September 6, 2020



Demystifying the Organ for Composers

September 6, 2020


Demystifying the Organ for Composers

Natalie Draper (left) and Anne Laver (right) in front of the 1950 Holtkamp organ in Setnor Auditorium at Syracuse University in New York, USA.

Natalie Draper (left) and Anne Laver (right) in front of the 1950 Holtkamp organ in Setnor Auditorium at Syracuse University in New York, USA.


This summer, Anne Laver (professor of organ) and Natalie Draper (professor of composition/theory) at Syracuse University in New York have been working on an initiative to demystify the organ for contemporary composers. The project began as a straightforward idea — they wanted to have a festival celebrating contemporary organ music at Syracuse University. They planned a series of panels relating to organ composition topics, a reading of new works, and a culminating concert of contemporary organ music. "Composing for the Organ: Webinar and Virtual Concert" is a one-day festival of contemporary organ music on September 12, 2020, and is free and open to the public. This article reflects on their experience researching, preparing, and composing a new organ work for this event.


Imagine you are a composer who has been commissioned to write your first work for organ. Where do you begin? The organ is, in many ways, a daunting instrument for those who haven’t had lessons on it. It is generally not taught in orchestration courses at music schools and is often left out of “new music” discourse and concert culture, as it is so strongly associated with various sacred traditions. Moreover, it presents many physical challenges: each organ is different, the logistics are hard to imagine unless you yourself are sitting at the instrument, and the acoustic space dramatically affects timbre, attack, and resonance. Scores of organ music hardly paint a complete picture of the sound of the work, with notes on the page rarely mapping to the complex registrations and overtones of each individual instrument.

In early 2020, we set out to try to address some of the challenges that composers face when approaching the organ. Our aim was to offer resources to help that hypothetical composer. In fact, the situation wasn’t just a hypothetical one, it was also going to be Natalie’s experience, since we had secured a grant from the Special Projects Fund of the San Francisco Chapter of the American Guild of Organists to commission her to write a new piece for organ.

Our original plan was to offer the Composing for the Organ event as an in-person gathering in Syracuse. However, it became clear in May that the complexities and uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic would require us to rethink the nature of this event. Composing for the Organ became a fully online festival, with webinars instead of in-person panels, a reading session with pre-recorded tracks, and a culminating pre-recorded concert to be premiered on YouTube.

The virtual world that we are all inhabiting these days can often feel disappointing, but there are valuable silver linings if and when we look for them. Composing for Organ going online means that we will now have documentation of all of these events — videos that can be disseminated to a much larger audience, with information, advice, and feedback on composing for the organ available anywhere worldwide. It is our hope that we can create a repository of information and resources on the web for composers who need a way to access this daunting instrument.

Our research process leading up to this event centered around two main methodologies: interviewing several prominent composers who have written for the organ and trying the compositional process ourselves. These linked activities were a rich experience for both of us, and we think it will also allow us to better offer the resources composers will find useful.

In July and August 2020, we reached out to a handful of composers to ask if they would be willing to share their experiences writing for the organ in a Zoom interview. We talked with seasoned organist-composers such as Carson Cooman, non-organists who had written a lot of music for organ including Nico Muhly and Ad Wammes, and composers who had only recently written their first pieces for organ, such as Eric Nathan and Wang Lu. In a few cases, we opted to interview composers along with their organist collaborators (James McVinne with Nico Muhly and Mark Steinbach with Eric Nathan and Wang Lu). These videos are being distributed on our YouTube channel and contain wonderful insights from a range of perspectives. We plan to continue conducting interviews and posting them on this channel in the coming months.

We decided to keep our questions relatively consistent so we could see if any patterns arose. We asked: What first led you to write for the organ? What do you find most challenging/gratifying about writing for the organ? What compositional techniques do you think work well on the instrument? What advice do you have for composers? We were surprised and delighted to see that, while there was some crossover in individuals' answers, there was a wide range of responses and approaches to the instrument. The upshot is that most composers will see their own journey with the organ in at least one of these interviews.

In response to the question what do you find most gratifying about composing for the organ, Carson Cooman remarked, “there are a lot of opportunities for the use of organ repertoire. The fact that nearly all organists work in church contexts means that there is a much more regular performing life that goes on and much more variety.” Nico Muhly provided this piece of advice to composers: “I feel like it should be clear when you're looking at the music, what information is foreground, and what information is background — as clues or breadcrumbs to the interpreter.” Eric Nathan talked about how important it was to have ample time to explore the organ on his own before he began to write. Ad Wammes talked about the experience of hearing dozens of very different performances of one of his most popular pieces, Miroir, recorded by Anne Laver here.

A number of composers mentioned the importance of getting to know the repertoire (Nico Muhly even wanted to supply a playlist prominently featuring Orlando Gibbons!). Wang Lu advised, “When you’re writing for the organ, you can’t think that you are writing for the organ. You just have to write your own music.” In other words, getting to know the organ repertoire is important and can be helpful, but if you don’t see yourself in the repertoire, don’t let that deter you. Don’t be afraid to bring your own voice to the instrument.

Much of the content in these interviews resonated with both of us because we had decided to embark on our own new music collaboration. In May, Natalie began the process of writing a new organ piece that Anne would perform on the concert.

Natalie found that she related to Lu’s experience when first starting the compositional process, her first time writing for organ. As she said, the thought of composing a new work for organ “both excited and terrified me!” Natalie realized that she was very much in need of exactly what we are hoping to offer composers: a repository of information, geared toward composers, on how to write for the organ.

Natalie began her process by watching several video tutorials that Anne recommended: Fred Hohman’s “Lessons for the New Organist”, videos for pianists who want to become organists produced by the American Guild of Organists. Although directed toward performers, these videos were a great introduction to the instrument for composers, as well. She then met up with Joseph Downing, fellow composer and faculty member at Syracuse and organist at Plymouth Congregational Church. Joe explained the different stop families, the pedals, the logistics involved with the stops, and some crucial do’s and don’ts of the instrument. Natalie then was allowed the space and time to explore the instrument, a four-manual Möller/Kerner & Merchant organ.

Natalie reflected on the early stages of the process: “I spent several days in May going back and forth to Plymouth, recording device in tow, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my piece. Growing up, I trained as a pianist, and one thing you discover when you become a composer is that you often want the instruments you know and love to be able to do many things that they cannot do. For example, there have been many times when I’ve wished that a piano could really sustain. Therefore, one of the things that excited me the most about the organ initially was that I could play with sustain — and with additions and subtractions of densities. However, there's so much more; little by little, I started to realize at least some of the vast colorful and orchestral possibilities of the instrument.”

Eventually, Natalie was ready to share a draft of her piece, a three-movement set of meditations. We met at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Syracuse, home of a four-manual Quimby organ (specification here) and site for the premiere. Natalie was immediately impressed with the expanded palate of timbres on this organ. This instrument had more mutations and brilliant upperwork in contrast to the Möller. We met two more times at St. Paul’s for reading sessions. Anne remarks, “This was my favorite part of the project. It was my first time working with a composer on a commissioned premiere and it was so interesting to watch the piece unfold. I felt like I had an important role to play, particularly when it came to suggest registrations. At the same time, it was impressive to watch a skilled composer revise and refine her ideas. This experience has definitely made me want to find more opportunities to work with contemporary composers.”

Planning for this event, interviewing composers, and collaborating on a new work helped ground us in the midst of a global pandemic. A project that allowed us to explore our creativity and engage with other creative people was a lifeline. We now look forward to inviting others to share in this project, by registering for the webinar here and joining us for our virtual concert. We are hopeful that after engaging with our materials, composers will be able to see themselves as having the basic tools to write for the organ.


Praised for her "individual and strong voice" (Colin Clarke, Fanfare Magazine), Natalie Draper explores character and evocative sound-worlds in her music. Recent works include "Soliloquy," a solo guitar piece for Ken Meyer, "Until there is nothing left," a solo piano piece commissioned by Lior Willinger (this project was featured on I Care If You Listen), and "Music of Foghorns & Seabirds" for the Akropolis Reed Quintet. Her music has received honors and recognition — Timelapse Variations, which was recorded on the SNOtone label and is available for streaming on Spotify, garnered positive reviews from Lydia Woolever in Baltimore Magazine ("dissonant melodies that build into a unified spiral"), Tim Smith in The Baltimore Sun (a "tense, darkly colorful churn"), and Mark Medwin in Fanfare Magazine ("...polyrhythm bolstering gorgeous pantonal harmonies and shards of chromatic counterpoint," while "...items burst forth, in a way that might make Mahler smile..."). In 2018, Draper remixed excerpts from Timelapse Variations for the background music of a short NASA film featuring the research of glaciologist Joe MacGregor. This video can be viewed in a variety of places, including Smithsonian Magazine. Her song cycle "O sea-starved, hungry sea," which will be released on Danielle Buonaiuto's album "Marfa Songs" in August 2020, was praised by Phyllis Bryn-Julson, who notes that the music allows you to really "'see' the waves and desolate shores," with a final movement that is "simply gorgeous." Buonaiuto's album is available for pre-order on Bandcamp. Draper has held residencies and fellowships at the Ucross Foundation, the Tanglewood Music Center, the I-Park Foundation, and Yaddo. She is an assistant professor in the music theory and composition department at the Setnor School of Music at Syracuse University.

Anne Laver performs frequently in the United States and Europe and has been a featured recitalist and clinician at regional and national conventions of the American Guild of Organists, the Organ Historical Society, the Society for Seventeenth Century Music, the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative Festival, the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, and the Göteborg International Organ Academy in Goteborg, Sweden. In 2010, she was awarded second prize in the prestigious American Guild of Organists’ National Young Artist Competition in Organ Performance (NYACOP). Anne’s performances have been aired on radio programs including The Organ Loft on the Pacific Northwest’s Classic KING FM, American Public Media’s Pipedreams, WXXI Public Broadcasting’s With Heart and Voice, and Nebraska Public Radio’s Nebraska Concerts series. She released her debut recording, “Reflections of Light” on the Loft label in March 2019.

Anne is Assistant Professor of Organ and University Organist at Syracuse University’s Setnor School of Music. In this role, she teaches organ lessons and classes, serves as artistic director for the Malmgren Concert Series, accompanies the Hendricks Chapel Choir, and plays for chapel worship services and special university events. Prior to her appointment at Syracuse, Anne served as Instructor of Healthy Keyboard Technique and Organ Repertoire, and Coordinator of Organ Outreach Programs at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. She will return to the Eastman faculty as Interim Professor of Organ for the 2020-2021 academic year. Anne has over twenty years of experience in church music, having led volunteer and professional choir programs in a variety of parishes in upstate New York, Wisconsin, and The Netherlands.

Anne is passionate about advocacy for the organ and the encouragement of young organists. To that end, she has served as director for various youth programs in the Rochester area, including a Pipe Organ Encounter Advanced in 2013, the Eastman Summer Organ Academy in 2014, and a Summer of Opportunity youth employment program for city youth in 2014. She also hosts frequent organ demonstrations on the Syracuse University campus and surrounding community. Anne is active on a number of national and local organizations in the organ field. She is chair of the Editorial Resources Committee of the American Guild of Organists, member of the Board of Directors of the Organ Historical Society, former secretary of the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, and coordinator for the annual Arthur Poister Scholarship Competition in Organ Performance.

Anne Laver studied organ with Mark Steinbach as an undergraduate student at Brown University and spent a year in The Netherlands studying with Jacques van Oortmerssen at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. While pursuing masters and doctoral degrees at the Eastman School of Music, she studied with Hans Davidsson, William Porter, and David Higgs.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.