“An experimental organ record may not seem like the freshest idea in 2021, but I’ve never heard one that approaches the organ – or any acoustic instrument, really – quite like this. The difference that the label mentions is the fact that this album was made using two very unusual organs: an electric motor powered five-stop polyphone currently in the restoration process, and a custom-built organ made from over 100 salvaged church organ pipes. This pair of bizarro organs gave Mark Vernon a vast range of sonic possibilities to work with, experiment with and capture, allowing him to record a whole album’s worth of varied material that only sounds like organ music by technicalities. However, I don’t think that what’s really special here is the instruments – I think it’s the recordist.
It should be pointed out that Mark Vernon isn’t exactly known as a composer, let alone an instrumentalist – he’s a field recordist and a sound artist, and over the past decade he’s become one of the most exciting artists working in that field. But as much as this album seems like something of a departure, perhaps it’s not: to a massive extent, this is a field recordist’s take on an organ record. More than melody, tone, harmony or dissonance, the musical ingredients that might have made a Bach organ piece great, Mark Vernon focuses on the organ’s more fundamental traits and sounds: the flow of air and the reverberations of pipes, that is, the organ’s own voice, throat and body. This concept is executed in a different way in each track, allowing the album to feel like a thorough investigation of these instruments.
One striking example is “Glottic Cycle.” For this piece, microphones were placed inside different pipes to give the performance an enchanting but nauseating stereo separation. The keys were only played as softly as they could be, meaning that not enough air would enter the tubes to make them properly sound, and all that’s heard is the gentle release of air, the organ’s breath captured from dueling perspectives. Rather than the composition being something performed and recorded, it’s recorded and assembled – different recordings are made of different pipes, different perspectives, different sounds, and the composition pulls from them, arranging these soft gusts of air as if they were full-fledged musical notes.
Occasionally the album moves close to an actual performance with actual notes – such is the case on “Syrinx (active microphone studies 1 to 3).” The organ is allowed to properly and fully sound, humming a gorgeous, pulsing tone that comes and goes, rising and falling, moving through a simple musical structure that allows the piece to sound like an ordinarily composed, melodic music. The catch though is that it’s not really the organ being played, it’s the recording device itself. The organ simply emits a pure, unmoving drone, but as the recording device is swung back and forth along the mouths of the pipes the listener hears a shift in tones, the appearance and disappearance of harmonies, and the illusion of an organ with a magically modulating voice, when in fact these changes only exist within the recording device, and rather than instrumental performance we have rudimentary physical principals to thank for these shifting tones – it’s an organ composition for the doppler effect.
Another track that cleverly places its aural possibilities within the recording device is “Thoracic Fixation.” This time the microphone was placed directly in the air stream, allowing the organ’s breath to envelope the microphone and pulse around it. An effect that many would write off as wind noise becomes a platform for composition and performance as Mark Vernon picks up the microphone and actively moves it through these air streams, in full control of these windy oscillations which can only be heard from the performer’s perspective, through the recordist’s headphones. A nice idea that this album makes very clear is that recording can be performance, it’s not just a technical step in the process of releasing music. And if one is willing to consider recording performing, then I feel inclined to call Mark Vernon a virtuoso.
Album closer “Last Breath (Effets d’Orage)” does good work at putting things in perspective. Organs aren’t used at all here – it’s just a recording of wind blowing through a chimney in somebody’s home – something of a ready-made organ which nature performs. It’s beautiful, it’s humbling. As exciting as esoteric instruments are, the track reminds me to stay interested in what’s already around me, that there already exists a world of fascination within the myriad subtleties of daily perception, that to find something attractive one doesn’t always need to look further than their own chimney. That message makes sense to me, I even find it comforting, and it certainly works in this context: this is a field recordist’s take on an organ record, after all.”
Connor Kurtz, harmonic series