In 1998, I composed Variations on To God Be the Glory during a holiday on Lanzarote (one of the Canary Islands), in the days that I accompanied the African Choir of the Scots International Church Rotterdam. With unbeatable optimism, the Africans gave their own, unique interpretation of the hymn, composed by William Howard Doane in 1875. I intended my variations to have a kind of 18th century lightness that corresponds with the exciting, cheerful performances of the Africans, not in the least because of their original, wooden drums. After finishing the composition, I didn't pay attention to it anymore, as I thought it was too simple or even superficial. Due to nice memories, however, I took it with me to Gran Canaria last year and enjoyed a lot practicing the piece on my midi-keyboard. Optionally, the original melody may be sung before playing the variations, for instance by a boy soprano.
On 22 March, 2012 I gave a rather special performance of Messiaen's Livre du Saint Sacrement in the Domkerk in Utrecht. The concert was organized by Rumor Festival of Adventurous Music and the audience would mainly consist of avant-garde pop/rock/jazz/cross-over fans, who would otherwise hardly attend to organ recitals. Rumor asked me to make a selection of the (I quote) "heaviest" pieces with a total duration of about one hour. It was not difficult to understand the request; Livre du Saint Sacrement lasts over two hours and contains many (passages from) movements that might be either too romantic or atonal for non-classical audiences. Messiaen's music is many-sided and it is a fact that his use of the organ's tutti often has a tremendous impact on those who do not primarily listen to classical music. However, I was confronted with an artistic dilemma: one can simply not play tutti pieces for one hour, as any audience would find that too much and fatiguing. In the complete version of the work, Messiaen very efficiently uses the "heavy" movements to support the overall construction, like the walls, pillars and buttresses of a cathedral. I felt that I could not just leave out the non wanted movements and for some weeks I thought of a refined solution, one that would satisfy the need for heavy, powerful music while at the same time providing enough variety, but with other means than Messiaen uses in his score. Finally, it occurred to me that I should make use of my own music at carefully selected points. From past experience, I knew that some of my pieces appeal to the audience concerned, because of a certain light touch and attractive groove that cannot be found in the music of Messiaen (or composers like Berio, Xenakis and Ligeti, for that matter). In particular, I might use material from my organ pieces Birds, drums and signals and Listening to the fairies, which due to their improvisatory character might adapt themselves to the circumstances. If this would work, I could in addition play Messiaen's La joie de la grâce which was on my list to be omitted, because it contained only atonal bird songs and would be too abstract for the audience. My two pieces could on the one hand compensate for this atonality and on the other hand create a triptyque of light pieces within the overall framework of heavy movements! It was a sudden, unexpected discovery and I felt that from an artistic point of view this might solve the problem. Still, I hesitated a few days before taking a decision, as I felt restrained by the weight of convention, that this would be an act of injustice against Messiaen and even Western classical music in general. Finally, however, I decided to do it, as I was too eager to carry out the experiment and know the result.
My plan was as follows. To begin with, I would play the first, second and fourth movement of Livre du Saint Sacrement "as usual", i.e. as if the audience would be classical. Then I would insert an improvisation on my composition Birds, drums and signals. After that, Messiaen's seventh movement as usual, but immediately followed by an improvisation on Listening to the fairies, in stead of the habitual long pause. This improvisation would lead to the closing section of the ninth movement, leaving out not only the eighth but a also the larger part of the ninth.This would be the critical moment: I felt that I could not just insert my improvisation and pick up Messiaen' score again as if nothing had happened. There had to be a moment of magic there, the result of a subtle crossfade between the score and my improvisation. The recital would continue with a "regular" tenth and twelfth movement (the latter ending with the only "romantic" passage of the recital, so soft and sweet that the audience would surrender to that). The thirteenth movement also as usual, a terrific representation of the story of the walls of water in the Old Testament, with an archaic power that would be recognized. On the other hand, the fifteenth movement with the transparent bird songs mentioned above should be complete open; I might change Messiaen's notes or order of phrases or even invent something new on the spot, if the circumstances would require that kind of flexibility. The performance should end with Messiaen's formidable eighteenth movement, again as usual, with a force that can hardly be rivaled.
I did not inform Rumor about my plan and on purpose also not practised the switches between Messiaen and my own music on beforehand; I wanted the improvisations to be as spontaneous as possible. Before the concert, from above near the organ, I watched the audience coming in and got an idea of what kind of music they might prefer; indeed very different from the usual audience in churches. In situations like that, I like to think of magnetic fields of communication, with senders and receivers to transmit. To complete this picture: it was clear that my antenna should remain active during the concert, receive valuable information from the audience and let that affect the performance. Fortunately, a recording was made by Jos van der Linden, the devoted organ fan who also recorded my performance of Messiaen's complete organ works in Haarlem in 1994, issued on CD in 1998 and 2007 respectively. This recording (audio only) can be listened to on YouTube:
The following program with a timetable of the recording may help the reader to understand the above.
1. Messiaen movement one: Adoro te 0'00" - 3'55"
2. Messiaen movement two: La Source de Vie 4'01" - 6'54"
3. Messiaen movement three: Le Dieu caché 7'00'' - 9'26"
4. Tanke improvisation on Birds, drums and signals 9'35" - 11'04"
5. Messiaen movement seven: Les ressuscités et la lumière de vie 11'17" - 15'39"
6. Tanke improvisation on Listening to the fairies 15'48" - 18'13"
7.CROSSFADE MESSIAEN END OF NINTH MOVEMENT (LES TENÈBRES) AND TANKE (IMPROVISATION ON LISTENING TO THE FAIRIES): 18'14" - 20'14"
8. Messiaen movement ten: La Résurrection du Christ 20'22" - 26'03"
9. Messiaen movement twelve: La Transsubstantiation 26'21" - 33'40"
10. Messiaen movement thirteen: Les deux murailles d'eau 33'48" - 41'28"
11. Messiaen movement fifteen: La joie de la grâce 41'35" - 46'52"
12. Messiaen movement eighteen: Offrande et Alleluia final 47'00" - 55'10"
Relistening to the recording, two and a half years after the performance, I think the experiment succeeded for, let's say, eighty percent. The improvisation on Birds, drums and signals comes at the right moment and lightens the atmosphere whereas in the original score Messiaen begins a new chapter of seriousness that might just be too much in the context concerned. The critical crossfade at number 7 is well-done (therefore I wrote it in capitals). Messiaen's use of the reed with tremolo in the lowest register evokes the darkness after the crucifixion of Jesus, which the larger part of the audience may not have felt in a Christian context at all, but more in terms of a gothic horror. It meets the innocent, even joyful sounds of my fairies, which then calm down, to end with Messiaen's low cluster, as a voice from the earth, which I intensified to the maximum to deepen the effect. However, I am not quite satisfied about number 11: a next time I would probably interpolate Messiaen's bird songs with material from my former improvisations or even something completely new. As a result the switches/cross-fades between Messiaen's and my own music might be better balanced regarding the construction of the concert as a whole. To judge my criticism, the reader would have to listen to the recording from beginning till end and without interruption.
A few days after the concert, which was very well received, I had to smile while reading a review which referred to "Messiaen's pop beats". Evidently, the author had mistaken my music as a part of the score!
I always found it difficult to explain the diversity of my musical activities, varying from, for instance Max Reger to avant-garde jazz, although they were naturally connected, without any problem, in my daily practice. This kind of diversity does not at all suite the reality of musical life, which asks for a clear way to label artists. Perhaps this will change some day.
Anyway, I think I found a rather coherent way now of describing and explaining the variety, supported by the above video, as follows.
From when I was a student, I based my ideal of playing the organ on observations on Bach's organ playing made by contemporaries of his. These observations all point in the same direction: that Bach was able to achieve a maximum of expression with a minimum of movements of hands and feet. Achieving more by doing less became a guideline for my daily practice and I recorded Messiaen's complete organ works and Reger's monumental Variationen und Fuge über ein Originalthema op. 72 in this spirit.
Between 2003 and 2006, as a professor at Rotterdam Conservatoire, I carried out a research based on this approach and called it The Art of Doing Nothing. Soon, associations with Taoism and Buddhism made me consider the idea also on a spiritual level, as a way of submitting the ego and transmitting music from a supernatural source to audiences. Looking back and staying at the level of craftsmanship, I nowadays prefer to speak of The art of playing with relaxed precision.
Any ideal based on Bach is likely to require profound studies and in my case it concerns evidently a life project. Moreover, when I started to play the piano seriously, at the end of the '90s, I decided not to take lessons, but to become my own teacher and use my expertise as an organist. From the very start, it was clear that I should not play pieces from the repertoire, whether classical or jazz, but create my own exercises. Almost invariably, these exercises concentrate on a certain musical idea (an invention) which is generated by improvisation. An exercise may evolve into a composition, which in its turn may be a starting-point for new improvisations etc. Consequently, improvisation, interpretation and composition are parts of a cycle which is constantly repeated, as the heart beat of my daily practice.
Stylistically, my exercises soon left the field of Western classical music and moved towards avant-garde jazz and music from the East and Africa. However, as an improvising and composing pianist I remained faithful to my ideal of organ playing, to achieve a powerful expression with small movements only. In addition, the independence of left and right hand obtained through intense studies of organ works by Bach now greatly benefits my skill to play rhythmic melodic patterns with one hand, while improvising with the other.
Besides J.S. Bach, my musical language is largely influenced by Olivier Messiaen. Memorizing his organ works in the past more than thirty years now allows me to transform his rhythms, melodies and harmonies and use them in new contexts, such as avant-garde jazz.
The program of an organ recital I gave at the beautiful van Vulpen organ in Brouwershaven this summer consisted of works by Bach, Haydn, Brahms and myself. I just received the link to two of my pieces on YouTube. The stop assistant (not completely visible) is Marien Stouten, the organist of the church who also organizes the recitals.
With drummer Friso van Wijck and saxophonist Ruben Verbruggen I founded a trio called Turnstone, after the bird that puts his neck under stones at the beach in search for food. Like the bird, we turn some heavy stones of tradition. In Turnstone, I play the piano, using my expertise as an organist. On Augustus, 29 and October, 2 we made recordings at Brussels (Studio Zinnema), to be issued on CD in 2015. A short demo video is:
Brahms' Choralvorspiele op. 122 suit the sound of the organ in Tholen particularly well. I recorded three of them and intend to record the others in the autumn and winter. Brahms' music is beautiful and represents the best of German romanticism, but I have to dose it, it is all water and if I play too much of it at a time it takes away the fire.
Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele is so peaceful:
In O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen represents the crescendo and the modulation from F to D major at the end the soul ascending to heaven:
I used Es ist ein' Ros' entsprungen in my harmony lessons for second year piano students at Rotterdam Conservatoire. In stead of using the piano's pedal, they had to practise my finger substitutions in order to get a full-bodied legato.
A few blog posts ago, I wrote that due to Hauptwerk I do not miss real organs so much, but yesterday I gave a concert in the Sint-Nicolaaskerk in Brouwershaven and I have to say it was a great joy to play the first class van Vulpen-organ in a beautiful church with very good acoustics. Moreover, the overall ambiance and organization was perfect.
It was interesting to observe the organ builder's change of esthetics between 1968, when he delivered the Hoofdwerk and 1980, when the Rugwerk was added. The pipes of the Rugwerk have a full-bodied, round sound, while the Hoofdwerk generally sounds thinner, more according to the ideals of the neo baroque. When I studied organ in the late '70s and early '80s this change was frequently discussed among teachers and students. At the time, the Utrecht Conservatorium had three van Vulpen-organs and the light, sophisticated action of these instruments considerably influenced my views on the importance of an at the same time relaxed and precise way of playing. Yesterday, I was delighted to have a similar light and sensitive action at my disposal. The ancient pipes which remained (the Prestant 8' of the Rugwerk and part of the Prestant 16' of the Hoofdwerk) are of excellent quality.
The recitals in Brouwershaven are organized by Marien Stouten, the organist of the church. Creative, energetic and highly qualified, this young man deserves all the support to carry his initiative forward and stimulate cultural life in the town and region he lives in. He gave me excellent advice regarding the choice of stops and assisted me during the concert. The audience could watch the activities at the console through a video recording projected on the wall next to the organ. The effect of this must have been quite natural compared with projecting on a screen (I did not see it myself), as the colours were softened by the wall's off white surface. Marien Stouten aims at vitalizing organ concerts by programming contemporary music and also by objecting against a deplorable practice among well-known organists of prestigious instruments: to exchange the opportunities to give a concert between themselves in a closed circuit, a kind of old boys network.
Not quite pleased with my performance of Bach's Jesu meine Freude yesterday evening, I made a recording of the piece this morning with the digitalized sound of the organ in Tholen (only 30 kilometers from Brouwershaven). This recording will be the subject of a next post.
In the late '70s, I studied electronic music as a side subject with Ton Bruynel at Utrechts Conservatorium. Among my fellow students were René Uijlenhoet (who is now a professor of electronic music at Rotterdam Conservatoire), Ad Wammes, Rob Nasveld and Carlos Michans. In those days, one still had to cut and paste literally, i.e. cutting a tape with a razor blade or a special device and put it where needed. I was not particularly good at it, but appreciated Ton Bruynel's lessons very much and learnt a lot from him regarding the overall importance of quality of sound. He could spend a whole week on getting the best sound for a fragment which lasted only a few seconds. Ton liked the organ, as a synthesizer avant la lettre. At highschool, I had already heard some of his music through Ton Hartsuiker's outstanding radio program Musica Nova (at the time my brother, a friend of his and I also used to listen to Stockhausen's Kontakte, Telemusik, Mikrophonie I and II, Aus den sieben Tagen and a lot of other contemporary music). During my studies, I played Relief and Arc, his early works for organ and soundtracks, and remember Ton being very enthusiastic about organ works by Messiaen and Reger. Around 1990, I visited him in Pedraza de la Sierra, where he got the idea to write Dust, inspired by a small 18th century organ. After he finished the piece in 1992, we recorded the organ part in the Hervormde Kerk in Vught. He mixed this with the soundtracks in his studio (by then he had moved to Wapse in Holland, where I advised him about the organ part in the score) and issued this on his CD Looking Ears I. This "authentic" version sounds as follows:
Another "authentic" version is a live recording (made by Jos van der Linden) with the composer authorizing the balance between the organ and the soundtracks, made in the Grote Kerk in Haarlem on 29 June 1993.
Finally, a recording (also made by Jos van der Linden) of a performance at a Ton Bruynel festival in the Nicolaaskerk in Utrecht on 15 May 2008. This time, Rene Uijlenhoet supervised the balance between the organ and the soundtracks.
Comparing the three versions now, I prefer both the Vught and the Utrecht versions. The former because of its clarity and detailed expression, the latter because of its ambiance, in which the organ and the electronic part combine very well, while the space remains bright and clear (the Haarlem version sounds a bit hollow).
Yesterday Jan Welmers and I again discussed the possible value of this blog in documenting the many conversations we had, for instance regarding young generations of organists. He emphasized the importance of referring to nature, like in the previous post the fact that we often make long walks in nature and combine talking about music with, for instance, bird watching.
During my studies in the early '80s, the organ class including professors Theo Teunissen and Jan Welmers made a trip to the Alsace to visit some of the many beautiful organs there, but we also drove up the Grand Ballon to enjoy the mountain with its wonderful views. Some ten years later (in the meantime I was a professor of organ myself), the organ class went to visit organs in Toulouse, now also accompanied by professor Kees Van Houten. I remember that Jan Welmers strongly suggested that we should also visit the Pyrenees, but unfortunately this was not possible.
Yesterday evening an interesting program on princess Irene was broadcasted to celebrate her 75th birthday. In the past, she became known as "the princess who talks with trees" and was sometimes a little laughed at because of that, but it is quite impressive to see and hear this noble person speak about her relation to nature.
On 22 July 2014, I made new recordings of Bach's trio sonatas BWV 525-530. Contrary to previous recordings, I did not play them by heart, but from sheet music. Perhaps because of this and a relaxed mood of enjoying the holidays, I think I reached a next level of fluency and elegance. The weather was very hot; during breaks, I watched the Tour de France with its beautiful landscapes. See also A new approach to playing Bach
After my organ and improvisation studies with Jan Welmers at the Utrecht Conservatory, we remained closely related, first as colleagues and later, when he retired, as good friends visiting each other a few times a year. For over twenty years now, we have been making long walks in nature, watching birds and at the same time discussing a variety of personal and musical issues. Regarding the latter, it seems to be a good moment now, as we said to each other a few days ago, to reflect on the studies and conversations by means of this blog, which may be of interest to anyone involved in the art of playing the organ and music in general. As there is so much to say, it will be a series of blog posts, to be continued over the years. I do not yet have a structured approach to present it and shall for the time being just write about what comes to my mind.
During our meeting last week, we discussed the importance of piano playing for organ students. Jan regretted the fact that in the late '60s, due to the rise of the early music movement, the side subject piano was often replaced by harpsichord. As a result, organists became less concerned about their toucher, which of course negatively affected the sensitivity of their playing. It would have been more appropriate and in line with general habits of the 18th century, to restore the practice of clavichord playing. A lack of refined toucher will show itself immediately when playing the clavichord or the piano, while it can be hidden in a certain degree at the organ or the harpsichord (not on a high level, of course).
This does not mean that Jan Welmers did not sympathize with the early music movement; on the contrary, the fully participated with it. What makes him rather unique, is that as a composer in the '60s and afterwards, he was also involved in the avant-garde. Being in the heart of two different fields largely contributed to his interesting, open-minded views on both.
At the beginning of this year, I had very interesting conversations with Kees van Houten about Bach interpretation. I attended to a lecture of his and read his book on the Schübler Choräle, which I recommend to every organ student, professional organist and admirer of Bach's music in general. In April, during a rehearsal for the concert in Boxtel which was the subject of the previous post of this blog, he gave me some very good advice concerning the interpretation of Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten and Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. As a result, I played these pieces a little quicker than before, more goal-directed (i.e. without lingering) and with a more detailed expression according to the required Affekt. The difference may be noticed in the following two recordings of Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten. The first was made at home with the digitalized sound of the organ in Arlesheim, the second is a part of the live recording of the concert in Boxtel.
For a concert on the Smits-organ (1842) in the basilica Sint-Petrus, Boxtel, on 13 April 2014, I made a program in which I abandoned the usual chronological order of pieces in favor of an order based on alternating four "themes": Bach, Haydn, German romanticism and pieces of my own. The idea was to constantly move between the profoundness of pieces by Bach, Brahms and Reger and the lighter touch of pieces by Haydn and myself, in which the organ is approached "differently". The program was as follows:
A few days before the concert, I decided to add my composition Stillness at the beginning, as a contemplative introduction to the pieces mentioned in the above program. The four "themes' are:
(it may be argued that the order of the program requires "Tanke" as the first theme, but in the company of such composers I would not dare to do this).
So we have the four themes alternating as follows:
This order shows a well-known rhetoric principle: firstly to make a statement (4-1-2-3 in this case), secondly to repeat this and thirdly to vary this (4-3-2-1 and the additional 4). During my analysis lessons at Rotterdam Conservatoire, I often refer to this as the "read-steady-go-principle", which also provides the framework for numerous jokes.
I took care to have a varied pattern of tone centres:
d - G - C - E
b flat - g - C - F
g sharp - d - C - c
Another thing to consider was were to put the pieces with a dramatic plenum: at the beginning just after the introduction (Bach), at about 2/3 of the total duration (Reger) and at the end (Tanke). As I used a small plenum in the last piece by Haydn, this implies also that every "theme" had its plenum moment.
Of vital importance was placing Reger's dramatic passacaglia according to the golden cut ratio.
The program ran as follows: (all recordings were made during the concert, except Stillness):
In 18th century German music the word Empfindsamkeit, which perhaps not quite adequately translates as "sensitivity", is often used. The slow movements of Bach's trio sonatas offer excellent opportunities to find this quality. A contemporary of Bach (was it Forkel?) once said of these sonatas: "man kann von Ihrer Schönheit nicht genug sagen". I could never match that with the cold and rigid way these pieces are so often played.
I have been concentrating on the slow movements from the trio sonatas for some time.
P.S. 16 Augustus 2014: listening to this version again, my first thought was that is was just a bit too slow, but in the course of the piece I began to appreciate it. This must have been the tempo when I played it in Goes a few years ago, when Kees van Eersel said that it was beautifully performed, but a little slow. Still, I think I'll keep playing it a little faster in the future.
Contrary to many of my pieces, there is no room for improvisation in Vibrations. I made a score which I intend to present with some other pieces to a publishing company. It is very difficult and only a few organists would be able to play it. Vibrations should not be performed like Ligeti's Second Etude for organ or Continuum for harpsichord. Ligeti's music is about a mental state of obsession which does not interest me. Vibrations represents oscillations in nature; in that sense I am more of an impressionist. Of course, the ostinato in the left hand is a reminiscence of my playing with African musicians in the late '90s.
Up to now, I recorded three versions at home, but never played it in public. The first version is with the sound of the organ in Caen.
The second with the sound of "Tholen":
The third with "Arlesheim":
Other instruments or human voices may replace the pedal part and the piece can also be played manualiter, without other instruments.
Pima Indians, native Americans, believe that music is something that already exists in a supernatural world and has to be unraveled by the musically gifted. This appeals to me, more for instance than the romantic notion of expressing one's personal feelings through music. Accordingly, an artist may connect to an "external" idea of quietude or excitement, like in the following piece by Bach and my improvisation respectively. In a way, the Pima Indians' view is not so different from the 18th century concept of "Affekte".
Two very different types of energy: the calm, serene mood of a trio sonata's slow movement and the agitated atmosphere of a piece, which may be considered as a reflection on both my playing with African musicians in the late '90s and bird song by Messiaen.
In the previous post I said that Birds, drums and signals was the result of improvisations, like in fact all my pieces. To close the circle, I often consider the composition which I wrote as a starting-point for new improvisations. In that way, the line between composition and improvisation becomes very thin, one might say -as Bruno Nettl did in his insightful article Thoughts on Improvisation in 1974- that they are different points of a continuum. The following video (recorded in March 2012, unfortunately without a view on the pedals) shows what the result may be of this approach.
This is a composed piece, recorded in March 2012, as a result of an improvisation, originally played a year before at the Freytag-organ in Noordwolde. Nowadays, I play it slower than in this recording. The piece was also performed by Berry van Berkum in the Stevenskerk in Nijmegen and the Jacobikerk in Utrecht in 2013. Actually, I am creating a very different version of this piece with drummer Friso van Wijck and saxophonist Ruben Verbruggen.
The secret of organ playing (at least concerning the manuals) is in the finger tips: if well-trained they allow for a rich variety of expressions, like a soft, smooth touch in the slow movement of a trio sonata by Bach or the feeling of electricity in the attached video. The piece may seem to be improvised, but is actually composed; only the cadenza at the end should be improvised. Recorded at the Marcussen-organ of the Nicolaaskerk in Utrecht, March, 2012.
P.S. 20 August 2014: this is indeed an example of pure finger-play. Actually, in particular regarding Bach interpretation, I am integrating the use of the weight of the hands, to achieve a deeper expression.
This week I had the privilege of playing some of my music for Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, the legendary player of the bansuri (the North Indian bamboo flute), whom I respect and admire as one of the greatest living masters of any music tradition. I also attended to a lesson of his on Indian classical music for students of Codarts, Rotterdam. This was a fine example of oral tradition, with the master playing endlessly varied phrases and the students doing their best to imitate them. I had attended to such a lesson once before in Hariprasad Chaurasia's music centre Vrindaban Gurukul in Mumbai and again I was impressed by the fluency and efficiency of the movements of his fingers and joints. This time, it reminded me of comments made by contemporaries of J. S. Bach on his organ playing, which by all means must have been extremely rich in expression, with the use of very small movements of his fingers and feet only. The parallel between Hariprasad Chaurasia and J.S. Bach gave me a great joy and I felt that contemporary organists might learn from the subtle art of playing the bansuri. If only the organ pipes could sing and speak with the same sensitivity, elegance and natural breathing! These small movements of fingers and joints, also including the phalanges, show a good balance between relaxation and concentration and allow for refinement and variety of articulation and phrasing. After the meeting with Hariji, I intended to perform Bach's well-known choral prelude Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme in the same spirit, as shown in the following video. It should be remembered that the clavichord, the instrument which Bach used to play at home, is like the bansuri a very delicate and sensitive instrument. Fortunately, thanks to modern technology, the instrument with the digitalized sound of the organ in Tholen on which I play in the video matches this kind of refinement.
In the improvisation which I played for Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, I used many chromatic intervals, like tritones, major sevenths and minor ninths, in the line of contemporary Western music. Hariji commented on this by reminding me of the fact that in Indian classical music one has to stick to the pitch organization of the raga. Reflecting on this, I recorded the following improvisation at home, avoiding chromaticism and restricting myself to an ancient mode for Gregorian chant, the source for many beautiful melodies in the Middle Ages, which I got to know at a young age by playing the organ in churches. At the basis of this improvisation is the Indian rhythmic cycle Ardha Shikhar Taal (8.5 beats).
Lightweight MIDI-keyboards provide excellent opportunities for practising during holidays. Playing without sound is -besides a healthy exercise in solfege which I recommend to every student- better than playing with bad sound and can be almost as great a joy as playing with good sound. Amazing that on this 49-keys instrument the manual part of every organ work by Bach can be practised! Questions to the informed reader: which piece by Bach do I play and which Indian rhythmic cycle sounds through the iPad?
This piece was originally composed for organ solo, but has been used since in a variety of contexts, with piano, ud, electric guitar, flute, violin, voice etc. Now there is a quartet version with Dave Bowmer, Frank Fish and David Holmes.
This is a unique passage in the history of keyboard music. Written in 1939 (!), the texture remains completely original; as far as I know, nothing similar has ever been written by Strawinsky, Bartok, Schönberg or Varèse at the time or other composers since.
While recording the piece, I felt that the tempo was just what I wanted. However, listening to it through the computer's loudspeakers makes me think it's a little bit too slow, although the desolate character of the piece communicates itself. I'll listen again through hi-fi loudspeakers in the living-room. I remember watching Richter's performance of the first movement of Schubert's B flat sonata with students via Youtube and that we thought it was too slow, while I did not have that objection with CD quality and good loudspeakers at home. Let alone how the effect during the live performance may have been.
P.S. 21 August 2014: in spite of the nice arguments this performance is just too slow.
With the help of the app iTablaPro, a great tool to study Indian rhythms, and the digitalized sound of the organ in Arlesheim, I improvise on Ardha Shiktar Taal en Ardha Jhaptaal in the following video:
On 3 December 2013, I posted a solo organ version of Archetypes on Willem Tanke's Blog on New Music. It's a great joy now to hear and see how Dave Bowmer and David Holmes, two admirable musicians from England, gave this piece an extra dimension. At the same time, it shows the possibilities of putting the sound of a historical organ (Tholen, 1842) in an entirely new context, with Chapman Stick, guitar & NST guitar and percussion.
In 2007, while practising a technically difficult passage for a performance of Messiaen's Livre du Saint Sacrement (1983), I realized that his melodies, in particular those which imitate bird song, often contain archetypal call and response motives which might be transformed and used for improvisation and composition in an entirely different context. This passage is found on page 150 and 151:
It starts at "Un peu vif" and, using the digitalized sound of the Cavaillé-Coll organ in Caen (the type of organ Messiaen had in mind while composing the piece) sounds as follows:
Reconstructing the process of discovery, I marked the separate phrases with A1 - H. While slowly practising phrase C with the left hand only, I stopped at a certain passage for the fourth and fifth finger, which needed special attention because of the heavy mechanical action of the organ on which I had to play the piece. Afterwards, I called this the James Brown motive, for a reason that will become clear in the below text. I separated it from the phrase and repeated it a number of times, paying full attention to the movements of the fingers and raising the level of awareness of the technical issue. While doing so, it occurred to me that this repeated motive for the left hand might suit some improvisatory figures for the right. In its turn, trying to do so almost immediately evoked a second motive for the left hand which, combined with the first, created a short call and response phrase:
As a further exercise, I alternated this call and response phrase with gradual extensions according to the original phrase C:
The next step was to make a short piece with this material, including a short improvised intro and coda:
In this piece, which I named When Olivier Messiaen meets James Brown for obvious reasons, I kept using the digitalized sound of the French romantic Cavaillé-Coll organ in Caen, built in 1883. A next step was to continue transforming the material using the sound of a German/French baroque instrument: the Silbermann-organ in Arlesheim, built in 1761. Specific sonoric qualities of this instrument led to a piece called Trumpets and Elephants, equally based on using the James Brown motive as a riff played on the second manual, but now using the entire phrases A1/A2, B, C, D, E, F, G, H and I of the original passage by Messiaen, separately on the first and third manual. Compared to the above version of When Olivier Messiaen meets James Brown there is more room for improvisation. From the beginning till the piece is composed, but from then a improvisatory cadenza leads to the end.
Two pieces ha now been generated from the above mentioned passage from Offrande et Alleluia final. In the second, the left hand kept playing the James Brown motive all the time, in the first the ostinato was interrupted with extensions derived from the phrase the motive was taken from. The second made use of other phrases from the same passage, the first did not. As an exercise, I decided to extend the material for the left hand further in a third version, without using the original material from Messiaen's score in the improvisations for the right. I adapted the piece to the sound of another type of organ, built by Van Dam in 1832, since 1955 situated in the Grote Kerk in Tholen. While creating this third version and due to deliberately playing on the edge of losing control, it occurred to me that an appropriate title for this third version would be All Souls' Day, thereby referring to both the type of music James Brown represented and my Roman Catholic background.
1. The process described above is typical for my daily practice, in which the interpretation of organ pieces from the Western classical repertoire is closely connected to improvisation and composition, solo and with other musicians, possibly coming from other traditions. At the beginning, there was a specific technical issue concerning a piece I was practising for a concert. This led to an improvisatory exercise based on an "invention" (in this case, the James Brown motive) and, step for step, three pieces with my own particular blend of improvisation and composition. These three pieces have a very flexible character and can take a different shape on the spot due to particular qualities of an instrument or, more in general, any needs of the moment. At one moment, mostly when feeling well equipped with the material that I trained, I then transfer the invention to other musicians, giving some hints for possible elaborations, but basically leaving the field open for new developments. In turn, these developments
may be fed back to my solo elaborations and alter them in some way.
2. The integration of interpretation and improvisation/composition even takes place at a deeper level. The archetypal concept of call and response makes the music sound conversational. Keeping this in mind but also -extending the expression- "in body", it also benefits the narrative aspect of my interpretation of, for instance, organ pieces by Bach. It may be argued that there are more traditional sources available to achieve the same, referring to rhetorica for instance, but with me this always remained at a rational level, while the archetypal quality of call and response reaches a deeper, emotional layer. I deliberately relate Bach's and Messiaen's music, considered by many as highlights of "Western art music" (a term which came only in existence in the 19th century), to the supposedly lower art of James Brown. It may also be argued that James Brown never used a 11/8 meter and that his music is in fact very different from my pieces. In reply to this, I would mention that while working with jazz musician Gijs Hendriks on the so-called James Brown motive, he referred to the fact that he started his career as a "time-keeper in rhythm and blues" and that this riff reminded him of those days. Also in working with jazz musician Ruben Verbruggen the term "James Brown piece" evidently communicated well, as he often referred to it in that way. It then becomes clear that the words "James Brown" hint at a certain music which he represents as an Afro-American icon and that the meaning of it goes deeper, suggesting for instance a relation with west African story-tellers (griots).
Referring to the post dd. 19/01/2014, here is the other piece based on the plainsong Kyrie (Orbis Factor) from the 10th century. The melody is the same, the accompaniment is different. I wrote it to the memory of Jos Beijer, who studied organ with me at the Utrecht Conservatorium from 1988 - 1995.
In the summer of 2011, both my mother and Jos Beijer, who studied organ with me at Utrecht Conservatoire from 1998 till 1995, were slowly passing away. I dedicated a piece to each of them, based on Kyrie (Orbis factor), a well-known Gregorian chant from the 10th century. Here is the piece dedicated to my mother, played on the ancient Freytag organ in Noordwolde: