With his epic new triple album Organon Novus – streaming at Spotify – Randall Harlow seeks to restore the king of the instruments to its rightful place in concert music. Current generations may not realize how prominent a role the organ has played in American history. A hundred years ago, pretty much every major concert hall – not to mention city hall, baseball stadium, movie theatre, skating rink, funeral parlor, wedding venue, even the occasional department store – had its own organ. Harlow’s criteria in selecting the material here is to focus on American composers who are not organists themselves.
He explains that rationale in the liner notes: “As a performer I am particularly attracted to works by non-organist composers, as they tend to refreshingly avoid the well-worn gestures and techniques oft overused by incorrigible organists. This is not to say there aren’t compelling and original works composed by organists, particularly by those whose professional compositional activities extend beyond the organ and choral worlds, but works by non-organists such as these here often present novel and challenging figurations and elicit compelling new sounds from the instrument.” That’s something of an understatement. Harlow plays them on the titanically colorful E.M. Skinner organ in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the the University of Chicago.
The music here runs the gamut as eclectically as any other instrumental album released over the last several years. If you want an in-depth survey of some of the most interestingly diverse works for organ since 1990, you can’t do any better than this. The majority of them are on the short side as organ works go, generally under ten minutes, many of them under five. The dynamic and timbral ranges are as vast as any fan of the demimonde could want, from whispery nebulosity to all-stops-out pandemonium. The quietest pieces are the most minimalist.
Harlow opens with an alternately showy and calmly enveloping Libby Larsen study in bell-like tones which he calls an “all-limbs-on-deck work for the performer.” He closes with Aaron Travers‘ Exodus, an oceanic partita once considered unplayable for its complexity, wildly churning menace, leaps and whirling vortices. It will take your breath away.
In between we get Matt Darriau‘s crescendoing, anthemically circling Diapason Fall, which sounds nothing like his adventures in klezmer or Balkan music. Harlow follows Michael Daugherty‘s stormy, pulsing An Evangelist Drowns/Desert Dance with Roberto Sierra‘s Fantasia Cromática and its dervish dance of an outro.
He turns a Christian Wolff piece for either organ or celesta into a coy dialogue betweeen that relatively rare organ stop and the high flutes. Then he improvises against the rattle of dried beans and macaroni atop percussionist Matt Andreini’s snare and tom-tom in a droning, hypnotic Alvin Lucier soundscape. A “hair-raising study in how not to play the organ” by John Zorn, contrastingly careening and quietly macabre, concludes the second disc.
Other standouts from among the total of 25 composers represented here include John Anthony Lennon‘s allusively Doors-influenced, cascading Misericordia; a towering, picturesque Rocky Mountain tableau by George Walker; Samuel Adler‘s purposeful, tightly coiling Schoenberg homage From Generation to Generation; and Joan Tower’s delightfully blustery, aptly titled Ascent. The portents of the penultimate number, Lukas Foss’ Hiroshima-themed triptych War and Peace are among the album’s most riveting moments. Harlow attacks each of these pieces with equal parts meticulousness and passion. Even better, there’s a sequel in the works.