Basic Noise

Opening a door into the world of contemporary organ music

Martin Stacey introduces the Annual Festival of New Organ Muisc and explains its purpose in today's musical climate.

In a time when new music is becoming increasingly influenced by consumer demand and publishers can no longer guarantee that a piece will sell, composers of organ music are facing a frighteningly grim future. There are a small number of well established composers enjoying the freedom to write and publish almost anything they desire, but there are many more lesser-known composers (often writing for themselves) who have little or no chance of ever seeing their music in print. After all, the publishing houses of today work in more or less the same way as in the past, acting as agents for new works and distributing the scores. However, it is invariably the consumer who ultimately dictates the nature of works available by affecting sales statistics.

The modern world has revolutionised the way music is distributed. Access to the internet, basic notation software and a photocopier are essentially the main ingredients necessary to make any new piece of music available. Self-publication has therefore become increasingly more common among those who are able to produce high quality scores for themselves, but the art of promoting one’s own work is something which does not come so easily.

Organ repertoire is a minority in the world of classical music, and the number of people who actually play (or would even buy) a piece of modern organ music by a composer they have never heard of, are even fewer. It comes as no surprise to discover that if the chances of selling a score are slim, then a publisher will simply not be interested. I was curious to discover, nevertheless, that certain well known publishers will consider new works for publication if they have already received positive reviews; but after approaching some renowned magazines and journals it soon became clear that reviews would only be written if a new work was already published. If the problem lies in the market then there needs to be a larger audience for new pieces, and performers should have a better knowledge of the overall state of organ composition worldwide. Finding suitable repertoire poses problems when so much music is only available overseas in currencies other than our own. The ideal situation would be to provide a single place where performers could search for new works, and composers could exchange ideas and push boundaries to uphold the integrity of the art.

These ideals form the basis of the Annual festival of New Organ Music (AFNOM) which offers a unique, fresh approach to promoting contemporary music and was launched in London during October 2006. AFNOM has been set up to address these most common difficulties by providing a series of “Exhibition-Concerts” at which all the featured compositions are for sale. This exciting new venture brings together composers, performers and audiences to hear and enjoy the best in new music for organ. Each event exclusively features contemporary organ music (many first performances) played by the composers themselves or a selected interpreter, providing composers with an outlet through which they can efficiently promote their own work by meeting with their audience and selling scores. Furthermore, public debates have been scheduled to involve composers and performers in discussions over matters related to modern organ composition.

How it works
Each year, composers of any age or nationality are invited to submit works written for organ, irrespective of whether they are recently composed or were written some time ago. Selected works are programmed into “Exhibition-Concerts” for which the programme-booklet is effectively a catalogue: including composers’ biographies, detailed descriptions of each work and their prices! For those who don’t feel up to performing their own pieces, the festival allows composers to nominate their own choice of performer or to request one (the organ departments of both the Royal College of Music (London) and the Sibelius Academy (Helsinki) involve their students in events, giving them the chance to develop a contemporary repertoire and be heard in public). Sound-clips of the featured works, which are being professionally recorded for this purpose, are downloadable from the festival website following each event, and anyone wishing to purchase a score (from anywhere in the world) simply visits the website, is able to read details of the programme and follows links to the relevant information. Self-published composers are at a huge advantage in that all proceeds from the sale of scores benefit them directly (as the festival does not take any form of commission) and published composers have their publishers details listed instead.

The overwhelmingly positive response to the 2006 festival has lead to Exhibition-Concerts being planned for 2007 in Lisbon and Helsinki as well as London, broadening the availability of live events and allowing more composers to attend the performance of their music

It is hoped that a large number of applications will be received again this year from all over the world. The festival organisers try to produce a well balanced programme at the same time as including as many works as possible. Some pieces that can not be accommodated in this year’s events may be included next year and will help determine the number of Exhibitions being held.

There were seventeen composers featured in the 2006 programme from Finland, Holland, America and Great Britain. Some composers are well known in their native lands while the rest are largely self-published professional musicians. Within the programme there was a great breadth of style and idiom, many contrasting voices and a real sense of cultural diversity, ranging from other-worldly textures of the north to black Afro-American music.

The instruments
The inaugural festival used two of the most significant instruments in London for its Exhibition-Concerts: the original 1883 “Father” Willis organ in St Dominic’s Priory (Haverstock Hill) and the newly restored 1963 Walker organ in St John the Evangelist (Islington). Both instruments possess an exceptional sound and are housed in magnificent buildings, providing a suitable space in which the music can be heard at its best. The differences between them clearly demonstrate how new music should be equally suited to an historic instrument with average compass and specification, as it is to a larger modern organ. In addition to these two instruments, the 2007 festival in London will also include an Exhibition-Concert on the renowned Rieger organ in St Marylebone Parish Church.

All Exhibition-Concerts are preceded by pubic discussions on organ composition today. Additionally in 2007, there will be ‘new music’ concerts during the festival at Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, St Paul’s Cathedral, St Lawrence-Jewry and St George’s Hanover Square. Full details of the programmes, times and venues can be found on the festival website (currently unavailable) and admission to all events is free.

© Martin Stacey 2007

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© 2012 Martin Stacey