FutureStops Festival Runs Sep. 29 to Oct. 1

The Royal Canadian College of Organists’ FutureStops project is presenting a series of concerts and discussions at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, Cathedral of St James and Metropolitan United Church. The event will be webcast at futurestops.org, Sep. 29 to Oct. 1.

The event opens with an evening performance by Kali Malone, Thomas Mellan and Kara-Lis Coverdale. Other highlights include a gala reception and concert the following night, featuring the Jeff McLeod Organ Trio and closing night performances by Charlemagne Palestine, Matthew Larkin and Sarah Davachi.

Blake Hargreaves is host of the FutureStops podcast, and an accomplished contemporary music artist. He and I exchanged emails about the pipe organ and its relevance in new music.

“Many instruments in Western music have come and gone from popular use: lutes, zithers, shawms keytars, hurdies-gurdy. It’s a complex set of factors which keeps an instrument in frequent use,” he says. “I think what’s surprising to a lot of people is that after a century of the pipe organ seeming to walk down the path of becoming a ‘historical’ instrument like those mentioned, it is suddenly experiencing a renaissance among a new generation of musicians with large audiences, who have very little relationship with any pre-existing pipe organ community. 

“The pipe organ is an unparalleled physical instrument. It’s comparable to a particle accelerator in how rare and unusual its capabilities are. Pipe organs employ infrasonic sounds – sound waves emanating from the lowest organ notes are over nine metres long. There are very few natural or industrial phenomena which produce such sounds. The instrument has a humble grandiosity in being essentially a giant prosthetic, giving one person the ability to play hundreds or thousands of notes simultaneously. 

“The pipe organ’s history in the last five centuries in Western societies is intertwined with religion and the supernatural, in a way no other instrument is – giving it a special status which isolates it, with admittedly positive and negative consequences for the organ’s reach. This historical cultural status, and the resources needed to build or maintain an organ and the acoustic in which it sits, are probably enough to ensure its relevance, if nothing else.”

Hargreaves says the continued popularity of electronic music has reflected positively on the pipe organ.

“For me the purity of the organ’s extreme sounds was a draw; the fact that I can create a sonic environment encompassing the outer reaches of the audible sound spectrum, without using a computer or dealing with speakers,” he says. “Popular electronic music’s rise in the last few decades has served to remind us that there is so much more to hear than the frequency band occupied by guitar, bass, drums and vocals, or an orchestra. But we also discover the limits of electronic sound to excite us with these fresh frequencies being created artificially. Suddenly the organ is there, as the only instrument which can produce those sounds in a way which is not electrical, and controlled and pitched to western tastes.”

Tickets are available at futurestops.org.

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