In recent years, composer and audio-visual artist Claire M Singer has created new music for organ, cello and electronics while holding down the position of Music Director at London’s Union Chapel, Islington. Following in the steps of Buxtehude and JS Bach, you’d as likely hear her playing the chapel’s organ during Christmas services as performing her own music.
Three of the seven pieces on Solas (Touch), her debut album, were recorded on the Union Chapel organ, built in 1877 by Henry Willis and recently restored: a rare instrument “with a fully working original hydraulic blowing system, which can be used as an alternative to the electric blowers” (unionchapel.org.uk).
Singer also makes multimedia works—not represented here, but interesting to know about—of which a’ fàs soilleir is an audio-visual piece for organ, electronics and film (to be made available as an AV download in Touch’s Touchline series), and the curiouser RADIOROBOT is a sound sculpture in the shape of a robot, made entirely out of analogue radios. Singer says it “draws together interests in radio frequency interaction, circuit bending and sculpture using found objects”, and you can easily guess how the same interests inform her instrumental pieces.
The main piece on the album, “The Molendinar”, is named for the burn on which Glasgow was founded in the sixth century, but it was developed and recorded at the Union Chapel, where Willis’ fully mechanical organ made the addition of any electronics, which are required to enhance any performance on an electro-pneumatic organ, unnecessary, so preserving the purity of Singer’s intention to “explore the precise control of wind through the pipes.”
And if that sounds reductive, it’s a fair indication of the result: a purity of line, with warm, shimmering vibrato producing tonal richness; keyed sustains with vocal qualities contrasting electronic properties; rich contrasts in depth and coloration; strength in subtlety. Then, in the seventh minute, an injection of languid, churchly melody, with unstopped sound amassing; in the fifteenth minute, new clarion tones; and in the sixteenth minute, surging, gut-deep emphases in the organ’s lower register, reaching for sublimity, only to withdraw in the 22nd minute. It’s an excellent, unabashed glorification of the organ’s voluminosity.
“The Molendinar” lasts 25:57, and (deservedly) gets a whole CD to itself. Another contains six shorter pieces, two of which were also recorded at the Union Chapel—”Solas”, for organ plus cello, and “Wrangham”, for organ plus electronics. Four other works are for cello, piano, violin, percussion and/or electronics.
On “Solas”—’Light’ in Gaelic—Singer casts quasi-electronic luminescence over steady, more recognisably organ-sourced sustains, and blends in haunting arco cello. The effect is subtly dramatic, inducing a feeling of revelatory disconnectedness or detachment. “Wrangham” is brighter and more open, with an uplifting, almost hymnal feel.
Singer’s unabashed but unaffected exploitation of the organ’s potential tonal abundance is refreshing. That her work is sophisticated and meticulously constructed but never strives for effect makes it all the more powerful. Her works for cello and electronics are equally compelling.
“A Different Place” (6:35) and “Dìobaig” (04:47) are multi-track solo cello pieces, which mirror the layering on the organ pieces but, without recourse to the organ’s sustains, exploit instead the cellist’s close physical relationship with her instrument. “a Different Place” opens the album with urgency in its surge, pulse and drive – echoes of Dirty Three’s weatherbeaten, broad-screen alt-rock melancholia. “Dìobaig” is its opposite, with thin, attenuated threads of sound drawn from silence into a gauzy ambience haunted by inarticulate murmurs.
“Ceò” (05:39)—the oldest piece here, from 2002—and “Eilean” (11:36) are electronic works derived from recordings of cello, piano and either percussion (“Ceò”) or violin (“Eilean”). “Ceò” has a rich, roiled, aqueous opacity, in which instrumental sounds are mostly subsumed, devolving into cetacean song abstraction. “Eilean” is, again, strikingly different. It enfolds samples of Scottish fiddler Paul Anderson’s performance of his own composition “Land of the Standing Stones”, but all inputs bleed together in a piece that grows from ambience to something matching the organ pieces in its density of resonance.
Singer is a natural fit on the Touch label, which has long championed works for organ and electronics, as in its Spire series of events and recordings, to which Singer has contributed.
Claire M Singer organ, cello, electronics, piano, percussion, samples.
John Chantler – Still Light, Outside.
Veryan Weston, Jon Rose, Hannah Marshall – Tuning Out: Pieces for Tracker Action Organs and Strings.
Kit Downes & Tom Challenger / Stefan Rusconi & Tobias Preisig – Vyamanikal / Levitation.
Philip Jeck + Charles Matthews + BJ Nilsen + Marcus Davidson + John Beaumont – Touch: Spire at St Botolph without Aldgate, 21 June 2012.
Buy Solas direct from Touch.