Fresh Stream

Ellen Arkbro – For Organ and Brass


Swedish composer Ellen Arkbro wrote the three pieces on For Organ and Brass (Subtext) in a historical tuning called meantone temperament, which produces “intervals and chords that bear a close resemblance to traditional blues music,” as she explains. Where do you find an instrument tuned to meantone temperament? At St. Stephens church in Tangermünde, Germany, of course, the home of the Sherer-Orgel, a 400-year-old organ.

“I can only play my songs on a 400-year-old organ” sounds like a deleted scene from Spinal Tap, but Arkbro is no heavy metal diva. She’s a composer who explores the deep resonances of instruments in the tradition of La Monte Young and Pauline Oliveros. The gentle, austere pulsations on For Organ and Brass go nowhere in the best way possible. They invite you to examine each of their aspects, to listen intently to each breath. Arkbro explains how “the brass instruments and the organ fall into patterns of interaction in which a new breathing instrument emerges.” It’s true: the borders between the instruments are unstable, if not absent entirely. The horn players are breathing and so is the organ, through its pipes. It’s all breath. You don’t hear “organ and brass”; you just hear organ-brass-breath-undulation.

I wouldn’t have heard the blues overtones if Arkbro hadn’t brought them to my attention, but if you listen for it, there is something of a twang here. Like she says, it’s “very slow and reduced blues music.” Renaissance organ music, Delta blues and modern composition: birds of a feather? Maybe there’s less new under the sun than we might think.

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