Peteris Vasks

Mix Tape #38 : Organ

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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 AdèsPreambulum 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-SaënsDanse 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

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Mix Tape #9 : Best of 2008

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Today 5:4 is one year old, and to celebrate that—and continue the celebration of the best albums of last year, here’s a new mix tape, featuring tracks from each of those albums. Not surprisingly, it’s the most eclectic mix so far, and also the longest, just a few seconds shy of 3 hours. Start 2009 with the best of 2008—enjoy!

Here’s the tracklisting in full: Read more

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Best Albums of 2008

Posted on by 5:4 in Best of the Year | 8 Comments
* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

It’s been difficult deciding what i feel are the best albums of 2008. Partly, because i’ve listened to so many (of the 667 albums i’ve listened to this year, 141 of them were released in 2008), but also because i’m conscious of a number of albums that i haven’t yet listened to, and which could well appear in this list. Anyhow, all lists of this kind are provisional, so as things stand today, here are the 5:4 Best Albums of 2008:

40 | Squarepusher – Just A Souvenir
On the one hand, this album isn’t as successful as Squarepusher’s last and best album, Hello Everything. On the other hand, Tom Jenkinson is just so talented that even failed experiments like this are better than most. Quite what led him to resurrect 70s electronics and seek to incorporate it into his style is anyone’s guess, but he’s hardly alone in doing so. At times it’s downright annoying, and overall there’s a diminished sense of unity across the album; yet tracks like “Tensor in Green” and “Quadrature” are brilliant demonstrations of the kind of synthesis of which Jenkinson is capable.

39 | Nurse With Wound – Huffin’ Rag Blues
NWW have turned down the absurdism somewhat on this release, allowing the jazz inflections to come through unfettered. Nonetheless, there’s still sufficient surreal juxtaposition of material for this to be a superbly eclectic electroacoustic outing. “The Funktion of the Hairy Egg” is especially effective, and the outstanding track on this disc, which also features irr. app. (ext.)’s Matt Waldron and is mixed by Andrew Liles.

38 | Gregor Samsa – Rest
Another great album from this band, who are able to sound simultaneously languorous and ecstatic. At times it’s a little too shoegaze for its own good, but most of the album is particularly effective, and sometimes strikingly delicate. The vocals, in particular, are often ethereal to the point of becoming inaudible, providing a wonderful mysterious surface beneath which the textures can drift and intermingle.

37 | Byetone – Death Of A Typographer
Despite being fairly typical Raster-Noton material, this album displays real variety, encompassing lovely ambient episodes along with the familiar glitchy electronica. There’s a markedly industrial tone to the beats, but they’re delivered with such panache that they never feel oppressive. It also lacks the coldness that seems to accompany, say, Alva Noto’s recent material (although, having said that, i really liked this year’s Unitxt, despite it not appearing in this list); this is surprisingly light and warm dance music.

36 | AGF – Words Are Missing
A rapid, insistent album, with Antye Greie’s voice (along with pretty much all other sounds) fragmented into a myriad shards. The constructions she makes from these pieces are consistently engaging, while not perhaps representing the best of her work; at times, the music are off-puttingly minimalistic. Nonetheless, the deep beats that permeate the tracks give them a potent physicality that is infectious; and, as in “Dread In Strangers Eyes”, influences of musique concrète and collage-like techniques give the album a fascinating variety.

35 | Ladytron – Velocifero
There are distinct traces of Curve in Ladytron’s latest release, which is most definitely no bad thing. This is particularly the case with “Runaway”, recently released as a single and easily the best track on the album. First and foremost, though, Ladytron have brought out their best album to date, filled with dirty, somewhat languid rock-tronica.

34 | Deerhoof – Offend Maggie
i wrote about this album back in October, and my initial disappointment about this album has, to some extent, given way to (i hope) a deeper appreciation. It still doesn’t quite capture the unbridled fire and passion of Friend Opportunity, but there’s a maturity present here that perhaps i wasn’t expecting. A flawed masterpiece it may be, but any group or album that can come up with a track as astonishing as “Jagged Fruit” is nothing less than brilliant.

33 | Stephan Mathieu – Radioland
A curious assemblage of thoughtful meditations, this is ambient from a more heavyweight perspective. At least, that’s the way it comes across, like vast heavy nimbus clouds, their complex inner structures ever shifting. The result is powerfully hypnotic, and often very beautiful, particularly “Auf der Gasse”.

32 | Implex Grace – Through Luminescent Passages II
i wrote a fair bit about this release back in November, so i won’t repeat that here. Since then Michael Goodman has made it clear to me that what i perceived as a lack of direction is something quite intentional on his part, and while i’m prepared to accept that, the brevity of the tracks, i feel, still militates against the kind of ‘meditative’ state he desires. All the same, it’s still an interesting counterpart to volume 1, focussing more on the noise end of the ambient continuum. It’s still available free of charge, here, in FLAC and mp3 formats, direct from Goodman’s netlabel, Distance Recordings.

31 | Ran Slavin – Nocturnal Rainbow Rising
Ran Slavin’s latest release is another free download, from the excellent Crónica netlabel. It’s a disc that demonstrates real skill at shaping sound, as well as formidable restraint, the tracks given space to develop at their own pace, never seeming forced along. Its use of bass frequencies to punctuate the material is very striking; “Pure Honey in Lack One” is perhaps the best example.

30 | Specta Ciera – Mystic Valley Parkway
Yet another free album, released through Distance Recordings, and available here. This is music reassuringly difficult to categorise, bringing together diverse sound sources into a melange within which they briefly become obvious before being re-absorbed. At times (“I Lost The Dream Archive”) it becomes really breathtaking, dazzling the ear with its restless activity. Read more

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