Tuesday, November 17, 2009


This address was brought to my attention today, and I believe it cannot be reprinted too many times...

So please welcome one of my favorite journalists, Uwe Siemon-Netto.


The Global Importance of Bach Today

(Opening presentation by Uwe Siemon-Netto at the "Bach in Today's Parish" conference, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN, November 2, 2009)

A few caveats are in order before I speak to you about the global significance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I am not a musicologist, nor a musician; you'll hear from these eminent scholars and artists later. I am just a journalist, and as a journalist, I'll start with hometown news first -- before going global.

I was born in Leipzig, virtually in the shadow of the Thomaskirche. When I was four, my parents began taking me to the motet or cantata services in the Thomaskirche every Friday or Saturday. This might sound alien to present-day parents, Lutherans included, who do not introduce their kids to music saying that they were "too busy" for that and preferred to spend some "quality time" with their children, like munching hamburgers together.

I spent most of World War II in Leipzig. This is why a blend of two kinds of acoustical impressions has been resonating in my head ever since my childhood - the sound of bombs and sound of Bach.

Often the two dovetailed. Often an air raid followed a cantata service or an organ recital. Or an air raid interrupted a house concert in our home. It was during one of these weekly concerts that I was first introduced to the Art of the Fugue, to which I shall return several times this morning.

The first time I heard the Art of the Fugue, it was played by a string quartet in the music room of our downtown apartment, which was destroyed on Dec. 4, 1943. Two of the musicians were members of the Gewandhaus orchestra, and two were amateurs. In the middle of the performance the sirens howled, and we all rushed to the basement.

There is something else I must tell you about these extraordinary events. They suspended on a very private level the artificial division between Jew and non-New imposed on us by the Nazis. Often Jewish relatives or friends came out of hiding a night to perform Bach or Beethoven, Pachelbel or Pastorius with us before joining us in the air raid shelters or disappearing into the night.

From that the very moment I heard the Art of the Fugue at home, the opening bars of its Contrapunctus One returned to my inner ear virtually every day - while being bombed, while fleeing from Soviet-occupied Leipzig after the War, while sitting exams at school, while feeling lovesick or covering the Vietnam War as a reporter, while suffering from a writer's blocks.

Oh, I sang Lutheran hymns in my head too, and I still do, none more often than "Abide with me." But most of all I am fixated by these fugues! They order my mind and my soul.

In my prayers fugues join the hymns my grandmother sang into my ears during the air raids. And this has been so for nearly seventy years now.

But that's enough about me for the moment. Let's stay in Leipzig for a while longer, though, in Leipzig, cradle of the peaceful revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall exactly 20 years ago. Did you know that this monumental event in history has a strong Bach connection?

The protest movement that ultimately snowballed into the bloodless revolution of 1989 started with young Christians, and even though it developed into a mass movement involving more non-Christians than Christians, it was the Church that provided the umbrella for its growth.

Here is a significant bit of information you will rarely find in your media:

This protest movement had its roots in the popular anger over a barbaric act committed by the regime of East Germany's Communist leader Walter Ulbricht. Ulbricht was a former bordello bouncer.

On his orders, the Communists blew up Leipzig's graceful late-Gothic university church. It stood on Karl-Marx-Platz, formerly - and now again -- called Augustusplatz. Ulbricht, also a native Leipziger, had big plans for transforming this largest square in Germany into the biggest proletarian parade ground in Europe. In Ulbricht, a church had no business standing at such secular venue.

The university church, symbol of Leipzig's academic life, as murdered on May 30, 1968. Three weeks later, the Third International Bach competition took place in Leipzig. During its opening session in the Congress Hall of the Zoo, Aall the Communist bigwigs sat in the front rows, next to prominent personalities of the international Bach community.

Suddenly, invisible hands unrolled a yellow poster from the ceiling of this concert hall causing a gasp. The poster showed the outline of the murdered church, the year of its death --1968 - and the words, "Wir fordern Wiederaufbau" ("We demand Reconstruction").

This spectacular incident drew the attention of the world's musical elite to a Communist outrage. The authors of this demonstration were four young physicists, all Christians. One was eventually betrayed by a West German leftist to East Germany's secret police and sent to prison.

It was this stunning episode that ultimately spawned the resistance movement whose success in November of 1989 Germans are commemorating in these weeks.

I must still beg you to remain with me in Leipzig for a little longer for it is, after all, the capital of the global Bach community, the number one pilgrimage site for Bach lovers from all continents. Of the 850 students at Leipzig's Hochschule f=FCr Musik und Theater Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Germany's oldest state conservatory, almost one quarter hails from Asia. Asians fill the pews of the Thomaskirche during its motet and cantata services.

Japanese in particular have been flocking to Leipzig even in Communist days. One of them was musicologist Keisuke Maruyama. He became a Christian by studying the impact of the weekday pericopes in the 18th-century Lutheran lectionary cycle on Bach's cantatas.

After he had finished his research he told my friend Rev. Johannes Richter, then the superintendent (regional bishop) of the half of Leipzig's Lutheran parishes: "It is not enough the read Christian texts. I want to be a Christian myself. Please baptize me."

When Richter told me this during one of my rare reporting stints to Leipzig, atheism was the state religion of East Germany. On the same occasion I interviewed the members of the Thomanerchor, whose director Bach had been from 1723 until his death in 1750.

Since the Reformation, the Thomanerchor has been a municipal institution, and so it was in Communist days. But under Communism, for the first time in the choir's history, no chaplain was allowed to provide pastoral care to these boys in their boarding school. For the previous 800 years, their predecessors received their instruction in the Christian faith in their dorms; now even table prayers were forbidden. To be catechized they had to go to a nearby church.

But when I asked several of these children whether they were believers they replied: "O yes, almost all of us are. You cannot really sing Bach without faith."

These two examples show that in an era of darkest atheism Bach worked as a missionary - to a scholar from far-away Asia, and to kids raised in a godless environment, and even a ranking Communist functionary.

I remember interviewing the director of the Leipzig Bach Institute of that period. He was a member of the Communist hierarchy. He told me that he could only be an atheist only as long as he did not have to listen to Bach. "It is strange, though, how quickly this changes when I hear Bach's music."

This now really does take me to the global significance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I have made the fascinating discovery that whenever I write about Bach for the Atlantic Times, my regular client, these articles automatically appear in its sister paper, the Asia-Pacific Times.

Why should this be so? Because the editors of both publications know that Bach is one of the hottest topics in the Far East. You write about Bach in Germany or in France or in the United States, and Asians gobble it up - so much so that features like these sell advertising space more easily than many other topics.

My wife and I spend our summers in the Dordogne in southwestern France, where towns and villages are gradually restoring their Romanesque parish churches; there are about one thousand of them in the Dordogne alone. These sanctuaries are usually empty, largely for lack of priests. But this changes during the summer thanks to a concert series organized by Ton Koopman, the great Dutch organist and Bach performer, who owns a home there.

Then busloads of music lovers pour into the Dordogne from all over the world, Dutch, Belgians, Germans, Scandinavians, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese. A French count sleeps in a car parked immediately in front of ancient churches where the musicians store their ancient instruments. He protects those instruments literally with his own body against thieves and vandals.

French peasants devoid of musical education suddenly appear in their churches they and their ancestors had ignored for at least two centuries. Their children, until recently ignorant of any form of classical music now join choirs whipped into shape by Koopman, the star, and hitherto unknown instructors.

Wealthy Frenchmen like my friend Francis Vigne, a retired engineer, buy orphaned organs from the Netherlands and Germany and install them in these rural sanctuaries that had never held any instrument since they were built a millennium ago. Now slowly the locals, intrigued by their alien sounds, pop into these churches they had never seen from the inside. And more and more often do I hear them sigh: "All we need now is a pastor."

It is my impression, which I cannot substantiate with statistics, and for which I must beg you to trust my experienced journalist's nose, that all this is a manifestation of what many French call la grande soif pour Dieux or, more sophisticatedly, la soif pour la transcendence.

I claim that the music of Bach and his contemporaries lures the thirsty to a place where they will be refreshed -- to ancient edifices where they sit tightly packed on narrow benches, often without backrests, and listen to Koopman's Baroque ensemble, more and more and more every year - so much so that many copycats are now imitating Koopman's initiative.

When I see and hear all this I cannot help thinking with enormous sadness and anger of one big Lutheran church near St. Louis, which proudly proclaims: "Here you will never hear the music of Johann Sebastian Bach."

Well, let me tell you this: In southwestern France people might not fill the pews every Sunday but they have also not replaced the altars with sets of drums; they swing along not with praise bands but with Bach, Telemann and Pachelbel, Sch=FCtz, Schein and Scheidt. And I have noticed that when the concert season is well over, some of the churches, once so empty, remain packed.

Yes, I do believe that Bach is busily at work as an evangelist, to paraphrase Nathan Soderblom, the former archbishop of Uppsala in Sweden. I also share a similar view expressed by the late Arthur Peacocke, one of the most significant figures in the burgeoning dialogue between Faith and Science.

Peacocke, an Anglican canon and a noted biochemist, sounded much like Martin Luther who once described music as a tool of the Holy Spirit. He specifically made a point to which I am inclined to subscribe to heartily:

The Holy Spirit Himself dictated The Art of the Fugue into Bach's plume.

When I wrote this on my blog site I got into deep waters with Lutheran coreligionists who believe themselves to be more orthodox than I.

What infuriated them was not only my reference to the Holy Spirit's authorship of the Art of the Fugue, but even more so a story of mine describing how Glenn Gould's rendering of the Goldberg Variations, another very abstract work by Bach, had triggered the interest of Masashi Masuda from Hokkaido in northern Japan in Christianity.

Masuda told me on the telephone one day that he wanted to discover the source of this wonderful composition - and was guided to the Christian faith, thus supporting Arthur Peacocke's theory.

Masashi Masuda became a member of the Society of Jesus, and ultimately a professor of systematic theology at Sophia University, a Jesuit-owned school in Tokyo.

You cannot believe the furious electronic missives aimed at me across the internet in response to this report. "Sir, did you not know that the Holy Spirit only works through the Word?" one angry reader chided. I replied, "I thought we had learned in Systematics III that the Holy Spirit blew as he wished.

I apologized saying that I was unaware that the Third Person in the Trinity was under any obligation to study the Book of Concord before blowing? So now we know: The Holy Spirit has no right to use an abstract composition by Johann Sebastian Bach as a shoe ladle for the Word of God.

Another email correspondent seemed ready to burn me at the stake, if only this could be done in cyberspace, for implying in my Masashi Masuda story that the Holy Spirit might have guided this former non-believer to a denominationally incorrect target. "See? Now Siemon-Netto even asserts that Bach has driven this man to the Antichrist."

Rare in a journalist's life are such wonderful occasions when divine irony refutes absurdity with swift fury. On the very day I received this email a friend from Portland, Oregon, sent me this beautiful bit of news: She had a grandson, who used to be a godless lout. Then one day his father gave him a Glenn Could recording of Bach's Italian Concerto, another work without words.

A few months later, this young man surprised his father by playing the Italian Concerto on the father's piano, from memory. Until that point Dad had had no idea that this teenager even knew how to handle a piano.

Next, the boy informed his grandmother that he would now like to learn how to play the organ.

So from that day on he accompanied her every Sunday to her Lutheran church, and now he can play the organ and has become a Christian. I just copied this bit of her email to my angry interlocutor, self-righteously adding three of the first Latin words I had ever learned: "Quod erat demonstrandum."

As Prof. Robin Leaver told me this morning, Johann Olearius, the 17th-century German mathematician and librarian called the Holy Spirit "der grosse Kapellmeister" (literally, the great orchestra donductor). Again: Quod erat demonstrandum.

This leads me to a fascinating question others are probably more competent to answer than I:

How come that the most destructive and tasteless forms of music and the very best have an almost equal ability to transcend ethnic, cultural and geographic barriers while others don't.

How come you see people twitch to the same inane beat whether you are in Iceland or Okinawa, in Berlin or Bali? If Arthur Peacocke is right that the Holy Spirit disseminates Bach, what do you call the spirit that promulgates rap and Hip Hop but not, for example Schubert's lieder, on a global scale?

We might have to consult psychologists here, perhaps even physicians. After attending a genuine - not touristy - Voodoo seance in Haiti back in 1964 my wife told me that this experience had literally put a spell on her, mesmerized her, changed her physically at least as it was happening.

One physician said that this intense drumbeat actually changes your breathing or your heartbeat. I don't know about that. I was there too, and it did nothing for me. But like my wife, and evidently like huge audiences in Tokyo, I feel profoundly changed when listening to the Art of the Fugue or the final chorus of Bach's St. John's Passion.

There might well be some kind of spirit involved in Rap and Voodoo, in addition perhaps even to temporary biological and physiological transformations. Others might be more competent to opine on this.

But what about the Spirit who made sure that the Japanese with their entirely different musical background grasp the significance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whereas most of us Westerners might find the traditional tunes of Japan charming, exotic, an alien delight, but not really overwhelming.

About ten years ago, I put this question in Tokyo to a couple of musicologists, whose names, I am ashamed to say, I have misplaced in my messy archives. They came up with the following theory that might in part explain the current Bach Boom in Japan and other parts of Asia for several decades now.

When Francis Xavier and other Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries landed in southern Japan in the mid-16th century, they brought with them Western-style church music, especially Gregorian chant, and the organ. In fact they built pipe organs from bamboo, and before the sixteenth century was out, some Japanese princes were so accomplished on the Queen of the Instruments that in the 1560s three of them toured European courts playing before kings and princes and before the Pope.

Christianity was eradicated in Japan in the early 17th century. Christians were crucified, burned at the stake, and scorched to death while hanging upside-down over cesspools.

But my Japanese interlocutors told me that while the Christian faith was wiped out, elements of Western music infiltrated Japanese folk song. This influence evidently remained strong enough to help Bach's music sweep Japan four centuries later.

I like this theory. I am sure Arthur Peacocke would have loved it. It comforted me in my perplexity throughout the last four years in St. Louis when I listened to Robert Bergt's spectacular Bach at the Sem performances, and found the huge Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus filled with white heads.

Most of these heads belonged to members of outside communities. I was grateful to see them there. But where were the seminarians in whose theological tradition the music of Johann Sebastian Bach played such a towering role? Where, for that matter, were most of the faculty members?

These concerts were recorded and then repeated over KFUO-FM, this marvelous gift by faithful German-American Lutherans to the larger St. Louis community, a jewel of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod whose reputation is otherwise not really one of winsomeness.

Now this KFUO is being sold for an apple and an egg. The church body whose founder had linked music and the Holy Spirit so closely glibly jettisons one the Comforter's most splendid tools. Ladies and gentlemen, by all means grill me electronically for this outburst: This unfathomable act reminds me hauntingly of Walter Ulbricht's massacre of
our University Church in our mutual hometown of Leipzig in 1968.

I have been invited to talk to you about the Global Significance of the Music of Johann Sebastian Bach. You cannot do this without contemplating the Third Person of the Trinity, and I cannot help noticing that He is being mocked in our own family of faith.

Of course you can try to keep the Holy Spirit and his toys out of reality and replace them with kitsch. But be warned. The Holy Spirit will still blow as he wills, perhaps not on Founder's Way in St. Louis, but -- Japan and Korea, in once abandoned Romanesque churches in southwestern France, in the head of a formerly godless lout in Oregon -- and in my head, which keeps finding order and comfort thanks to Bach's incomplete masterpiece, the Art of the Fugue.

Uwe Siemon-Netto Ph.D., D.Litt.
Center for Lutheran Theology & Public Life
Concordia University,
Old Administration Building, 312 A
1530 Concordia West
Irvine, CA 92612-3203

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Hello all!

After a long absence...I'M BAAAAACK...

Well, the poop really hit the fan this week. I lost a big job, and my car died, and I overdrew my checking account...

So I did what every girl does: I spent a while during the wee hours running through the house screaming, lying in bed crying, and punching my pillow...which is far less painful than punching the walls...

And do you know what? It actually made me feel a lot better...


God almighty...


I wish you wouldn't sneak up behind me...


Well, at least I didnt smash a bunch of stone tablets...



Can't say that I have...so tell me...


Ah, so you are a "just" God after all...



Sort of like Ed McMahon knocking at your door to tell you that you have won the sweepstakes?


I hope old Pete wasn't too let down...


Not bad...not bad at all...


OMG! (oops, sorry...) You are right. Thats how it happens...


Ok...tell all...


Jesus H Christ! Too easy, can't do it... Is it really that simple?


I'll have to work on that...




Thank you. By the way, what DOES the H in your Son's name stand for?


Good night God...



The god represented herein may or may not bear any resemblance to any other god, real or fictional, and the views presented here are those of the author alone, and should not be construed to represent those of any god living, dead, or immortal.

Saturday, June 27, 2009



*** *** *** *** ***

The Doldrums is the region of calm winds, centered slightly north of the equator and between the two belts of trade winds, which meet there and neutralize each other.

It is widely assumed that the phrase 'in the doldrums' is derived from the name of this region. Actually, it's the other way about. In the 19th century, 'doldrum' was a word meaning 'dullard; a dull or sluggish fellow' and this probably derived from 'dol', meaning 'dull' with its form taken from 'tantrum'. That is, as a tantrum was a fit of petulance and passion, a doldrum was a fit of sloth and dullness, or one who indulged in such.

The term was used to mean 'a general state of low spirits'

*** *** *** *** ***

I am definitely in the doldrums right now.

My College reunion is over...

The Spoleto Festuval has come and gone...

I feel as though I am about to expire of terminal ennui...which is itself a death worse than fate...




Doesn't matter. I hate it when you sneak up on me...


I was just expressing my dismay at the way things seem to go in cycles...an up followed by a down...lots of excitement followed by horrible boredom...




THat's quite all right. No need to put yourself to that much trouble...


But how do I get myself out of the doldrums?


Now where did I put those oars...

*** *** *** *** ***
The God described herein may or may not bear any resemblance to any other God, real or fictional, and the views presented here are those of the author alone, and should not be construed to represent those of any God living, dead, or immortal.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


When our class reunion was announced, it was suggested that we all send in a short autobiography of what we have done since 1969. After getting to Princeton, I sent my bio to my classmates. I repeat it here for you all.


Greetings to all!

I thought it might be time to write to you before you hear "the news" from elsewhere... I have had a wonderful time in Princeton this week.

It cannot be forty years since we were students... I'm not that old. What? Neither are you? That's a relief...

Anyway. Here is what I have been doing...

After putting the Yearbook to bed in 1969, I lived with my parents for a short time and moved out before we seriously maimed each other. I did my job-hunting and ended up playing in an Episcopal Church on the weekends and working for the Hartman-Beaty Organ Company in Englewood, NJ. (Who?) By 1971, I was doing much of the technical design for their organs, and did most of the engineering work on a tracker organ they were building for Trinity Methodist in Charleston, SC. (Remember this!)

In 1970, I took the position of Director of Music at the Methodist Church in Leonia, NJ, and a year later, being very bold, not to mention having left the employ of H&B (who?), I offered to to rebuild their pipe organ, enlarging it from 17 to 44 ranks - not bad for an Opus 2! And it is still there and playing as I left it. I also founded the Second Sunday Concert Series, which continues to this day...

For the next five years, I worked with Allan Van Zoeren, a master voicer and tone finisher, and Tim Koelewijn, the master pipemaker who restored the pipes from the Schnitger organ at Zwolle, concurrently with selling Wicks organs, all of which gave me valuable experience as to what to do and what not to do tonally in an organ.

I met my to-be first wife, Edna, in 1977, and we were married in August of 1978. We honeymooned in - guess where - Charleston, SC. We attended services at Trinity Methodist, as I had never seen or heard the organ I engineered. Talking with a few local organists at lunch, I was strongly encouraged to move and set up shop there. So, we considered it, decided, moved there on our first anniversary, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I have built and rebuilt close to 35 organs since going South,including four IV-manual jobs, and in my spare time" have managed to compose more than 40 works for organ (including 2 organ symphonies in the style of Louis Vierne), various instruments, chorus, and Carillon. I am in the midst of completing my third art song cycle. I also got interested in aviation, and for a time owned and flew a Grumman AA5A "Cheetah" 4-place airplane. I was the second organbuilder in the world to have a website (Austin beat me by THREE DAYS!). And, I made the mistake of not evacuating on the morning of 22 September 1989 (my birthday) when Hurricane Hugo came to visit. Luckily no harm befell us even though there were 90-foot pine trees crashing down around our home in Mt. Pleasant.

But Hugo provided some benefits to us, and my First Great Moment occurred on 25 October 1992 when David Higgs dedicated, to an SRO audience, my new 72 rank pipe organ at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church in the heart of the Historic District. It is considered to be a worldclass concert instrument and is a major venue for the Spoleto Festival.

Then, in June of 1995, my Second Great Moments (sic) occurred with (1) in April, my winning Second Prize (there was no 1st prize awarded) in the Guild of Carilloneurs of North America's Composition Competition (say that 3 times very quickly..) with my piece "Cortege"; and, (2) in June, the premiere performance of my "Concerto in D for Organ, Strings, and Tympani", Op. 21, at First Scots with members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra.

In 1998, I attended the Paris Congress of the International Society of Organbuilders.

Then, in 1999, my wife and I separated and divorced. I remarried within a year, and that marriage ended amicably after only a few years.

In 2004, I journeyed to France, and performed much of the work of restoring the Recit division of the historic 1895 Stoltz Freres organ in the Parish Church in Ligueil, which is near Tours.

My Third Great Moments (getting sic (sic) of this joke, arent you...) occurred (1) in 2006, when Dutch organist Arjen Leistra premiered my "Variations on 'Est Ce Mars'" as a part of his Koniginnetag (Queen's Birthday) Recital at the Hoflaankerk in Rotterdam, and (2) almost exactly one year later, in 2007, when I participated in the planning for that year's PipeDreams Tour of Organs in Holland. I authored the 90 page guide entitled: "The Netherlands: Crossroads of European Organbuilding", which included a fairly comprehensive essay on Dutch history, culture, and music. We visited more than 40 organs during the two week tour, and I accompanied the group as Organbuilder-in-Residence giving short talks I called "Organbuilder's Minutes" at the more interesting instruments.

The last Recital of the tour was held at the Hoflaankerk and performed by my friend Arjen, who was the tour's Organist-in-Residence, and it was only fitting that we conclude with the singing of a hymn. We sang, in English, "We Gather Together to Ask the Lord's Blessing", to the old Dutch tune "Kremser", which is familiar to you all. I wrote a new concluding verse, which I want to offer to you all.


With organs resounding, our fanfares announcing,
The triumph of Jesus our Saviour and King.
The whole diapason gives gladsome intonation,
And through our music, Lord,
We witness of Thee.

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary 2009: diapason (n): etymology: dia through + pas┼Źn,
genitive feminine plural of pas all (1) the entire compass of musical tones
The Charleston Lawyers' Chorus (tm) sings an excerpt of the rock opera "Runaround, Sue" : "Permission is hereby granted any student, former student, graduate, friend, or whatever of Westminster Choir College to use the above hymn verse however they d___ well want, with a credit line being accorded the author, unless the Church Secretary says there isn't any room in the Bulletin... yeah, yeah, yeah..."


In 1997, I began to experience the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease. I have been since then under the personal care of the former Chair of the Neurology Dept of MUSC, Dr. David Bachman, who specialises in PD and Alzheimers.

Today, after close to 15 years of life with PD, I am only a light 2 on a 1 - 5 scale of severity, which is somewhat unusual. Unfortunately, I can no longer fly nor can I reliably play the organ for worship, but otherwise, my Doc says I am a walking advertisement for the salutary effects of attitude on one's physical condition. I tremble at the thought...

The PD coincided with my increasing awareness of other factors in my life which I had been denying or at least repressing; so, gravely depressed, I went into intense counseling for a year, and ended up not only beginning to find my true self, but co-founding, in 2000, a support group to help others like myself here in the Charleston area.

I have had gender identity issues since I was a child, but I hid them from everyone including my parents and first wife...and from you, in another galaxy long ago and far, far away! But one can only sustain that sort of dualism only for so long...

As one gets older, one realises she no longer has more years left than she has already lived, and things take on new levels of priority. After much thought and prayer, I have been guided to the path which I must follow for whatever time I have left (lots, I hope).

Some of you have already met the "new" me in Princeton this week, I am well along in the process of affirming my true inner self. My new name is Olivia Margaret Ontko. I intend to continue in my life's work of designing and voicing pipe, digital, and hybrid organs, composing, and writing. (Can you believe it, I am writing a murder mystery which will involve Westminster and a chase up the NJ Turnpike?). If any of you want to know more, visit my support group website at http://www.transgender.org/CATS (yes, there are pictures and they are all G-rated...),

or - dont be shy - just ask me...there are no dumb questions...

My email address is now OliviaMargaret32@gmail.com and my personal blog may be found at http://OliviasArtifacts.blogspot.com/

I would be happy to see each and every one of you if you get to the Charleston SC area. I live on 3 acres in a little community northwest of Charleston, down a dirt road way out in the country.

How far out in the country?

There is no cable TV service available, which is no hardship as I haven't watched the telly in many years. I have to drive 2 miles towards town before my cell phone will work, which I do in my vintage 1988 Pontiac Fiero. But the internet and my landline phone work just fine thanks to AT&T and a bunch of signal boosters...

But... on a clear night in the middle of winter, there are so many stars visible from my front porch that you can almost read a large print book by their light; and the red fox trots softly across my front yard not three meters from where I stand; and you cannot hear any traffic noise except for my neighbor's rattly old Ford pickup making its way softly down the dirt road towards home...

That brings me up to date; thank you for reading this.

I have been richly blessed. God guide and bless y'all every one.

Allan / Olivia

Friday, May 22, 2009


Last weekend I had one of those moments which occur in everyone's life...

By means of an ofhand remark by a mutual friend, I was put in contact with a person who was at one time ... long ago and in a galaxy far away...my very best friend in the whole world. Hardly a week would go by that we didnt see each other. We talked about music, the arts, all sorts of topics. We improvised silly little word plays...for example -

Him: "Last week I heard the most marvelous recording of the "Lamentation of David" with that exquisite phrase "Would God I'd died for thee..."
Me: "Ah. But why not a Metal God..."


Dear God! Dont sneak up on me like that. I am NOT Bill Cosby and that silly midget navigator was the one who wrecked your Ark, anyway...

OH HO! {walks away singing} WHAT DO YOU DO WITH A SHRUNKEN SAILOR..."

We laughed a lot. And drew up rather convoluted and highly improbable organ stoplists...

And then one day it was gone. We had an argument, and it disappeared. And what was the argument about? Damnifiknow anymore...

But this I know: there was a hole in my heart for more than 25 years...

We met on Monday for lunch, and when I walked into his home, it was as if 25 hours had passed, not 25 years, since I last saw him. And when I cried, it was tears of joy...

Everyone needs to have and to be a friend like that...

- - Olivia

The part of God in this narrative was played by . . . God!

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Well, boys and girls, it is Saturday morning and we are about to enter the Princeton University Chapel, passing beneath the stone dedicated by Lee Hastings Bristol in 1969, incised into which is the inscription "Come into his presence with singing".

Unfortunately, this year's Comencement was rather a disappointment.

The prelude music was nondescript. After a short brass fanfare, the Mendelssohn "Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream" was presented on the organ. The organ is one of those unfortunate British assemblages which posesses no consonants and as a result drones incessantly. To prove that point, the audience continued to converse through the entire work, at times totally eclipsing the music, and stopping only when the Handbell Choir began to play and their percussive sound said "Hey you. Shut up. I am playing music..."

The Procession was made to the "Crown Imperial March" by William Walton. It was played on the organ, the booming, turgid bass of which totally obscured the rhythm. I was seated on the center aisle, and I could tell that these gifted students simply could not find a beat with which to march down the aisle. So it degenerated into a shamble rather than a march. Warren Martin, where are you when we need you?

The hymns were sung with gusto, and Ken Cowan's playing of them was the best thing on the program.

The Anthem of the Graduating Class, written by Nathan Jones (MM '09) is a fresh setting of the familiar Mosaic Blessing, which has character and expression.

Ken Cowan has revitalised the Anthem of Dedication with his colorful and expressive new registrations. Bravo. Joe Miller's conducting was a severe disappointment, as he seemed to gloss over the music to the extent of not properly preparing entrances or allowing the choir to breathe. I heard him conduct Westminster Choir last summer in Charleston, and I thought his conducting then to be sensitive and musical.

Now, we all know that the AOD is rather emotional and borders on being just the tiniest bit tawdry, but it is part of our musical heritage, is typical of the literature of its period, and should be treated with RESPECT!

Gerre Hancock's improvised introduction to the familiar Holstian hymntune Thaxted left me wondering if he was away on another planet, and his "accompaniment" of the singing had me wondering if I was in another galaxy...or at least wishing I was...

The Retiring Procession was accompanied by the lugubrious strains of the "Great Gate of Kiev" by the organ and the brass. Now that was OK, until the graduated Seniors reached the rear of the Nave, where the Chapel Choir was seated in the Gallery. They have taken it upon themselves to send the Graduates packing with cheers and yelling and applause more akin to a sporting event than an academic convocation.

And there is not a thing wrong with that. I think it is great. What was jarring was the dichotomy of that occurring in the back of the bus while the musicians up front continued droning away, oblivious to the fact that they were no longer a part of what was taking place.

This needs to be remedied with a new work... Stay tuned to this station for developments...

I did not stay for the Postlude, improvised by Dr. Hancock, lest I find myself lost in another universe...

My final thoughts will be posted in a few days. Until then, au revoir, y'all...

-- Olivia Margaret


OMG! I forgot to post yesterday!

The last two days have been so grand, I feel so ENERGISED!

I got into town and on campus late on Friday morning, and suddenly realised that my body was getting ready to turn "off". I barely made it through lunch and the Alumni Association Meeting then went back to the hotel and fell into bed.

For any of you who don't know, Parkinsons is always full of surprises; you never know until you get up in the morning whether or not you are going to be functional that day. Some days, the Off days, the brain is sending messages like mad, and the muscles are are poised and ready to act on messages received... but the telegraph operator is on strike...

So I took a nice nap, waking up just in time to get dressed, made up, and over to the Salt Creek Grille which was conveniently located immediately adjacent to the hotel.

The nexy four hours were full of good food and drink (they make an excellent Cosmopolitan), good conversation, and a feeling of familial closeness.

After a very nice buffet supper, Mary Dempsey took the lead, and suggested we each take 4-5 minutes and tell what we had been doing since 1969. The richness of experience and achievement which was presented over the next hour was mind-boggling. Here was a group of exceptional people who had made significant contributions to their communities, their churches, and their countries. It was impressive.

Then 'twas my turn. I started out by saying "I've made a few little changes..." which got a laugh. I compared myself to a few people, like Sue Jasperse, who had been Katrina'd as I had been Hugo'd. Linda Euler had related how she had secretly wanted to be a Rockette and appear in their sometimes fabulous costumes, and had finally taken tap dancing lessons.

So I related "...and I worked for 5 years at Radio City Music Hall maintaining the Wurlitzer Organ there. In order to get into one of the pipe chambers you had to go through the Rockettes dressing room, so I had a key. One night, in the wee hours, I succumbed to temptation...and you know what, Linda..." -- the room got absolutely quiet -- "...those costumes are just not AT ALL comfortable...".

And the room exploded with laughter...

What I thought was MOST impressive, though, was the way everyone related the hard times as well as the good times. No one was looking for pity or even sympathy. The heart attacks, the vicious diseases, the infirmities, were all there because they were an integral part of living. Nobody complained. Do you hear that? NOBODY complained. How unlike the mewling self-pity demonstrated on the so-called reality shows seen on the telly.

I feel so blessed, so enriched, and so proud to be a member of this group...and the 40 years disappeared, and we were young again for a few hours...

I think I speak for the rest of the group in extending our sincere thanks to Rich Ludlum and Mary Dempsey for making the arrangements for this evening's gathering.

And we remember with affection the late Cj Sambach, who inspired it.

I said in the first instalment of this series, that I wanted to find out what draws the Westminster grad back to Princeton...well, I did.

It is because wherever we go throughout the world, home and family always beckons.

And home is that magical few acres of ground filled with song at the corner of Hamilton Street and Walnut Lane, in the Township of Princeton, the State of New Jersey, and the corner of our hearts...

-- Olivia

PS...many thanks to my writers, Josh Quip, I.M. Agurl, and Aalto Singer...without whom my luncheon tab would be a lot smaller...

Friday, May 15, 2009

CLASS OF 1969 REDUX - 2a

Silly me. I don't have to be on campus until lunchtime. The morning program deals with secondary school choral music programs, which will be of more interest to others.

Back to yesterday.

Having registered, I just sat on one of the benches and took in the peacefulness of the Quad, which was quickly shattered by the cries of people greeting their classmates. Such a joyful sound.

I wont attempt to name everyone I have met so far, lest I forget someone. Everyone so far has been accepting of my changes...including a few people whom I though might not be...

I took a little time to visit the Green Virgin, as she was called in my day, and did a photo study of the bronze statue, which I will make available after I have got back home.

The only program of the day was a report by Dean Annis to the Alumni on the state of the college. It could be summed up in one word: FANTASTIC...

New admissions are up. Budgets have not been cut. The Annual Fund giving has dropped less than the national averages. Rider University continues to be committed to the Westminster identity.

But what is so very exciting, is that the students themselves are pressing for more emphasis on the history of the college and on the continuance of its traditions.

I then went back to my hotel, had a wonderful supper in the hotel restaurant, and then to bed, I being grreatly fatigued...

I would say there will be more on the morrow, but it IS the morrow...and I must get gone...

-- Olivia


Day Two began auspiciously. I slept in long enough to assuage the feeling of yesterday that I had two reservoir weights strapped to each foot...

After having breakfast, I drove into town, which looked as if nothing had changed since I left it, and drove slowly up the long drive to Williamson Hall. Then, reality intruding as it so often does, I searched for a parking place, finding one at the far end of the campus. So I took advantage of it, and reacquainted myself with the beauty as I walked.

The Quad looks more beautiful than ever. It has been completely resodded and sprinklerized. Nobody walks across it now because they might get their feet wet!

I entered Williamson Hall, and went down to the rotunda to register. Synergy occurred, for as I finished registering, a meeting upstairs ended with the singing of the Lutkin, and tears of joy sprang forth. I was home again.

Reality strikes again... as usual, I am running late this morning (Friday). I will post this, and continue it later...

-- Olivia

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

CLASS of 1969 REDUX - 1

Here I am back in Princeton, NJ. It has been 40 years since Commencement. I have been back before, but never at so poignant a time in my life.

What draws the Westminster grad back to Princeton?

I dont know, but will be speculating...

But it is late, and not only did I have my flight cancelled out from under me today, but my spacebar broke!

And it is too late to do anything constructuve; so I believe I shall say bonne nuit y'all...

{to be continud tomorrow}

Monday, May 11, 2009


I have a decision to make, but it is already made: I just have to acknowledge that fact, deal with it, and move on.  It was made, as I sometimes say,.in another time and in a galaxy far away...

I must decide whether to follow my heart or heed the advice of the nay-sayers.  You know them: they are the people who say don't rock the boat...maintain the status quo...be safe not sorry...don't do this...don't do that...don't...don't...don't...

Then along comes a person whom I greatly admire - I shall refer to him as "X" - who says to me apropos another matter "Provoke a crisis.  It lets you know where you stand."

Well, X, I am about to provoke YOU...

I do it because of the great respect I have for you.  I do it because I need to know just where you stand regarding me and what I am about to do.  Unfortunately I cannot know how you will react until I do reveal myself, at which point the cat is out of the proverbial bag...but I seal my fate no matter what I do, so I must follow my heart...

Who is X? 

X is you who are reading this now.  You whom I have told about my decision to transition...

You are my hope and my downfall.  You are my support and my nemesis.  I can do this with you or do this without you, and I would rather do it with you, but by God I am going to do it.

As Martin  Luther said to the Diet of Worms, I say "Here I stand.  I can do no other."  

Having typed the above, I began to feel a twinge of self-doubt despite the fact that I have prayed about this for months (years?).  So I typed in the query on Live Search "Who said here I stand", trusting that I would be guided to the right place.  A page appeared with lots of references to song lyrics and history.  

But one jumped off the screen at me:

Luther, standing firm in his convictions and knowing that this might cost him his life, said, “ Here I stand ” (by what I have written) I can do no other.

I followed that link, downloaded, and read a not-too-lengthy sermon which spoke directly to me and said better than I could that which I feel at this time.  (go ahead, go get and read it, I will wait for you...)

Back?  Good.  I hope it spoke to you, too...

I have surely spent time on my knees with God, and it is time for me to rise and stand...also with God...

And also, I hope, with you...

Olivia Margaret

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Next month I pass yet another one of those talked-about milestones of life...I will attend my college reunion... But not just any one: this is a biggie.

The Big Four-Oh . . .

Now I couldnt possibly be that old. Why, it seems like jsut yesterday that David Whatsis was telling...uhhh... Pigball about something or another...

Really, though, I can remember lots of things like they happened just yesterday. Possibly because they DID happen yesterday. Gotta check that... Other things take some thinking to recall. And some things I know must have happened, but I can't recall them at all.

What is the most interesting thing is that the very good things I recall quite easily, and the not-so-niceties are barely there any more. I think it must be a defence mechanism to protect us from remembering the stupid things we did when we were teens, and the illegal things we did in college, and then dying of terminal embarassment.

Or maybe it is just that those things dont matter any more, so we unconsciously let them slip away to make room for new memories to take with us when we cross the bar...

I dont know what goes on when that happens, so I am taking no chances. I am preparing to generate another forty years of music and of writing and of reading and of having good times with my new friends and my old ones... After all, I dont want to come into the next life with memories of bingo and of shuffleboard and of endless days doing nothing...

Maybe that's why some babies cry so much when they are born...

- - Olivia

Wednesday, April 15, 2009



Yes, I have Parkinson's Disease, and it is a bloody nuisance. Makes me shake with rage, it does.

For example, the other day I had an improtant meeting. I woke up early enough so as not to be under sress of rushing to put on my makeup or do my hair. Nope. Didnt work. I shook more than my breakfast cereal. You know my brand...

"Chocolate Earthquake Buds - Made with 100% artificial sweetener - you'll never sit still again - no nutritional value, but by gosh your girlfriend wont ever have to buy batteries again...


For her flashligh?



I really hate it when God sneaks up on me like that...makes me feel like Bill Cosby... but my ark is worse than my byte...

Anyway, you get the idea. Now, I am not complainging. I tremble at the thought...but I really dont like having this disease. Why me, Lord?


Oh no. Not that one again...


I suppose that is a good enough reason for anything. Especially when you are God...


Right, Mel...

Well the Bible says it is normal (1), so I fear I cant complain, now can I...

Parkinsons may cause me to die some day, but I will NOT let it kill me...

- - Olivia

(1) Philippians 2:12b-13 "...work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure"


Do you know the words, beyond the first line that is, to the old British nusery rhyme?

It goes:

"Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clements."

I've known the words for a long time, but never knew the melody. So I, of course, went direct to Wikipedia and found this page:


And, so you dont have to go to that page, here is the text:

Oranges and lemons,Say the bells of St. Clement's
You owe me five farthings,Say the bells of St. Martin's
When will you pay me?Say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch.
When will that be?Say the bells of Stepney
I do not know,Says the great bell of Bow

Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

The song was used in a children's singing game with the same name, in which the players file, in pairs, through an arch made by two of the players (made by having the players face each other, raise their arms over their head, and clasp their partners' hands). The challenge comes during the final lines:

Here comes a candle to light you to bed.
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
(Chip chop, chip chop, the last man's dead.)

On the last word, the children forming the arch drop their arms to catch the pair of children currently passing through, who are then "out" and must form another arch next to the existing one. In this way, the series of arches becomes a steadily lengthening tunnel through which each set of two players have to run faster and faster to escape in time.

Alternate versions of the game include: children caught "out" by the last rhyme may stand behind one of the children forming the original arch, instead of forming additional arches; and, children forming "arches" may bring their hands down for each word of the last line, while the children passing through the arches run as fast as they can to avoid being caught on the last word.

If you want to hear the tune and find out more lore about this song, visit here:


And while doing all this research, have one on me!

A half-and-half mixture of orange juice and bitter-lemon soda water is known as a "St Clements".

Now here's the question you have all been wanting to ask. . .

"Why are we being told all this?"

Because after years of a tune based on these word running through my head, I have finally begun a set of variations for Carillon based on it.

Keep watch here
For the song to appear...

At a party, Isaac Asimov was asked by a fan where he got his story ideas.
Leaning over conspiratorially, he said...
"I just make them up, see...?"

- - Olivia


Sitting here listening to a tape I found of Paul inprovising Reger on the Hammonton organ around 1974. Not in the style of Reger, but improvising REGER, for God's sake...

Paul was a true flawed genius. He had so much talent that when he exercised it, he brought everything around him to a screeching halt, because his playing was utterly captivating in its energy, its liveliness, its sometimes painful beauty.

Like so many flawed geniuses, though, his lack of personal and professional discipline and ambition ultimately led him to his downfall He relied more and more on the effect, neglecting the substance. It became obvious rather quickly that his understanding of things was only so deep, and would never get deeper primarily because he was unwilling to make the effort to go further - to extend his world view.

Its not that he didn't learn anything new, for Paulbecame an expert on the use of the synthesiser, which did not exist in a form accessible to mere mortals in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, when he had achieved a style which would besustainable and favorably noticed by others, he stopped developing and started repeating.

Of course, this is a subjective analysis. Paul and I were very close in the 1970s, then lost touch for more than 20 years. Our only contact was the occasional phone call, sometimes collect and sometimes not. He would call, and say (this was in the days before caller ID) "I bet you cant guess who this is.", when I would say something like "You lose, Paul" and he would be so disappointed. Like a child.

He and I spent time together when he come to assist me wih voicing on the Christ Church Savannah and the Manteo jobs in the early 00s. Nothing much had changed. He spouted back to me his "ideas" which were nothing more than a recital of my ideas from the late 1970s. I had moved on, he had not, but I guess I should have been flattered...

People like Paul make us angry, because we can see the greater potential within them. We are disappointed because they are seemingly oblivious to this part of themselves. We are confounded by them because of the vehemence with which they resist an attempts to get them to delve deeper into things.

But, we are also delighted by the seeming simplicity of their lives: Do what you do best. Over and over, and over, ad infinitum.

And we are jealous of it. We hate them for it. Because we ultimately want to know the why of things and they are more interested in the effects it causes.

It is fitting that my first post to this blog should have to do with Paul. He may have been a flawed genius, but he was a genius nonetheless, and knowing him enriched my life tremendously.

-- Olivia