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V/A - Spire: Organ Works Past and Present

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Artist: V/A

Album: Spire: Organ Works Past and Present

Label: Touch

Review date: Feb. 25, 2004

“The organ, the emperor of instruments.” So begins the liner notes to this inspired two-disc compilation which functions as a response, much like an art school project, to the organ. These responses can be reduced to four broad categories: political aspects; direct recordings of church organs; pieces that reflect how an organ functions; and processed electro-acoustics.

The organ is a weighty topic to tackle, especially due to its ubiquitous presence in the churches of Europe and subsequently North America. Consequently, there is much in the way of politics tied-in with the organ. Interestingly, though primitive versions of the organ date back to 300 B.C., it was not until the 10th century AD that it was permitted in churches as part of Christian worship.

Leif Elggren’s “Royal Organ” and Finnbogi Petursson’s “Diabolus” have made their compositions with political intent in mind. Like a brontosaurus bellowing out a mating call, Elggren’s piece rumbles from the speakers. This bellow is issued forth from nothing less than the Royal Organ in Stockholm, dedicated to the late Swedish King Carolus XII (1682-1718) who attempted and failed at making a grab for world domination during Russia’s preeminence. Petursson, an Icelander, based his piece on a sound art installation that emits a particularly low-end tone. In the Middle Ages, this tone had been labeled as diabolical by the Christian Church on the account of choir singers having difficulty reaching the note. This very tone happens to be the basis of most Icelandic singing, so had this decree survived the Middle Ages, Icelandic songs would be considered satanic. The track and tone are both innocuous, merely a sustained hum that sounds like a juiced-up pre-amp awaiting a sound blast.

The likes of B.J. Nilsen, Z’ev, and Jacob Kirkegaard opted for a more traditional response, wherein each made field recordings of church organs. B.J. Nilsen, a.k.a. Hazard, took on three tracks, “Zephyr,” “Organ Psalm V” (with Marcus Davidson), and “Breathe.” “Zephyr” is an overwhelming yet short organ piece that could aptly back Dr. Frankenstein’s lightning-struck exhortations. Conversely, “Organ Psalm V” is a creeper, starting with gentle austere organ notes that nod off into a dozing silence…before someone cranks the volume and slams the keys in a wild upstart. “Breathe” is less climactic; rather it is a half-hour long continuous, meditative drone best appreciated through sensitive speakers and sub woofers. On “Breathe,” Nilsen recorded several subdued organ pieces where he digitally spliced and layered them together. “Breathe” harbors dark undertones and unless one listens carefully to the variances in notes the piece might be mistaken for a continuous drone. Z’ev’s piece, which doesn’t specify the performer, is among the best, the arrayed notes arranged in a melody that inspires a sense of religious reverence. This piece is only superceded by Kirkegaard’s tribute to the late composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952). This tribute opens with a digital crackle, then an uplifting, shimmeringly ecstatic organ piece materializes while over-dubbed vestiges of other compositions hover like angels.

The more adventurous endeavors come from Toshiya Tsunoda, Scott Taylor and Chris Watson, all of whom focused on the operational aspects of the organ. Admittedly, these pieces are more demanding of the listener, acting as sound art installations. Tsunoda’s piece is comprised of headphone speakers recorded through lengths of pipe, then layered on a multi-track recorder. Chris Watson went minimal, simply making a field recording of a wind cluster set in a rural space. Consequently Watson’s piece only dimly relates to the organ. Scott Taylor’s “Droner,” is comprised of watery noises from a primitive version of the instrument. The device’s first steps 2,300 years ago probably sounded a bit like Taylor’s contribution to the set.

The most evocative pieces, at least for this reviewer, were the electro-acoustic responses by Phillip Jeck, Scott Minor/Fennesz, Biosphere and Tom Recchion. Jeck and Minor/Fennesz both sampled the organ and filtered the recordings through distortion. Jeck’s piece initially sounds like an electric guitar, played from damaged speakers with the gain turned all the way up. Minor/Fennesz’s “Dwan” is the crowning jewel of Spire. The piece ascends on the wings of breath-taking organ notes, encumbered by a layer of distortion that is shed mid-track, like a flying bird that manages to wiggle free of a piece of stubborn seaweed.

Despite repeated listens, Spire remains a challenge to wrap one’s head around. There are many contexts to consider, and consequently this compilation requires different levels of attention. Functioning as an assortment of sonic ink blot tests, gazing into the mind of the artist, Spire tends to pluck at one’s sense of wonderment and even inspire a modern reverence for the emperor of all instruments.

By I Khider

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