Reimagining the possibilities and celebrating the music of the organ
introduction by trevor elkin
“It’s a hard task trying to change some peoples’ perception of the organ and where it should sit. But actually it should sit in many different places and shouldn’t fit in just one or two boxes…” Claire M Singer
What place do traditional instruments have now, in an era when technology practically enables anyone to recreate every possible sound audible, or inaudible, to the human ear? As with other human machines, musical instruments have matured over time, at a much steadier pace than the recent rapid advances in technology, which now present both an opportunity and threat to ‘traditional’ instruments.
In western music, it’s now possible, but probably naive, to ignore the religious and sociopolitical power structures which have shaped the use and evolution of the instruments we know today. Brass and drums were originally the symbols of the hunt or war, of rulers and their empires. While we associate the harp and strings with the free folk, the travellers, dramatists and storytellers. As a result, these instruments now have an almost fixed, unshifting place in our music, culture and history, from which it is difficult to shake free. Over the next few weeks, we’ll share how some of our favourite artists and musicians are bringing fresh life and exciting new perspectives to break the boundaries of the ‘traditional’ instruments they play.
A fitting introduction to this series, Organ Reframed is a festival in London’s Union Chapel which sets out with exactly that aim – to release the organ from its traditional roots and challenge perceptions of what this instrument is capable of. It may be a surprise, but the organ had actually been around for almost a thousand years before its power was recognised and was co-opted by Christian church authorities. Based around the London Union Chapel’s 1877 organ, designed and built for the space, Organ Reframed brings an experimental approach to this extraordinary instrument. Performances will take place over the weekend of 7th – 9th October, including: James McVinnie, London Contemporary Orchestra, Fennesz, Philip Jeck, Simon Scott, Irene Buckley, Robert Ames, Laura Moody, Ed Dowie, Laetitia Sadier, Angele David-Guillou, Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, Charles Matthews, Claire M Singer, John Beaumont, The Eternal Chord and Bill Thompson.
We asked composer and festival director, Claire M Singer, along with fellow composers and organists Irene Buckley & Charles Matthews (Spire) about the festival and their special relationship with the organ.
Claire M Singer
My earliest memory of the organ was actually of a Hammond that my Granda had bought before I was born. By the time I got to it the organ had been moved to my Auntie and Uncle’s house and I remember sitting in a row with my cousins exploring what felt like hundreds of different sounds. It was like operating a spaceship!
I came to the pipe organ in a slightly different way to most. Cello was actually my first instrument which I began learning at the age of 7 and then piano at the age of 11. It wasn’t until I was 23 that I was commissioned to write my first organ work and after that I was hooked! In 2012 when I became music director of the organ at Union Chapel I had the keys to one of the most beautiful organs. Naturally I began sitting for hours on end exploring, developing my own technique and writing new material out of these explorations. In 2015 I finally had the guts to start performing live and the rest is history 🙂
The organ can be thought of as essentially being the world’s first synthesiser. Actually, the mini moog uses organ terminology for its octave ranges (ft instead of octaves), which reflects its relationship to the organ. I have been exploring the 1877 Henry Willis organ at Union Chapel for 4 years and I still haven’t reached the bottom of the barrel of what is possible. The breadth of timbral colour and the power of the instrument is extraordinary. When sitting at the console (where the keyboards /manuals, pedals and stops are) you feel like you are in the guts of the instrument, you feel really connected. At Union Chapel the console is behind the pulpit and the pipes are completely hidden, intended so the sound comes from nowhere but the chapel space provides the perfect chamber for the sound to resonate. As organs are most often at the heart of the building they are installed, with that space very much embodying and resonating the sound of the instrument I think it’s probably impossible for audience members not to engage.
As a composer and performer the organ has had a massive impact on me. Before playing the organ I was mostly composing for other instrumentalists or writing electronic works in the studio. For the latter, I would use my cello and other instruments available to generate sound that I could manipulate and play around with to create compositions but I rarely performed my own works live. When I started exploring the organ at Union Chapel I developed a whole different way of working. As my work heavily explores the precise control of wind through the pipes (which can only be done on a mechanical draw-stop organ) it is impossible for me to score a work like The Molendinar (from my album Solas) for another player as it heavily relies on my ear and knowing when I have got to the sweet spot in the stop. Unfortunately this means that the work is very much written for that particular organ and it is sometimes difficult to transfer the work elsewhere – each organ has its own personality and quirks but that’s what makes the instrument so fascinating, there are no two organs the same.
When you mention the organ first thoughts for many seem to be – church instrument, hymns in church or classical music. The organ holds a rich history and extensive repertoire (actually among the largest of any solo instrument) but is lesser known for its place in new music. There have been many inspirational contemporary works written for organ, one that springs to mind straight away is Volumina by György Ligeti. The 1962 work launched what was considered a “revolution” of organ music (in both sound and organ notation) and has remained an important landmark in the development of the organ repertoire today.
The organ is completely capable of holding its own and being at the forefront of new music. I think there are definitely certain obstacles in the way for composers creating truly experimental and progressive works. An important factor is access. You unfortunately can’t take an organ home to explore it like one might with another instrument. It can be quite difficult gain access to an organ unless you have connections with churches and even then it’s often hard to have any real time to experiment– either due to time constraints, politics, or a resistance to a more experimental approach. Therefore some works that are being written today often use more conventional techniques as the composer has not had any direct access with the instrument. Access would let the composer experiment and explore the instrument from a hands-on perspective and these explorations can result in new ways of creating or combining sound. Organ Reframed provides artists with the opportunity and time to experiment freely and boldly with the instrument exploring the many variations in timbres. I definitely would never have written a piece like The Molendinar if I hadn’t personally sat down and spent hours exploring the possibilities.
I have a wonderful memory of wandering into a church in Paris and stumbling across an organ recital. I remember sitting there and thinking that this was the most beautiful music I had ever heard. I tried to track down the performer’s name to find out what this music was, but alas, I never found him.
The organ is surprisingly versatile and has a huge amount of colour to offer. I think its sheer volume has the power to connect to an audience. I love the density that it creates, and I don’t think any other instrument alone has the power to do that. I like to write for large ensembles, whether it’s a choir or an orchestra to create dense immersive textures. This is probably why I feel such a connection to the organ. I also think the organ blends well with the murky textures of my electronic music, combined with the organs unintrusive subliminal low pedal tones. I only made the connection recently between the pipe organ and analog synthesizers. In a patchable synth, the patch cables could be compared to the stops on an organ, where a unison or octave pitch can be added to a fundamental one – this allows you to fine tune the sound you want for each particular note. Analog synths are also a love of mine and thankfully there seems to be a resurgence of their use recently, with artists such as Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Stars of the Lid.
I would like people to discover that the organ is not merely a solo instrument (or an accompaniment) to play church music – that it has the capacity to blend well with other instruments (in particular electronic music) and can be used and heard in different contexts.
My earliest memory is my first organ lesson at the age of nine.
Somehow an organ seems to embrace all the people in the building and carry them somewhere all together.
The instrument is usually part of the building, a more or less permanent fixture. They are very expensive to install and, in the long run, even to maintain, but offer something that other instruments cannot create.
I hope that the festival provides people a chance (in the best sense) to lose themselves in the world of the organ.
And that it just sounds great.