Review: Spire – Spitalfields Festival

Interior of St Botolph-Without-Aldgate.
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved
(St Botolph-Without-Aldgate, part of Spitalfields Summer Festival, 21st June 2012; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Cheek-by-jowl with the monstrous office blocks at Aldgate station, St Botolph-Without-Aldgate is something of a jewel, a neatly defined church interior housing the oldest complete organ in the country, dating from 1704 and restored early this century, making it the natural setting for the thirteenth instalment of Spire, Touch’s organ-based project, initiated in 2004. As Mike Harding, founder of Touch, explained in the illuminating pre-concert conversation with Scott McMillan (The Liminal), Spire was born out of his frustration with the limitations of the laptop being used virtually exclusively without reference to the analogue and was his way of pushing the two worlds closer, of letting them “knead together”.

Spire combines the best of the organ’s traditional repertoire with the experimental and electronic in some of the world’s most inspiring cathedrals and church settings, and has seen concerts in Linz, Brussels, Geneva, Riga, Lincoln and York, and now London. The venues contribute potential for catharsis and reflection. “The sound in holy places reflects the power of God,” said Harding, and the audience is encouraged to move around the buildings to fully appreciate the music in its living context.

Spire recontextualises local connections, which, in the case of St Botolph reveals a history as a landmark going back to pagan and even pre-societal times. The church was visited a year ago to imagine how this Spire event might be be choreographed and sound in its various spaces.

In searching “for music that connects”, Harding discovered that many electronic musicians responded most strongly to the oldest organ works, going back to the fourteenth century – not what he’d expected, and referred to the strong improvisational element that has been present in the music of many composers since that time, which has echoes in the Spire project where “we don’t know really know how it’s going to sound ourselves.” Charles Matthews added that some organ pieces can sound out of tune because they were often written without a “particular tuning system in mind.” Marcus Davidson later described to me the exhilarating experience of the Spire participant in dramatic fashion – “It’s like jumping off a cliff. You never know what’s going to happen next!”

This was a concert to let all the variations of texture just sink in. Matthews set the tone at the piano on the ground level with a short, intricate slow movement from Camilleri’s ‘Sonatina Semplice’, moving up to the mezzanine to take his place at the church’s organ to deliver the full authority of Bach’s ‘Komm, Heiliger Geist’. Ligeti’s ‘Harmonies’ had the same power in its clarity of intent, with Matthews navigating its unearthly wheeling articulations, insidiously flooding the hall with sound washes, eerily welling and subsiding.

Mixing in voice with the keyboards and electronics, John Beaumont adapted fluently to the programme’s diversity, with the bright vocal discipline of Byrd, Finzi’s pastoral songs, and an improvised piece with B J Nilsen, referencing the spirit of plainsong from the upper gallery as Nilsen, below, insinuated electronics which gradually increased in intensity to match the sound level of the vocals, before diminishing to silence.

Davidson, in his composition, ‘The Passing’ introduced layers of shifting abstract form and, with Matthews signalling from the organ seat, in Diana Burrell’s ‘Lauds’, construed complex intrusions, distortions and interactions that cast new light on the organ’s possibilities. Harding joined the two keyboard players in an inevitably doomed search, not without a touch of mischief, for the elusive ‘Eternal Chord’ on Renatus Harris’s eighteenth century organ, anticipating the group improvisation which took place after Philip Jeck‘s masterly set, which combined a panoply of vinyl scratches, samples, and keyed notes in an intriguingly formatted sequential collage, given additional status by its inherently analogue format.

The combinations of composition and improvisation, imagination and technical mastery brought out the qualities of both the sounds and the setting in unexpected ways. With the imperative to experience the music in all corners of George Dance’s building, the sense of being in a workshop of sorts made the evening very special.

Charles Matthews: organ and piano
John Beaumont: tenor (voice)
Marcus Davidson; organ, piano and electronics
BJ Nilsen: electronics
Philip Jeck: turntables and samplers

Categories: miscellaneous

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