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Spectrum of Sound: Aspects of Organ Music Since 1940

Exploring the sound machine


Professor David Higgs is a pretty smart guy. He's a professor at the Eastman School of Music and he's the chair of the Department of Organ, Sacred Music, and Keyboard Instruments. He's an organist. He's a jurist. And, he was smart enough to headline this year's Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative Festival, based around modern organ works, as "spectrum of sound." You may take note that — intentionally or not — he didn't use the word "experimental." In the world of classical music, "experimental," meaning to depart from what was known as coming before, can give an audience pre-concert anxiety.

"In the middle 20th century, composers started seeing the organ as a giant sound machine," says Higgs. "They started experimenting with sounds by manipulating the wind of the organ and the stops. For example, only opening them part way so that the parts don't get a steady supply of wind."

This year's EROI Festival focuses on organ music since 1940, including compositions by Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, John Cage, Wolfgang Stockmeier, Michael Pelzel, and Martin Herchenröder. The four-day EROI Festival features several organ recitals, open to the public, at venues like the Eastman School of Music, Christ Church, Downtown United Presbyterian Church, Third Presbyterian Church, and Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Organist, composer, and pedagogue Martin Herchenröder is all too familiar with the questions that can come from an audience around experimental organ music. "Yes, I have the impression that people might be anxious about his music," says Herchenröder, who will be performing at this year's EROI. "I give a pre-concert talk, I make an introduction, and I explain something about it. People have ears. They have also to be open-minded. Some will get some imagination out of it; others do not. If you will open your mind, I will play the music, and we will see what comes of it."

Herchenröder is a professor of composition, music theory, and organ at the University of Siegen in Germany, giving classes, lectures, and performances around the world, including at the Juilliard School of Music, University of Chicago, McGill University (Montreal), and the Musikhochschule in Köln and Bremen (Germany).

Higgs credits Romanian composer Ligeti (1923-2006) with composing one of the seminal works, "Volumina," that explored the organ's sound potential, and Ligeti's music will factor into the recitals. Sharing the program listings will also be American composer John Bolcom (b. 1938). A self-described "non-organist" with a "schizoid personality," Bolcom wrote his first major piece for the organ in 1967, including pre-taped sounds, percussion, and a virtuoso organ part. "And people just kept asking for new pieces," says Bolcom, who nearly 50 years later still sounds surprised at his own success, including winning the Pulitzer Prize, a National Medal of Arts, and two Grammy Awards. Bolcom says there was even a two-week festival named after him — "Illuminating Bolcom" — as if he's only just been discovered.

Bolcom put himself through music school. He says he didn't want to become an organist, playing only in "churches and burlesque houses." And yet, his whole life became a search for collaboration with first-rate performers.

Bolcom laughed heartily when I asked him if he simply hears music everywhere and in everything. "I'm afraid I can't get rid of it!" says Bolcom. "It wakes me in the middle of the night. It's ear worms like you can't believe."

As Higgs explains, there are some organists who specialize in "contemporary techniques" for the organ. In some cases, there is a score, which is completely recognizable and written out. In other cases, the "score" may consist of geometric shapes that are explained in the preface to create a notation system designed by the composer. There is even the occasional ESM student or organ competition contestant who will perform such a contemporary piece.

"If we don't have these live performances, people will never really experience this music in a way that they do when they see someone doing it in real time," says Higgs. "Especially for this music that treats the organ like a sound machine, knowing someone is behind it is really important."

Higgs also wants to celebrate composers who are either still alive or who died not all that long ago. "It is really important to stay connected to the music of our time. That doesn't necessarily mean pop music, but people living the same influences that we do," says Higgs.

At the same time as the EROI Festival, the Westfield Organ Competition will also be taking place. This is the first occasion to have a competition centered around the historical and recreated-historical organs located in Rochester and Ithaca, according to Higgs. The 12 semi-finalists in the competition will travel to Upstate New York from all over the world, and the international five-member jury panel boasts high-powered credentials. First prize is $10,000. The final round of the competition will be held at Christ Church as part of EROI on September 28.

Herchenröder, who entered into this world of experimental organ music shortly after he had completed his formal organ studies, describes it as "thrilling," "a complete new world," and "an experience." He describes the Rochester organ scene as among a limited number of places in the world with so many different organs. "And it is so interesting to have so many different organ types in the same place. It helps me get ideas on how to play the organs as what they were made for and to get new ideas of what you can write for an organ," says Herchenröder.

I ask Herchenröder what good ol' Johann Sebastian Bach might think about this "spectrum of sound," and Herchenröder returns a confident answer.

"If you think of what he did in his time, he took the north German organ and other organs he came upon during his travels and he explored what he could do on those organs," says Herchenröder. "He made the music of his time for his organs. I think he would think that's what we have to do today. We are reconstructing old organs and using them in new ways. If he were here for EROI, I think Bach would be quite pleased."

Herchenröder sees the Rochester setting as perfect for this particular festival. "When I gave my first concert at Christ Church in 2009, there were quite a lot of people there. I was quite astonished," says Herchenröder. "I am a kind of missionary. Sometimes there are only a few people at a concert. It is so wonderful that there are places like Rochester where people are more open-minded, they are used to listening to organ music, and they come to concerts."

EROI 2013 Performance Schedule

Monday, September 23: Westfield Competition, First Round Christ Church, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. & 4-7 p.m.

Thursday, September 26: Rhythm and Color: Organ Music 1962-2012 Organ recital and multi-media presentation by Martin Herchenröder. Works by Messiaen, Ligeti, Cage, Stockmeier, Herchenröder, Michael Pelzel. Christ Church, 8 p.m.

Friday, September 27: Organ concert by David Higgs, Nathan Laube, and Douglas Reed Works of Bolcom and Albright. Asbury United Methodist Church, 8 p.m.

Saturday, September 28: Westfield Competition, Final Round Christ Church, 1:45-5:30 p.m.

Saturday, September 28: Spirits Within Stephen Kennedy, organ improvisation; Marla Schweppe, projection. Christ Church, 7, 8, 9, & 10 p.m.

Saturday, September 28: Organ and chamber orchestra concert featuring music of Heiller and Bolcom Peter Planyavsky, Hans-Ola Ericsson, and Nathan Laube, organ

Edoardo Bellotti, harpsichord. Third Presbyterian Church, 8 p.m.

Sunday, September 29: Organ works of Olivier Messiaen Jon Gillock, organ. Sacred Heart Cathedral, 2:30 p.m.