Matthew Bacon grew up playing piano but soon changed his choice of keyboards.
“I grew up in a Presbyterian church that had a lot of music resources. It had an organ, not a very good one, but I was always impressed by the sound,” Bacon recalled. “I became more interested in the organ. There were more buttons, and it had the power to engage the whole room.”
Bacon, 26, was raised in Grand Rapids, Mich. He studied church music and organ performance at St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota and later worked for a year leading choirs at Christ Church Cathedral in New Zealand.
After a year as the organ scholar at Duke University Chapel, Bacon accepted a job as the organist and choir master at Ardmore United Methodist Church in 2017.
This summer, he is serving as a co-chair of the Sounds of the Summer 2019: Exploring the Tones and Colors of Organs in Winston-Salem. He will perform at the Aug. 4 concert at Ardmore United Methodist Church.
Q: How would you describe your art?
Answer: The organ is, at its core, a machine. It consists of many different mechanical parts to make a sound. A good organist can express themselves through the organ, letting their personalities shine through the instrument and thus making the “machine” sound personable and almost human. A good organist is also an excellent multi-tasker. Usually, the organist will need be using both of their hands and their feet to play a piece of music. On top of that, the organist will need to consider if there are any registration changes (or sound changes) that need to take place and how they might execute these changes. Some organs have combination action, which allows the organist to push a button, known as a piston, and a set of pre-programmed stops will come on or off. Other organs are built in an older style with no combination action. For these instruments, the organist must literally pull out the stops themselves or find a friend, known as a registrant, to help pull their stops. In addition to this, all organists need to remember to be musical, play the correct notes at the correct time, and listen to how the acoustics of the room affect the sound.
Q: How have you evolved as an artist?
Answer: Organists are sometimes stereotyped into being “territorial” or “not playing well with others.” Although there may be some organists who fit that stereotype, I try to be as collaborative as possible. Over the years, I have learned that the best organists can often collaborate well with almost anyone and can “roll with the punches.” In my short tenure as a church organist and director of music (at Ardmore United Methodist Church), I have learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to playing a service, and I’m starting to compile these “liturgical incidents” for my memoir.
Q: Who has influenced your art?
Answer: The organ is one of the oldest instruments and has a large source of repertoire written for it, from antiquity to today. I have an eclectic taste in organ music and I take inspiration from a diversity of composers and styles of instruments. At Ardmore United Methodist Church, I play on a beautiful North-German inspired Noack organ that plays Bach and baroque music beautifully. This instrument also has beautifully voiced stops that offer a wide range of tonal colors and character, which makes the instrument surprisingly versatile. This allows me to play and compose a wide variety of music from different periods and styles.
Q: What is your biggest challenge?
Answer: Many times the organist is not visible to the audience. The organ console may be hidden in a pit behind the altar or in the rear gallery. Either way, the organist must project themselves solely through the music and their interpretation of it. When we have the Neo-Baroque Organ Recital at Ardmore UMC (7 p.m. Aug. 4), we will roll out two large 65-inch TV screens that display the organist’s hands and feet in real time. I have received so much positive feedback from audience members who are impressed to see the organist’s feet “dancing on the pedal board” for the first time. These TVs do a great job of breaking down the barrier between the performer and audience.
Q: What does art do for you?
Answer: I like to joke that it does provide a paycheck, no matter how small it is, but art is so much more to me than that. It is an outlet for me to be creative and inclusive. Art allows me to connect with composers and musicians from all different time periods. I am also lucky that art allows me to create community. The Sounds of the Summer Organ Concert Series draws in a wide spectrum of people with a variety of beliefs and backgrounds. It is a joy that these organ concerts bring such diverse groups together and creates community.
Q: Any advice for other artists?
Answer: Work hard, surround yourself with brilliant artists, and don’t be afraid of failure.