants to speak. We boarded the boat. She introduced me to the pilot, a small man named McLaughlin who only opened his mouth to spit over the gunnel. Schumacher gestured for me to change into the diving suit she had brought. When the boat reached the harbour mouth, where the water was cleaner, she tapped me on the shoulder. She slipped off the side of the boat, and I followed her into the ocean. It was a sunny day, and the light reached deep into the water. Below us, the seabed sloped into darkness.
We swam for a long time. Schumacher seemed always to know where we were. At certain points, she would point out things of particular interest—wrecked fishing boats, an old mine. And then we rounded an outcrop and I could see, glinting in the distance, a series of massive pipes rising from a rocky ledge.
As we drew closer, I became aware of the awesome scale on which the complex had been built (for complex is the only word that now occurs to me to describe the massed ranks of pipes; the flights in descending order of length stretching like great silver wings on either side of a keyboard, the organist’s bench an oblong of stone and steel that seemed impossibly small to control such a monstrous creation: a vast palace of metal). The ledge onto which it was built stood at a juncture where the gentle slope of rock and sand falling away to the ocean floor met the base of the headland rising sharply toward the surface. Out toward the eastern depths, one could make out the fish, the kelp, the chains of seaweed glowing in the heavy aqueous light of the sun. The rock of the headland seemed to encircle the hydroörganon’s towering mass, a movement of enclosure reflected in the flights of pipes that curved gently out from the keyboard itself. It seemed almost natural.
Schumacher swam ahead of me, and when she reached the base of the organ I noticed a bank of levers below the hydroörganonist’s seat. She slid two of them into place, and the hydroörganon shuddered to life with a low mechanical hum. She gestured for me to join her. While she took her seat I hovered in the water above, watched her remove the flippers from her feet so she could manipulate the pedals. The keyboard had a full five manuals. She looked up at me and raised her shoulders, as if asking whether I was ready. I nodded. She slid a few stops out, placed her hands over the first and the fourth manual, and played a chord.
There was a rush of air from the pipes, and a jet of bubbles was expelled. Then the force of the air pushed me backward from the instrument, and I was left floating several meters in front of tenor pipes as thick as tree trunks, watching the air stream from up toward the surface. There was a low rumble, one that grew and slackened in intensity. It was joined by a quavering and a quaking as Schumacher opened more stops. But that was it. I watched as her fingers danced between manuals, and I could see the machinery vibrating, the air pouring up toward the surface as new pipes opened. I could see the patterns in the bubbles, and sense the hydroörganon’s energetic pulse. But I could hear almost nothing.
Schumacher played and played, and as I became accustomed to the instrument’s power I began to notice the visual pattern of pipes opening and closing, the fountains of air developing a kind of rhythm as they exploded and were contained. As I swam about I became aware of new and more impressive elements of the mechanism. When I closed my eyes, however there was only the rumble and the hum.
What had it been like for those who heard a melody, I wondered. What was it like for Schumacher, who remained at the bench, fingers flying over the keyboard, feet pumping the pedals. What must it have been like for Saito, during the lonely nights when he played for the ocean and God.
After a period of time that seemed not to have passed at all, Schumacher ended her performance with a final flourish. And I could see her shoulders shaking, as she rested her hands beside her on the bench; heaving, as if she were in the grip of a strong emotion. As if she were crying, perhaps. Or laughing.
The sunlight played across the silver of the pipes, and the green of the vegetation, and the brown of the stone, and fish began swimming back toward the hydroörganon, nosing about at the pipes, sliding silently, effortlessly, between the gaps. And to the east the ocean grew darker and darker until it defied comprehension.
André Forget is a writer and critic. His work has appeared in The Walrus, The Literary Review of Canada, and Canadian Notes and Queries. He is managing editor at The Puritan, a Toronto-based literary magazine.