The theme of the new 5:4 mix tape is one i’ve been wanting to explore for a long while: the organ. It’s an instrument with which i’ve had a pretty infatuated relationship since my teenage years, both as a listener and as a very occasional practitioner (organ was my second study alongside composition during my first degree, and for a few years i co-directed a church choir). People tend to have a certain idea of what they think organ music is like. People tend to be wrong. i hope this mix tape will go some way to illuminate what the organ is capable of, what it can be, when wielded with real imagination. As always, the mix consists of personal favourites, encompassing a pretty wide range of approaches to the instrument. i’ve structured the mix in four sections, each lasting roughly half an hour.
The first is all about contrasts, alternating between vast tuttis and more restrained, inward modes of expression. The pieces by Bjørn Andor Drage and Marcel Dupré are more the latter; Drage, in particular, makes it sound as though the organ is struggling to speak, Dupré is more concerned with not so much presenting/shaping material as gently caressing it into new forms. Thomas Adès‘ Preambulum holds back just as much but is exercised with an incessant sense of child-like play. Naji Hakim is emphatically at the other end of the continuum, blurring the distinction between a fanfare and a toccata – both of which sound like they’re made out of laser beams – before launching into a frenzied series of final flourishes, and all in just two minutes. Judith Bingham and Petr Eben pass between these extremes. Bingham seemingly allows the music to do its own thing for the most part; there’s a really lovely sense of spontaneity, and the effusive climax two-thirds through feels like an entirely organic zenith. The sixth movement from Eben’s work about the life of Job alternates between dense quiet clusters and counterpoint before an ever-growing sequence of pulling shapes brings about a colossal musical crunch, as though an angel had misjudged its descent and slammed into the ground. This is followed by a section devoted to texture, in the form of dense walls and piercing clusters from John Zorn – treating the organ like a lab rat – and György Ligeti, cycling tonal colours from Charlemagne Palestine, and heaving wails and roars from the one and only Stefan Fraunberger, caught in a heroic struggle of WTF proportions in order to get a defunct instrument to do anything approximating coherence (and succeeding).
The mix then turns to ecstasy, captured in deliciously soft shimmerings in the exquisite opening to the middle movement of Sorabji‘s First Organ Symphony and the conclusion of one of Olivier Messiaen‘s late Méditations, both composers emphasising metric regularity to heighten the music’s inner power. Others cause their ecstasy to swell into apogees of overload, heard here in David Briggs‘ transcription of the Adagietto from Mahler‘s Fifth, a slow-burn from Louis Vierne that works an almost absurdly simple idea into a looming mountain of fire, and a wondrous back-and-forth from Pēteris Vasks, whose arrangement of his own Viatore (originally written for strings, but much more majestic in this version) often makes me think of Howard Skempton’s Lento, cycling round a common idea but always sounding somehow different and new. The last section is all about drama, often utilising the massive timbral pile-ups of the full organ. Edwin Lemare‘s transcription of Saint-Saëns‘ Danse macabre is pure brilliance and to my mind works way better than the original, tapping into Gothic levels of sinister malevolence. i’ve included another slow-burner from Vierne, this time the second movement from his First Organ Symphony, a dazzlingly exciting demonstration of the dramatic potential and power of fugue. The counterpoint here is simply amazing, and the colossal, cluster-bomb climax will clear out any remaining cobwebs your speakers (or, indeed, your house) may have. Rarely-heard Soviet composer Eduard Khagagortyan gets seriously carried away in the opening movement of his Symphony No. 3, which i’ve included in its 8½-minute entirety partly because he is so rarely-heard, but mainly because the range of imagination in its convoluted narrative is so impressive, and Khagagortyan’s musical language is decidedly piquant, even downright tart. Simon Johnson‘s Holy Week improvisations recontextualise familiar melodies in an altogether new sonic environment to fittingly disconcerting effect, while David Briggs, at the console of Gloucester Cathedral in his own improvised Symphony, reinvents the French organ style in a slow movement that builds to a light-filled blaze of colours (you can hear the whole symphony here).
Beginning the sections and exemplifying them are pieces by Charles Tournemire, who in my view is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, and – bizarrely – remains almost entirely unknown beyond devotees of organ music. A late figure within the French organ school, he was a significant influence on Messiaen, particularly with regard to improvisation. A self-confessed mystic, Tournemire was responsible for creating one of the longest and most inventive compositional projects ever undertaken: L’Orgue Mystique, a fifteen-hour cycle of music (in 51 parts) inspired by the plainsong melodies used throughout the Catholic Church’s liturgical year. When his music does occasionally appear in organ recitals or church services (his non-organ music pretty much never does in the UK), it tends to be only the huge final movements that end each part of the cycle. i’ve included two of these: his enormous, borderline overexcited improvisation on the ‘Te deum’ melody, which only survived thanks to Maurice Duruflé transcribing the piece from a recording (played here by Jane Watts in what is surely the most exhilarating recording of it by anyone), and his yet more furious Postlude for the Sunday in the Octave of Ascension, which in terms of both the extraordinary use of harmony – pushing tonality far beyond breaking point, essentially redefining it on the fly – and drama – each successive episode getting more carried away than the previous one – make it seem all the more incomprehensible that his music should be performed so infrequently and his contribution to twentieth century music be so unknown. But his quieter music, which dominates most of L’Orgue Mystique, is just as potent. His take on the Easter Communion chant quickly moves away from melody into a kind of semi-frozen (or should that be transfixed?) textural miasma, whereas the Offertory from the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost becomes a soft, dreamy act of the purest tenderness. The mix ends with another Communion, from the feast of Pentecost itself, Tournemire reworking it into music of remarkable, balmy stillness, as though brilliantly illuminated from above, its chords shimmering with warmth. Genius.
A little over two hours of music that pulls out both the real and the imaginative stops; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to buy the music. As ever, the mix can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more