When Barbara Dennerlein performs, she wears a tight-fitting black dress, makeup and huge earrings. She’s an organist.
Though nearly everyone has at some time heard a church organ — at school, a wedding or a funeral — the mighty instrument remains obscure. That’s what Dennerlein has set out to change.
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“The organ isn’t hard to listen to at all,” she suggests. “With the organ you can create an incredible range of sounds. People are always fascinated when they hear what you can do with it.” That might be because Dennerlein often performs in jazz clubs, using a Hammond organ for which she writes her own pieces.
Dennerlein, known as the Organ Tornado from Munich, is certainly an unconventional organist. She received an organ for Christmas at age 11, not knowing anything about music, and taught herself the notoriously difficult instrument. Several instruction books later, Dennerlein opted out of hymns and decided instead to play with jazz bands in local clubs.
The organ can blend in with a jazz band, but it can sound like an entire orchestra, too — or a human voice, or a brass band, or even a thunderstorm. In fact, along with the clock, the pipe organ was long considered to be humankind’s most complex innovation. While the ancient Greeks invented an early version of the organ, it took until the 14th century for inventors to find the magic equation between keys, pipes and air.
Today a typical organ features not just one keyboard, but three or four, along with a pedalboard for the feet. Several thousand pipes deliver the sound. Sitting in front of this massive machine, the organist has to play the right notes — and get the desired sound by selecting among hundreds of knobs which control varying sets of pipes. These “stops” boast exotic names like Open Diapason, Trompeta Real and Vox Humana.
In the past, sporting events featured organs, as did movie theaters, soap operas and jazz clubs. In June, Absolute Vodka even built an organ from Absolute Bottles for a festival in London. And if organ wunderkind Cameron Carpenter has his way, U.S. prisoners will soon be listening to Bach, too.
“Prison inmates and the organ have something in common,” he explains. “They’ve been long neglected by the music-making establishment.”
Carpenter, a 29-year-old American who sometimes performs in drag, has devised a portable digital organ that he intends to perform on in both prisons and casinos. “The organ is sensual, dynamic and sexual,” he says. “It’s baffling that it has been seen as just an instrument for the church.”
But Dennerlein, who has recorded 21 jazz albums, now displays her formidable skills on the church organ as well. “You can do anything with this instrument,” she says. “People always tell me ‘I never thought the organ could sound like that.’”