Jump to content
Mander Organ Builders Forum

Does Tracker-action Make For Better Performances?


MusingMuso

Recommended Posts

Much as I prefer a (good) tracker-action, some of the best performances I've ever heard were played on instruments with EP, direct electric or even pneumatic actions.

 

Is it simply the case that main advantage of tracker-action is a well-proven, reliable design which requires minimal maintenance over a long period of time?

 

MM

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • Replies 62
  • Created
  • Last Reply
Much as I prefer a (good) tracker-action, some of the best performances I've ever heard were played on instruments with EP, direct electric or even pneumatic actions.

 

Is it simply the case that main advantage of tracker-action is a well-proven, reliable design which requires minimal maintenance over a long period of time?

 

MM

 

Yes - tracker all the way.

Link to post
Share on other sites
Much as I prefer a (good) tracker-action, some of the best performances I've ever heard were played on instruments with EP, direct electric or even pneumatic actions.

 

Is it simply the case that main advantage of tracker-action is a well-proven, reliable design which requires minimal maintenance over a long period of time?

 

MM

 

This is becoming somewhat worn-out an argument, like an noisy

old Barker lever, isn't it ?

There are good actions in all systems.

 

Pierre

Link to post
Share on other sites
No. "Better" musicians make for "better" performances

 

If the action is responsive to the musician attached to it, and doesn't do random unmusical things, particularly with regard to release, then it probably really doesn't matter how it happens between key and pipe.

Of my top five favourite actions to play musically on; one is electric, (H&H) two are pneumatic (lewis and N&B) and two are mechanical (Walker and Schuke) :blink:

And I rehearse getting the notes in the right order on a toaster with a decent 'pluck', except on middle F# that is! :blink:

P

Link to post
Share on other sites
No. "Better" musicians make for "better" performances

Alright then, "What makes better musicians?" The answer is, of course, lots of things, but the feel of the keyboards one learns on must surely be one factor.

 

When electronic typewriters were introduced apparently they initially had keys that felt rather like modern synthesiser keyboards - no feel to them - and typists' error rates went up significantly. Tests showed that they made far fewer mistakes when the keys were given some tactile resistance. It stands to reason that a light, responsive tracker action would be similarly helpful to a student organist. I am quite sure it was the (by no means light) tracker actions I learnt on that developed my ability to articulate flexibly and finely. That is not to say that I could not have reached the same state learning on a good, electrified action. I might possibly have done so, but I feel sure it would have taken longer and to this day I always feel less in control when playing such organs. I suspect that the advent in more recent years of electrified actions with simulated tracker touch keyboards may be just as beneficial as real tracker actions, though I am not in a position to judge this.

 

One thing occurs to me. If I ever want to produce a glutinous legato I find this far easier with an electrified action than a tracker one, just as, if I want crisp articulation I find it easier on a good tracker action. Is this just me? Does one's preferred style of playing dictate one's preference?

Link to post
Share on other sites
Alright then, "What makes better musicians?" The answer is, of course, lots of things, but the feel of the keyboards one learns on must surely be one factor.

 

When electronic typewriters were introduced apparently they initially had keys that felt rather like modern synthesiser keyboards - no feel to them - and typists' error rates went up significantly. Tests showed that they made far fewer mistakes when the keys were given some tactile resistance. It stands to reason that a light, responsive tracker action would be similarly helpful to a student organist. I am quite sure it was the (by no means light) tracker actions I learnt on that developed my ability to articulate flexibly and finely. That is not to say that I could not have reached the same state learning on a good, electrified action. I might possibly have done so, but I feel sure it would have taken longer and to this day I always feel less in control when playing such organs. I suspect that the advent in more recent years of electrified actions with simulated tracker touch keyboards may be just as beneficial as real tracker actions, though I am not in a position to judge this.

 

One thing occurs to me. If I ever want to produce a glutinous legato I find this far easier with an electrified action than a tracker one, just as, if I want crisp articulation I find it easier on a good tracker action. Is this just me? Does one's preferred style of playing dictate one's preference?

Forgive me. I didn't wish to appear unduly pedantic. I am just a little tired of this debate, which is often discussed in over-simplistic terms and has polarised organists and bored audiences for many years. I find the action is only one of a wide range of factors which elicits a particular response from a player. Voicing, acoustic, even temperature and smell can all play a part (just as such factors might affect one's driving when sliding into a classic Jaguar with leather seats and limited power steering); such factors things are interconnected too, such as the interplay between sensation at the fingertips and what one hears through the acoustic, to state the obvious.

 

I grew up in the post-industrial North of England where old romantics vehemently decried 'tracker-backers', whilst the latter dug ever deeper into their entrenched position, extolling mechanical actions at all costs (not to mention the abandonment of wooden pedal stops, swell strings, high pressure reeds etc etc yawn). However, my ears and my experience as a player have taught me that one simply cannot be dogmatic about music and instruments (passionate, yes, but that's different!). I have given some of my 'best' performances on tubular pneumatic and electric actions; some of my worst on uber-sensitive tracker actions AND (before you all jump and say my technique is clearly at fault) vice versa. A good organ, approached by an open-minded and sensitive performer who is willing to learn from the instrument, will yield good performances.

 

As for your example of 'glutinous legato' versus 'crisp articulation', I think that is far more influenced by voicing than action. A chiffy neo-classical organ on direct electric action yields the latter very easily whereas a good mechanical action, controlling nicked pipework voiced to crescendo up through the compass, will give the player power to project well-connected, cantabile lines.

 

At least the pendulum has swung far enough back that it is now no longer a given that the newest concert hall instrument will have mechanical action (or even a second, mechanical console), or that the limitations of a building can now be overcome with the use of a remote action (such as here in Worcester). 25 years ago, such thoughts would have been considered heretical.

 

Best wishes

 

Ian

Link to post
Share on other sites
This is becoming somewhat worn-out an argument, like an noisy

old Barker lever, isn't it ?

There are good actions in all systems.

 

Pierre

 

=================================

 

The reason I asked the question, was not to go over well worn ground, but to ask whether performances suffer by the use of one type of action over another.

It isn't as simple as might at first be assumed.

I can think of many, many examples of repertoire, which can be rendered better with the use of tracker-action; not that a listener may be aware of it. I always think that "feel" is an important aid to contrapuntal dialogue, because cedent and antecedent can become a cognitive motor-response rather than a perceptual response merely to the written notes. (I hope that makes sense!)

What I have never subscribed to, is the view that tracker-action makes the slightest difference to pipe-intonation on the fly, because I've carried out experiments.

(You can read into that what you will.....like those sweeping road-safety statements which always begin with...."Research has shown.....")

Much as I prefer a good tracker, as I stated when posting the question, it is, I believe, true that at least some of the repertoire is compromised by mechanical action.

( Brain cells now start creaking in the minds of the Mander discussion-ees).

At the very least, the French repertoire would appear to need the relative lightness of a Barker-Lever action, and one could also argue the case for even lighter pneumatic actions for much of the German romantic reperetoire. Of course, some people have recorded or performed such reperetoire on mechanical-action instruments, but I can think of many examples where the speed of the tempi has been considerably reduced in order to make it physically possible.

It's when some of the more modern repertoire is taken into account, that the lightness of good EP actions becomes a pre-requisite, and anyone who knows the organ-works of Leo Sowerby, will know that the virtuosic demands require a lightning fast action and a light pedal and keyboard touch. Even Sir George Thalben-Ball could never have managed Wagner at the speed recorded at the Alexander Palace, without the Willis EP action.

If a performer's duty is to remain faithful to the intentions of the composer, is it not surely the case that the type of action is a critical part of musical understanding, which can lead to "informed" performances rather than compromised performances?

Ironically, with a good EP action, it is possible to play everything, but with mechanical action, it is impossible to play some things as they were intended to be heard.

MM

Link to post
Share on other sites
=================================

 

The reason I asked the question, was not to go over well worn ground, but to ask whether performances suffer by the use of one type of action over another.

It isn't as simple as might at first be assumed.

I can think of many, many examples of repertoire, which can be rendered better with the use of tracker-action; not that a listener may be aware of it. I always think that "feel" is an important aid to contrapuntal dialogue, because cedent and antecedent can become a cognitive motor-response rather than a perceptual response merely to the written notes. (I hope that makes sense!)

What I have never subscribed to, is the view that tracker-action makes the slightest difference to pipe-intonation on the fly, because I've carried out experiments.

(You can read into that what you will.....like those sweeping road-safety statements which always begin with...."Research has shown.....")

Much as I prefer a good tracker, as I stated when posting the question, it is, I believe, true that at least some of the repertoire is compromised by mechanical action.

( Brain cells now start creaking in the minds of the Mander discussion-ees).

At the very least, the French repertoire would appear to need the relative lightness of a Barker-Lever action, and one could also argue the case for even lighter pneumatic actions for much of the German romantic reperetoire. Of course, some people have recorded or performed such reperetoire on mechanical-action instruments, but I can think of many examples where the speed of the tempi has been considerably reduced in order to make it physically possible.

It's when some of the more modern repertoire is taken into account, that the lightness of good EP actions becomes a pre-requisite, and anyone who knows the organ-works of Leo Sowerby, will know that the virtuosic demands require a lightning fast action and a light pedal and keyboard touch. Even Sir George Thalben-Ball could never have managed Wagner at the speed recorded at the Alexander Palace, without the Willis EP action.

If a performer's duty is to remain faithful to the intentions of the composer, is it not surely the case that the type of action is a critical part of musical understanding, which can lead to "informed" performances rather than compromised performances?

Ironically, with a good EP action, it is possible to play everything, but with mechanical action, it is impossible to play some things as they were intended to be heard.

MM

 

Hi

 

Surely that depends on the tracker action? the St. Martin organ in Girton College, Cambridge is a small, French-style 4m tracker with an action so light I'm told that the organ scholars often couple the manuals to obtain a heavier touch when practicing for playing other organs. Tracker doesn't always equal "heavy touch".

 

It's down more to the composer's sound world - if heavy pressure reeds, etc are required, then tracker action is at a disadvantage, but not otherwise.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

Link to post
Share on other sites
Hi

 

Surely that depends on the tracker action? the St. Martin organ in Girton College, Cambridge is a small, French-style 4m tracker with an action so light I'm told that the organ scholars often couple the manuals to obtain a heavier touch when practicing for playing other organs. Tracker doesn't always equal "heavy touch".

 

It's down more to the composer's sound world - if heavy pressure reeds, etc are required, then tracker action is at a disadvantage, but not otherwise.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

 

 

========================

 

 

This may well be the case at Girton College, (not an organ I know), but where an organ is spaced out considerably, the action-runs are often long enough to include a great deal of inertia; hence the use of carbon-fibre, I presume, by our hosts for a new organ in America.

 

I recall a Harrison of 1880's vintage, with a wonderfully light action to the Great, and a very acceptable touch with the Swell coupled, but this is not the usual case with many tracker actions.

 

One of the best tracker actions I have played, is that at the Bavokerk, Haarlem, but the limitation there is the speed of note repetition, again presumably due to the inertia of an action-run which goes upwards as much as 30 -40ft from the console.

 

The actual touch of the action is superb, and certainly, very rapid passagework is possible with this instrument.

 

Of course, with much of the romantic repertoire calling for heavy-pressure reeds, that does tend to rule out tracker-action.

 

MM

Link to post
Share on other sites
========================

One of the best tracker actions I have played, is that at the Bavokerk, Haarlem, but the limitation there is the speed of note repetition, again presumably due to the inertia of an action-run which goes upwards as much as 30 -40ft from the console.

There is a quote from Jeanne Demessieux about the type of action that would suit playing Dupré's music best, and she stated that tracker action needed to be "very, very light"; the best type would be electric (by which, I gather, she meant e-p).

 

These "very, very light" and fast tracker actions, however, do exist; and maybe Mme Demessieux just couldn't know, because she tragically did not live to see the considerable progress in tracker action engineering since the 1960ies. I recently heard Dupré's Sketch op. 41, 1 (that staccato thing) on a 1989 tracker (this recording, nothing on youtube, alas) with the player going at breakneck speed -- faster indeed than John Scott on his, otherwise peerless, St Paul's recording. The only downside was that, on a tracker that basically was built in 1960 (1989 rebuild), the keyboard ended at g''', so that a few notes on the top end were missing.

 

Bottom line: As long as we are talking contemporary organbuilding, no tracker actions needs to be as clumsy as to exclude exciting bits of repertoire. On the other hand, some other very exciting bits, by composers such as Ligeti, Cage, Kagel, Yun etc., cannot be performed aptly on electric action instruments.

 

Best,

Friedrich

Link to post
Share on other sites
========================

 

 

This may well be the case at Girton College, (not an organ I know), but where an organ is spaced out considerably, the action-runs are often long enough to include a great deal of inertia; hence the use of carbon-fibre, I presume, by our hosts for a new organ in America.

 

I recall a Harrison of 1880's vintage, with a wonderfully light action to the Great, and a very acceptable touch with the Swell coupled, but this is not the usual case with many tracker actions.

 

One of the best tracker actions I have played, is that at the Bavokerk, Haarlem, but the limitation there is the speed of note repetition, again presumably due to the inertia of an action-run which goes upwards as much as 30 -40ft from the console.

 

The actual touch of the action is superb, and certainly, very rapid passagework is possible with this instrument.

 

Of course, with much of the romantic repertoire calling for heavy-pressure reeds, that does tend to rule out tracker-action.

 

MM

 

Hi

 

The Girton St Martin has suspended action, so the tracker runs are primarily vertical, which I understand makes action design & light touch easier. I don't know what action materials they used (a visist to see & play it was the "bait" to get the NPOR team of editors together for a meeting a couple of years ago).

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

Link to post
Share on other sites

I have 2 LP recordings of Mme Durufle playing her husband's Prelude & Fugue sur le nom d'Alain, one dating from 1973 at Soissons (traction mechanique), the other from 1976 at the National Shrine Washington, so very close together in terms of time, & we may assume Mme's technique was in much the same order. Both are beautifully played, but there is really no contest. The performance at Soissons is so much clearer, and one can quite hear that this is because of the direct link between the player and the pipes. Mme is equally at home at Washington, but the organ lets her down. It is simply not capable of responding in the same way. It is left behind.

I too admit to a bias. The Victorian trackers I played as a student were so much more grateful to one's technique than the electric actions, some quite up-to-date, of the same time in my life.

Peter Godden

Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm not going to lay any allegiance to one type of action or another. All I will say is this :

 

As a youngster I belonged to a record library and one of the borrowed LP's that really inspired me was David Sanger's stylish and accurate playing of Widor V, from the Italian Church in Hatton Garden. At that time I knew nothing of tracker or E-Pn actions. The simple persuasiveness of the performance spoke to me.

 

Was that performance hampered by the action ? I think not !

 

H

Link to post
Share on other sites
I have 2 LP recordings of Mme Durufle playing her husband's Prelude & Fugue sur le nom d'Alain, one dating from 1973 at Soissons (traction mechanique), the other from 1976 at the National Shrine Washington, so very close together in terms of time, & we may assume Mme's technique was in much the same order. Both are beautifully played, but there is really no contest. The performance at Soissons is so much clearer, and one can quite hear that this is because of the direct link between the player and the pipes. Mme is equally at home at Washington, but the organ lets her down. It is simply not capable of responding in the same way. It is left behind. ...

 

Which reminds me of a sentence by Fernando Germani as quoted by his student Nicolas Kynaston. Germani knew hardly any other than pneumatic and e-p organs, but became acquainted with tracker action at the end of his career. It must have made a lasting impression on the man. "You just think it and it happens", he put it.

 

Best,

Friedrich

Link to post
Share on other sites
Which reminds me of a sentence by Fernando Germani as quoted by his student Nicolas Kynaston. Germani knew hardly any other than pneumatic and e-p organs, but became acquainted with tracker action at the end of his career. It must have made a lasting impression on the man. "You just think it and it happens", he put it.

 

Best,

Friedrich

 

 

==============================

 

 

That's a wonderful quote, but having heard Germani give an absolutely STUNNING performance of Reger on the organ of Leeds PC, using EP action, it didn't seem to affect his ability or panache. This single performance has lived in my memory for 45 years, and it totally won me over the Reger's music at the tender age of 15!

 

Organ playing doesn't come any more powerful than that!

 

MM

Link to post
Share on other sites
Which reminds me of a sentence by Fernando Germani as quoted by his student Nicolas Kynaston. Germani knew hardly any other than pneumatic and e-p organs, but became acquainted with tracker action at the end of his career. It must have made a lasting impression on the man. "You just think it and it happens", he put it.

 

Best,

Friedrich

 

I am sure this is a true thing, but I must say that all the old glorious Italian organs are mechanical action and he certainly championed his country's old music. It was most enlightening as a student as it was quite alein to my up-bringing in the England tradition to know about pre-Romantic indigenous music. Although famed for Romantic music, Germani was so at ease with any organ and action. I seem to think that I have written some notes for a release on CDs of some of his 78's(?) from Alkmaar. I have them somewhere, I am sure. Therefore, I would not say that he became acquainted with tracker action only at the end of his career as the recordings in Alkmaar must have been certainly in the middle of his concert-giving career. Germani and Alkmaar in the same sentence never seems to jump out at you - but it does when you listen. I shall delve and find again. Thanks for the prompt.

Best wishes,

Nigel

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 2 weeks later...

For me, I've never been able to get used to the invariable sudden snap shut of wind to the pipes that electric action enforces. To play, for example, Bach's setting of 'O mensch bewein' and have each note abruptly cut off is a little painful. On a mechanical action instrument, I am able to release the notes with a little more grace. But then, I was brought up playing mechanical action instruments and hardly ever played other actions when I was acquiring my tertiary qualifications. I still remember my first big recital on an electric action instrument as I had to work hard at dealing with the difference and translate what I was able to do easily on a mechanical action instrument.

 

As students, when we sat through competitions and amused ourselves by trying to predict who would successfully move through to the next round after only a few bars of hearing candidates playing, we would also categorise them into those that learnt and practised on mechanical or non-mechanical action. It seemed to always be fairly obvious which performers were not used to the extra precision that a good mechanical action organ is able to provide.

Link to post
Share on other sites
Fiffaro, did you ever try an authentic french or german

historic -of course tracker- baroque organ ?

 

Pierre

ut

I was organist for 6 years on a 1741 Dacci (so Italian, I concede) very original organ. French, yes, South German, yes, (worked and studied in Austria) but not as much of central German and Northern European organs as I'd have liked, and with family and mortgage commitments unlikely to be able to spend more time on them in the near future :( .

 

As I see it, this thread is not primarily about historical mechanical action instruments, but about "a (good) tracker-action" as MM worded it. Now, this is open to varied interpretation, but I read it to mean what we would deem a lightish, responsive modern mechanical action: the sort of instrument that I'd expect most learning organist in the UK or in my home country to have access to regularly for practise.

Link to post
Share on other sites

So you know the difference between an historic action and a modern one,

the kind of which the ancient composers never had.

I' d rather have the student organists practizing on "difficult" actions, so far

as the today "Repertoire" is 99% an ancient one; Bach on a tracker action

whose moving parts are as thick as a finger; Vierne on a worn out Barker lever

action; Reger on a pneumatic action, and Messiaen on an EP action.

 

Pierre

Link to post
Share on other sites
No. "Better" musicians make for "better" performances

 

I would heartily agree with both Pierre's and Ian's comments above.

 

To give one example, several years ago I attended a recital which was played on an organ with two consoles (and two separate actions, not just contacts fitted to the backs of keys). The first half was played on the tracker (attached) console, the second on the detached console. There was a clear difference in quality - but the preference being for the second half (on the electric action console), where the playing was clearer and more focused. The Bach (BWV 548) which was played in the first half, was wayward, with an unsteady pulse and with unclear articulation.

Link to post
Share on other sites
Hi

 

The Girton St Martin has suspended action, so the tracker runs are primarily vertical, which I understand makes action design & light touch easier. I don't know what action materials they used (a visit to see & play it was the "bait" to get the NPOR team of editors together for a meeting a couple of years ago).

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

 

Does this debate not illustrate the inadvisability of generalised statements about mechanical action of which there are several different types? A suspended action, with the key literally hanging vertically from the pallet is likely to have a quite different 'feel' from a backfall action where the finger has to overcome the inertia of an intervening wooden lever.

 

It's true that a suspended action, particularly on a small instrument with no or only partial use of rollerboards, may seem disconcertingly light and unforgiving of sloppy articulation - almost like a harpsichord in fact. The fact that this type of action is often combined with slightly foreshortened keys may reinforce that impression. Pieces with big, spread chords - even Wesley's Choral Song (in its original form) - are often diffcult to play cleanly on such instruments.

 

This may explain why many of us feel happier and more secure on a slightly more robust action with full-length keys and greater touch resistance.

 

A propos St Martin, a brief acquaintance with their new organ at Petersham left me with the impression of a very civilised form of suspended action - not too light and with a reassuring 'bottom' to the key depression allowing suitable control over release.

 

JS

Link to post
Share on other sites
I have 2 LP recordings of Mme Durufle playing her husband's Prelude & Fugue sur le nom d'Alain, one dating from 1973 at Soissons (traction mechanique), the other from 1976 at the National Shrine Washington, so very close together in terms of time, & we may assume Mme's technique was in much the same order. Both are beautifully played, but there is really no contest. The performance at Soissons is so much clearer, and one can quite hear that this is because of the direct link between the player and the pipes. Mme is equally at home at Washington, but the organ lets her down. It is simply not capable of responding in the same way. It is left behind.

 

Peter Godden

Are you certain that this was in no way due to any of the following factors:

 

The positions of the microphones in each venue.

The types of microphones, tapes, recording decks and other equipment used.

The relative acoustic ambience of each venue.

Fatigue (for example, jet-lag), in the case of Washington - or even just the performer not feeling quite 'up to par'.

The voicing of the pipes themselves. (Soissons is very much in the tradition of neo-Classique voicing; Norbert Duforcq may have had a hand in it, I cannot now recall.)

The wind pressures adopted, sizes of footholes (and the sizes of the holes in the upperboards).

 

No doubt others can think of further reasons why the perceived difference may not have been as straightforward as you think.

Link to post
Share on other sites
Does this debate not illustrate the inadvisability of generalised statements about mechanical action of which there are several different types? A suspended action, with the key literally hanging vertically from the pallet is likely to have a quite different 'feel' from a backfall action where the finger has to overcome the inertia of an intervening wooden lever.

 

It's true that a suspended action, particularly on a small instrument with no or only partial use of rollerboards, may seem disconcertingly light and unforgiving of sloppy articulation - almost like a harpsichord in fact. The fact that this type of action is often combined with slightly foreshortened keys may reinforce that impression. Pieces with big, spread chords - even Wesley's Choral Song (in its original form) - are often diffcult to play cleanly on such instruments.

 

This may explain why many of us feel happier and more secure on a slightly more robust action with full-length keys and greater touch resistance.

 

A propos St Martin, a brief acquaintance with their new organ at Petersham left me with the impression of a very civilised form of suspended action - not too light and with a reassuring 'bottom' to the key depression allowing suitable control over release.

 

JS

 

YES!!!!

 

And what kind of actions do you think J-S Bach had, ladies and Gentlemen ?

The heavy one, with backfalls. (the Rückpositiv was already nearly gone, and

the Hinterwerk already there....Not to mention the 4 or more 8' on the Hauptwerk)

 

Pierre

Link to post
Share on other sites

Archived

This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.


×
×
  • Create New...