Wayne SIEGEL (b.1953) Celebration, for robot-controlled pipe organ and weather satellite (2014) [60:18]
rec. 2014, Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik DACAPO 8.226595 [60:18]
When Dacapo’s marketing blurb alerted me to the forthcoming release of Wayne Siegel’s Celebration, I have to say that my curiosity was piqued by its description of the work to such a degree that had I been able to download or stream the piece immediately, I wouldn’t have hesitated. If I quote brief extracts here, some readers will, I hope, appreciate the magnitude of my anticipation: “A computer is connected to a massive pipe organ and robot musicians take control for the next 60 minutes – without human intervention. In … Celebration, the four manuals of the Hallgrímskirkja pipe organ in Reykjavík are controlled by four virtual musicians … Icelandic hymns and live-data from a weather satellite are interpreted by the virtual musicians playing the pipe organ, embedding human culture and the climate of our planet in everything they say”.
In fact, given that I have a keen interest in (a) new organ music, (b) new organs (the enormous instrument at the Hallgrimskirkja dates from 1992) and (c) anything even vaguely related to Icelandic art and culture it is not difficult to see why my interest was kindled.
First though, a brief word about the composer Wayne Siegel. Born in Los Angeles in 1953 he left the USA for Denmark in 1974 to study with Per Nørgård. He subsequently made his home there and is currently a Professor of Electronic Music and the director of the Danish Institute for Electronic Music (DIEM) in Aarhus. His work features on a few compilations of computer and electronic music issued by Dacapo – they have also released two portrait CDs – the earlier of these, from 1997 features my favourite Siegel work, Devil’s Golf Course, a viscerally thrilling evocation of the eponymous landmark in Death Valley, California for orchestra, synthesisers and drums. (DACAPO 8.224069).
The Hallgrimskirkja itself takes its name from a renowned Icelandic poet and priest, Hallgrimur Pétursson (1614-74). He was most famous as the creator of a set of 50 ‘Passion Hymns’ which are familiar in the churches of Iceland to this day. Six of these form a melodic foundation for the present work, which was commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of Pétursson’s birth. Siegel supervised the recording in the church during the night, thus minimising the extraneous sounds of traffic, visitors and indeed the rituals of worship. In this way Siegel is abstracting both the church and the instrument from their obvious cultural and sacred contexts and so the organ and its location become centrally important to the recorded content.
I use the phrase ‘recorded content’ with precision, for any one ‘performance’ of Celebration is inevitably going to be completely unique: to quote Siegel from the detailed notes: “The four manuals of the organ are played by four independent, autonomous, virtual musicians. Each of them has a ‘knowledge’ of how one plays different types of music. There are also three ‘umpires’ which say when playing technique (algorithm), key and stopping are to be changed”.
Self-evidently then, aspects of mathematics and chance directly influence what one will hear during any one ‘performance’ of the work. The impact of that understanding is curious: if one was to listen to this one hour work without that information, we would perhaps (not unreasonably) assume it was largely through-composed; that it was structured within some kind of identifiable ‘form’; that it had a beginning, a middle and an end. We would respond to what we have heard and make some sort of aesthetic judgement. Does the knowledge then that what is heard is ultimately based on algorithms persuade the listener to ‘make allowances’ before reaching his/her conclusions?
To my ears this Celebration lasts too long. Its sudden fractures and gear-changes do not convince. There are detectable fragments of what sound like hymn-tunes; there are elements where the momentum of the sound seems to imitate some kind of extreme weather event (whether that is based on the effect of prior knowledge of the ‘live weather data’ on my perceptual set is unclear); there are moments also that (to my ears) evoke respectively the fairground , Philip Glass’s score for Koyaanisqatsi and a brief recurring episode where one appears to be surrounded by a huge murmuration of starlings. All of these ‘evocations’ may well be interesting in themselves but for me they add up to a sprawling collage which doesn’t hang together as an entity. That is not to say its sound is unattractive – it presents aural challenges for sure but is rarely ugly.
The recording is well-managed but I suppose I was expecting something a bit more spectacular- the instrument itself clearly produces some amazing colours but after three airings of the disc I’m afraid I remain somewhat underwhelmed. The pieces on Siegel’s Devil’s Golf Course disc mentioned earlier all involve computers or electronics in some guise; they are all shorter and structurally coherent. Indeed they each make use of different instrumental or vocal groupings. As such they combine to make a truly compelling case for this composer.
But I found this ‘realisation’ of Celebration rather rambling as a whole experience, notwithstanding the sporadic interruption of isolated spectacular and sonically attractive material. My admiration for the imagination behind the concept and the technical knowledge required for its execution is unfettered, but to my ears Celebration is a bold experiment that doesn’t quite come off.