In May 1962, a landmark concert at the broadcasting studios of Radio Bremen sketched out a new future for that most gothic of musical instruments: the pipe organ. The series of premieres, including new work by avant-garde composers Mauricio Kagel and György Ligeti, had itself been preceded by disruption – firstly, when Bremen Cathedral refused to host the concert fearing a public backlash over scandalous new music. The pieces would have to be taped elsewhere – with only the recordings that premiered later at the radio station. But when Karl-Erik Welin sat down at the Gothenburg Concert Hall organ, in Sweden, to commit Ligeti’s Volumina (1962) to record, disaster struck. The piece’s opening commands the performer to, literally, pull out all the stops of the instrument, and then depress all the keys with their arms – the stress of this infamously caused the motor of the Gothenburg organ to ignite (the recording was later successfully completed in Stockholm).
The Radio Bremen premieres constituted a radical break in the organ’s sonic capabilities. In Ligeti’s Volumina and Kagel’s Improvisation Ajoutée (1961) the instrument began to birth dissonant clusters of sound, its harmonies ‘tainted’, with the performer pummelling the keyboard with arms and fists, or constricting the organ’s own life supply – Volumina concludes with a fading mass of sound as the fan motor is cut off. But just as important was a symbolic shift. The organ is an alienating instrument completely out of human proportion, fixed to its architectural setting rather than bonded to its performer; it dwarfs the organist, whose back is always turned away from the audience (Stravinsky once damned it: ‘the monster never breathes’.) What these pieces seemed to do was embed human fragility and contingency in the organ’s monumental power. So, in Improvisation Ajoutée the organist is joined by assistants who perform a choreography of chatting, whistling, coughing and meddling with the instrument’s stops – and in the process, rebalance the organ’s sacred and profane qualities.
One day in February, I walked into Cardiff’s National Museum of Art. The polite sounds of families taking tea drifting up to galleries filled with silverware and porcelain couldn’t seem farther away from Bremen’s revolutionary spark. But it was here, echoing away, that Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson installed his new work The Sky in a Room (2018). The performance piece occupies a single gallery, with the walls stripped of its usual collection of 18th century British landscape paintings, works by Hogarth and Gainsborough. Now all that is left is the museum’s ornate chamber organ, originally built in 1774. As you approach the gallery, you can hear an organist playing and singing a strange version of Gino Paoli’s 1959 Italo-pop classic Il Cielo In Una Stanza (The Sky in a Room) – ‘the best song I know about the transformation of space’, Kjartansson contends.
It’s a piece of music which, so the story goes, came to Paoli as he gazed up at the ceiling of a brothel in Genoa, its lyrics – ‘when you are near to me, this violet ceiling does not exist anymore, I see the sky above us’ – speaking of how momentary love strips away the confines of the material world. Kjartansson’s version, co-commissioned by Artes Mundi and National Museum Wales, commits to a similar effect, setting the world in motion as nine performers take it in turns to play Paoli’s song on repeat for the whole duration of the gallery’s opening hours over the course of 5 weeks (ending 11 March). Here the imposing, fussy instrument – embellished with blue-gold pipes and Grecian muses – becomes a source of lightness. The wending, repeating melody swells through the space and leaks into adjoining galleries. As you linger in the space, the more the song’s extended sound feels like paint, a texture, just like the gallery’s florid turquoise wallpaper, or the murky winter light filtering in from the ceiling.
Kjartansson’s The Sky in a Room falls into a charged tradition of artists and musicians reworking the organ’s worldly properties, drawing attention to how the instrument sits within time and space. A cursory survey of current and recent projects might encompass anything from the longest piece in the world (the performance of John Cage’s 1987 Organ2/ASLSP [As Slow as Possible] on an automated organ in Halberstadt, Germany, begun in 2001 and not scheduled to end until 2640); the new organ for Kassel’s Martinskirch unveiled in 2017 during documenta 14 by artist Yngve Holen and architect Ivar Heggheim, which includes an expanded manual to allow for the playing of quarter-tones, and a swaying curtain of artificial hair visualizing the pipes’s production of sound; through to the commissions of London’s Organ Reframed festival which returns to the Union Chapel this October (last year’s edition included the premiere of Mira Calix’s DeHFO (the Department of How to Fuck Ourselves): a meditation on Brexit in which political divide is rendered as a literal separation between the organ’s highest and lowest registers.)
For musician Áine O’Dwyer, the church organ and its alienating religiosity can be re-humanized. In 2011, she began visiting St Mark’s in London’s Islington, experimenting with extended improvisation sessions on the church organ. Each Saturday, she would share the space with the church cleaners, and the chatter and hoovering make their way into her recordings too (alongside a request from the sacristan not to linger too long on one note). Music for Church Cleaners Vols I & II (2015) collects O’Dwyer’s meandering improvisations, filled with half-remembered hymns, snatches of Irish folk music, and background clatter – a warm sonic mix which, true story, transports me back to my own childhood weekends spent practising on the clunking keyboard of an aged local church organ. Meanwhile, artist Matt Stokes’s Sacred Selections (2005–ongoing) project taps further into the instrument’s place in collective ritual. Sacred Selections began after Stokes discovered St Salvador’s in Dundee, Scotland, a church that used to host northern soul events – a secret history which inspired him to stage a series of pipe organ recitals of northern soul, death metal and happy hardcore classics.
The organ’s capacity for a sustained multiplicity of sounds – making it, in essence, the first synthesizer – proves the ideal form, in turn, for suggesting sound’s capacity for outliving materiality. You can sense this in how it is the instrument’s extended song blurring architecture, heavens and human presence together in Kjartansson’s The Sky in a Room. Or consider how in preparation for Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 (2011), the musician began by recording a pipe organ in a church in Reykjavík, Iceland – in the finished record, the original droning tones of the instrument gasp, decay but survive under the weight of digital processing and shimmering guitar. When I sat through a live performance of Ravedeath, 1972 the following year at London’s St Giles-in-the-Fields, Hecker cut off the lights, and then fed the amplified pipe organ through distortion pedals and a menacing PA system. Soon the West End church became a sunken, pitch-black place, roaring and resonating as an instrument in its own right, drawing breath from the same air as the audience.
Main image: Ragnar Kjartansson, The Sky in a Room, 2018, performance documentation, National Museum Cardiff. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Polly Thomas