Trevor Grahl Of Ancient Days Cobra Records

Trevor Grahl (b. 1984)
Of Ancient Days (2018)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Partita: Sei Gegrüsset, Jesu Gütig BWV 768
Trevo Grahl (hyperorgan)
Francesca Ajossa (Utopa Baroque Organ, mechanical console)
rec. 2023, Orgelpark, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Cobra Records 0089 [54]

Tucked away from Amsterdam’s busy Overtoom and neatly set on one side of the Vondelpark, Het Orgelpark is a remarkable concert venue in a beautifully restored and adapted church that now houses seven organs of varying sizes, plus a few other keyboard instruments and the legendary ‘Busy Drone’ barrel organ. The church has a fine acoustic and is certainly big enough to accommodate all of these assorted tubes, while not being so huge as to suffer from an overly swampy resonance. 

This venue has been innovating both artistically and technically for years, and this recording is a celebration of the recently completed ‘hyperorgan’, which is an all-embracing term that describes a digital interlinking of different instruments and playing mechanisms, all run from a single console. Both a 1922 Sauer organ and the Utopa Baroque Organ can be run simultaneously from this console, which means Romantic and German Baroque sounds can be combined. The hard and software interactions arising from this technology goes way beyond the conventional however, with airflow and all other kinds of mechanical action broadening our horizons and creating a true playground for imaginative composers and performers.          

Trevor Grahl’s Of Ancient Days employs these resources to tell the creation story of the birth of the world in music. As a companion on this journey Grahl has used the movements of Johan Sebastian Bach’s partita Sei Gegruosset, Jesu Guotig as a linking thread that are the nights between each of the six biblical days of creation, performed on the Utopa Baroque Organ by Francesca Ajossa.

Running from the formless air sounds of In the Beginning up to The Sixth Day: Ecce Homo, this is a recording full of spectacle and surprise, putting the mind on full alert from beginning to end. That opening void is worth a close listen, with moments amongst the air sounds in which the chaos almost but never quite coagulates into a chorus of foul but industrious angels. The First Day: Filament works its way out of the darkness with subterranean heaving and notes made dusty and anxious with a tremolo effect, light stabbing into these textures with major-key violence at the close. The Second Day: Echo Sphere is brief and intense, with closely echoing notes creating fountains of sound, and an almost seaside barrel-organ effect in its last couple of minutes.        

The Third Day: The Prolific Tale of Callithamnion roseum (A Primordial Alga) is a highlight for me. Its ritualistic cycling and addition of material put me in mind a little of Karel Goeyvaerts’ Litanies, but the uneasy pendulum of its soundworld is thoroughly compelling. Play this loud and see if the neighbours come out to see which aliens have landed. The Fourth Day: Tourbillon des Étoiles opens with deep woofer-testing pedal notes and a rising sequence of chords, the stars then evoked by a Cymbelstern in the Baroque organ, a magical rotating device with small bells that strike to create a shimmering effect.    

The music is at times not without humour, and the melancholic cuckoo in The Fifth Day: Au Fond des Bois raised a smile amongst all of the other wild and exotic sounds of birds and nature in this movement. Mankind initially emerges from the chaos on The Sixth Day with some of the atmosphere of a cinema organ rising up from the stage, but tacky naïvité is soon subsumed with violence and pollution, out of which a little melody survives, moving from a jolly reminder of ‘The Simpsons’ into diffuse extinction, and a return to a void even darker than the opening.       

If I have any criticism of this piece is that it should have enough confidence in itself to dispense with Bach. Having Baroque music between these newly composed movements is a nice idea, but it feels a bit shoe-horned into the whole as a concept and I could feel my brain’s distress each time it was wrenched out of one or other of these immersive experiences into the early 18th century and Bach’s youthful enthusiasm. This does neither composer any favours, and the final variation crashes in between the last two of Grahl’s movements particularly gratingly. With all of the resources to hand this might even be perceived as a lost opportunity. Bringing Bach closer to Grahl by (for instance) melting his notes like a Dali clock would certainly seem less of a clash. You can of course de-select the Bach tracks and hear Of Ancient Days develop organically without its Lutheran intrusions but either way this is a remarkable and wonderful introduction to the hyperorgan; indeed, a world première recording for any work composed specially for its extraordinary capabilities. If like me you were blown away by Hans Ola Ericsson’s The Four Beasts’ Amen (review), or something like Tilo Medek’s Gebrochene Flügel (review), then you will want to break out your best headphones and dive into Of Ancient Days forthwith.

Dominy Clements       

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Contents (Grahl)

Prelude: In the Beginning (Unda Maris)

The First Night: Chorale, Variation I (Sei gegrüset, Jesu gütig)

The First Day: Filament

The Second Night: Variations II, III, IV (Sei gegrüset, Jesu gütig)

The Second Day: Echo Sphere

The Third Night: Variations V, VI, VII (Sei gegrüset, Jesu gütig)

The Third Day: The Prolific Tale of Callithamnion Roseum (a Primordial Alga)

The Fourth Night: Variations VIII, IX (Sei gegrüset, Jesu gütig)

The Fourth Day: Tourbillon des Etoiles

The Fifth Night: Variation X (Sei gegrüset, Jesu gütig)

The Fifth Day: Au Fond des Bois…

The Sixth Night: Variation XI (Sei gegrüset, Jesu gütig)

The Sixth Day: Ecce Homo