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Christopher Houlihan Salutes the 150th Birthday of an Underservedly Obscure Organ Music Icon

In the classical organ music demimonde, Louis Vierne is an iconic presence. The epic grandeur and frequent venom of his organ symphonies have seldom been matched, let alone surpassed. His life was plagued by struggle and tragedy. Born legally blind, he became an awardwinning violinist while still in his teens before switching to the king of the instruments. His wife left him for his best friend. He lost family members in World War I. After the war, he was forced to go on concert tour to raise money to repair the organ at Notre Dame in Paris, where he would remain until his death. And on his final day there, Vierne collapsed in the console and fell onto the low bass pedal. The organ rumbled louder and louder until someone finally went in to check on him and found him there dead.

Yet outside of the insular pipe organ world, Vierne is little-known…and Christopher Houlihan is determined to change that. This blog was unfortunately not there when he played the entire Vierne symphonic cycle in New York back in June of 2012, but fortunately much of that was recorded, and you can catch not only some of the highlights but also a lot of fascinating background when the organist celebrates the 150th anniversary of the troubled French composer’s birth with a series of webcasts starting this October 5.

There’s plenty of material for both general audiences and hardcore organ geeks. On October 5 at 7 PM, Houlihan interviews Phillip Truckenbrod, whose recent memoir Organists and Me covers a half century of managing some of the loudest musicians on the planet.

The next evening, October 6, Houlihan chats with the brilliant Notre Dame organist Olivier Latry about the horrific fire and ongoing reconstruction of the organ there. On October 7, Houlihan offers a demonstration of the famous Trinity College organ in Hartford Connecticut, and on October 8, he plays a deliciously dynamic program there which includes Vierne’s majestic Symphony No. 4 as well as shorter pieces ranging from his celestial Clair de Lune to the sparkling, playfully evocative Naïades. Other webcasts in the works include concert footage from Houlihan’s landmark 2012 Vierne performances as well as an interview with Vierne biographer Rollin Smith, the first American to play the Vierne symphonic cycle.

Dark Rituals and Gritty, Imaginative, Noisy Rock From Dorota

In a year where musicians and the arts are under assault more than at any other time in history, it’s heartwarming to see a group first featured on this page eight years ago still together and still putting out defiant and utterly unique music. Hungarian trio Dorota were characterized as “noisy noir punk surf jazz” here in 2012. Their latest album, Solar the Monk – streaming at Bandcamp – is just as noisy, more tuneful, and more influenced by late 70s no wave and 90s dreampop.

Is the blippy atmosphere at the beginning of the drony miniature that opens the album an allusion to sirens and lockdown-era fear? Actually not – the album predates the lockdown. The band don’t waste any time kicking into the first part of the album’s title track, a pouncing postrock stomp that recalls early Wire. Midway through, guitarist Dávid Somló, bassist Dániel Makkai and drummer Áron Porteleki slam out the same staccato E chord over and over as the overtones slowly rise. They reprise it later on with more syncopation and menacing clang.

The sternly marching third track, Neméreztem sounds like a group of Tibetan monks conjuring up an experimental rock ritual in a dingy Amsterdam club in 1979. Porteleki prowls mysteriously around his drum kit over spare atmospherics as Might Be Him takes shape, then the song morphs into a quasi-gospel groove punctuated by Makkai’s curlicue bass riffs.

Vacsorázin begins as a sputtering, drony dirge, then the monks return and chant their way slowly upward. The increasingly crazed instrumental Patient Religious Boys features flutes over boomy percussion, followed by the diptych The Stone Garden. The first part is just spare lo-fi keys and loops, then Somló switches back to guitar as Makkai’s looming chords rise along with Indian-flavored flutes.

From there we get dissociative ambience, Hare Krishnas on acid maybe, and twisted motorik noiserock. The concluding epic, It’s Gonna Rain slowly coalesces out of fuzzy, tensely wound bass to a wild stampede of guitar shred and huffing organ, and ends as you would expect. May this group survive the lockdown and continue to put out music as blissfully deranged as this.