Persian music, piano, percussion and organ

I started a new series of organ pieces, based on patterns taken from my piano composition Rhythm Pattern Melodies VII. A few years ago, I made a recording of this piece in a version for piano and percussion, with the very talented percussionist Renato Peneda:

A certain pattern from this piece, representing a 16+9 metre, serves as a loop (or groove, ostinato) for the left hand in a piece called The Loop Man # 16+9, with the feet playing a modal melody and the right hand improvising. The 16+9 metre is subdivided in (3+3+3+2+2+3) + (3+2+2+2). 

The Loop Man # 16+9 is dedicated to Mohsen Mohammadi, an eminent specialist on Persian traditional music, and Bahar Rezaei. During a seminar in Mumbai in 2006 and several times since, Mohsen Mohammadi and I had very interesting conversations on a certain resemblance between Persian traditional music and my way of improvising. Both are based on a clearly organized set of formulae which has to be intensely practised over a period of many years. In Persian music this set is called Radif, which on Wikipedia is referred to as follows:

"Radif (Persian: ردیف, meaning order in Persian) is a collection of many old melodic figures preserved through many generations by oral tradition. It organizes the melodies in a number of different tonal spaces called Dastgah. The traditional music of Iran is based on the radif, which is a collection of old melodies that have been handed down by the masters to the students through the generations. Over time, each master's own interpretation has shaped and added new melodies to this collection, which may bear the master's name.
The preservation of these melodies greatly depended on each successive generation's memory and mastery, since the interpretive origin of this music was expressed only through the oral tradition.
To truly learn and absorb the essence of the radif, many years of repetition and practice are required. A master of the Radif must internalize the Radif so completely to be able to perform any part of it at any given time."

Mr. Mohammadi sent me the following links concerning Dariush Tali, an extraordinary performer and scholar, who is one of the last to have worked with the old masters of Persian music.:


Breakthrough: moving away from the brains: practising César Franck's Premier Choral (Part Four)

As I pointed out before, I had a period of inactivity after which I started to play the organ and the piano from scratch again, as it were, thinking of Busoni who did that several times during his life, as a way to renew oneself. While practising Franck's Premier Choral I discovered something which now changes my attitude to playing the organ and the piano, both as an interpreter and an improviser: leaning back a little and direct the body's centre of gravity to the plexus solaris. Reading about this part of the body (quite near the stomach), I understand that this new attitude may imply a shift in concentration from the brains towards the subconscious. In any case, it improves the breathing. Fascinating, a kind of breakthrough towards a next level of The Art of Doing Nothing (the art of playing with relaxed precision).


Practising Franck's Premier Choral - Part Three -

Franck indicates Maestoso and Largo for the slow passages, but in many performances this is ignored. In my opinion, the Maestoso is a little quicker than the Largo (towards the end of the 19th century the original meaning of Largo has changed).  The trumpet at the beginning of the e minor section should be a bit louder, i.e the swell box should be a few millimeters more open. That is why it is so useful to have a swell box with an absolute indication on a scale from, for instance, 1 until 100.
At 4'55" it can be seen how playing without shoes allows for a legato between c-sharp and b-flat with the left foot and consequently being able to keep the right foot on the swell box.

The e minor Cantilene is not yet sweet enough, it should sound like music in heaven. Something to be worked upon. As the Americans say: there is no such thing as a free lunch.


Joseph Haydn - Pieces for a Musical Clock 1792 no 1, 2 and 3/ improved version

As I said in my previous blog post, I was not quite satisfied with my performance of the first three pieces for a musical clock by Haydn. I recorded them again and now all ornaments in no 1 are "crisp and tasty" or, to stick to culinary terms, al dente. The timing of no 2 is better and no 3 is without wrong notes now. But more important the position of the upper part of the body has improved and allows for a more relaxed attitude and better breathing.


Joseph Haydn - Pieces for a musical clock 1792, 1-3 ("Arlesheim")

These pieces are very suited to make a so-called "heavy" organ program a little lighter, for instance with three groups of two or three pieces placed after the beginning, in the middle and towards the end. I like to combine them with some "light" pieces of my own, to balance a program based on, for instance, Bach and Brahms or Reger. Here are number one, two and three:

I am not yet pleases with the performance. In number one, the first two ornaments for the upper voice at the beginning are not "crisp and tasty", the timing of number two should be better and in number three I play a f natural instead of a f-sharp. That's what is called lifelong learning.


Practising César Franck's Premier Choral - part two quick version

I couldn't get the previous version out of my head and recorded this fragment again. Now the trompette solo is a little more fluent . I played the beginning of the piece before this solo, to pick up the tempo. The voix humaine passage at the end slows down, even more than the first time it appears, because of the added low sound of the pedal and to prepare for the Maestoso which follows.


César Franck's Premier Choral/part two

Re-listening to the recording, I find the first two trumpet phrases of this fragment a little too slow. Perhaps I was influenced by a beautiful recording of Brahms' first piano concerto by Daniel Barenboim and Sergiu Celibidache (see YouTube). The latter was well-known for his slow tempi and profound interpretations.

Will be continued.


César Franck - Premier Choral in E major, part one

In my opinion organ playing has not one but two quintessences. The first and most basic is playing chords in a rather moderate tempo. The second is playing a trio on two manuals and pedal. Evidently, the opening of Franck's Premier Choral is an example of the first quintessence.

The camera position from above is intended to give a good view on the movements of each finger separately. Consequently, the importance of quick and alert finger substitutions at the service of a fluent legato can be observed.

Viewed on a large screen, a harmonic analysis of the score can be read. I use this analysis in particular for second year students, at the end of the year, after the lessons on, for example, a movement of a symphony by Brahms.


Veroneser Allegro KV 72a - W.A. Mozart

Mozart's and Haydn's small pieces for organ should not be underestimated, for they represent a kind of sophisticated and elegant expression which organists often find difficult to deal with.


Andante Cantabile KV15mm - W.A. Mozart

This very small, but lovely piece from The London Sketchbook was written by Mozart when he was eight years old. Arthur Rubinstein once said that thinking of young Mozart made him quite humble. A few years ago, a very good French movie was made about Nannerl, Wolfgang's older sister. In a beautiful scene Wolfgang plays the organ and Nannerl sings.


More thoughts on the interpretation of Bach's trio sonatas

Re-listening to quick movements of my first and second series of interpretations of Bach's trio sonatas, recorded with the sound of the organs in Arlesheim and Tholen respectively, it occurred to me that in a possible third series I would take slightly slower tempi in order give more space to subtleties of expression which can't be realized in quicker tempi. Ideally, this would lead to a more detailed expression without losing the overall pace (in Dutch: "zonder de grote lijn te verliezen"). This kind of detailed and very sensitive expression is what I admire in the playing of, as I mentioned before, the oboist Marcel Ponseele and the bansuri player Hariprasad Chaurasia.

While it is very common and understandable to compare the interpretation of Bach's organ sonatas to his sonatas for other instruments, it seems to me that we should go one step further and return to the possibilities of the organ itself, in particular specific qualities that other instruments do not have. Consequently, I should say that while giving full attention to the texture of baroque trios in general, as organists we should explore the organ fully while playing Bach's trio sonatas, in such a way that other instrumentalists would like to learn from us.


CD Imaginary Day, track 21: Jeux de basson, hautbois et voix humaine - organ Stevenskerk, Nijmegen

The last piece of the CD is contemplative, with the atmosphere of an epilogue. It begins with a perfect fifth, on the gemshorn 8' of the great manual, maintained throughout the piece by putting weights on the keys. The sound is deepened by the subbas 16', the principal 16' and the violin 16 of the pedal (that wonderful ensemble of 16'). The melody is played on the first manual with a bassoon 8' in the Dorian mode. At the end, the organ point disappears and the low sound of the pedal remains.

The Koenig-organ in the Stevenskerk, Nijmegen, remains one of my most favorite organs.


CD Imaginary Day, track 20: Breakwave, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen - Would I dare to do something similar again or am I too old for it now?

Breakwave was originally used for the actor Henk van Ulsen performance in Job, to illustrate a terrible storm and the ominous stillness before and after the storm. The concept is simple and efficient, allowing me to produce a huge effect with often little time to prepare me on organs throughout the country that I did not know on beforehand. The pedal keeps two low organ point throughout the piece, the left hand plays the "storm theme" and also manipulates stops for crescendo and diminuendo effects. An African drum, on the organ bench, is played by a stick in the right hand. The stick is also used to play a tin jug (compare track 17) and the gosoeah, a pair of bells from Ghana, hanging above the organist's right knee. The climax is a resounding G major chord, followed by clusters played by the entire left hand, illustrating the devastating power of nature.

Re-listening to the piece, I found the effect on the powerful Koenig-organ in the Stevenskerk, Nijmegen very convincing. Would I have the energy to do that again? I might just be too old for that.


CD Imaginary Day, track 19: Three Trumpets and a Small Owl, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

Several types of trumpets are used: the delicate vox angelica 2' of the third manual, the bright trumpet 8' of the first, and the dark trumpet 16' of the great manual (one might say that a fourth type of trumpet is the bicycle horn used in other tracks). The beginning, however, is played on the echo 8' (a soft flute) of the third manual. The stop is only partially open, in order to create subdued sounds, like those of a little owl at night. Calm is restored at the end, with the deep sound of the violin 16', the naive call of the vox angelica and echoes of the little owl's hooting.


CD Imaginary Day, track 18: Pièce en trio II, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

Pièce en trio II is the night version of track 4. As in track 15, the trio was originally intended for research on organ and electronic music, particularly the mechanical "Midi-out" organ in Maurik. This can be seen in the sketches for the piece.
Comparing tracks 4 and 15 with the help of these sketches may give some insight in the way I used to improvise at the time.


CD Imaginary Day, track 17: Grand jeu de tierce, clairon, flageolet et bouteilles, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

The title refers to a registration used in organ music from the French Baroque, the Grand jeu de tierce. Here, we have the principles 16', 8', and 2', with flutes 8' and 4', the 6' and tertian 31/2' of the great manual. This registration is used for a left hand variable ostinato producing a sound reminiscent of bell-ringing. Except for a carefully made African drum, the percussion used here is quite primitive: two empty wine bottles, a smaller soft drink bottle, two copper jugs and a larger tin jug. Placed on a chair and to the right side of the organ bench, these can all be played by a wooden stick held in the right hand. The bottles were specifically chosen for their pitch and quality of sound in a large church. The main melody is for the Clairon 4' of the pedal, like a cantus firmus which distinguishes itself from the accompaniment by sustained notes and a different timbre. The piece is concluded with the modest, bright sound of the copper jugs, played with a small copper stick,  rather than the wooden stick used at the beginning. The video shows the sketches which serves the improvisation; melodic outlines for the left hand and feet and indications for the use of the percussion instruments.


CD Imaginary Day, track 16: African Drum, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

African Drum continues the mysterious mood of night, already provoked by the preceding piece. The upper voice is played by the right hand, alternating between the half-stopped 4' of the great manual and the bourdon 16' and bourdon 8' of the positive. The lower voice is played by the pedal, coupled to the great manual. The left hand plays a drum with an iron gosoeah (a Ghanian bell attached to a stick).

In the years after, I played the piece slower and it became then known as Stillness, also for piano.


CD Imaginary Day, track 15: Come and Dream, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

This track marks the beginning of the third group of seven pieces, representing late evening and night. The accompaniment is provided by a high aliquot of the third manual, only partially open, which means that some tubes make no sound at all, while other emit hissing sounds. Pressing certain combinations of key changes the colour, rather like an electronic filter. The melody, played with 8' foundation stops, has an ABACA structure. The C section ascends to the highest notes; after this there is a shortened recapitulation of the first section. Of the several recordings which were made of the piece, this has been selected to include the sound of church bells and children, which here contribute to the atmosphere.


Transcribing an improvisation: CD Imaginary Day, track 14: Dolcezza, organ Domkerk

From time to time, I think that in a certain improvisation every note is on the right place. That is the case with Dolcezza and I made a transcription of the improvisation, so that it may be played as a composition. The accompaniment figure, played with a stopped flute 8' above a low 16' organ point, should be steady but not metronomic. The melody, played with a flute 4', often sounds just before or after the accompaniment's beats, creating an impression of free rhythm.

It is with this kind of Dolcezza that I intend to play the slow movements of Bach's trio sonatas.

Originally, the improvisation was played on the Loret-organ at the St. Willibrorduskerk in Berkel-Enschot, where I was an organist at the time. A recording of this was issued on my CD Meditations for a lent.


CD Imaginary Day, track 13: Bagpipes, organ St. Willibrorduskerk, Berkel-Enschot

Bagpipes is cheerful from beginning to end. It begins with a canon between two voices, played on two manuals, using 4' flutes. The feet play a droning perfect fourth. Halfway the piece, the canon and drone are interrupted and the movements accelerates. Repetitive figures, with ascending chromatic alternations, establish a new tonal center. The main melody returns, quicker and more exalted than at the beginning. In the final section, both melody and accompaniment rise to the highest register, expressing a great joy.


CD Imaginary Day, track 12: Anyi Bialale, organ St. Willibrorduskerk, Berkel-Enschot

Anyi Bialale is a short religious song from Cameroon. The right hand plays the cheerful melody as a typical African ostinato and a rhythmical counterpoint, which gradually becomes more intense. The left hand plays a number of small Indian bells. At 1:18, the pedal, coupled to the trumpet of the manual, introduces a new motif. It sounds rather like a snarl, gradually swelling, and at the end explodes the entire scene, like an African part which goes out of hand. At the end there seems to be a certain perplexity about what has occurred.


CD Imaginary Day, track 11: Jeux de fonds, Carillon and Bicycle Horn, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

Jeux de fonds, Carillon and Bicycle Horn refers to the French tradition in the seventeenth and eighteenth century of naming organ pieces after their registration. The classical "jeux de fonds" (foundation stops) and the carillon are combined with a small horn, to be attached to a bicycle's steering wheel. This horn produces a interval of a major second corresponding to the A-flat and B-flat of the organ in Nijmegen. Because of this, F minor is the tonality of the piece. At the end, the left hand rubs a stick gently against a bottle, the glassy sound breaking the carillon tremolo. A fortissimo drum blow, also used in tracks 17 and 20, finishes the piece.


CD Imaginary Day, track 10: The Mixolydian Mode - Part Two, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

A balance between composition and improvisation can be made by comparing this piece to
The Mixolydian Mode - Part One

An advantage of improvised parts is that one can respond more accurately to the specific qualities of a certain instrument. In both cases the vox humana 8' is used, a reed stop resembling the human voice. Combined with the very high flageolet 1' this produces a particularly penetrating sound.


CD Imaginary Day, track 9: The First Psalm, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

The First Psalm was originally intended for a performance by actor Henk van Ulsen, a rather light-hearted approach to a subject which has been for centuries a cornerstone of Dutch Calvinism. This setting of Psalm One has a gentle, innocent character.


CD Imaginary Day, track 8: Yehowah Kpo Kpo, organ Stevenskerk Nijmegen

The twenty-one tracks on Imaginary Day are divided into three groups of seven: Early morning, The afternoon and Late evening, night. These names are related to the sound of the organs on which the pieces were played. The first group of seven, representing the early morning, have the bright sound of the instruments in the Bonifaciuskerk, Medemblik and the Westerkerk, Amsterdam. The second group of pieces, recorded in the Stevenskerk, Nijmegen and the St. Willibrorduskerk, Berkel-Enschot, represent the afternoon, because the organs there have a darker sound. The third group, consisting only of pieces played at the organ in the Stevenskerk, stands for the late evening and night.

Yehowah Kpo Kpo is a Ghanian religious song, which I encountered while playing with African musicians during 1998-2000, in the Scots Reformed Chuch, Rotterdam. Love songs and religious songs from that part of the world often share the same effervescent character. Practising and performing with the Africans made my classical-European opinions about efficiency and professional attitude seem completely irrelevant. This could lead to grotesque situations, often very stimulating. To satisfy my European sense of order, a shortened recapitulation of the song is played after the improvisation, as if nothing had happened.


The Art of Listening with Relaxed Precision and CD Imaginary Day, track 7: The Dorian Mode, organ Westerkerk Amsterdam

Yesterday evening Jan Veldkamp and Hans Fidom spoke very well during the ceremony in which the Schnitger Dream Prize was awarded to me. Among other things, Jan Veldkamp referred to two of my pieces that he liked in particular, i.e. My friend the Indian and Eliah's Ascension. These pieces will be the subject of future blog posts. Hans Fidom very justly extended the meaning of The Art of Playing with Relaxed Precision (a term I used to explain The Art of Doing Nothing), as referring not only to performers but also to listeners. Consequently, through The Art of Listening with Relaxed Precision, listeners also contribute to the calibre of a concert. This reminds me of Ali Jihad Racy's chapter Improvisation, Ecstacy, and Performance Dynamics in Arabic Music in Bruno Nettl's and Melinda Russell's In the Course of Performance - Studies in the World of Musical Improvisation.

From the CD Imaginary Day we have track 7 today, The Dorian Mode. The piece is symmetrical in form: introduction, A section, B section, shortened recapitulation of A and Coda. The A and B section present constant changes of meter. The B section is improvised. The coda develops material from the introduction. Its considerable length is compensated by the shortened recapitulation. Independent of the symmetrical structure, a simple melody, like a cantus firmus, appears halfway through the A section. It is played by the pedal, using a principal 4', whereas the two manual voices employ flute stops.


CD Imaginary Day, track 6: For a Child - organ Westerkerk Amsterdam

The open sound of a trumpet is heard again. The piece is quite cheerful and naive, with the left hand playing a variable ostinato in the middle register and the right hand exploring the high, and later, the low register. For a Child is like many of my pieces a study of what can be achieved with very basic material. Variety is provided by variation in rhythm, articulation and order of the notes. The registration is also very economical: only the trumpet 8' is heard. The end seems abrupt, like a child who suddenly decides to play no longer.


Schnitger Dream Prize and CD Imaginary Day, track 5: Skylark, organ Westerkerk Amsterdam

This evening the Schnitger Dream Prize (in Dutch: Schnitger Droomprijs) will be awarded to me in the Der Aa-kerk in Groningen. This is a great honour and joy. Unfortunately, due to an illness, I am not able to attend to the ceremony myself, but my colleagues and friends Jan Veldkamp and Hans Fidom will receive the award and say a few words of thanks to the audience and comment on my musicianship. After the ceremony, organist Klaas Hoek,who won the prize last year, and others will give a performance with contemporary music.

Today's piece from my CD Imaginary Day suits the aspiration which is necessary to be nominated for the Schnitger Dream prize very well. Skylark refers to a bird with a particularly exalted song hovering high in the sky. The first four phrases of the melody are in octaves. Then the melody is varied in the soprano, with the lower voice providing an ostinato derived from the melody. This section is mainly improvised. Towards the end, a slowly ascending melody represents the bird flying ever higher. With the underlying chord, this gives an impression of how sense of time and place can evaporate when listening to the skylark's song.


CD Imaginary Day, track 4: Pièce en trio I, organ Westerkerk Amsterdam

Pièce en trio I  is, like so many trios in organ literature, not easy to play, with the hands and feet moving independently of each other. Three chromatically related tonal centers are combined to create poly-modality. Theoretically, this would make for grinding dissonances, but the overall sound becomes quite consonant, due to the large distance between the voices and the ample acoustics of the church. Each voice has its own rhythm and tempo, giving an impression of loose construction. The timbre of the voices is very diverse; the bass has low-sounding 16', 8' and 6' principals (the latter emphasizing the third overtone, a perfect fifth). Conversely, the soprano has a very high sound produced by a 1' flute. The middle voice adds a third colour, of an 8' reed. The tonal centers are C, B and C-sharp for the bass, soprano and middle voice


CD Imaginary Day, track 3: The Mixolydian Mode - Part One, organ Westerkerk Amsterdam

The atmosphere is exalted, with the vox humana producing strange cries of joy and agony. The sketches allow opportunities for improvisation, but certain melodic and structural features should be strictly observed. For instance, the first three phrases and the final phrase always begin with a characteristic broken triad. The amount of improvisation can be judged by comparing this piece with The Mixolydian Mode - Part Two


CD Imaginary Day, track 2: Latin Folly, organ Westerkerk Amsterdam

This piece has four sections. The beginning and end of each section are composed, the central parts are to be improvised.


CD Imaginary Day, track 1: Call of the Trumpet, organ Bonifaciuskerk Medemblik

Between 1996 and 2001, I made a number of pieces which were issued on CD by Cybele Records in 2006. The pieces have been recorded in single takes, without editing, in the Bonifaciuskerk in Medemblik, the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, the Domkerk in Utrecht, the Willibrorduskerk in Berkel-Enschot and the Stevenskerk in Nijmegen.

Generally the pieces evolved from a useful idea, an "invention", emerging from improvisation. This elaborated upon and leads to some sketches. A second invention may be added to provide contrast or to enhance the structure. Then the improvisation, played repeatedly from the sketches, slowly crystallizes into a composition. This process could last several hours, several weeks, sometimes even several years, the sketches becoming increasingly detailed. Ultimately each piece may be entirely composed or still permit some improvisation. In this respect however, a composition is nearly always regarded as a "temporarily fixed identity", meaning that the composition can always "de-crystallize" into an improvisation again. As a result, the line between composing and improvising is rather thin.

Call of the Trumpet is based on an organ-point, which lasts throughout the entire piece. With the organ point keys held down by two weights, both hands are free to play the melody and two accompaniment figures. The stop which is used for the organ point is a flute 8-foot. This is only partially open, in order to produce the desired sound. This is a subtle procedure: at 0:14, for instance, opening the stop only two or three millimeters already changes the sound.