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Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Thanos Chrysakis / Chris Cundy / Peer Schlechta / Ove Volquartz - Archangel (Music for Two Pipe Organs & Two Bass Clarinets) (Aural Terrains, 2023)

By Nick Ostrum

Five years after their 2018 Music for two Organs and Two Bass Clarinets , the low-end quartet of Thanos Chrysakis (chamber organ, voice), Chris Cundy (bass clarinet, contra-bass clarinet, sopranino ocarina), Peer Schlechta (organ) and Ove Volquartz (bass clarinet, contra-alto clarinet, contra-bass clarinet) went back to the Neustädter Kirche for a session that would produce Archangel.

It begins with high organ pitches and plodding bass tones. Breathy reeds come in, as does a blast of organ chords. What Archangel provides is what Chrysakis achieves so consistently and expertly: a complex layering of tones that drone, fluctuate, collide, entwine and, most importantly, shape each other. A fitting metaphor may be a big hollow pipe, wherein sounds bounce and rebound but also converge into a greater, richer and more whole-sounding aggregate. The clarinets billow through the alternately piercing circuitry sounds and the intermittent elongated tones. Over time, the clarinets get more aggressive (or probing) and start pushing their way to the front as the organ holds back, erecting pillar after pillar of sound. As the musicians move into Parts II-III, the organs shift to the fore again splitting the ground between heavy tones and the crackling high notes, which, 16-and-a-half minutes in, break into one of several moments of redirection and clarity. Here, one clarinet soars as the other flirts with the organ drone. And the dance continues Clarinets flutter in and out of perception, sometimes clucking and other times ascending and descending scales. I cannot speak to individuals, but one organ is consistent in its endless hum, sometimes broken by keyboard strikes. The other – the piercing one - wanders in and out of winding melodies, or dramatic climbs. Indeed, Part III ends in something of a march or a tension-ridden, punctuated pulse that most often comes from a large string section.

Part IV reverses the roles at first, with elongated upper register buzz and the clarinets deep in scalar dialog. This section, however, is more spacious, and maybe less cavernous (despite the sonorous confines of the church in which it is performed). The Cundy and Volquartz intrude a little further into warmer, lyrical terrain at points, and the overall effect is somewhat more personal – and less intimidating – than the early movements. I think I even hear chants or groans at points, which may be Chrysakis or might be resonant illusions. That, of course, adds to the mystery that Chrysakis as composer generates so effectively in many of his works. Part V leans back into whistles (this must be where Cundy picks up the sopranino ocarina), surprisingly nimble bass clarinet clusters, some jaunty organ melodies (that sound like a distant, hazy and irregular organ grinder) and heavy chords. This is where things get most intense.

Then again, the dynamics of tension might not be the proper lens through which to view this. Rather, Archangel is a deceptive monolith. One can listen casually and hear, really, the same dynamic range and similar textiles, not quite homogenous or scripted but not terribly wild either. The real effect, however, comes in the dissimilarities and the fine features that shatter any inclination toward homogeny. Of course, one must listen to the space of the church, as well, which lends gravity, echo and reverberance. Especially those who are riding the contemporary organ music wave (on wandelweiser, Another Timbre, Zorn’s Hermetic Organ project), I recommend picking this one up. Archangelhas a fuller sound than those tend to. Nevertheless, it approaches the instrument, and a variety of deep clarinets, with a similar drive to push the instrument tonally and physically out of the baroque and into the modern world. And, for those familiar with Music for Two Organs, Archangelflows along similar lines, but is more cohesive. The former seems an experiment; the latter, an expression of a shared vision.

Archangelis available as a CD from Aural Terrains .