Pure cinema, pure sound
Organ Reframed is now in its third year. Held at London’s magnificent Union Chapel, the festival is a highlight of the Autumn calendar. When October rolls around, bringing with it a lovely spell of twenty-degree weather (huh?! This is London in October, right?), the yearly fixture helps to shed new light upon the instrument in all its resonant glory, dropping formal suits for cool t-shirts, opening new doorways as to what’s possible, and showcasing cutting-edge organ compositions thanks to an amazing selection of musicians. Yum. With somewhere around two hundred pipes, the Henry Willis Organ is one of the finest in the world, and the music is capable of positively booming out.
Last year’s edition saw performances from James McVinnie, Low (who recently gave us one of 2018’s best records with Double Negative), and Claire M Singer – both artistic director for Organ Reframed and music director of the organ at Union Chapel. Adam Wiltzie (Stars of the Lid, The Dead Texan, A Winged Victory for the Sullen) provided a world premiere on the closing night with a new score for the silent horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
Cinema provides a perfect medium for the flourishing of dramatic tones: space, time, size, weight. The atmosphere at a screening is incredible. Two years ago, on the festival’s debut night, no less, the chilling classic Nosferatu (1922) set the tone, kickstarting a festival that oozes quality from start to finish.
A candlelit, draughty chapel + Nosferatu + a new score + one of the best organs in the world = a horror fan’s dream. But the festival also takes in installations, a special afternoon session of the chapel’s Saturday Daylight Music series, and Spitfire Audio composer insights.
The festival is unique in its unchaining of the instrument. It isn’t imprisoned in a one-bar cage or a suffocating church service or a regal and hefty piece of classical music (there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just another form of recycling), but instead, with Organ Reframed, it enjoys new life. The instrument is given a prominent, dazzling edge, and it’s attired in a sleek, glistening sheen, its music updated for the modern era. Modern classical compositions are still on display, and they’re just as relevant, but the whole aim of the festival is release; it’s important for experimental music to shine. It prevents instrumental cruelty, as no instrument should feel confined to the past. Doesn’t it have a right to innovation, to keep on revitalizing itself?
2018’s festival took place over two nights, beginning on the Friday with a rare screening of the American filmmaker Stan Brakhage‘s Visions in Meditation (1989). Brakhage (1933-2003) was one of the most important experimental filmmakers of the 20th Century. As well as the screening, new works and premieres were composed and performed by Philip Jeck, Sarah Davachi, and Darkstar, with James McVinnie returning along with soloists from the London Contemporary Orchestra.
Each segment of the silent film ran for twenty minutes. Along with the wonderful soloists from the London Contemporary Orchestra, the corresponding pieces from Davachi, Jeck, and Darkstar followed each section as a response to the imagery on screen. Brackhage referred to both film and his non-narrative style as ‘pure cinema’, silent apart from the third film, “Plato’s Cave”, which added a score of sparse electronics from Rick Corrigan. The film generated a fluttering rhythm of its own, whereas soundtracks can dominate the rhythms and perceptions in a specific image. The frames skittered about like a rapid palpitation, but they induced feelings of calm and serotonin-leaks. Visual rhythm – not musical rhythm – was the pulse behind the heartbeat.
‘The more informed I became with aesthetics of sound, the less I began to feel any need for an audio accompaniment to the visuals I was making…The more silently-oriented my creative philosophies have become, the more inspired-by-music have my photographic aesthetics and my actual editing orders become, both engendering a coming-into-being of the physiological relationship between seeing and hearing…’
The geographic landscape of North America took on prime significance within the film, but Brakhage also explored more personalized and introverted themes of home, identity, and family. His work had an eye for the external world, exposing nature’s resilience and her lasting reign and giving it precedence over mankind; indeed, it was a non-hierarchical view of mankind.
The film, although appearing to be free of narrative, still displayed a transparent structure of sorts. Like meditation, the image was there to just be; a projection of an image and nothing else. No hidden meanings or secret intentions. The silent film had a cleansing property, its rapid-fire frames and fast cuts coalescing to produce an entrancing film, its turbulence, silence, and flickering frames adding to the meditative feeling.
Recurring themes and ideas returned again and again, and Brackhage’s film was concentrated and unrestricted. Echoing much of experimental and instrumental music, the film wasn’t restricted by the obstruction of dialogue in the same way that lyrics won’t obstruct a soundscape. Nothing was fake. The image was left to unfold. The desert landscape, and the empty geography, and the state of the weather: all unfolded naturally, like a mediation, or a thought passing by.
Visions in Meditation, by Stan Brakhage. ©️2018LaurentCompagnon
Huge import was given to every single shot, and of what took up residence within the frame. But nothing remained. Everything dissolved. It may be that the film wasn’t intended to be broken down. It glimpsed and lived.
Sarah Davachi’s fifteen-minute piece “stile vuoto” made use of long sustains, extended, stretched tones, and light electronics. Smoke fell about her console and then over the orchestra, with the three soloists sharing the stage (Galya Bisengalieva on violin, Robert Ames on viola, and Gregor Riddell on cello), and James McVinnie on the organ. Davachi’s electronic sound came across with the lightest of touches, her sensitive tones appearing and reacting like pale, out-of-focus glints of sunlight on weakened film.
The swell along with the perpetual motion of the ocean was meditative without being clichéd, and she used spare melodies within her shifting track to conjure up a quietly powerful and effective piece.
Sarah Davachi and LCO. ©️2018LaurentCompagnon
Philip Jeck’s performance of “ORE” was an exotic piece of music. Its dark music was a living fairy tale and his mix embraced the organ’s darker tones. Both orchestra and electronics had equal footing here. Frail electronics scurried at the edges, almost dissolving away, wriggling around at the corners and the seams, filmy and fragile in spite of the organ’s weight. After the fourth film, Darkstar, one of the most influential electronic acts in the UK today, took to the stage. The electronics brought home the true meaning and intentions of Organ Reframed.
Darkstar’s repeating, dropping bass shook the chapel. The organ entwined itself in modern, cutting-edge electronic and contemporary music, suddenly finding itself reinstated within the modern age. The organ’s at home in both a structured work and in experimental terrain, in a droning soundscape and in an electronic block, in long sustains and as part of a 4/4 track, and this performance of ‘Union’ was proof of that.
Darkstar combined electronics with classical instrumentation. Strings became frenetic, rising in intensity while also keeping their ornate selves in shape. A solo, off-set melody gradually developed into something greater…monolithic.
As all the parts coalesced for the great finale, the journey completed, all the stops were pulled out and the organ’s might was revealed for the first time, shaking the chapel before quietly settling back into the original motif. The organ was left to finish off the track, proving its centrality – it was both the foundation as well as the cherry on top.
On Saturday night, Icelandic composer, cellist, and singer Hildur Guðnadóttir gave a stunning set, performing an opening piece with Sam Slater and a world premiere of “Running Springs”. Hildur’s solo vocal was haunting, unfolding a piece of great patience while summoning up an ancient atmosphere. Her deep cello cut into the air and was only added after the glow of her vocal had lessened. It was misty and intense music, made all the stronger for its sizeable pauses. After the first piece, the orchestra and the organ continued the drone’s simmering melody. The emerging soundscape was one of unbelievable size, like a tundra’s whiteout or a vast, lightless chasm. Her music has always been deeply cinematic, lending itself powerfully to the speaker and the screen. She’s in demand, and rightfully so, having previously worked on the films Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) and Mary Magdalene (2018). She’s also scored the upcoming DC Comics film, Joker.
It was atmospheric to the max, the cello’s ancestry calling back over past years. Closer to the end, the organ sounded like it was waking from a deep slumber, rising like a dragon in the midst of orange smoke. Reaching a climax, the organ breathed in almighty, thunderous gasps, long in its sustains while producing music of magnificent size and the widest of panoramas. Her voice was a warm light in the surrounding darkness, the spotlight a visual sign as to the necessity of her voice in the growing gloom.
The cello’s strings swayed in the space she created, rubbing boughs of bark against the brooding (but never bleak) soundscape. The black stage reflected the music’s midnight communion. Smoke coalesced with the lighting to produce a gaseous orange, which billowed like delayed fire from an ancient creature. The sharp strings clawed away at something – maybe at the light itself. The feeling of something insurmountable existed in her music, and the organ inhaled behind its entombment.
Hildur Guðnadóttir. ©️2018LaurentCompagnon
Both nights hinted at the lapsing and dissolving of normalcy, descending part-way into a dream-world. Normal affairs were erased, bringing the organ into new territory through its use of more experimental textures and widened pieces, gently falling away from things while deepening and zooming in on the microscopic atoms of life and the secret rhythms of reality, in tune with fluid themes of meditation and deeper, concentrated states of being, pulling the audience into a deeper reality through its intricate, sometimes complex and sometimes simplistic compositions. Both take equal amounts of skill, though.
Éliane Radigue’s world premiere of “Occam XXV”, performed wonderfully by Frédéric Blondy, was a stunning piece of music – and her first piece for organ. Extremely subtle and barely noticeable tones hovered just above the silence. The music levitated slowly as bass pulsations and deep sounds entered. The long sustain sounded like something lifting off, at first thrumming and then rumbling.
There was a gradual change from the register’s bass end to the light and weightless.
When a new pitch was introduced, it was revelatory. When you thought back to its origin, it was fascinating to see how far the piece had moved, progressing from its starting point to its current position. By the end of its forty-five minutes, the piece floated on the surface of its waters, moving away from its earlier submersion in the depthless fathoms. The drone was always moving, always changing.
These were the sounds in between sounds, the almost imperceptible waves rolling around and producing cathartic responses within the audience. It felt like a union with pure sound.
In the short documentary that followed, filmed in a Parisian church, Radigue and Blondy played through and studied the piece before handing it over to Union Chapel for its world premiere. The music had the theme of water – any body of water – and its own inherent rhythms, reminding one of the Visions in Meditation film, with its rhythmic, soothing images of the ocean mirroring Radigue’s philosophy – everything has a sound, and everything gives off energy.
You don’t just listen to this. You live it.
Radigue’s insight was fascinating. Musician and instrument are one and the same, for the music flows through the artist.
An instrument makes no sound when placed on the floor; the musician has to coax the music out of her. Like any healthy relationship, it involves listening and it’s a two-way street.
The artist’s soul and personality shines. Everyone plays a piece of music differently, making the piece unique, even if the notes are exactly the same and the rhythm is exactly the same. The ocean has had the rhythm of music for aeons, changing up its vibrations and sound waves with renewed tidal motions.
This night felt like an echo of Friday’s film; one can understand why the film was played on the first night, because in a strange way, “Occam XXV” felt like the natural continuation of the theme, both a natural successor and a closer. The music gets into you; it sinks into you.
Frédéric Blondy. ©️2018LaurentCompagnon
Éliane Radigue – Documentary. ©️2018LaurentCompagnon
Radigue is a fan of simplicity, but even simple tones can leave behind extended ripples and shake insanely deep foundations. This was both simple (on the surface), and complex thanks to the naturally-occurring pulsations, which were happening in the given space at that time, and causing ripples on the subatomic level; the seen was a simple interpretation, and the unseen was infinitely deeper.
Over the space of a weekend, the instrument displayed an amazing flexibility, a varied range of emotions, timbres, complexities, and tones, ensuring an incredible diversity. All being well, we’ll see you again next year. (James Catchpole)
James would like to thank Claire and all the staff at Union Chapel. Photo credits: ©️2018LaurentCompagnon