TRIP SLAYMAKER ’18
Christopher Houlihan sits in his office, his bespectacled face lit dramatically by the purple and blue light of the John Rose window. He has been preparing for his upcoming concert: the Clarence Watters Memorial Recital. He explains that this annual concert commemorates Watters, the first organist of the Trinity College chapel.
One of the things Houlihan has been working to accomplish as recently appointed director of chapel music at Trinity is to make organ music feel more approachable to the average student or visitor. “When people hear an organ recital for the first time, they’re surprised by how exciting and colorful and really thrilling live organ music is.” He says that people tend to assume the music will be “exclusively spooky, sad or religious, but concert organ music is… so much more.”
Houlihan, who is from nearby Somers, Connecticut started taking organ lessons at Trinity at age twelve- Trinity’s gigantic organ was the first he ever practiced on. According to the musician, Trinity’s organ has “a lot of clarity, but a lot of punch and fire.”
With a somewhat wistful expression, Houlihan discusses his early days making music. “I couldn’t have known when I took my first Organ lesson at 12 that I would be traveling and playing concerts and working here as college organist. It’s amazing and very surprising.” Since that time his journey as a burgeoning musician, promising talent and eventually a virtuoso educator has taken him all over the world.
In keeping with his mission to bring appreciation of the organ to a broader audience, Houlihan always punctuates his performances with friendly explanations for audience members who might be unsure of what to listen for. To his mind, the sound of the pipes contains the complexity of entire symphonies, and each note or combination of tones has a “color.” “Organ music is everything form loud and scary and terrifying- as you might think- to very quiet and gentle, and mellow, and soothing.”
Houlihan also hopes he can help shape the next generation of organists and musicians from his post at Trinity. “Part of what I’m here to do is promote organ music on campus and in Connecticut. I’m working witht the Chapel Singers, who have had a great year, who rehearse three days a week and perform once a week. They’re all incredibly dedicated, and work so hard, and it’s a fun and an honor to be working with them.”
Organ lessons like the ones offered by Houlihan are challenging, but with basic music knowledge and piano ability, anyone can begin. “The initial shock of playing the organ is often that all of a sudden you have to learn how to play a keyboard with your feet. That takes a lot of getting used to… it takes training, but ultimately it’s very satisfying.”
At 30 years old, Houlihan has accomplished even more than most lifelong musicians. But his life is not completely consumed by his work. Houlihan laughed when asked about his life away from the keys. “It does take up a lot of my life, but I love cooking, I love seeing theater, I love when I’m in my part time home in Brooklyn to go the botanical gardens. It’s a pretty normal life otherwise, but being a full-time musician is unlike other full-time jobs. It’s hard to turn off that part of the brain when there’s music floating around your head on the subway. It’s a bit of an Identity as well as a profession.”
As the conversation drifts more toward the abstract discussion of music, Houlihan began to speak with a booming voice, lifting his hands into the air as if to illustrate the reverberation of his identifying instrument. “You can’t go wrong just coming and letting the experience wash over you. When you’re in a space like this listening to organ music, you are part of the instrument, because the music is reverberating through the building. With an organ it’s the room that presents the sound. You’re part of that, feeling the instrument vibrate– that alone is very exciting. Come with an open mind, don’t worry about not knowing the right vocabulary, but come and enjoy it like any other music you would listen to.”
The Clarence Watters Memorial Concert will take place at Trinity College Chapel at 7:30 on Friday, and will feature Houlihan’s renditions of the music of Bach, Schumann, and others.