Organ Reframed 2017 will soon be upon us. The three-day festival is back, bringing with it live performances, a screening of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, with a brand new score by Adam Wiltzie and workshops and discussions, all taking place at London’s magical Union Chapel. The festival runs from 13-15 October, and with its innovative, exciting program it’s definitely going to be something special. The chapel is blessed with an incredible organ, and in anticipation of the upcoming festival, I spoke to the festival’s curator and music director, musician and composer Claire M Singer, to talk about the festival, music in general, and the wonderful instrument nesting within the chapel.
What has 2017 been like for you so far?
Great, thanks! Lots of fun gigs and very busy working on my new release and the festival.
When did you first become interested in music, and more specifically in the organ?
I started playing cello when I was 7 years old and piano by the age of 11. From a very early age I much preferred to sit and write my own melodies on the cello and later the piano rather than play the music I was given to learn. I then started playing in bands from the age of 13 or 14 (first on keyboards and later adding my cello and accordion) and when I got my own Roland keyboard, which could record multi-track, my compositions expanded quite dramatically into multi instrumental arrangements and that was it, I knew this is what I wanted to spend all of my time on. I never really wrote the notes down on manuscript it was always recording the piano or cello on to tape or recording on to my Roland floppy disk. I think that’s probably why I chose Studio Composition at university. I liked that you could instantly hear your composition come to life. As I was playing classically on the cello but also playing in the band my writing very much took influence from both styles and is probably why my music today straddles the classical, electronic and contemporary worlds.
I started playing organ when I joined Union Chapel as Music Director of the organ in 2012. I have been composing for organ for about 11 years but the early pieces were written for another organist to play. In 2006, when I was commissioned to write my first organ piece for the SOUND Festival in Scotland, I remember expressing quite a lot of concern to organist Roger Williams that perhaps they had chosen the wrong composer for the job, as at that time I was writing quite abstract experimental works. Nevertheless I went to meet the Aubertin organ at Kings College Aberdeen and realised I couldn’t be more wrong about the capabilities and unimaginable breadth of the instrument. I felt like I had discovered a secret and couldn’t believe there weren’t more organ works being written by contemporary composers. The way the organ blended with electronics was incredible, a dialogue that I felt needed to be prominent in the development of the current organ repertoire. The organ to me was clearly an instrument invaluable to the future development of composition and performance in the twenty first century. In this excitement I then decided I wanted to start my own organ music festival to promote what a wonderful instrument the organ was and how versatile it can be, but the problem was of course, how and where do I make this happen with no resources!
When I started working at Union Chapel I had the keys to one of the most beautiful organs in the world so I used to sit for hours on end and experiment. I’ve never had an organ lesson but I developed my own way of playing and slowly reduced the amount of electronics I was using. I experiment a lot with the mechanical stop action, which basically lets you precisely control how much wind enters the pipe. Over the years I have learnt every single incremental sound you can make on that organ and that’s how I developed pieces like the Molendinar. I have had many people ask me over the years what electronics I am using in the piece but it’s all organ, one take no overdubs. Completely acoustic.
What is the composing process like for you? Does the instrument present specific challenges, and is there a definite sound you’re aiming for when you play? What is your general set up, equipment-wise? How do you go about your improvisational work, and does the organ present a different set of challenges when improvising? Do you find yourself choosing certain ideas or melodies over others?
Improvising is hugely important in my writing process. All of my pieces, whether on organ or cello, come from me sitting and improvising on the instrument and through this process I capture the bits l like (whether writing it down or recording it) and over time the piece becomes a set scored piece. When writing for an instrument I very much think of it as a sound source as opposed to an instrument with written rules in technique etc. For me it’s about finding the unique sounds of the instrument and exposing that beauty.
I wouldn’t say I improvise any differently whether on cello or organ apart from with the cello I often layer parts up with my laptop but on the organ I have more than enough couplers to layer things without the use of electronics in any way. Oh and my chopsticks! I really don’t set out with a melody or structure in mind. It all just comes with hours of sitting and playing whatever comes into my head. I think the basis of improvising is getting to know that instrument inside out and then special things start to happen.
I was fortunate enough to see you at The Barbican when you supported Stars of the Lid last year. It was a fascinating performance. The organ is such a resounding, all-encompassing instrument and to me the music came across as being of a pretty dark nature. Do you think the organ lends itself more readily to a darker atmosphere because of its timbre, or, as music director of Union Chapel, do you find it harder to conjure up darker moods knowing its long association with hymnal music and Christian worship? The organ thrives when it has a ton of space. Can you feel that power and that resonance when you perform, and does it affect the music you’re releasing?
I think what is wonderful about the organ is that it can produce such a wide range of colour/sound that it can be dark or it can be very light. I tend to expose the organ’s ultimate power in my work, like in “The Molendinar” where the peak of the piece requires all the stops being out but equally you can play a delicate light melody, like at the end of Solas and the organ sounds beautiful and warm. Essentially it’s mimicking an entire orchestra so the possibilities of tone and texture really are endless. What’s also amazing about the organ is the space it is installed in. The space is very much a part of the instrument and you are effectively also playing the room. This is really exciting as you can experiment with the acoustics and of course each time you play on a different organ you have to learn that instrument and space, making each performance very site specific. This can be quite terrifying if there’s not much time to prepare but I tend to do a site visit before so I can really learn the personality and quirks of the organ. This is really important to me.
Do you think the organ lends itself more to slower tempos? And if so, do you think that’s partly why it suits ambient and drone music?
I think the organ is absolutely wonderful for creating a drone but it is equally as magical when playing a fast melody. It is such a versatile instrument that you can have composers coming from all different angles and each time the organ can sound very different.
Does it feel freeing to play the organ in such an innovative way?
Having come from an electronic compositional background what I find so exciting is that you can create sounds on the organ that sound like you are using electronics but it’s completely acoustic. I love feeling free of having to worry about whether your software is going to work, now I just have to worry about whether the organ will break, being such a huge fragile mechanical beast 🙂
Please may you tell us more about the upcoming Organ Reframed festival, along with its genesis? Union Chapel is such a beautiful place. How long has the festival been going and has it always been held there?
The idea of the festival has been a long time coming since I wrote my first organ piece over 10 years ago and wanted to share the secret of how amazing the organ is. It didn’t come into fruition until October 2016. The first three years of my time as Music Director of the organ at Union Chapel was transitioning the organ from its full restoration into developing a program of concerts and educational workshops around it. This three-year program was called the Organ Project, which was funded by the Heritage Lottery fund along with the full restoration of the organ. This gave me a chance to test the waters with different ideas and develop a regular organ concert presence at the chapel of all different genres. After completion in 2016 I felt ready to finally consolidate these ideas into a festival and Organ Reframed was born. There aren’t many contemporary composers writing for the organ. Access can be tricky as most organs are in churches and in order to really explore and write innovative music you need time. The main aim of Organ Reframed is to commission artists and composers to write new works, to allow them time on the organ to develop ideas and ultimately help develop the organ repertoire and show that this is an instrument that is very much at the forefront of new music today.
Curating Organ Reframed 2017 has been an incredibly exciting process. To have the opportunity to build on the organ’s rich history and bring it to the attention of a new generation of artists feels important.
Please tell us more about the history of the Union Chapel organ. It’s fantastic to see the organ used and played in different ways and exploring different, more contemporary and innovative sounds. Do you think that historically, as an instrument, the organ has been kind of ‘boxed in’, and not used to its full potential? Do you think its rich history has left the organ in a kind of ‘stale’ environment, whereas other instruments and styles have continuously evolved and progressed over the centuries? And does Organ Reframed aim to push the organ out of that box?
The Organ at Union Chapel was designed and built specially for the size and acoustics of the new Chapel building in 1877 by master organ builder Henry “Father” Willis. It is undoubtedly one of the finest in the world. Neither James Cubitt, the architect of the Chapel, nor Rev Henry Allon, the minister at the time, wanted the congregation to be distracted by the sight of an organ or organist: they wanted the music itself to be the focus during worship. So the organ is deliberately hidden away behind ornate screens under the rose window, which itself actually hints at the organ’s importance, with its depiction of eight angels all playing different musical instruments. It is one of just two organs left in the United Kingdom, and the only one in England, with a fully working original hydraulic (water powered) blowing system, which can be used as an alternative to the electric blowers. Past organists have included John Henry Gauntlet and Ebenezer Prout.
The organ has one of the largest repertoires and has progressed along with the organ itself. There is a strong classical concert organ scene and that is equally important. In my opinion we should embrace its historic repertoire and also help it to grow. Yes, many people do have a certain idea about the organ but I think it’s definitely starting to have a moment and with enough contemporary composers/artists and performers interested in continuing to be creative with it I think it will organically evolve as it has throughout the years. Maybe just on a lesser scale because access can still be tricky. Without having access to the instrument you’re never going to be able to truly be innovative as you need time to explore and experiment. This is exactly what Organ Reframed is all about.
What’s on the radar for you? What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Low and I are taking Saturday night of Organ Reframed to Westerkerk in Amsterdam straight after the festival, which will be great fun. I have a new release, ‘Fairge’, coming out on Touch in late October and then finally some space to sit down and start thinking about some new works, oh and Organ Reframed 2018!
James Catchpole thanks Claire for her time and her generosity. Look out for full coverage of Organ Reframed here at A Closer Listen.