Monday, January 19, 2015

LP Review: Áine O'Dwyer - Music for Church Cleaners, Vol. I and II

Áine O'Dwyer
Music for Church Cleaners, Vols. 1 and II

If you had unlimited access to a church's pipe organ, what would you play? Scary movie music? "Baby Elephant Walk" and "Alley Cat"? An imitation of Keith Emerson or Jimmy Smith? 

It might be tempting to simply hold down a chord or two and bask in the rich swell of the sound emanating from the pipes, pulling drawbars in and out to see how the tone changes and reverberates around the room.

Áine O'Dwyer, who normally plays improvised music on the harp, had this golden opportunity at St. Mark's Church in Islington (United Kingdom). The pipe organ was being cleaned so she was able to sit down and the keyboard and basically tinker with it. She recorded everything and originally released on a cassette, presenting a personal field recording. Vacuum cleaners whir in the background as she plays, as do children's voices. Most entertaining is an exchange between O'Dwyer and a church employee on "An Unkindness of Ravens," the seventh track.

Woman: A request from the ladies...
O'Dwyer: Oh. Stop playing?
W: (warmly) No, no, no. When you hold it on one note for a long time, can you keep it quiet? Or can you just not... stay on one note for a long time? 
O: Okay, yes.
W: Okay? Sorry.

O'Dwyer does enjoy pedal point drones (the first track in fact is titled "Pedal Danse") and the lady quoted above returns later in the album to again remind her that her sustained notes can be felt throughout the building. But most often, her choice of tempo is slow, akin to the hymns that might be played normally on the organ,, with the same kind of harmonic framework. This isn't noisy, free improvisation by any means. The combination of background sounds and drones make it more like meditation music.

The sound of the organ is rich and beautiful, and O'Dwyer does get takes the sounds of Bach into the realm of post rock and occasional psychedelia. But 91 minutes of these drones can be hard to take all at once. (The original cassette release was half this size.) After awhile, the conversations and ambient sounds become almost more interesting that the music itself. 

Yet that was O'Dwyer's goal - to document it with the approach of John Cage, letting all found sounds become part of the music. Further, the reissued, expanded version is coming out on vinyl (limited edition of 500), so it comes with three built-in breaks during the program. (My advance copy came as a download of the whole set.) Hearing it that way, or in its original cassette form, can make all the difference. In bite size pieces, it sounds enthralling.

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