LIKE the Wizard of Oz pulling levers behind the curtain or Charlie Chaplin beset by cogs in Modern Times, Gordon Frier sits at the pipe organ in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery, on a balcony 60 feet up, a tiny figure in a tartan jacket coaxing poetry from a titanic and truculent machine.
The Kelvingrove organ is 107 years old; Frier, in his seventies, is the chronological junior in their partnership, though in every other sense he is in charge. He has been coming here to play since 50 years ago last week and long ago mastered the instrument's quirks. Lesser organists are uneasy with the small pedal board, which requires the wearing of finely pointed shoes, and cannot cope with the challenging nine-second echo in the huge central hall. Frier, however, is undeterred. After half a century, a golden wedding anniversary in human terms, he is terribly fond of the organ, and, if it could only say so, one must assume it would admit to being keen on him too. After all, he lobbied for and oversaw essential restoration in the late Eighties, effectively saving its life.
On this particular Thursday lunchtime, Frier is giving his 632nd recital in Kelvingrove – eight works, including a dreamy version of Saint-San's 'The Swan'. Thanks to the organ's almost 3,000 pipes, the music is incredibly loud, but even so not everyone pays attention. People chat en route to the Spitfire and stuffed elephants; shrill schoolkids in purple uniforms fan out like fractals across the tiled floor. Those of us who are listening, though, really enjoy the skill and old-fashioned thrill of it. Frier finishes each piece with a flourish and spins in his chair to accept the applause; he's wearing a bow-tie and a broad smile.
The lady in the pink top and shoes standing to my left notices me taking notes and says hello. "Do you know Mr Frier?" I ask. She laughs. This turns out to be his wife, Catherine, so yes, she does know him a bit. They've got six pipe organs at home in Barrhead, she tells me, kept in a converted double-garage known as the Organorium. "We also have two harpsichords," says Frier, joining us after his recital. "Two barrel organs, a clavichord, a harmonium, a dulcitone. Oh yes, and a grand piano."
We go to the caf for coffee. Frier has swapped his stage jacket – in Bay City Rollerish Royal Stewart tartan – for more sombre attire. "No, I couldn't wear it all the time," he says. "I bought it in a moment of madness at Jenners."
In addition to regular performances at Partick Methodist Church, Frier plays in Kelvingrove three times a month. Back in the Seventies and Eighties he would give four or five performances each week. He first learned to play while at school in Crieff, having been evacuated from Glasgow during the Second World War. He doesn't want to say exactly when he started lessons, though. "It makes me too antique. I'd rather my age wasn't advertised. I don't feel it and don't look it, I hope."
Back in Glasgow after the war, he continued to study the piano with "various top-notchers", and in 1964 moved to Belgium, where he took tuition from the famous organist Flor Peeters. He had planned to play a piece by Peeters as part of today's recital, but as it was to be filmed by BBC Scotland decided against this on the grounds that the music was too avant garde; it wouldn't do for viewers of the lunchtime news to choke on their egg baps.
I ask Frier whether his parents were musical. "No," he says. "My father was tone deaf. My mother played the piano, but..." He trails off.
"He's a bit unfair on his mother," says Catherine. "She used to entertain soldiers during the war. She put on musical evenings. She'd sing and play the piano."
Frier nods. "Songs from the shows. Actually, my mother wasn't very keen on my getting music lessons. She said it would be bad for my health. She thought only girls learned the piano." He pushed hard, however, and his mother relented. At the age of 11 he had heard a recording of Handel's 'Water Music' and immersed himself in the classical world from then on.
His taste is very much for the music of the 18th and 19th centuries. "Gordon plays romantic pieces wonderfully," says Catherine, "when he's not churning away at Bach." He also composes organ pieces now and again, but says these are very bad. Mostly, he keeps them locked away in a box file marked "Enjoyable tripe".
One thing intrigues me, though. Frier started performing here in 1958, the era of Elvis and the Everlys. As a young man, wasn't he seduced by rock'n'roll? "No, I'm afraid not," he smiles, not looking the least afraid. "I've been accused of being narrow-minded and in fact I'm proud of it. That said, though, I have on occasion played pop things like 'Twelfth Street Rag' and 'I've Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts'."
At one concert, bowing to popular taste, he performed versions of Beatles tunes, but had to hold his nose while doing so. Not that he's entirely elitist; he's intrigued by the thought of playing the Doctor Who theme to tie in with Kelvingrove's forthcoming exhibition on the subject. Don't get him started on synths, though. "I hate these electronic instruments. They are lovely to play at first, but after 10 minutes it's like hitting dead wood. There is no soul to them."
Frier, an old romantic, has no shortage of soul. He and Catherine met here after she heard and admired one of his performances. Kelvingrove, therefore, is important to him personally, and he appreciates his position as an unsung hero of Scottish culture, playing music to the generations who have loved this place.
He missed the gallery badly when it was closed for refurbishment and rejoiced when, after three years, it reopened. He's in with the bricks. So does he have any plans to hang up his tartan jacket and retire?
"No!" he exclaims, astounded at the question, appalled by the thought. "Goodness gracious, no!"