Tone 20 – Spire: Organ Music Past, Present & Future

DCD – 17 tracks

1st fruits of collaboration between Fennesz and Sparklehorse – recorded in Geneva by Christian Fennesz and Scott Minor * Touch regulars Biosphere, Philip Jeck, Benny Nilsen [Hazard], Chris Watson… * Newcomers include US free music composer and designer Tom Recchion, UK’s Scott Taylor, Icelandic artists Finnbogi Petursson and Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson, and one of Sweden’s premier performance artists Leif Elggren [The Sons of God, Firework Edition Records etc.], and one of the Kings of Elgaland-Vargaland * UK finest organist Charles Matthews and classical composer Marcus Davidson * Highly regarded Japanese field recordist Toshiya Tsunoda

The story:

The thought of producing a compilation where the tracks were all either inspired by or more directly influenced by the organ had been frequently aired over the years. The conversations were always animated and expansive. The organ works of Arvo Pärt, those performed by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, a pupil of Richard Rodney Bennett at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and others, have reached a wider non-classical audience. Eventually Benny Nilsen arranged to visit St. Mary’s Church, Warwick and work with one of England’s finest, Charles Matthews. Crawling around inside the instrument, positioning microphones most appropriately in the Church, or ‘capturing’ the psalms composed by Marcus Davidson, Nilsen explored the possibilities with all the familiar lust of the avant-garde. As the brief widened, so did the responses… some contributors referred to earlier versions of the organ and its often highly political usage, others explored aged instruments themselves. Some studied the effects of the sounds produced on the physique and the psyche, others conceptualised the brief and either built their own or recorded natural or man-made phenomena which utilised the same basic process, wind through pipes. The organ represents the marriage between acoustic complexity and ritualised space. It is impossible not to be drawn upward, towards the spire of the church or cathedral, or to the huge and daunting forest of pipes themselves. The organ dwarfs all comers, and unlike other instruments, it is this non-musical element which makes the organ stand apart.

Track list:

12 tracks – 52:10.21
1. Leif Elggren – Royal Organ
2. Z’EV – if only that love lets letting happen (organ music for organs)
3. Philip Jeck – Stops
4. Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson – Details of a New Discovery
5. Zephyr
6. Marcus Davidson – Organ Psalm V
7. Scott Minor/Fennesz – dwan
8. Finnbogi Pétursson – Diabolus
9. Biosphere – Visible Invisible
10. Toshiya Tsunoda – Layered
11. Tom Recchion – Shut-Eye Train
13. Lary Seven & Jeff Petersen – Disorganised

5 tracks – 53:55.54
1. BJNilsen – Breathe
2. Scott Taylor – Droner
3. Jacob Kirkegaard- Epiludio Patetico: a tribute to Rued Langgaard
4. Ambarchi/Recchion – Triste Remake
5. Chris Watson – Askam Wind Cluster


The thought of producing a compilation where the tracks were all either inspired by or more directly influenced by the organ had been frequently aired over the years. The conversations were always animated and expansive. The organ works of Arvo Pärt, those performed by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, a pupil of Richard Rodney Bennett at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and others, have reached a wider non-classical audience. Eventually Benny Nilsen arranged to visit St. Mary’s Church, Warwick and work with one of England’s finest, Charles Matthews. Crawling around inside the instrument, positioning microphones most appropriately in the Church, or ‘capturing’ the psalms composed by Marcus Davidson, Nilsen explored the possibilities with all the familiar lust of the avant-garde. As the brief widened, so did the responses… some contributors referred to earlier versions of the organ and its often highly political usage, others explored aged instruments themselves. Some studied the effects of the sounds produced on the physique and the psyche, others conceptualized the brief and either built their own or recorded natural or man-made phenomena which utilized the same basic process, wind through pipes. The organ represents the marriage between acoustic complexity and ritualized space. It is impossible not to be drawn upward, towards the spire of the church or cathedral, or to the huge and daunting forest of pipes themselves. The organ dwarfs all comers, and unlike other instruments, it is this non-musical element which makes the organ stand apart.

The Sound Projector (UK):

Only a two-CD set? This compilation feels even grander in scope that that somehow, attributable perhaps not just to the quantity and variety of music, but also to the depth and scope of the ideas it strives to convey. It’s all organ music, mostly music played on the church organ where available, although other organs (Hammonds, for example, or even hand-made instruments similar to organs) are permissible; and so are ideas about organs, and soundworks that use air, because air is what makes a church organ work in the first place…but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The comp features names drawn from the current roster of artists signed to the Touch label, plus guest names, and long-standing associates such as Leif Elggren who also supplied assistance from the EMS Studio in Stockholm.

Touch label boss Mike Harding has a history of ‘themed’ samplers, going back to the Touch Travel cassettes of the mid-1980s and recent CDs released in the 1990s, oblique statements that survey the state of the world and report back through music, sound-art, and mini-essays. He continues to credit his audience with intelligence, and a hunger for ideas. Harding had been thinking about an organ compilation for some time, drawing up in his mind a wide-ranging brief that would encompass music played on that instrument, or music inspired by it, or even simply influenced by it. The finished comp displays a wide variety of interpretations, and/or solutions to the brief…playing an actual church organ, or recording it in imaginative ways, or even investigating the effects of its sounds on the human psyche.

In the condensed texts provided, Harding delivers up a potted history of said instrument, while not hesitating to get in a few digs at the established church, and indeed the organ’s ‘highly political uses’; the latter is illustrated by Leif Elggren’s track, but it seems that the whole compilation has an agenda that posits this far-from-humble instrument squarely within the bounds of ‘the establishment’. True, the organ is an expensive instrument, therefore usually built exclusively in ‘establishment’ places associated with lots of money, like churches, cathedrals, town halls, universities and such like; but then again, you could say the same about early electronic instruments. There’s one line of thought that says early moogs and instruments for computer music were ‘co-opted’ by universities and academic music establishments (they were, at first, the only places who could afford to buy them), effectively ensuring that most music production in this area was limited, expensive, and elitist. Does that mean the moog also has ‘highly political uses?’ Well, apparently not in this case. Without that elitist infrastructure creating a foundation for experimental electronic music, I’d venture to say that over half of the musicians on this comp wouldn’t be where they are today.

The diversity of the comp is more than reflected in the notes provided by each artiste to accompany their submission. Thankfully, these aren’t too detailed. Some of them are bolstered with scads of information – most of it useless statistical facts, and based on the Internet – which doesn’t tell you much at all about the music. Often, this is a way to add legitimacy to an undernourished idea, When I read these condensed packets of data, I sometimes feel we’re being invited to applaud the ‘cleverness’ of the artist, rather than the music. Z’EV’s approach was to download a .wav file from an organ music website, and combine it with some factual medical data about the effect of sound on human organs. This, he tells us, was based on simple Google searches. Well, clever old Z’EV.

These misgivings aside, the music is all great. I particularly like the two pieces played by Charles Matthews, a genuine church organist. Two ‘straight’ pieces of beautiful music were captured by B J Nilsen and appear on disc one; these are probably the most conventional pieces on Spire. To me they sound amazing. That’s my tastes for you. Nilsen does something more clever with these Matthews recordings on disc two, with ‘Breathe’. Ostensibly another recording of Matthews playing the instrument, but where is he? All we hear is air, and vague chattering sounds…it’s all to do with where Nilsen places his microphones. Nilsen’s experiments, some of which involved crawling into those parts of an organ where man should not visit, seem to have formed the core of the Spire project. A real standout piece, ‘Breathe’ is scary, effective, pleasant, musical, awesome…

Other impressive and interesting musical performances come from Tom Recchion and Lary Seven. Recchion plays a spectral piece which is close to the microtonal orchestral works of Ligeti, and reminds one of certain well-known cinematic moon-travel images. Lary Seven worked with Jeff Peterson to record the sound of an old organ in an old chapel in old America…preoccupied with ‘oldness’, they used bad equipment and then played back their recorded sounds in the same chapel, with organ sounding again…the entire tape-work construction has a delightful wobbly, pre-aged effect. Scott Taylor also does a process-based piece, but his is nowhere near as interesting.

The sound of the organ for its own sake is worth exploring. Fennesz and Scott Minor (of Sparklehorse) do just that, wallowing in a Wurlitzer’s warbles, feeding them through filters and distortion. Their contribution is massively enjoyable. Biosphere plays ‘Visible Invisible’, and reminds one of Klaus Schulze seated behind banks of keyboards in 1972. A bit too tasteful this one. Oren Ambarchi brings in the Hammond organ, but also (mostly) guitars, his chosen instrument. Good music, but personally I’d have disqualified him for departing too far from the theme!

If subversive ideas are of interest, listen to F Petursson, who makes various profound points about art, ideology and religion, questioning our conditioning about acceptance of conventional notions of ‘beauty’. It comes from a crafted art installation, a big tunnel sculpture which tapers up to end in an organ pipe. The sound of his ‘Diablous’ is a very effective and menacing deep bass drone. Leif Elggren continues to exhibit his obsession with royalty, and with politics; quite how his organ piece will bring the King of Sweden to his knees isn’t made clear, but it sounds marvellous and is a strong opener to the set.

But what is an organ but air passing through cylindrical tubes? Just ask S B Sigmarsson, whose piece is simply a tuneless humming sound created by currents of air through huge pipes. Or Toshiya Tsunoda, the Japanese field-recordist whose work to date prominently features the sound of wind passing over pipes or through pipes. So he’s an obvious choice…and he does his thing here, to highly pleasing effect. Then, to close down the set, there’s Chris Watson, environmental documenter extraordinaire, with his ‘Askam Wind Cluster’. Nothing but the sound of the wind itself, no pipes even. If Harding were to compile a drum-themed collection next, presumably Watson would be commissioned to record the sound of an animal being flayed to make a drum skin.
Also here: Philip Jeck (the great), with a surprisingly ordinary piece by his standards; and Jacob Kirkegaard, with enchanting miniature samples of organ works by an earlier composer namesake of his. Dreamy, time-travel episodes. In all Spire is a winner; it successfully rethinks the sound of the organ in many varied ways, all of which repay listening and relistening; and the package conveys many new concepts also, even if some appear a little pretentious. But we all need to aspire to something greater. [Ed Pinsent]

Stylus (USA):

Certainly Arvo Pärt is partially responsible for re-igniting broader appreciation of the organ’s relevance as a contemporary instrument. To cite one example, ‘Pari Intervallo,’ performed by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, offers some of the most affecting moments on 1987’s Arbos, and Bowers-Broadbent later recorded lovely versions of Górecki’s ‘O Domina Nostra’ and Bryars’ ‘The Black River.’ Years prior to these works, Steve Reich brought a memorable slant to the instrument with ‘Four Organs,’ while Philip Glass has also prominently emphasized organ playing in his pieces. Of these works, it’s Pärt’s ‘holy minimalism’ that most strongly reinforces the organ’s ties to the church, but, as Mike Harding points out in Spire’s liner notes, the organ didn’t have that religious association during its first thousand years of use. Its eventual embrace by religious authorities partly stemmed from their recognition of its sonic power and potential for audience manipulation. The organ is further distinguished by the fact that it’s one of the first ‘mechanical’ instruments, based as it is on the principle of wind blown through pipes.

Spire represents a bold attempt by Touch to re-think the instrument’s possibilities, and while the label doesn’t entirely reinvent conventional organ-related practices, it certainly acts as a midwife to some extreme sonic re-imaginings of them. Its two discs total 105 minutes and feature seventeen tracks “inspired or more directly influenced” by the organ, with the shortest forty-six seconds and the longest almost twenty-seven minutes. The collection features familiar roster artists like Biosphere, Philip Jeck, Benny Nilsen (Hazard), and Chris Watson along with new contributors like US composer Tom Recchion and Iceland’s Finnbogi Pétursson and Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson. Some artists hew closely to familiar organ sounds but compositionally challenge conventions instated through centuries of church-based playing. Others deviate dramatically from any religious associations, wilfully liberating the organ from its familiar contexts. The Debussy quote (“The tall peaceful trees would be like the pipes of a great organ…”) within the accompanying booklet hints at the expansive breadth of the seventeen pieces. Some purposefully move outdoors, leaving the religious connection behind in favour of natural simulations of the organ’s inner workings. On ‘Layered,’ for example, Japanese field recordist Toshiya Tsunoda began by placing earphones that reproduce shortwave radio noise inside outdoor pipes. He then recorded the sounds and layered them, attempting thereby to make a chord using the different pitch sounds—an imaginative approximation of pipe air producing organ sounds. Over the course of ten minutes, Tsunoda fashions a dense sonic cluster that grinds and thrums like a seething cloud of insects and animals. Like Tsunoda, Chris Watson forms his piece, Spire’s closer ‘Askam Wind Cluster,’ from wind currents, too.

In fact, a quick inventory reveals that very few tracks present the organ in typical manner. Only classical composer Marcus Davidson’s ‘Organ Psalm V’ indulges in a familiar style of organ playing with grand chords and quieter passages alternating. A religious connection is here, with the piece inspired by the tradition of psalm singing and the organ acting as the supplicant to the almighty, with the last three organ chords chanting ‘domine.’ In contrast, many of the artists on Spire pursue more meditative strategies in their often drone-like pieces rather than familiar compositional approaches. With ‘Royal Organ,’ Leif Elggren creates a massive and churning (albeit brief) overture, a fitting approach given its inspiration, Swedish King Carolus XII (1682-1718). Z’EV’s piece, ‘if only that love lets letting happen (organ music for organs),’ originated from a Google search for ‘organ + sound’ which yielded two URLs, one that included Bach’s ‘Wenn Nur Den Lieben Gott Laesst Walten’ and the other a site outlining sound’s potential as a therapeutic agent. The resultant piece layers droning tones to hypnotic effect. At less than two minutes, Philip Jeck’s ‘Stops’ is a brief fragment whose single chord builds to a massive crescendo that’s so loudly pitched it loses its identity as an organ and becomes a pummeling wail of feedback. Sparklehorse’s Scott Minor and Fennesz collaborate on ‘Dwan,’ a shimmering drone which is recognizably Fennesz-like in the pairing of its fuzzy distortion with the familiar organ sound. Its aggressive opening segues into a gentler concluding section that recalls similar moods Fennesz conjured on Endless Summer. But like Jeck’s piece, at two-and-a-half minutes, it verges on being a mere fragment that ends before it can develop more extensively.

Other tracks might be categorized as ambient exercises. Finnbogi Pétursson’s ‘Diabolus’ offers tritone calm, while Biosphere’s ‘Visible Invisible’ is impressionistic and becalmed, its organ tones overlapping like restful waves. In some cases, the organ itself is hardly recognizable. Tom Recchion’s ‘Shut-Eye Train’ camouflages the organ by conjuring ghostly electronic echoes and light sprinkles of ambience, and Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson’s ‘Details of a New Discovery’ features phantom noises blowing amidst subtle electronic whispers. Scott Taylor’s ‘Droner,’ on the other hand, sounds like some massive distorted drone of magnified rain showers that become explosive ruptures. At twenty-seven minutes, ‘Breathe’ by Benny Nilsen (aka Hazard) is the obvious epic of the bunch. To create the piece, Nilsen recorded organist Charles Matthews performing the psalms of Marcus Davidson at St. Mary’s Church in Warwick, England, and then processed the sounds using minimal means (volume, EQ, and multi-tracking). Its first minutes are spent simulating distant, thunderous rumblings, until an extended organ tone appears amidst quiet surges. The piece evolves into a meditative microsound exercise, as nearly sub-audible tones fluctuate about a louder drone that continues unabatedly. Only at the eighteen-minute mark does a recognizable organ chord begin a slow rise to the surface, and then grows into a larger crescendo before winding down. The piece serves as a representative example of the unconventional approaches Spire’s artists pursue as they offer convincing evidence of the organ’s contemporary relevance and its limitless possibilities. [Ron Schepper]

Aquarius (USA):

Compilations can be dodgy affairs, often half-baked ideas from compilers who can only garner throw away tracks from previous recordings. Mike Harding and Jon Wozencroft of Touch have consistenty been the exception in their collections. The Touch Sampler series have long been outstanding compilations, and this newcollection of work inspired by or directly influenced by church organs continues in this tradition. Harding lucidly explains in the liner notes that “the organ represents the marriage between acoustic complexity and ritualised space. It is impossible not to be drawn upward, towards the spire of the church or cathedral, or to the huge daunting forest of pipes themselves.” On this compilation, the artists typically emphasize the transcendent expansiveness of sustained organ chords, in many ways emulating the polyphonic minimalism of Arvo Part’s organ works. The track that best typifies the ideas behind Spire is that of BJ Nilsen, better known as Hazard. Having captured various recordings of Charles Matthews performing the psalms of Marcus Davidson on the organ at St. Mary’s Church in Warwick, England, Nilsen processed these sounds with only multi-tracking, EQ, and volume at his disposal; thus, his track holds onto the rich tonalities of those church organs as he builds up to a majestic crescendo of overwhelming sound. Spire also features the first fruits of the collaboration between Sparklehorse and Fennesz (!), with Sparklehorse’s drummer Scott Minor offering a smattering of mellotron and Wurlitzer samples for Fennesz to run through digital aesolization of bleary eyed distortion and fanciful detailing. Other contributors to Spire include Z’ev, Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson, Philip Jeck, Leif Elggren, Zephyr, Marcus Davidson, Finnbogi Petursson, Biosphere, Toshiya Tsunoda, Tom Recchion, Lary Seven /Jeff Peterson, Scott Taylor, Jacob Kirkegaard, Oren Ambarchi, and the ever amazing Chris Watson! Very highly recommended.

Intuitive Music (Spain):

A musical observation that invites experimentation of the stirring power of the organ sound. In this beautiful proposal 17 artists have paid tribute to the organ in an exercise of minimalism that lets us surrender to the misterious effect of it’s harmonic capabilty altering our state of consciousness. Featuring 2 CDs presented in a nice sleeve package with tracks from artists such as Chris Watson, Biosphere, Scott Taylor, Fennez, Philip Jeck, Marcus Davidson, Toshiya Tsunoda, Oren Ambarchiand Tom Recchion, Leif Elggren, Jacob Kirkegaard, BJ Nilsen, Finnbogi Petursson, Tom Recchion, Lary 7 and Jeff Peterson, S. Berg Sigmarsson, ZÉV, and Zephyr. An aural experience that everyone should live at least once in life. [Koldo Barroso]

VITAL (Netherlands):

The sound of an organ appeals to many, and I mean not just those who are religiously inspired. It is also a fascinating instrument for drone music. It’s a mighty fascinating instument to hear but also to see. This double CD compilation features works of classical nature as well as ‘avant-garde’ (for sake of a better term) for church organs in general and other sorts of organs (like a wurlitzer in the Fennesz track). Old acquitances are here, like Fennesz, Benny Nilsen, Oren Ambarchi, Chris Watson, Leif Elggren and Toshiya Tsunoda. However the more classical approaches come from a composition by Marcus Davidson and Zephyr. Mostly the music calls for contemplation and is somber in tone. Drone like characteristics throughout. The first disc, with twelve tracks in fifty some minutes is maybe too short to call for some (semi-) religious meditation, but nevertheless this has turned out be a highly varied disc with highly varied approaches. There are some louder beasts in here, which are not contemplative per se, like the pieces by Elggren and Philip Jeck. The second disc has only five tracks in about the same length and here the meditative character of the instrument works well. Nilsen’s piece is one of haunting beauty – soft but well spoken. It takes up half the disc space, but it’s timeless. Highlights of disc one are the quite classical piece by Z’ev, Marcus Davidson’s ‘Organ Psalm V’, Scott Minor & Fennesz take on the rough edges of organ music, Biosphere’s pastoral sounds and Toshiya Tsunoda’s more conceptual approach to using the pipe of an organ. In all, this is highly suprising and fascinating pack of works and maybe the first highlight of the new year. [FdW]

Neptune Records (USA):

The organ represents the marriage between acoustic complexity and ritualized space. It is impossible not to be drawn upward, towards the spire of the church or cathedral, or the huge daunting forest of pipes themselves. The organ dwarfs all comers, and unlike other instruments, it is this non-musical element which makes the organ stand apart. Some contributors referred to earlier versions of the organ and its often highly political usage, others explored aged instruments themselves. Some studied the effects of the sounds produced on the physique and the psyche, others conceptualized the brief and either built their own or recorded natural or man-made phenomena which utilized the same basic process, wind through pipes. 2 CDs worth of contributions from: Oren Ambarchi with Tom Recchion, Biosphere, Philip Jeck, Jacob Kirkegaard, Scott Minor with Fennesz, Chris Watson, Toshiya Tsunoda, Z’EV, Leif Elggren, BJ Nilsen, and more. Stunning artwork, oversized packaging, and detailed booklet, absolutely beautiful.

Pitchfork Media (USA):

In the liner notes of Spire: Organ Works Past, Present & Future, Touch’s Mike Harding claims “It is impossible to overestimate the influence of the organ on the history of music and sound.” Indeed, dating from before Christianity, the organ has undergone changes in both physical construction and musical importance. Today, many people probably think of churches as the best place to see and hear organs, but the instrument was at first rejected by Christian authorities for being too associated with secular music. In the Middle Ages, organs were first built into churches, though even then only to appease growing secular political powers. The instruments were soon built as part of the churches themselves, and anyone who has seen a particularly impressive organ towering over church patrons in an old cathedral can attest to their intimidating presence.

However, to connect this ancient instrument to modern music and sound design (as Touch appears to do with this compilation), you have to look at arguably the most important aspect of the organ: chiefly, it represents the first time man attempted to create music using mechanical means, and in the process allowed him to create music theretofore unimagined. The first Greek organs were powered by air pumped from pockets of pressure inside a bucket submerged in water. Thus, it became possible to perform music without ever having to take a breath. Furthermore, organs were soon able to emit tones beyond the range or volume of any traditional instrument. In short, almost every musical tool, piece of electronic equipment or software can be traced back to this thing. Viva la pertinence.

Spire is a collection of pieces “inspired or more directly influenced” by the organ, featuring a few Touch mainstays like Christian Fennesz, Philip Jeck and Biosphere, as well as actual organ composers like Marcus Davidson. In reality, very few of the tracks are actual organ performances. Most treat the instrument as merely a source, makingSpire something of a radical organ remix record. Step back a few and it also works as pure ambience– the naturally rich, rounded tone of the organs played or sampled overwhelms any attempts to subvert it. However, the two-disc collection also acts as a rare look back among contemporary electronica composers and producers at their “roots.” Perhaps the day when we think of our generation’s electronic music as being part of the same canon as the organ’s isn’t far ahead.

Fennesz works with Sparklehorse’s Scott Minor on “Dwan”, a track they began working on while in residence at a Geneva festival. Performed on a distorted Wurlitzer organ, the track moves from static-ridden clusters to phased, melancholy progressions. At 21⁄2 minutes, it ends far too quickly to really establish much mood, rather seeming like a quick summary instead of a finished piece. Similarly, Jeck’s “Stops” is prefaced by a quote from famed French composer Olivier Messiaen, who contributed some of the most amazing music for organ of the 20th Century. In English, it reads, “Music does not express anything directly,” and is a perfect preamble to the dense wall of distortion Jeck applies to his major chord. Messiaen’s quote betrays his beliefs in musical impressionism by way of Debussy (who also gets a quote in the booklet), and suits the often mysterious qualities of Spire.

Biosphere’s “Visible Invisible” is an original performance, and features the solemn tones of church organ as you might hear during a funeral Mass. He uses the instrument as a calming force, constructing the entirely uncluttered piece from overlapping consonances. It’s the aural equivalent of faint blue and purple watercolors running together into a formless cushion. “Askam Wind Cluster”, by erstwhile Cabaret Voltaire and Hafler Trio member Chris Watson, goes for the arch concept by forming his piece not from an actual organ, but from wind’s convection currents, presumably acting in a similar way to air within the pipes of an organ. The rhythmic “beat” of currents demonstrates essentially pure ambience, and also a deceptively simple process of how organ music is produced.

Z’EV contributes “If Only That Love Lets Letting Happen (Organ Music for Organs)”, composed from fragments of Bach’s “Wenn Nur Den Lieben Gott Laesst Walten”, and like Biosphere, creates sweet, mystic calm out of overlapping tones. This is a far cry from Icelandic composer Finnbogi Petursson’s “Diabolus”, wherein two subsonic organ tones create a “tritone” interval, at one time referred to by Church musicians as the “devil in music” due to its extreme dissonance. Well, that’s the idea anyway; Petursson’s piece mostly seems like low-level hum unless you really get up close to your speakers (at which time you may experience some light nausea!).

If you have zero interest in a bunch of guys playing with organs, Spire works about as well as any compilation featuring the same cast of characters would. Over time, Touch has left its brand on a whole school of sound design that takes into account classical and natural phenomena, so this set should at least be pretty cool for people already into their roster. Of course, you don’t need any special appreciation of organ music to enjoy this, but it’s sometimes reassuring to know the new kids still remember their basics. [Dominique Leone, January 12th, 2004]

Urban Mag (Belgium):

In de Vlaamse handelsstad Ieper niet ver van de markt vind je de prachtige en statige Sint-Maartenskathedraal, die de stad van ver in de omtrek overheerst. De kathedraal werd tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog nagenoeg volledig met de grond gelijkgemaakt, maar desondanks vind je er nog steeds één van de wonderen van de Vlaamse ambachtskunst. Binnenin vind je immers één van de machtigste kerkorgels ter wereld. Het goddelijke muziekinstrument beschikt niet alleen over een indrukwekkend arsenaal van zo’n 3000 windpijpen maar de mogelijkheden van het instrument zijn tevens schier onbegrensd. Atheïst als we zijn, kunnen we, als we even in de buurt zijn, het toch niet laten om even binnen te wippen en om ons te laten bedwelmen door de volle en organische sound van één van de rijkste instrumenten ter wereld. We hebben de laatste jaren ook meermaals nagedacht over de vele onbenutte, muzikale mogelijkheden van zo’n kerkorgel. Een gedachte, die gedeeld werd door labelbaas Mike Harding van Touch. Een project, dat zich toespitst op die verborgen en miskende kanten van het orgel, kan dan ook steeds op onze volle aandacht rekenen. De dubbel-cd ‘Spire – Organ Works Past Present & Future’ bevat een aantal orgelwerken van klassieke snit (Marcus Davidson en Zephyr) en een groot aantal experimentele orgelcomposities (Biosphere, Fennesz/Scott Minor, Philip Jeck, Chris Watson en vele anderen). Daarbij springt vooral de begintrack ‘Breathe’ van de tweede cd van de dubbelaar in het oor. Voor de opname van dat nummer kroop Benny Nilsen aka Hazard met zijn contactmicrofoons letterlijk tot diep in het orgel van de St. Mary’s Church in Warwick, terwijl organist Marcus Davidson er psalmen op ten gehore bracht. Het resultaat is een speelse en luchtige deconstructie van de dreunende, brommende en hijgende keizer der instrumenten. [Peter Wullen]

Brainwashed (USA):

I can think of no instrument capable of drones as complex, distinct, or primitive as those generated by the pipe organ. The experience of sitting below a great organ’s clustered form, letting its breath wash the length of a cathedral, can be compared to viewing one of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, watching as each square-centimeter teems with an infinity of golden life, an inner millennium finding perfect equivalent in the sustained blast of an organ note. As if its textural prowess and sacred acoustics were not enough, the organ represents also a milestone in the mechanization of musical instruments, making it a prime target for this kind of tribute, a virtual who’s-who of Touch’s roster, some of the most recognizable names in electro-acoustic music, all willing to shed their respective skins and make some music created with, or inspired by, organ sounds. Thankfully, most everyone included manages to come at the pipes in a thoughtful and largely unique way, making Spire an endlessly interesting, if not always enjoyable compilation. The range of different approaches, which in many cases depart significantly from their composers’ tested styles, proves both a blessing and a curse, where the sequencing of the two discs inevitably interferes with the enjoyment of the individual tracks. Many interesting pieces seem to end prematurely or appear dwarfed by the enormity or lavishness of their surroundings. The contributions of Philip Jeck and Leif Elggren, shorter tracks focusing on solitary, largely unadulterated organ blasts, fail to stand out among the longer, similarly fundamental or minimalist approaches of Biosphere and BJNilsen. Likewise, some of the more concept-oriented inclusions end up sounding much better on paper than on disc, one example being Finnbogi Pétursson’s “Diabolus” in which the artist’s homemade single-pipe organ creates a low-frequency tone interval that in Medieval times was referred to the “devil in music” but is barely audible here. In contrast, other loosely-conceptual works make for some of the best material, like Z’EV’s woozy “If only that love let’s letting happen,” based entirely on samples of Bach’s organ music found via a Google search, and Toshiya Tsunoda’s ambient “Layered,” produced by a homemade shortwave radio organ set outside on a midsummer night. Generally, tracks on the second disc make for the most enjoyable pieces because they are long enough to become thickly atmospheric, to fill the room with the same arresting, monumental calm that great cathedral organs produce. BJNilsen (aka Hazard) actually composed “Breathe” for performance at St. Mary’s Church in Warwick England. The half-hour piece, a simple, unfolding drone spanning huge intervals on organs constructed as early as 1898, is one of Spire’s most spare works and one of its most impressive. Other highlights from the disc include an Oren Ambarchi and Tom Recchion piece originally released on a limited IDEA 7″; it makes sense here because Recchion plays Hammond on the track, though it is admittedly more in line with Ambarchi’s solo work that anything particularly “organ-inspired.” Spire ends with new music from field recording guru Chris Watson whose wind recordings become an allegory identifying the organ with the elemental or divine act of harnessing the air, as well as associating the instrument with a image of majesty that seems wholly justified at the close of such a compilation. [Andrew Culler]

Bad Alchemy (Germany):

Dann doch lieber gleich das ‘Himmelfahrtskommando’ von Spire – Organ Works Past Present And Future (Touch Tone 20, 2xCD). Die Orgel als das Instrument, das nach den einleitenden Worten von Mike Harding die Hochzeit zwischen akustischer Komplexität und ritualisiertem Raum repräsentiert, gewinnt unter der Obhut von Leuten, bei denen man Affinitäten zur ‘Kaiserin unter den Instrumenten’ kaum vermutet hätte, eigene Reize und seltsame Dimensionen. Die bei Messiaen und Pärt noch mit religiösen Ober- und Untertönen aufrauschende, bei Palestine schon in eine Ästhetik des Erhabenen rückcodierte, bei Osso Exotico und Guionnet dann nur noch aus Soundpassion angeblasene ultimative Panflöte dient hier als Junggesellenwindmaschine für Leif Elggren, Z’EV, Philip Jeck, Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson, Marcus Davidson, Scott Minor / Fennesz, Finnbogi Pétursson, Biosphere, Toshiya Tsunoda, Tom Recchion allein und im Duo mit Oren Ambarchi, Lary Seven & Jeff Peterson, BJNilsen, Scott Taylor, Jacob Kirkegaard und Chris Watson. Elggrens ‘Royal Organ’ nimmt mit einem knurrig überrauschten Trauermarsch Bezug auf den 1718 erschossenen Karl XII, den mythenumrankten König, dessen Kriegspolitik ein verarmtes und ausgelaugtes Schweden zurück ließ. Z’EV komprimiert ein Bach-Sample zu dröhnenden Chakra-Stufen. Mit einem noch monotoner prasselnden polychromen Cluster verbeugt sich Jeck vor Messiaen. Sigmarsson verfremdet bei seiner Entdeckung die ‘Vox Dei’ mit sublimen Haltetönen und den extremen Registern entlockten Vibrationen in ein atmosphärisches Rauschen, während Davidsons prächtiger ‘Organ Psalm V’ sich ganz der Tradition fügt. Die Kollaboration von Fennesz und Sparklehorse zeitigte einen rauhen, trautonium-gefilterten und distortionbox-verzerrten Wurlitzerdrone. Pétursson, Islands Vertreter auf der Biennale 2002 in Venedig, installierte einen 16 Meter langen Schlauch, in dem durch überlappende Sinustöne als Interferenzwelle von 17 Hz der ‘Diabolus in musica’ erklang, eine Anspielung auf das grundsätzlich Blasphemische im Abgesang der ‘Noise Culture’ auf die Harmonia Mundi. Geir Jenssen lässt mit simplen, pulsierenden Zweiklängen den Schleier der Maja erzittern. Tsunoda schichtet die Klänge einer durchzirpten Mittsommernacht mit Kurzwellensalat, den er durch Rohrstücke unterschiedlicher Länge geschickt hat, zu einem hitzigen Sieden, Knispeln und Hornissengesumm. Recchions ‘Shut-Eye Train’ evoziert eher Gitarren- als Orgelassiziationen. CD 1 schließt mit einem dröhnminimalistischen Soundexperiment von 1976, dem von Peterson & 7 in Realzeit organisierten Zusammenklang einer vollen Orgel mit dem Playback einzelner Pfeifen. CD 2 gehört zur Hälfte BJNilsens ‘Breathe’, ein sublimes Klangbeben, gespielt von Charles Matthew auf der Orgel der St. Mary’s Church in Warwick, England, und im Studio lediglich durch Multilayering bearbeitet. Das Resultät lässt vermuten, dass schon der Originalklang selbst sich einem unkonventionellen Umgang mit dem Instrument verdankt. Taylors ‘Drone’, ein scharf ‘singendes’, quasi elektronisches Glissando, ist eine Hommage an den Griechen Ktesibios, der im 2. Jhdt. BC die Organa hydraulica erfand, ein Instrument, das erstmals Dauertöne möglich machte. Kirkegaards Beitrag ‘Epiludio Patetico’ ist ein Tribute an den dänischen Komponisten Rued Langgaard (1893-1952), einem der Romantik und dem Symbolismus zugeneigten Außenseiter im Mainstream der Moderne, und besteht ausschließlich aus bearbeiteten Samples seiner Musik. Recchion revisited wartet tatsächlich mit den Gitarrendrones von Ambarchi auf, die zusammen mit Hammondorgel, Tapeloops und Sampling die Spieluhrmelancholie von ‘Remake’ ins Ohr träufeln. Beim Weatherman & Zoologen Watson schließlich ertönt ausschließlich der Blasebalg eines Atlantischen Tiefs, ein von Sonnenenergie aufgewirbelter pulsierender Sphärenklang. Wenn sich bei “Spire” so etwas wie ‘Frömmigkeit’ abzeichnet, dann im Kniefall vor dem Throne of Drones. In all diesen dröhnminimalistischen Haltetönen scheint das “Verweile doch…” des alten Faust mitzuschwingen, eine latente Sehnsucht, das Ticken der Zeit abzuschalten, dafür den Atem nicht abreißen zu lassen, ein Perpetuum Mobile in Gang zu bringen, das Kontinuität sicher stellt.

Blow Up (Italy):

The mysterious fascination awakened by the sound of the pipe organ coming from the reverberating walls of an ancient cathedral is no longer a novelty either to the rock world or its influences. There are famous examples in the relatively recent past: Popol Vuh, Charlemange Palestine, David Marantha and his Osso Exotico, Arvo Part, just to mention a few and without including the classical composers of the past and present. This double CD from Touch with a beautiful wallet and designs as usual elegantly created by Jon Wozencroft adds a fruitful series of contribution to an instrument which is so mighty and historically important for reasons not simply musical. The Touch family comes to mind from the album collection: Philip Jeck, Chris Watson, Biosphere, Benny Nilsen-Hazard, naturally Fennesz who here anticipates the collaboration he has announced with Scott Minor-Sparklehorse. But there are also figures outside the canon such as Tom Recchion and Toshiya Tsunoda, perhaps the most audacious and bravest experiments with the organ in question. Tsunoda has simply placed within individual pipes an earphone which is capable of reproducing the quiet sound of radio waves, amplified only by the use of a microphone. Stratifying one sound after another is obtained with a multi track recorder. We are not without compositions with a more classical emphasis such as those of the composer Marcus Davidson or Jacob Kirkrgaard and Leif Elggren, suggestions of which are perceptively influenced Oren Ambarchi and Tom Recchion, by Scott Taylor and the same Chris Watson. It is however the magic of key, pedals, registers, stops, reverberation, and drones which for centuries has captured the attention of the ear to a sound which seems to bring together the complexity of an acoustic experience with in a ritualised space. It could be inevitable that some additional effects could come out of the spires of real and imaginary cathedrals resonating in space.]