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Review: The Secret Life of the Organ at Birmingham Town Hall

One unintended consequence of this concert was how thoroughly it proved that Philip Glass is one of the most potent and distinctive musical minds of our time.

The organ loft of Birmingham Town Hall.

You don’t have to like Philip Glass, but only a reactionary would deny that he’s one of the most potent and distinctive musical minds of our time. One unintended consequence of this concert was how thoroughly it proved that point. James McVinnie’s organ transcription of Glass’s Music in Similar Motion set up an exuberant, evolving tangle of musical patterns, the low notes slowly morphing into a deep, woofing rhythmic pulse. In McVinnie’s hands, Mad Rush alternately consoled and blazed with Glass’s sheer strength of artistic personality.

And that was as good as it got. The concert was billed as “The Secret Life of the Organ” – a chance to let some maverick creative spirits loose on the Town Hall organ. Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher, is an interesting artist, but his new suite for organ began with four movements exploring the potential of an octatonic scale (turns out there wasn’t much) before moving on to four seemingly unrelated movements in a Messiaen-lite style. McVinnie played it with commitment, but it still sounded like the sort of thing a trainee organist at any averagely-endowed cathedral might improvise while the collection plates are being gathered in.

Enter Australian jazz experimentalists The Necks. Chris Abrahams hit a note on the organ; Lloyd Swanton on bass blended high harmonics with the organ’s pedal note, and drummer Tony Buck let electronic distortion meld the sound of a cowbell with the slowly thickening texture. And then – well, that was basically it for nearly an hour. The pace wasn’t so much glacial as geological, Buck switching to rattling wooden sticks and later wire brushes as the fug of sound coagulated and built.

Hypnotic, if you’re in the mood: maybe I just wasn’t. It started around 8.55pm; after what felt like half an hour I glanced at my watch to see that it was 9.05. At 9.20 people started walking out. By 9.30 my square old Dead White European-trained mind was screaming for a chord change – even just one. No chance. It continued until about 9.45, and reader, I stuck it out to the very end. So you didn’t have to.

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