The grand organ is a true feat of engineering. Most concertgoers won’t realise that behind the organs gracing our town halls and churches are chambers containing forests of pipes of different shapes and sizes. Some bass flues are so large you have to climb inside to clean them, while each pipe needs to be meticulously maintained and tuned. The organists who harness this incredible machinery have to contend with baffling lag times and instrumental idiosyncrasies, but the outcome is an astonishing timbral palette. Given the awesome presence of these instruments, their history, and the considerable expense involved in maintaining them, it is surprising that so little contemporary music has been written for them. One thinks of Messiaen, Ligeti, and Xenakis, but there most people’s knowledge of contemporary organ repertoire stops. The Australian Art Orchestra and Ensemble Offspring’s recent commissioning program for new organ works is therefore of international importance. The AAO and Ensemble Offspring’s performance at the Melbourne Town Hall was the first complete showing of the program, including the world premiere of a work by the “phenomenological music” pioneer Alvin Lucier.
Austin Buckett’s Aisles begins with a stunning, brassy explosion involving the whole ensemble of strings, percussion, trumpet, turntables, voice, and organ. The sound echoes off the back of the hall (or was that the live sound processing?), giving it a wave-like, viscous force. The instruments’ differing levels of decay give the wave a shimmering, multicoloured tail. The piece progresses by looping such gestures and then juxtaposing blocks of loops. The interstellar explosions are replaced by Sonya Holowell’s solo voice singing intimately into a microphone. A cavernous, spacious racket returns for a while before we finally hear the common, pitched sound of the organ. It is a high wail above the ecstatic chatter of ride cymbals played by Claire Edwardes and Joe Talia on either side of the stage. So the dynamic atmospheres of Aisles continue, a ritualistic procession as varied as it is enchanting.
Simon James Phillips’ Flaw begins with Martin Ng performing some of the quietest turntabling that you have ever heard. Breathy hums (from the organ perhaps?) are slowed down to subsonic frequencies then back into a somnambulent mid-range. Edwardes plays a shell chime and the sound is captured and transformed to sound like rain. Among this artificial pastoral scene a prerecorded bird can be heard. This meditation on technology and the natural world continues for half an hour, with swelling, arpeggiating strings and crackling speakers slowly rising and falling in the hazy texture.
Flaw and Lucier’s Swings make for an interesting juxtaposition. Simple ideas and static textures can be either numbingly boring or deeply fascinating. There is a thin line between one and the other, a line that no doubt shifts from individual to individual. Swings is based on one idea: shifting the pitch and timbre of an organ pipe by covering the open end with one’s hand. For the performance at the Melbourne Town Hall, six pipes were extracted from the bowels of the grand organ and mounted on stage, connected to the mothership through snaking black umbilical cords. The overall effect begged comparison with an H.R. Giger illustration. Four performers stood around the pipes, their hands clad in white gloves like surgeons or museum curators (scaaaary museum curators!). The strings and organ provided a steady drone as one by one the performers slowly bent the pitch of each pipe. Subtle beating filled the air. I was mesmerised as each new pipe modulated the sound of the others and the instrumental ensemble. So used to listening for pitch and rhythm, new dimensions of sound unfolded for the listener as the overall timbre became more complex with the introduction of each new pipe. At the central climax of the piece the air becomes alive with what seem aural hallucinations. Mobile, distorting, ringing ghosts of tones fill the hall. Then the sound is disassembled tone by tone. It was fascinating as an audience member to witness the construction of this sound that turned out to be so much more than the sum of its parts.
The Australian Art Orchestra
Melbourne Town Hall
6 February 2016
Austin Buckett, Aisles; Simon James Phillips, Flaw; Alvin Lucier, Swings