The Melbourne City Council (MCC) has embarked on quite an ambitious program in using the Town Hall’s grand organ for new works it has commissioned for it. Thursday (November 8), showcased the work of JP Shiloh, the well-known multi-instrumentalist from a number of bands, most notably the Blackeyed Susans.
Before JP, the MCC presented artists making use of the organ in unexpected ways. The organ’s whole assembly can be remotely controlled which opens up possibilities for composers who may not be up to the demands of the multi-tasking required to play its full set of keyboards. It might be safe to say the only the drums and the grand organ requires all four of limbs to operate them. Contemporary composers, most of whom have probably not been long term players of the grand organ, are still shy in making full use of its possibilities. We saw this when Sarah Mary Chadwick played a few months ago. Her work was great, but ultimately limited by the style of the pieces and her possibly being quite new to it.
Three RMIT composition students performed including Joseph Callaly. He combined computer-generated noises with the organ’s tones. In contrast, fellow students Mark Hooper and Jimmy McEwan, used a sequenced series of computer-generated sounds with the deep bass of the organ providing unsettling roars.
The group Zagadka performed with a film “exploring the persecution and image of the witch”. Again, the the organ was limited to providing rumbles and grumbles in the background. The film/soundtrack combination was somewhat Eraserhead-esque. It had that same sense of foreboding and stark black and white imagery, but perhaps without the same drier than dust dark humour and exaggeration.
Next was local goth stylists Bitumen. Goth music is funny in its seriousness and this crew were no exception. I quite liked them, but it’s easy to take the mickey out of them. They look like a 1986 goth troupe with Aubrey Plaza singing and a backing band consisting of Malcolm Young on lead guitar, that guy from 1984 I shared a house with who was really into Bowie on rhythm, and a blonde, leather-jacketed bassist who could have been on leave from Killing Joke.
Soundwise, they were very Killing Joke circa 1987: throbbing bass, washes of chorus in their guitars and a squealing lead. Kate Binning on vocals has a forced quality to her voice which is not unpleasant but could be so much more (if it was brought to the front of the mix too it would have been better too). At times they soared. The Rickenbacker bass of Simon Maisch drove the show along with power and energy to spare, which was needed because drums are Bitumen’s problem. Using electronic drums tends to emasculate the band. It’s not because they didn’t sound good, (they did); nor because they didn’t give it some drive, (again, they did). It was because they seemed to settle into a groove and stayed there for most of the song. Some wider variation in the programming could have lifted the material. Instead, each song started confidently then mostly crushed along like a tank.
On stage, they are also very goth, rarely deigning to speak to us or each other, seemingly disconnected from the set and each person for themselves into their own worlds. That aside, I really did like a lot of their performance. They had some really interesting things going on in the interplay between the rhythm guitar and bass/lead. They do sound like a band on the edge of melding it all into something of their own.
So finally it was JP Shiloh with percussive and violin touches from TJ Howden. LJ Spruyt provided video of the performers displayed on the big screens, with some previously prepared slides overlaid. At times, it was quite mesmerising and at others prosaic. One of the fun moments was when the players took off their shoes and performed in socks. It played against the grandeur of the organ in the moment. At other times, it was all high drama as Shiloh impersonated every caricature of the grand organ player ever seen; pressing keys as if it required inordinate strength, his hair flying and a fierce expression on his face.
Jubjote is a French term for that moment when you wake from a dream then try to return to find out how it ends. That notion guided the music through a series of interwoven pieces that reflected varying stages of dreaming and awakening. The music was dreamlike for much of its 40 minutes or so, with waves of organ chords washing through the night. JP Shiloh made use of the changes in stops and settings to elicit a variety of tones and sounds from the beast. They ranged from the deep judders of the bass notes to the majestic chords of what we all think of as organ, then on to delicate flute-like tones and a ringing of percussive bells.
If there was a failing in the overall piece, it was that the main melodies were often subsumed by the power of the organ’s chording. It’s a common danger with this instrument, but fortunately for JP Shiloh it didn’t matter so much as it all added to the dream state he was creating.
The night was an interesting mix of the serious and the less-so and it made great use of an asset that may have been seen as a moribund product of a bygone era and bringing the grand organ into a modern setting.
The next Melbourne Grand Organ session is Jenifer Chou – Messiaen and Mysticism on November 15. Tickets are free but you do need to book.