Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween Hangover - Sorabji's 1st Organ Symphony

Last night, while you were walking around your neighborhood in your "scary" costume, eating Twix,1 and generally having a good time, I was doing Halloween for real.

It was party time for you, but I spent nearly two hours listening to frightening organ music. And I lived to tell the tale.

That two-hour chunk of organ music was actually all one piece — Khaikosru Sorabji's Organ Symphony No. 1 (1924). I came across the English2 composer's name last year because of a somewhat snarky article he wrote in 1928 in The Musical Times urging more performances of Mahler's music.

So I figured that Sorabji was OK with long symphonies. What I didn't quite expect before I looked at the timings on Kevin Bowyer's apparently rare recording was a scarily long third movement that alone spans 47 minutes. But at 2 hours total, this symphony is actually a baby. Though I know little about Sorabji's other two organ symphonies, apparently they're both much longer.3 What's more, Sorabji's actual (orchestral, not organ) Symphony No. 3 ("Jumi") makes Mahler's Ninth look like a piano miniature. In "Jumi," the third movement alone lasts 2 hours. (So if you have a minute, check out the set of about 8 billion Youtube clips of the strikingly realistic digital version of "Jumi," which will have to tide you over until some orchestra actually decides to play it.)

All this makes perfect sense if you remember that Sorabji (1892-1988) was really a rock star ahead of his time. Approaching "Jumi" or the Organ Symphony No. 1 isn't so daunting if you treat it like the Flaming Lips' legendary Zaireeka, the album you're supposed to listen to on four different stereos simultaneously (and the only CD I know of with instructions for proper use). My brief experience with the blend of towering chords and labyrinthine polyphony in the Organ Symphony suggests that next time, I might want to bring some friends over (on some night besides Halloween), lie down, and just let the music wash over everyone in the room.

If Sorabji was half Flaming Lips, he was also half XTC. That excellent group stopped playing live in 1982 because of Andy Partridge's stage fright. Maybe Andy took a cue from Sorabji, who stopped performing on the piano in 1936 for similar reasons.4

Back to fright night,5 and on to the Organ Symphony. All it demands are a really good organist and an organ with 4-5 manuals, or keyboards (in other words, a really big organ). The first movement is a passacaglia with a perfectly reasonable 81 variations. Here's the bass ostinato on which it's built (on the organ, the feet play it on the pedals):

This tune does show up again toward the close of both the second and third movements, giving this long symphony a (slightly) cyclical feel. You should be able to detect the first half of the theme here, toward the end of the fugal second movement (the only time I found it in this movement):

Back in the first movement, though, that tune lurches in rhythmic disjunction with the other voices. This conflict heightens its already haunting quality and, on Halloween, can make you feel like Zombies are closing in on you from different directions. Here are the first four variations, and I hope you can pick out the ominous bass figure each time:

These kinds of textures dominate the symphony. So the opposite kind — enormous blocks of notes hurled at the listener — actually provides some stability. Here's a clip from near the beginning of the third movement, where a long, soft, chromatic chordal passage builds to a polyphonic frenzy that contains that same kind of rhythmic discord:

What I found most surprising about this symphony on my first listen was that the extra-long third movement — the least clear in form — was actually the easiest to follow. The frequent pauses gave me both a chance to catch my breath and a sense that I was following a series of narrative episodes rather than an intellectual unfolding. If I were scoring a silent horror film, I'd probably go straight to this third movement and choose a passage like this one:

The main point here is that I survived Halloween night without any Bach Toccata-related nightmares. This is remarkable, because Bach is a big part of this symphony, and of that last clip in particular — and not just because of the instrument or the counterpoint. What you might not realize about that last passage, about 40 minutes into the movement and serving as a kind of overall climax, is that Sorabji gives us the famous B-A-C-H (Bb, A, C, B) figure in those wild block chords you just heard. It happens seven times, an ostinato that trumps the first movement's passacaglia foundation. Sorabji even wrote "BACH" in the score. Every single time. Irony or not, it's pretty intense hearing the pedal part trying to get its groove back underneath that weight of the great German master.

You made it this far, which means your heart can stand the shocking facts about (and sounds of) Sorabji's Organ Symphony No. 1. And remember, my friend: future events, including actual performances of Sorabji's symphonies, will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable. That is why you're listening to Sorabji, and that's why you're here at Unsung Symphonies.6 Now do yourself a favor and check out the modern Sorabji, XTC's Andy Partridge, in a rare live performance of one of the greatest songs ever.

— Matthew Mugmon

1. They're all Twix. It was a setup.
2. According to Paul Rapoport in Grove, Sorabji — whose mother was Spanish-Sicilian and father was Parsi — didn't care for the "English" label.
3. So say Allistair Hinton's liner notes to the recording.
4. See Grove and Chalkhills for this striking connection.
5. Yama Hama!
6. Text adapted from Ed Wood, Plan 9 From Outer Space, but applicable to nearly any situation involving scary stuff.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Folks;

    Sorabji's "Jami" Symphony, recently renumbered No 2, can be listened to in it's entirety via my website without those silly youtube breaks.