Over the last two weeks we’ve looked at the legacy of The Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek, first by looking at some groovy organ jazz in our collection and then at other organ-centric rock bands. This week, the third and final installment of the series, let’s venture beyond, to some way-out experimental works featuring the organ.
Already well-known for his hypnotic masterpieces In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air, which synthesized burgeoning new age and classical minimalism movements, Terry Riley spent several years studying Indian music with Pran Nath. Although his music had always been tempered with an Eastern quality, this becomes fully present in his 1980 album Shri Camel. Riley plays a Yamaha combo organ augmented by a digital delay (which creates an intense “echo” effect), and the result is four tracks of shimmering organic undulations that drift seamlessly between Western and Eastern intonations. This title is available to check out on LP or to download for free from Freegal. If you prefer CD, start with Riley’s most enduring work, A Rainbow in Curved Air (which is also available on Freegal). Also, check out this far out video of Riley performing a segment from the album.
A pioneer of classical minimalism and one of the most influential living American composers, Steve Reich’s earliest works explored the idea of phasing, which occurs when two or more instruments or recordings simultaneously play the same musical phrase at slightly different speeds. At its purest, the effect can range from disorienting to spectacular, such as in his masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians, where the technique was applied for an ensemble of pianos, mallet instruments, and vocalists. Four Organs falls somewhere in the middle. Written for four organists that phase in and out of sync with one another and one maracha player to keep tempo, the piece is infamous for having nearly caused a riot when it was presented at Carnegie Hall in 1973. This is a difficult work to absorb, but to the patient, adventurous listener it offers the reward of a mind-expanding experience. Also worth noting, one of the organists on this recording is none other than Philip Glass.
Up until now, all the albums we’ve discussed have featured electric organs. Jon Gibson’s Two Solo Pieces features instead a massive pipe organ. The main work, Cycles, is 23 minutes of slow moving chord clusters. The effect is like watching clouds drift by, shifting imperceptibly from ominous to heavenly. This album is available to check out on LP. Fun fact: Jon Gibson is the maracha player on Steve Reich’s Four Organs.
From the liner notes:
The organ has been called “the monster which never breathes,” but perhaps its breaths are simply very long and deep. in Charlemagne Palestine’s perambulations through the organ’s sonic landscape, this is certainly the case—the breath is some 70 minutes long.
Yes, it’s true that Schlingen-Blangen consists of one chord sustained for more than an hour. There are no other instruments. Very little happens. But the quality of the sound continues to shift, creating an immersive headspace that the can be awe-inspiring. Palestine is also known for his eccentric stage presence.
This ultra-campy 2002 project by British artist Angie Tillett channels a smart, saccharine, and totally silly version of 1960s Swinging London. In Death by Chocolate’s Zap the World, Ray Manzarek-esque combo organ and fuzzy guitar riffs back Tillett’s deadpan stream-of-consciousness spoken word listing of interesting objects, confectionary ingredients, and what it’s like to stare at a Bridget Riley painting for too long (“your eyes will go pop!”). It opens with a totally convincing faux advertisement for the Vox wah-wah pedal (“It’s the now sound! It’s what’s happening!”). Also check out her more recent, equally groovy album Bric-a-Brac, which is available to download on Freegal. It includes the track My New Old Organ, which can stand alone as a part of your groovy-music collection.
Listen to This! is a weekly music column by Popular Library Music Geek/Reference Librarian Steve Kemple, featuring off-the-beaten-path music from the library’s collection. It is also a twice-monthly listening program held every 2nd and 4th Wednesday night at 7pm in the Popular Library Department at the Main Library.