Reframing the organ with electronic and classical composer Claire M Singer

As a musician who has roots in both classical and electronic music, I jumped at the opportunity to chat to composer Claire M Singer – music director of the organ at the Union Chapel and winner of the PRS & BBC Radiophonic Workshop Oram Award in 2017.

Claire’s work is mesmerising and mediative, blurring the lines between traditional acoustic instruments and electronics to create ethereal, dream-like soundscapes and works.

Claire has released two solo albums – Solas and Fairge On Touch and composed the soundtrack for upcoming film Tell It To The Bees (directed by Annabel Jankel, starring Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger, premiering at Toronto International Film Festival 2018). She is also curating Organ Reframed at Union Chapel this month, featuring performances from the likes of Éliane Radigue, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Darkstar, Philip Jeck, Sarah Davachi and Kathy Hinde.

I caught up with Claire to chat about how she started composing for organ, the challenges that can bring and why it’s an instrument worthy of its own festival…

Your work is incredibly unique, reimagining traditional instruments. You’ve said the organ can be thought of as the world’s first synthesiser. What first drew you to composing for it?

About 13 or 14 years ago, organist Roger Williams asked me to compose a work for him to play at Sound Festival in Aberdeen. I was mainly working on electronic music at the time and was like, ‘I don’t think I’m really the right person to compose you a piece on the organ!’ My only experience of the organ was going to funerals or weddings, or the expansive classical repertoire and I didn’t think my style would be suitable.

When I got to the instrument, I discovered that the organ we were working on was a mechanical stop organ, where you can control how much wind goes through the pipes. As Roger was demonstrating the different colours of stops, I asked him, ‘can you just pull out this stop really slowly and let me hear what it sounds like?’ That was me hooked. I had him doing everything in slow motion, pressing down pedals ever so slightly, and pulling out stops to get all these beautiful airy sounds. From writing that piece, I was just completely hooked on the fact that you can create textures that sound like they’re electronic but are created completely acoustically.

You’re curating the Organ Reframed festival at the Union Chapel this month. What are you most looking forward to?

We had writing workshops the other day with the London Contemporary Orchestra, Philip Jeck and Darkstar writing their pieces. It was so nice to see these artists working and getting the same excitement I have with the instrument. I’m really looking forward to seeing what every single artist does with the organ. I’m sure they’ll all have very different approaches. You just don’t know what to expect. Even though all of the artists come from an experimental background, they don’t all come from the exact same place, which was intentional in the curation.

The fact that Éliane Radigue is writing us a piece is pretty special – it’s her first ever organ piece.

What’s your musical background?

I started learning cello at the age of 7 and piano at 11, and from a very early age, I much preferred to sit and write my own melodies on the cello. I started playing in bands from age 13 (keyboards, cello and accordion) and when I got my own Roland keyboard E-300, which introduced me to multi-track recording, my compositions expanded quite dramatically into multi instrumental works. That was it – I was hooked. I multi-tracked on my Roland or on to tape and this approach is what led me to studio composition at university. I liked that you could instantly hear your composition come to life. As I was playing classically on the cello at the same time as playing in the band, my writing very much took influence from both styles. That’s probably why my music today straddles the classical, electronic and contemporary fields.

I started playing organ when I joined Union Chapel in 2012. I have been composing for organ for about 12 years but the early pieces were written for another organist to play. Since I had keys to one of the most beautiful organs in the world I used to sit for hours on end and experiment. I’ve never had an organ lesson but I developed my own way of playing and slowly reduced the amount of electronics I was using.

Photo: Martin Gray

Do you have any particular themes or concepts in mind when composing?

My first album was an accumulation of 15 years of work. The organ material was all new, but one of the tracks is actually the first piece I wrote in the studio at Goldsmiths.

The second release was a commission from Oude Kerk in a church and gallery space in Amsterdam. What was particularly interesting about this commission was that the performance would take place at the same time as Dutch artist Marinus Boezem’s exhibition of new site-specific works. The exhibition included a multi-speaker sound installation, which featured field recordings of Boezem’s 1987 work De Groene Kathedraal (The Green Cathedral) and as part of the brief I was asked to incorporate his installation into my live performance.

After the concert, I decided I wanted to release it as its own thing. It was exciting – when you’re working to a spec you’re forced into thinking differently.

You’ve recently composed the soundtrack for upcoming film Tell It To The Bees. Can you tell us more about that?

I’d never experienced working in that way before – you’re not just creating music that stands alone, you have to be very aware not to take the spotlight off what’s happening on screen. It was exciting but also probably the steepest learning curve of my career! You’re trying to meet tight deadlines and a lot of the score is more classical. I had to go back to my classical writing chops but then mix that with electronics. Every day I read an interview with a composer for film to try and pick up some tips and techniques, but they all went out of the window once I found my own groove!

Who would you say are your biggest inspirations?

I don’t think I could pick one person, it always changes. To be honest, I don’t listen to a huge amount of music anymore. I find that when I’m writing music I don’t want to listen to other people because I feel that can interfere with my thought process. I do love going to live shows though and try to catch as many as I can. I’ve worked with so many different styles of music and I think that’s made me who I am today.

Photo: Spitfire Audio

What’s been your favourite experience of your career to date?

A big turning point in my creative career was when I got the job at Union Chapel and started to learn my own way of playing the organ. I would say that’s probably the most monumental thing that’s happened, because now I can’t imagine life without organ!

I find playing the organ even more physical than playing my cello. With the organ you are playing the entire building and working with the vibrations and the huge, all-encompassing sound.

Are you releasing another album any time soon?

As soon as the festival is over, I’m going to start working on the next album. Hopefully I’ll also get some live dates sorted for early next year as well. It’s really hard, because most people take their instruments with them, but I can’t take the organ with me. I have to go on a pre-tour before I go on tour so that I can prepare all of the pieces on the specific organs that I’m playing – it’s a really lengthy process. I was supporting Low last year in Amsterdam and was flying back and forth sometimes just for the day to have a rehearsal because I needed to know that organ inside out.

Is there a dream venue that you’ve always wanted to play at?

I’ve played quite a few venues but I’d have to say that my favourite is still Union Chapel. That’s not being biased – the organ there is just so good. I’m always interested in exploring new spaces. I do love playing Oude Kerk as well, because it’s a completely different type of space and a lot more reverberant.

It’s really tricky because there’s two types of organ: electric stop organ (where you can’t play with the wind) and then mechanical, and I need mechanical. It’s not like I have my choice of venues, I have to go on the type of organ and then look at the space. I’ve got very specific needs!

What advice would you give to other aspiring composers, particularly women?

If you want to do this as your career you need to be prepared to have knockbacks, get back on your feet and just keep believing that what you do is what you’re meant to be doing. It’s not an easy time to be a full-time musician. I feel like I’ve had blinkers on since I was about 10 years old and this was all I wanted to do. You just have to keep believing in yourself and let that carry you through. Things will happen, you just have to keep going.

Organ Reframed 2018 takes place on 12 and 13 October at Union Chapel, London.

Feature image: Spitfire Audio

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