Today’s Advent Calendar piece is a beautiful curiosity from 2014 by British composer Max de Wardener. This particular piece, which is untitled, came as the last of three new works by de Wardener performed live at the Southbank Centre in 2014, the first of which was also untitled, while the second was an extended reworking of his early piece Until My Blood Is Pure. That’s a useful reference point, as that particular piece originally appeared on a vinyl EP called Stops released in 2002, all four tracks of which feature the sound of a church organ. (incidentally, i’d love to see Stops reissued digitally some day, it’s a real shame it’s fallen into obscurity.) The organ is also important in this untitled piece, which uses untreated samples of the Royal Festival Hall organ in conjunction with percussion and shō.
The piece operates in a meditative way, moving between episodes of great stillness and periods of increased activity. One of its most stunning features is the timbral and harmonic blending of the shō and the organ. At times they’re heard by themselves (though it’s not always obvious which is playing – all the more remarkable considering that one is prerecorded), but more often their chords and clusters bleed into and colour each other. They also create a sense of slow inhaling and exhaling, both in their own behaviour and in the way they disappear from and re-emerge into the other’s sounds. Tempo is irrelevant through these sequences, time is telescoped, what movement there is will periodically stop, hovering in space for a snapshot of eternity.
Unable to sustain indefinitely, the percussion’s role is one of gentle agitation. Initially at the fringes (soft rolls and light impacts), they’re responsible for bringing about the first contrasting section, triggered by a series of glittery attacks and more insistent material, though the effect on the shō and organ simply pushes them to registral poles, extremely high and low, seemingly getting out of the way while the percussion has its fun. Order is restored for a few more minutes – there’s a lovely back and forth between the vibrato-less shō and the organ using tremulant – before a more alarming contrast erupts in the form of something akin to a wind instrument (with an implied chorus around it at something of a distance), ululating a brash melody while the percussion again get excited. i’ve come to hear this as a direct externalising of pent-up energy accumulated to that point, like an ecstatic howling, even a kind of tantric orgasmic release. It’s a short-lived delirium, resettling into a strong shimmer before attenuating to just a single tone.
i’ve no idea whether Max de Wardener ever reworked this wonderful piece into another form (i’ve not heard anything like it in his subsequent work), or eventually gave it a title – not that it needs one. The fact that it’s untitled means we can just take it on its own terms. i find it more rewarding every time i spend time with it, and if this was the one and only time that this piece existed, perhaps that’s even more perfect.
It was performed on 22 March 2014 at the Southbank Centre in London, by Joby Burgess and Genevieve Wilkins (percussion), Robin Thompson (shō) and Max de Wardener (laptop).