“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. It may not be the most portable of instruments, but like any other it deserves a life. It deserves that life to be continued and its music to be developed, and that’s what I’m trying to do over three days with Organ Reframed.” – Claire M Singer
When it’s released from its dusty, century-old sheet music, stripping itself away from history’s chains (even though its history is a glorious one; it has always been cast in a good, safe light, mainly due to its prominence within hymnal and Christian worship music), the organ has a new lease of life. It isn’t in safe territory anymore, and it isn’t ‘boxed-in’ anymore, confined or restricted to any one style of music. The highest respect to the past remains, though. Sure, you can’t take it with you as you would, say, an acoustic guitar (and, to some degree, that limits its accessibility), but when you do finally get to spend time with her, it’s quality time, and the instrument herself forces you to make the most of this time together, causing you to really hunker down and focus when it comes to practice. There’s no reason as to why the organ shouldn’t be used more frequently. The 2017 edition of Organ Reframed promised to release the organ from its traditional roots, and that’s just what it did, continuing to move the instrument step-by-step and note-by-note into a new, contemporary setting.
It’s refreshing to see (and hear) the instrument as it shines with a renewed, brighter light. The instrument’s sound is heightened and uprooted, its second life radiating with a musical reinvigoration and a new purpose. Claire M Singer, artistic director of Organ Reframed as well as music director of Union Chapel, is deserving of a great deal of praise. The organ’s capable of so much more, and she’s uncovered this potential, adding a new dimension. The cobwebs fell away; the wrinkles disappeared. The organ sounded like a young thing, in the prime of its youth.
Organ Reframed, Night One: Six New Works
The opening night of the festival brought eight pieces of music together, six of which were world premieres, commissioned by Organ Reframed and in partnership with the London Contemporary Orchestra. There was also an ever-changing audio-visual element to the event, with a big screen hanging over the orchestra, bringing the otherwise-inaccessible organ to the audience, bringing it closer and deepening the experience as a result. James McVinnie, the organist for the evening, played brilliantly, as did the orchestra.
Emily Hall’s opening piece, “Passing Through”, was a meditation on the past. The notes became like beloved memories of times gone, times that have slipped away. We are, all of us, just passing through, like trains through the subway. Hall’s grandfather was an organist and had an organ built into his house, but in the early 80’s, after he passed away, the house was sold and the new owners turned the organ into a drinks bar.
‘This has always been seen in my family as somewhat of a shame, but I wanted to make a piece that perhaps makes peace with this, and make some new organ music triggered by it’.
As such, the music was thoughtful and transient, making the audience all too aware of the brevity of life. Things will always change; nothing ever stays the same. The percussive hits came from the clipped sound of a snooker cue as it hit the face of a ball. It was a nice touch, as Hall had imagined the new owner watching a snooker game on TV while he reclined at his bar. A sharp fizz kicked the piece off, hinting at the making of a cocktail. As Hall says: ‘…no-one really owns anything anyway – we’re all just passing through’.
Phil Niblock’s “Thinking Slowly” was a twenty-three minute drone: one long drone that felt like a glimpse of a discordant, dislocated heaven. There was a ratcheting up of the tension, a trance-like momentum but imbued with a subtle disquiet. One elongated note was played on the harp, and the flute brought in a recurring, higher and sustained note. It showed just how versatile the organ can be. “Music In Fifths”, by Philip Glass, heightened that with its minimal use of notes, all of them in the higher register. This reminded me that the organ can, as Claire had said in my interview with her last week, be an instrument of elegant, melodic design, caring for higher, more delicate notes and feelings as well as pumping out rich chords and red-blooded, stronger textures; the depth of the instrument has no boundaries. It contrasted the lower, deeper drone of “Thinking Slowly”, and although the flute had retained its airy timbre on that piece, Phil Niiblock’s drone was like a lowering of the mood, a lowering of the atmosphere, and it was necessary in showing the versatility of the organ. The cyclical, spherical repetitions of “Music In Fifths” were like variations on a theme, a continuous sound with no space whatsoever. Psychedelic effects caused the images to shape-shift, morphing and disintegrating during the more frenetic parts.
“Heatwave!”, by Tim Hecker, was written during the Summer, when wildfires rampaged through California. The state suffered in the scorching heat, and each note climbed like a dirtied plume of smoke, the noxious intensity of the fire burning everything in sight. You could see the flaming woods, the tones themselves coloured in browns, yellows, oranges. And then…ashes.
‘I wanted to capture some of the feeling of general melting that I had across my own work at the time and wanted to convey that for pipe organ and other instruments.’
Mira Calix’s “DeHFO” was another great piece, this time exploring the live grenade of Brexit. The clue is in the title – DeHFO, or the Department of How To Fuck Ourselves. It was inspired by a Twitter conversation with political editor Ian Dunt. Calix used only the notes from the acronym and split the music into two camps: the lower register and the higher register. This was the divide…the great divide, which tore through the UK and slashed through things that have still not healed…it might not ever heal. The split began with an ominous, high pitch, like the calm before the storm…the talk of a referendum…and then, the war of words, the battleground, with people’s lives being played with by a group of stage actors and liars. The touchpaper had been lit for a brutal and ugly Summer, rife with hostility and a sad increase in hate crime. Misinformation, fake news and falsehoods became our daily bread, but musicians excel at stripping away the bull, revealing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. “The Year of Our Lord” (Sufjan Stevens) was a beautiful, calming meditation, more in the traditional vein of the organ – reverent.
“Silhouette Shadows” (Gordon Monahan) embraced electronics, its scatter-shot debris flying high and then lurching low. The buzz of electronics somehow added a grimy substance to the instrumental mix, while Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s “Action of Inaction” brought the evening to a close with the sweet sound of nature, clean air and clear breathing, and rippling flourishes from a harp; a dense woodland and a magical fairy tale set in the heart of Islington. The organ went to new territories, opening new worlds and possibilities…setting the stage for Saturday.
Organ Reframed, Night Two: Claire M Singer and Low.
Claire M Singer opened up Saturday night of Organ Reframed. Slap-bang in the middle of the event, she performed two pieces from her debut album, Solas. Her opening piece, “Solas”, beamed with a radiant light like that of a stained-glass window, its high tone angelic in its appearance, drifting down from the ceiling and levitating in place.
As the piece slowly built, the lower register came alive, adding some serious depth; her music shone a light in the darkness. It was kind and gentle, but it also had a burning flame at its core. The cello added another dimension to the sound. An ethereal power bled into her compositions, and then a slow, graceful melody ended the piece until only a single note was left. And then, the note died, leaving silence to reign.
“The Molendinar” was crushing – a mesmerizing, darker beast, parked on the edge of ferocity and yet imbued with a delicate, thoughtful build-up. These long sustains spoke of a fierce battle between light and darkness. The progression was repeating, but it never felt repetitive. It gained power and traction the longer it went on, getting a strong foothold in the piece and never letting go. A lagging, sustained drone sat higher up, and then a lower growl entered.
America’s legendary slowcore band Low took to the stage shortly after her set, premiering a newly-written work for organ. Dressed in black upon the stage, a shimmering backdrop with a profusion of lights projected upon the pair of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk. Steve Garrington, the band’s bassist, operated the mammoth beast (also known as the organ), and they delivered a unique, heart-warming performance. Their already high levels of musicianship found fertile soil here. Musically, Low were trying something new, going into the unknown with all their heart and soul, with nothing left behind and nothing being held back. The deep, rich notes bled into one another, flowing like the blood of Christ, and the evening was rich in symbolism, from the eating of an apple on stage to the pouring out of water which was then, as if by magic, turned into wine (or maybe they just hadn’t eaten dinner: it’s all about interpretation.)
Rainy, slow moods and thunderous, low-hanging beats thumped along, matched to a slow bpm, glowing with beautiful harmonies which in turn illuminated rain-washed streets. Four spotlights dropped low and then climbed up, and as they did, you could feel the music washing the soul. The organ at times played a gentle, caring progression. You could feel their love for the instrument and the music – the art – it creates.
“Majesty/Magic”was an intense piece, with a thumping beat and the might of the notes redressing the space and hanging down from both of the vocals like Medusa’s coils. It was sung over a low, sunken chord which then rose higher and higher, high enough to fall, and it did fall, moving back down again.
Later, the audience clapped and stomped along, and a crescendo shook the chapel. As the pair walked off, the organ continued to play; a piece within a piece that climbed higher and almost slid into insanity, literally pulling all the stops out (Claire was on hand to help out), rising in thunderous, triumphant glory.
Organ Reframed, Night Three: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
On Sunday night, a screening of the classic 1920 German expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, closed the festival. Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie’s score was a world-premiere and featured orchestral work from the London Contemporary Orchestra as well as organ, performed once more by James McVinnie.
As people took their seats, the elderly crackles of The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World perfumed the chapel with its old, lingering scent of ancient decay, and that in itself was like an eerie premonition. The score sat easily within the framework of the film.
Oh, the fun of the fair. Roll up, roll up.
The full-bodied score wandered between orchestra and organ. The two coalesced and were then interspersed with some beautiful drones (as only Wiltzie can conjure – his guitar and keyboard work was breathtaking.) Slow sustains searched the space and beautifully open tones were able to find some peace within the unfolding horror. Wiltzie’s drone-work had a similar depth and appearance to that of his work in Stars of the Lid and A Winged Victory For The Sullen, and a choir helped to soften and shelter the sound. A dreamy feel entered the splayed chords as they spilled into the image. There was an echoing sadness within it, too, as well as a certain degree of sympathy for the main characters and the victims, displaying a sensitive understanding of the film. At other times, such as at the scene at the fair, the organ became playful and excitable, enthusiastic of such a big event.
The sharp angles of the sets led to the occasional, dizzying frenzy – the strings took that on – and while the score had moments of noticeable tension, it wasn’t harsh or stark. It flowed wonderfully, occasionally stepping into the gaps of silence that arrived at the end of each act. A harp tip-toed through the streets at night, walking around like a somnambulant. The organ fused with the plucked melody, creating an unsettled air and a darker, dripping sound. The score wore makeup on one side of its face. The other half was left in dominating shadow. The beautiful harmonies brought something alive, waking up to something bigger than the horror on the screen; the drones, dense and open, became a part of the image itself. The music was to die for.
These three days saw the organ well and truly unleashed, painting different shapes, tonal colours, moods and tempos. The festival has renewed and revived the instrument, reshaping it for a new era…it’s now reframed and ready for more. (James Catchpole)