Organ Reframed: Six New Works

Organ Reframed: Six New Works
London Contemporary Orchestra, James McVinnie

Union Chapel, Islington. 13 October 2017

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Organ recitals, at least of the traditional English sort, tend to attract relatively small, rather aged, and predominantly male audiences. They usually feature music written between the time of Bach and the early 20th century. Occasionally forays into more contemporary (or contemporary sounding) music – even Messiaen, most of whose organ music was composed more than 70 years ago, can frighten off audiences. But the weekend Organ Reframed festival at the spectacular Union Chapel in Islington demonstrated that both organ and contemporary music can have a huge following, if presented in an imaginative way.

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The Union Chapel is a vast octagonal building that was built in 1877 for what was then thriving community of non-conformists (founded in 1799) at a time when Islington was becoming fashionable. Inspired by Venetian architecture of the Byzantine period, music was at the heart of the design, and of the services. The finest organ builder of the day, Henry Willis, was invited to build an organ as an integral part of the new building, deliberately hidden from view behind a screen, with the organ console nestling in a pit below the pulpit. Since its near demolition in the 1980s, the chapel has reinvented itself (under the aegis of the Union Chapel Project, a secular charity), as a major venue for musical and other events, as well as continuing as a practising church and running, amongst many other initiatives, The Margins Project, a charity working with people who are homeless, isolated or otherwise facing crisis. It is now celebrating 140 year’s existence of both the Chapel and the Willis organ, and 25 years of concerts.

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A major restoration of the Willis organ took place in 2013, and the church has since featured a range of events to highlight the organ, initially under a three-year Organ Project. In 2016, under the artistic direction of the Chapel’s musical director, composer Clare M Singer, the Organ Reframed festival was inaugurated. Now in its second year, the latest festival opened with an evening of six world premieres of new compositions for organ and orchestra, performed by James McVinnie and the London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Brunt. A large screen above the orchestra showed some of the action of the organist behind the scenes, interspersed and superimposed with live video of the orchestral players and the various goings-on inside the organ itself, including the rare survival of the water-powered hydraulic power system.

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The concert opened with passing through, an impressive new piece by Emily Hall, based on her memories of the organ her grandfather had in his home. After his death in the 1980s, the organ was moved to a church, and the space it had occupied was turned into a drinks bar. A recorded background reflected aural elements of the 1980s, while the live organ part built from a repeated eight-note motif into a grand musical arch form.  Phill Niblock’s extended Thinking Slowly was based on a major triad underpinned by an undulating organ low pedal drone that sounded throughout the 23 minutes piece while the texture and timbre slowly changed as the flute, clarinet, horn and trumpet phased in and out of the string quintet, as the xylophone and harp were played with violin bows.  Tim Tucker’s Heatwave opened with pre-recorded sounds that were slowly overtaken by the organ and instruments building to a climax before ending quietly. It reflected the scorching heat of Californian wildfires.

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Mira Calix’s DeHFO explored the highest and lowest notes of the organ and instruments, using a contrabass clarinet and bass flute. It opened by hovering around a single high note before becoming increasingly complex. It is based on a rather angry personal response to the Brexit saga, in theory reflecting extremes and the lack of any middle ground, although the music itself ended with a long passage of music ‘in the middle’ which rather defeated the stated premise of the piece.  Gordon Monahan’s Silhouette Shadows grew from a high five-note cluster in the style of a rather ethereal sound installation using the sonic waveforms and undulations that closely-spaced notes produce. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s Action of Inaction was perhaps the most musically accomplished of all the new compositions, with its complex shimmering kalaidescope of orchestral and organ texture built on an organ pedal bass. James McVinnie also played two organ solos, Philip Glass’s Music in Fifths, doing exactly what the title implies, and an arrangement of Sufjan Stevens’ slowly evolving The Year of Our Lord, the only piece of the entire evening of organ music that had any religious significance.

A pre-concert discussion between three of the composers and James McVinnie revealed that none of them had composed for the organ before, and had very limited knowledge of the organ’s technical and musical possibilities. That was apparent in the way that most of them used the organ in their compositions, generally using it as a live alternative to electronics or a pre-prepared recording to provide atmosphere and resonance. At least one piece was completely unplayable when submitted, requiring re-arranging by James Mcvinnie, and two of the pieces had to be orchestrated by the conductor Hugh Brunt. But I would be surprised if the six composers, and any other budding composers in the audience, were inspired to explore this most glorious and flexible of instruments more fully.

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This is probably the first time that attending an organ event has made me feel old: it is usually the other way round. The impressively large audience was nearly all aged under 40, many considerably so, a marked difference from the usual organ event. And it says something for the popularity of the festival that the Saturday night concert, a new organ work from the American group Low, together with festival artistic director Clare M Singer playing music from her latest album Solas (much of it recorded on the Union Chapel organ), has been sold out for weeks – getting on for 1,000 seats. As an organist working at the opposite end of the repertoire (my next two recitals are of music by early 17th century North German composers), it was a revelation for me to hear such imaginative music, using the organ in such an inventive way, and to such an impressive and appreciative audience. Whatever the, probably rather shaky, future role of the organ as a church instrument, and despite the continuing security of its enormous repertoire as part of the mainstream of Western classical music, there is clearly a whole new world of possibilities opening up by musicians such as Clare M Singer, James McVinnie and the many other musicians who are being inspired by the King of Instruments – and one, as James McVinnie described it, that is “eternally new”.

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