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The beauty of four organs

The beauty of four organs
1st March 2017 Cities and Memory

The sounds of church organs were some of the most striking sounds in Sacred Spaces – today we wanted to take the time to highlight just four to you, which have some remarkably beautiful reimagined counterparts.

Working with the Churches Conservation Trust, we drove around to some remote corners of England to access some of their beautifully-maintained churches, and play some organ improvisations as source material for the project.

If you’ve ever wondered where the phrase ‘pulling out all the stops’ comes from, here’s the answer. In a church in Yazor, we pulled out each of the stops one by one, to sample how the organ sound went from a low, quiet pulse to a space-filling roar in just a couple of minutes.

Stanislav Nikolov took this as his raw material to produce a brand new musical composition, as he explains:

“The recording starts with the clatter of movement in the church. Once at the organ we hear, gently, a beautiful and richly textured chord.

“Gradually, we hear all the stops being pulled out as the chord dissolves into booming dissonance. Finally we come back again to that gentle chord, and the clatter.

“I picked this because I loved the narrative and the constituent sonic themes. I knew I wanted to make pad sounds with the gentle chord, a more ominous atmosphere using the dissonance, and percussive texture using the clatter.

“In the end, I made an electro track using these elements and an additional drum kit, as well as bass, and sub bass instruments. I also made a second bass instrument and a bleepy pitch-bent instrument from the recording using some extreme EQing.”

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Next, in Fisherton, Nick St. George recorded the quiet sounds of harmonium playing, which Warren Daly transformed into something quite lovely:

“Recently I’ve been experimenting with the sound of airflow through different mediums, so I was instantly attracted to a recording that features a harmonium. I think the recording resembles a performance piece, it’s a treasure trove of sounds.

“I began my composition with dissonance, a call before the response. Finally a mesmerizing repetition is the acknowledgement.

“A conversation reflecting on the juxtaposition of the relaxed ambience and the surrounding commotion.”

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Our next stop is Holy Cross in Burley – when we entered the church and saw the organ we were about to play, it was a breathtaking moment.

It’s a huge, 20-foot high, perfectly-preserved organ in a very large and beautifully-kept church – just playing it was quite a moving experience.

Andy Billington has experience of visiting this very location, which he brought to bear on the reimagined version:

“I was drawn to this recording having visited this Church as a child many years ago. I liked the fact that the field recording tells a micro journey as you listen to footsteps across the Church floor, then the playing of the organ and finally the retreat.

“I thought about everything that the Church had seen. Could the architecture soak up elements from the Services and all of emotions it had seen played out over the years?

“I then thought of what all of these would sound like layered over each other (like some of the video clips on You Tube of every episode of Friends played on top of each other).

“The field recording was loaded into a failing Mid 90’s sampler (name unknown). Random parts were then recorded and a pattern created from the parts spread across the various trigger pads and re played.

“This was then re recorded into an Teenage Engineering OP1 and further slowed and pitched down. Finally it was re-recorded into Logic 8 and re ordered.”

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Our final stop is St. Cuthbert’s Church in Herefordshire, a remote church we visited in the dead of night after a long drive, only to find a beautiful space with an impressive organ waiting for us – well worth the trip.

Our organ improvisation was chosen by Nick St. George as the basis for his narrative piece “Sir Galahad and the Fiend”:

“I chose the organ playing from St Cuthbert’s Church in Herefordshire as I felt the slabs of sound would be good raw material for manipulation.

“I then delved a bit into the history of the church which it turns out contains a stained glass window featuring two of the Knights of the Round Table; one of whom is Sir Galahad.

“Thanks to the Gutenberg Project, I found a 1918 Longman’s school edition of the tales of King Arthur online, which included this tale of Galahad and the Fiend – a suitable story for this project with its comment on who may or may not merit being called a true Christian… Having been involved in gathering the field recordings for Sacred Spaces, I supplemented the basic track with some bell ringing and further organ playing that was recorded in two of Bristol’s redundant churches, but was surplus to Cities and Memory’s requirements.

“All the audio in this piece is, if you like, “organic” (sorry about the pun): organs, bells, Chinese Baoding balls, human voice. Treated, yes, but there are no sounds of purely digital origin present.”

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