The Wire

The world's greatest print and online music magazine. Independent since 1982

In Writing

Philip Clark on Organs

March 2016

To accompany his essay about radical music for church organs in The Wire 385, Philip Clark presents a user's guide to the most avant garde of organ players

Thomas Morris’ Hot Babies, with Fats Waller (organ)
“Won’t You Take Me Home”

Introducing this compendium of tracks tied to my feature in The Wire 385 about the church organ as a source of new sounds, here’s Fats Waller transforming the king of instruments into a faux-big band, his noticeably fleet-fingered touch and dazzling variety of textures adding up to an ensemble within the ensemble of New York trumpeter Thomas Morris’s classic jazz outfit.

Olivier Messiaen
Undated performance

Olivier Messiaen’s orchestral and instrumental music bathed in carefully delineated textures and harmonies so tactile they could be touched – which, of course, they could be when Messiaen improvised at the organ of Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris, where Messiaen was in regular attendance from 1931 until his death in 1992. His shape-shifting harmonies – familiar patterns smudged or shepherded in other directions – are intimately connected with Messiaen’s demonstrative relationship with the stops, manuals and pedals of the instrument, themselves part of the grand architectural scheme of the building.

György Ligeti
Written 1962

Ligeti’s Volumina represented the organ’s Rite Of Spring moment, when a composer imposed a radical new agenda that swept away all preconceptions and previous ways of doing. This music is notated graphically, peaks and dips sculpting a procession of sustained tone-clusters, glissandi and harmonic partials that fundamentally separate the sound of the organ from its cultural associations.

Mauricio Kagel
“Fantasia for organ with obbligati”
Written 1967

For Mauricio Kagel, a main attraction of the pipe organ, especially when situated in a church, was its theatrical possibilities: the organist cocooned in this apparently space-age technology, far away from the audience. His classic Improvisation Ajoutée (1961) choreographs moves for assistants who manipulate the stops as the organist plays; Fantasia For Organ With Obbligati is more of an absurdist comedy with the organist performing to pre-recorded sounds (including a toilet being flushed), the piece apparently a comment on the life people lead before heading to church.

Christian Wolff with David Tudor (organ)
Written/recorded 1971

Pianist and latter-day composer David Tudor often spoke about how his formative experiences as an organist opened his mind to the potential of synthesised sound, and he remained devoted to the instrument, liking nothing better than discreetly sloping off when The Merce Cunningham Dance Company were touring Europe to take the measure of a German cathedral organ. Recorded examples of Tudor’s organ playing are sadly rare; but here he is with something of a New York School supergroup (Wolff, Gordon Mumma, Frederic Rzewski, David Behrman) doubling on organ and bandoneon playing a Christian Wolff classic.

Klaus Lang
“Marias Mantel”
Written 2005

Klaus Lang takes the organ’s capacity to sustain sound to exquisite heights in this deftly controlled composition where a spectrum of drones find their form.

John Zorn
“The Fall of Satan”
from The Hermetic Organ, Volume 3
Performed 2015

In contrast John Zorn, recorded at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, digs deep in the Gothic majesty of the organ, while clearly conversant with the organ music of Ligeti, Xenakis and Kagel. The album navigates itself from the fundamentals of tonal harmony through to the clusterbomb white-noise harmony.

Iannis Xenakis
Written 1974

Gmeeoorh is Xenakis’s greatest organ work, opening chromatic waves branching out into melodic shapes that can’t get comfortable; then the music sinks like water rotating in a plughole as it disappears into the pipes. When sounds re-emerge, still points in time gradually regain momentum before all hell breaks loose.

Áine O’Dwyer
”The Little Lord Of Misrule”
from Music for Church Cleaners Vol 1&2
Performed 2015

On the Irish harpist, composer and occasional organist Áine O’Dwyer’s 2015 collection Music For Church Cleaners Vols I & II you can hear her improvising on organ against the backdrop of cleaners hoovering and scraping chairs against the floor of St Mark’s Church in Islighton, and demanding that O’Dwyer avoid sustaining high-pitched piercing notes for longer than absolutely necessary.

Wolfgang Mitterer
“Free Radio”
Performed 2011

Wolfgang Mitterer’s fusion of organ with electronics, recorded at Wien Modern in 2011, is a logical endpoint. Ligeti had already imported studio techniques into his works for organ, regarding the instrument as portal in itself: unlike in the studio, synthesized sound could be triggered by fingers and moved around space bodily.

Subscribers to The Wire can read Philip Clark's feature on organ playing contemporary artists via the online archive.


What, no Larry Young, the most avant garde organist ever? Listen to this, it wipes the floor with all that stuff. Total noise assault:

I love Larry Young I really do, but my article is about the church pipe organ not the Hammond B.

Hermann Nitsch and Charlemagne Palestine are also interesting examples of church organ magicians

Also Rob Curgenven's Sirène

keith jarret? hugh banton?
get with the programme...

[nice article]

Thanks for sharing and I like that

Leave a comment

Pseudonyms welcome.

Used to link to you.