VA: Spire: Live in Geneva Cathedral, Saint Pierre

Judging from the 145 minutes spread across this two-disc live document, the Saint Pierre Cathedral in Geneva must have been a remarkable place to be on September 5, 2004. Extending last year's premiere Spire outing into a live context, pieces by contemporary composers Marcus Davidson, Andre Jolivet, Lianna Alexandra, and Henryk Gorécki are performed alongside three ambitious works by Touch mainstays BJ Nilsen (aka Hazard), Philip Jeck, and Christian Fennesz. Consequently, the release includes more traditional approaches (performed in the main cathedral hall) and three radical reimaginings.

Charles Matthews plays the cathedral's main organ on the opening four pieces. Loud, dramatic chords that suggest the immense grandeur and sonic resonance of the cathedral setting alternate with quieter passages in Marcus Davidson's aptly titled “Opposites Attract.” In André Jolivet's “Hymne à l'universe,” a celebration of the universe's stars, planets, suns, and galaxies, bold flurries and menacing chords tangle, suggesting questions posed without answers, followed by dancing, Glass-like patterns in Liana Alexandra's “Consonances lll.” Davidson himself plays Henryk Gorécki's “Kantata for Organ” (op. 26) where crushing smears contrast with solemn episodes.

Moving back and forth between organ and electronics, BJ Nilsen's half-hour “Live in la petite chapelle” initiates the event's second, “deconstruction” phase. The familiar glistening tones of the organ are audible throughout, though sometimes smothered by a cavernous mass. As one might expect, the piece develops slowly: at the eight-minute mark, it's a grinding, wave-like roar; in its closing third, a drone duet of wavering electrical hum and organ with the latter dominating in the piece's final moments.

Philip Jeck's performs his 45-minute “Live in the Crypt” in the archeological site underneath the cathedral, as if exhuming the history of recording through his vinyl material. He initially generates a loud, tactile mass of organ, crackles, and hiss and then adds jarring poundings of heavy metal. After that subsides, the organ swims within a morphing, rippling miasma of blurry themes; at one point, he even audaciously inserts religious recitations. Of all the pieces, Jeck's is the most disturbing, a disorienting hallucination brought to harrowing life.

Fennesz's transcendent, twenty-five minute “Live in la petite chapelle” presents the concert's final, “reconstruction” phase. Diametric in spirit to Jeck's epic, the closer's merging of organ sounds with electronics soothes with towering fields of crystalline shimmer and spectral starbursts.

Naturally the live setting imposes itself as a factor. During quieter moments, ambient sounds (shuffling, rustling, coughs) within the space are audible and, though typically such intrusions are unwelcome, here they lend a human dimension to what might otherwise sound excessively austere. Though the recording deliberately presents electronics as the organ's 'successor,' electronics also breathe new life into it; astutely, liner notes clarify that “successor does not mean replacement.” Ultimately, it's the majestic sound of the organ, so steeped in centuries of tradition, that one remembers above all else.

April 2005