VA: Spire

Certainly Arvo Pärt is partially responsible for re-igniting broader appreciation of the organ's relevance as a contemporary instrument. To cite one example, “Pari Intervallo,” performed by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, offers some of the most affecting moments on 1987's Arbos, and Bowers-Broadbent later recorded lovely versions of Górecki's “O Domina Nostra” and Bryars' “The Black River.” Years prior to these works, Steve Reich brought a memorable slant to the instrument with “Four Organs,” while Philip Glass has also prominently emphasized organ playing in his pieces. Of these works, it's Pärt's Holy Minimalism that most strongly reinforces the organ's ties to the church, but, as Mike Harding points out in Spire's liner notes, the organ didn't have that religious association during its first thousand years of use. Its eventual embrace by religious authorities partly stemmed from their recognition of its sonic power and potential for audience manipulation. The organ is further distinguished by the fact that it's one of the first mechanical instruments, based as it is on the principle of wind blown through pipes.

Spire represents a bold attempt by Touch to re-think the instrument's possibilities, and while the label doesn't entirely reinvent conventional organ-related practices, it certainly acts as a midwife to some extreme sonic re-imaginings of them. Its two discs total 105 minutes and feature seventeen tracks “inspired or more directly influenced” by the organ, with the shortest forty-six seconds and the longest almost twenty-seven minutes. The collection features familiar roster artists like Biosphere, Philip Jeck, Benny Nilsen (aka Hazard), and Chris Watson along with new contributors like US composer Tom Recchion and Iceland's Finnbogi Pétursson and Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson. Some artists hew closely to familiar organ sounds but compositionally challenge conventions instated through centuries of church-based playing. Others deviate dramatically from any religious associations, wilfully liberating the organ from its familiar contexts. The Debussy quote (“The tall peaceful trees would be like the pipes of a great organ…”) within the accompanying booklet hints at the expansive breadth of the seventeen pieces. Some purposefully move outdoors, leaving the religious connection behind in favour of natural simulations of the organ's inner workings. On “Layered,” for example, Japanese field recordist Toshiya Tsunoda began by placing earphones that reproduce shortwave radio noise inside outdoor pipes. He then recorded the sounds and layered them, attempting thereby to make a chord using the different pitch sounds—an imaginative approximation of pipe air producing organ sounds. Over the course of ten minutes, Tsunoda fashions a dense sonic cluster that grinds and thrums like a seething cloud of insects and animals. Like Tsunoda, Chris Watson forms his piece, Spire's closer “Askam Wind Cluster,” from wind currents, too.

In fact, a quick inventory reveals that very few tracks present the organ in typical manner. Only classical composer Marcus Davidson's “‘Organ Psalm V” indulges in a familiar style of organ playing with grand chords and quieter passages alternating. A religious connection is here, with the piece inspired by the tradition of psalm singing and the organ acting as the supplicant to the almighty, with the last three organ chords chanting 'domine.' In contrast, many of the artists on Spire pursue more meditative strategies in their often drone-like pieces rather than familiar compositional approaches. With “Royal Organ,” Leif Elggren creates a massive and churning (albeit brief) overture, a fitting approach given its inspiration, Swedish King Carolus XII (1682-1718). Z'EV's piece, “if only that love lets letting happen (organ music for organs),” originated from a Google search for 'organ + sound' which yielded two URLs, one that included Bach's “Wenn Nur Den Lieben Gott Laesst Walten” and the other a site outlining sound's potential as a therapeutic agent. The resultant piece layers droning tones to hypnotic effect. At less than two minutes, Philip Jeck's “Stops” is a brief fragment whose single chord builds to a massive crescendo that's so loudly pitched it loses its identity as an organ and becomes a pummeling wail of feedback. Sparklehorse's Scott Minor and Fennesz collaborate on “Dwan,” a shimmering drone which is recognizably Fennesz-like in the pairing of its fuzzy distortion with the familiar organ sound. Its aggressive opening segues into a gentler concluding section that recalls similar moods Fennesz conjured on Endless Summer. But like Jeck's piece, at two-and-a-half minutes, it verges on being a mere fragment that ends before it can develop more extensively.

Other tracks might be categorized as ambient exercises. Finnbogi Pétursson's “Diabolus” offers tritone calm, while Biosphere's “Visible Invisible” is impressionistic and becalmed, its organ tones overlapping like restful waves. In some cases, the organ itself is hardly recognizable. Tom Recchion's “Shut-Eye Train” camouflages the organ by conjuring ghostly electronic echoes and light sprinkles of ambience, and Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson's “Details of a New Discovery' features phantom noises blowing amidst subtle electronic whispers. Scott Taylor's “‘Droner,” on the other hand, sounds like some massive distorted drone of magnified rain showers that become explosive ruptures. At twenty-seven minutes, Benny Nilsen's “Breathe” is the obvious epic of the bunch. To create the piece, Nilsen recorded organist Charles Matthews performing the psalms of Marcus Davidson at St. Mary's Church in Warwick , England, and then processed the sounds using minimal means (volume, EQ, and multi-tracking). Its first minutes are spent simulating distant, thunderous rumblings, until an extended organ tone appears amidst quiet surges. The piece evolves into a meditative microsound exercise, as nearly sub-audible tones fluctuate about a louder drone that continues unabatedly. Only at the eighteen-minute mark does a recognizable organ chord begin a slow rise to the surface, and then grows into a larger crescendo before winding down. The piece serves as a representative example of the unconventional approaches Spire's artists pursue as they offer convincing evidence of the organ's contemporary relevance and its limitless possibilities.

February 2004