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Alan Cooper Reviews: Dr Roger B Williams, organ

Featuring CALUM BROWN, IAN LEAH, KATRINA LOVIE and
JACK TAYLOR: Bagpipes
CLAIRE SINGER: Cello
JOSH RONSEN: Visuals
Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The annual recital of new music involving the Aubertin organ has become a regular attraction for soundfestival. In past recitals, Roger Williams has punctuated brand new contemporary works with pieces drawn from across many centuries of organ music whose composers were regarded as innovators – the avant garde of their day so to speak. This year however, all the pieces in the programme were new – written in the last few months of this year. Every one of the six composers was present in the Chapel to introduce their pieces.

What was truly remarkable about this performance was the vast range of styles and compositional approaches represented by our six different composers. As Professor Pete Stollery, one of the composers, said in his remarks after the concert, the order of the pieces was one of the most important features of the performance. That is what has prompted me to call the concert “An Organ Journey” because that is precisely what it was - a journey which started with three pieces of more conventional writing using the organ as a solo instrument. This part of the journey culminated in a fourth piece that had its feet firmly planted within the longstanding traditions of classical organ composing. After that however we were taken on towards exciting new sound worlds where the organ was used as just one of many sources for electroacoustic exploration and finally with the longest piece in which the organ was at the centre of a vast musical imagination that included a spatial reach that went well beyond the confines of the Chapel to include sounds that to begin with could not even be heard by today’s audience; more about that later.

The opening work in the recital and our point of departure was a short work by Mike Merrill. In his introductory remarks, he explained that Lamentation, receiving its World Première was one of his first compositions for organ. He had developed it from an earlier choral composition. That made sense. You could feel the vocal lines within it – nothing wrong with that. You find similar music by J. S. Bach.
Dissonances of a minor second on the upper register of the organ marked a melody which ran above plangent harmonies which fitted the title of the work properly. The dissonances played on the organ though expressing sadness and even pain were in no way jarring and this was an attractive piece.

Peter Relph gave us the UK Première of his piece entitled Les Anges Encerclant. The title in French and its meaning, not just the language suggested Messiaen. In his programme note Relph mentions that, “A quote from Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur was used as inspiration for the music”. Relph also explains that the piece is based on “an harmonic series from a spectral analysis of the Magdalene College organ in Cambridge” so the creation of the piece does touch on certain scientific elements which though from different areas of electronics were to appear in later pieces.

Repeated chords and fluttering upper sounds were repeated so that the idea of circling angels was suggested. This made for a kind of pictorial music that would not have been foreign to Messiaen himself.

Nocturne by Tim Raymond was receiving its Scottish Première. He referred us in his programme note to words taken from a Japanese author Yoshidà Kenkô “in dew-drenched garden a hint of incense lingered on the air”. However in his spoken introduction he warned us that the music itself had no Japanese connotations referring us instead to Debussy and Jehan Alain.

His piece progressed in highly contrasting episodes with a line of melody that became ever more complex. It was a rich and colourful composition.

With Toccata on ‘Urbs Jerusalem Beata’ by George McPhee we entered the realm of vintage organ recital music. Contemporary certainly, but a piece that could well have a place in a more regular organ recital. It was composed originally for the organ of St Machar’s Cathedral just up the road and George McPhee wondered whether it would work as well on the Aubertin. Well, under the fingers of Dr Roger Williams it did so and that quite splendidly. Its use of a bold plainsong melody and the excitement of its toccata passages demonstrated the compositional maturity of a man who is familiar with every possibility the organ as an instrument has to offer.
Pete Stollery told us that he had also delved into the possibilities of the Aubertin and what it could or could not offer to his piece. Pipeline for organ and digital sound was also receiving its World Première on Tuesday.

Pete’s music often concerns itself with sounds that are specially connected with certain places and for this piece one of those sounds was unique, exotic and amazing. He had sourced sounds from an extraordinary instrument, the Sea Organ in Zadar, Croatia. (Google Sea Organ, Zadar – you will both see and hear it).

Pete said that the organ has certain aspects in common with electroacoustic music namely that you cannot see a performer – actually not quite true, some consoles can be moved in front of an audience – Hilton High for instance. However what he meant was that we should listen without looking and he said that it would be difficult for us to know whether the sounds we were hearing were live sounds from the organ as played by Roger, those pre-recorded by Pete, or from the Sea Organ or other “blown” sounds.

Pete’s piece was highly coloured containing so many contrasting passages with sounds coming at us from all round the auditorium. There were sections that sounded like conventional organ passages – but were they? That was part of the fascination.

Our final destination on the Organ Journey was Overland for bagpipes and organ, by Bill Thompson It was the longest and possibly the most complex work. It offered not just sound but visuals as well, created by Josh Ronsen and projected on the back window section of the Chapel. The sounds here really were impossible to pin down. Roger was seated apparently motionless at the organ. Claire Singer was providing notes on her cello. Was there a kind of jazz-style to and fro between her and Bill Thompson and where were the promised bagpipes? Well, we discovered that the four pipers had been given different tunes to play and they were to progress towards the Chapel from different parts of the area outside until finally they arrived in the antechapel and their sounds which had been almost subliminal to begin with grew in intensity until they became the principal flavour of the music. The music itself which if you did not concentrate could have seemed like a continuous hum actually contained an astonishing blending of sounds whose different colours and strengths produced constantly changing sonic beats driving me back to coming out with that critics cliché “ a veritable kaleidoscope in sound”.

After the concert there was a discussion with the composers and the audience which seemed to hone in especially on Bill Thompson’s piece probably because it just had so much going on.

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