Organ through the Richter-scope

Recently I found myself becoming more and more entwined with listening to some of the outstanding work from composer Max Richter, which brought with it a few thoughts about the classical church organ in certain forms of composition.

Born in West Germany and then brought up in Bedford in the UK , Richter has come to prominence partly as a screen composer (his music on the US show The Leftovers definitely made an impression).  I can understand why the term ‘postminimalist‘ has been applied to his work, there are a number of traits which are shared although it feels like Richter is more an inheritor in some way of the melodic sensibility of Philip Glass than with the phrasing or voicing of other notable minimalist composers.  Perhaps most redolent on something like the track November, which echoes elements characteristic of Glass’s like the speedy lead refrain voicing amid high line minor violins.

And yet I’m often left feeling with Glass’s work that there can be something missing, an incapacity for the music to escape itself in the creation of a world of contact and feeling at the more profound level.

Richter by contrast, in the way that he is defined as a ‘postminimalist’ seems to have grasped the possibilities and freedom offered by a reduced structural commitment and a valorisation of the simplicity of a pop-style approach to form and melody.  Part of the impact that minimalism had (in the context of a group of people working in similar ways and on similar themes) was that in working with ‘cells’ of refrains (short, repeated notations) there was a fundamental zeroing in taking place, in relation to the refrain and specfically in the context and manner of its repetition.

When minimalism first began to emerge as the works of people like Terry Riley and Steve Reich in the 1960’s, there were still modern classical structuralist tendencies with which they were engaged (think that the seminal 18 musicians by Steve Reich is still constructed as a nod to serialism), even while they were breaking ground melodically by returning to harmony and a focus on simplified refrains and their iterations as new models of composition (alongside the possibilities of phasing in the case of Reich).

One of the seed crystals of minimalism therefore was always a focus on the refrain as an article of sonic power and in Richter it feels aposite that there should be a kind of conjoining of twin worlds of thought on the refrain in the form of pop and modern classical.  Although of course it is undeniable that part of the emphatic success of minimalism has been attributed by its near absolute permeation of the popular music culture (from Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells as a pop spin on Reich, to The Orb‘s sampling of Electric Counterpoint, to Tortoise’s Postrock elaborations on TNT and so much in between).  Richter in this respect is occupying largely by way of the soundtrack, an  interzone between pop and classical music that has a dually evolved, stripped down and honed refraining intelligence at its disposal.

Something like the elegiac De Profundis feels like a dance with the spirit of gravity, but whose descending motions in harmonic transitions beautifully and poignantly hold to clear and powerful impacts of feeling.  It is also notable, specifically with these organ pieces, how their spatiality is so utterly compelling to their power.  Often voiced alone or as a primary force of space in the piece  they become a sonic presence that has a deep resonant power across the frequencies to fill the soundspace and yet can express a kind of haunted solitude at the same time.

For a kind of pure demonstration of these tonalities, Richter’s Organum takes us back through the minimalist portal, where the refrain is set against long textured falls by the lead line.  Falling and flying have curious parallels it seems, although crucially – Flying suggests something utterly different than a surrender to a power which in the context of being drawn toward it, compels the entirety of a body to arrive at some point.

Although perhaps again, it is only an association with the gravity of the planet that makes falling what it is to us.  In other respects, it may also be understanding the nature of the void that one fulfills from time to time and in whose space, the sense of landing, arriving or even crashing may become entirely different.

jen in sky Crouching
Wudan guerrila royal Jen’s leap from the mountain in Crouching Tiger

It is interesting to get a sense of the instrument of the church organ and this is something shared in terms of their findings by Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan for the former’s theme to the film Interstellar, an achievement of melodic simplicity and feeling.  The pair make a number of interesting observations, including Nolan’s embrace of the religiosity of the church organ as an attempt by humans to portray the mystical or metaphysical.

Although it would be remiss not to also consider the entire sonic / architectural assemblage of the cathedral/church organ (space) as also comprising a power move in the christian practise.  Suddenly, a sonic spatialisation of exotic and extraordinary resonance potential was emplaced within the body of the spaces of worship.  Huge pipes whose tones could now be used as special effect for the singing of the religious story.  A sonic weapon, in this context for breaking people into a space of specified extra terrestrial contact (through sound and spirit) with rules of engagement and a backstory for modes of interpretation, all wrapped up in the embodying-through-song of the reverential modality of requirement.  Though even here and in the midst of such stories, we find Messaiaen.  However, the most crucial thing is the instrument and its space – their capacity in all respects, known and unknown to resonate the presences of sound, for the effects of perception, the affects of becoming, the realisations of feeling sound, vibration, intent.  In the individual composition of the organ itself and as in the embed below, Zimmer notes the following :

You have a pipe and air blows through it and that makes a sound… and if you want to shift colour, you add another pipe to it and you add more pipes, and so it becomes these really very complex harmonic structures…  there’s something very human about it, because it can only make a sound with air and it needs to breathe and on each note, you hear the breath, you hear the exhale.

Nolan (likewise from the below) :

‘You feel a human presence in every sound… not just the space that we’re looking at, but the people in that space, there’s an intimacy as well as a massive scale…’

Interesting to think about the Nolan/Zimmer dynamic in relation to Tarkovsky/Artemiev who took Bach melodies into space with Solaris theme and their use of the ANS synthesiser.

Although no expert in church organ music and performance, I was given by a friend an album in the early 2000’s of 16 pieces for Organs by Nils Henrik Asheim and I realised that of anyone, it was Asheim who made me aware of the church organ as a broken-open sonically playable entity.  A Norwegian organist and composer whose improvised works on this album have a truly amazing breadth and intensity (and which interestingly are categorised as Jazz).  There is unfortunately, nothing currently available to stream of this album (that I can find).  If I can upload something I will , although here is a short explanatory video (in Norwegian naturally) in which Asheim briefly improvises, giving a sense of some of the work on the album itself.

There is also this video of a two organ improvisation featuring Asheim and Hampus Lindwall – played from two differetn sites with monitoring between, some of which reach moments and forms of sound which call upon feeling and sense in complex, nuanced and hyper-charged ways.


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