Without doubt one of the more strange albums released in 2015 (or any year for that matter), Irish-born harpist Áine O'Dwyer’s Music for Church Cleaners is a two LP collection that presents ninety minutes of improvisational music made on the pipe organ at St Mark’s Church, Islington, UK. Aside from being, essentially, a live performance album (where the audience was made up of more or less random people who happened to be in the vicinity), this album also has qualities that make it seem somewhat like a field recording: O’Dwyer was permitted to use the facilities at the church during a period when a group of sanitation engineers (read: janitors) were tidying up the place, thus the sounds of this operation as well as the comings and going of various persons are heard throughout.
Typically, O’Dwyer’s improvisations rely on throbbing low tones (the pedals of the organ) used in combination with alternately light and airy or more melancholic and droning melodies, with songs ranging from being playful to downright leaden. To the ears of those accustomed to more popular types of music, much of what it found on the album would sound almost ethnic: the chords have a hollowness to them and since there wasn’t much room for O’Dwyer to really expand and fill out the compositions, many tracks are primitive in the same way that classic Nintendo soundtracks were. Several of the compositions here (“An Unkindness of Ravens,” “The Cloud of Unknowning”) sound majestic and stately, while others range from being whimsical (“The Feast of Fools”) to pastoral (“Hymn of Memory”), with few more ominous moments (“Harold’s Camping Lament”) occasionally creeping in as well. Containing quite an abundance of fluttering themes like those typically played by a flute and what I might describe as “snake charmer melodies” which pop up in pieces like the opening “Pedal Danse” and later “Deep Sound Invocation,” the album also has moments where the organ’s sound is more similar to that of a piercing trumpet or even droning backpipes.
The improvisational nature of the recording was evident at times (there seems to be a handful of missteps in the performance of “Mass of the Rosary Ring” for instance), but I was generally very impressed with the overall fluidity of the music. I might be inclined to compare a substantial amount of O’Dwyer’s work here to what I’d expect coming from composer Philip Glass: I was almost waiting for unnaturally low male voices to groan out over the hypnotic organ cues at times since O’Dwyer’s music vaguely resembles parts of Glass’s score to the Qatsitrilogy of films. The actual space the album was recorded in plays a big role in how the finished product turned out, and various ambient sounds sometimes intrude both during the organ performances and in moments of relative “silence” after they conclude. A child’s voice echoing through the hall figures prominently in sixth track “The Little Lord of Misrule,” while a whining vacuum cleaner accompanies the organ during “We Plough the Fields and Scatter.”
Having a sometimes noticeable new-agey vibe to it, I found that this meditative album put me in a very calm and relaxed state of introspection: I happened to put it on while doing some housework and was surprised at how this musical backdrop changed the entire experience. Instead of being annoyed at having to organize the kitchen, I actually just set about the task and got it done without much of a fuss – this album has the potential to make virtually any task one tackles while listening to it substantially more pleasant and tolerable. Since O’Dwyer made use of a sort of flow chart that marked the basic path that she wanted to take during the course of the improvisations, it’s tempting to invent a backstory that’s being told through the music. Many of the tracks here are provocatively titled, and some (such as the final “Ruling of Pan”) seem to poke fun at the fact the album was recorded in a “house of God.” The album description makes a point to note the double meaning that one could get from the collection’s title itself: what sort of cleaning would need to be done not just in this particular church, but in the church as an institution, especially in light of recent scandals?
Music for Church Cleaners winds up as a work that will either appeal to or absolutely bore any given listener. Given the relatively high amount of repetition going on and the fact that there’s only one instrument being heard here, it’s impossible to get around the fact that most of these songs sound at least partially similar to one another. At one point during the recording, a conversation between the performer and a woman working in and around the church is heard. The woman makes a request for O’Dwyer to tone down the number of sustained notes in her performance since those droning, resonating tones are reverberating through the whole of the church, implying in the end that the situation could be rectified by “bringing music.” This is the same sort of complaint that many listeners might have since Music for Church Cleaners isn’t that far removed from the world of drone music - although it has to be said that O’Dwyer’s propensity towards genuine melodies is much more significant than what is heard on the typical Sunn o))) album, for instance.
It’s somewhat unfortunate that the pipe organ, an instrument that was virtually designed to take listeners – particularly those with some sense of religious faith - to a higher spiritual plain, has largely dropped out of favor in recent decades. Having spent time in numerous churches over the years, I’ve heard my share of the sonorous pulse that the organ can emit, but also noticed that more and more places of worship have relied on smaller and more manageable musical set-ups. There’s no denying the sense of power and majesty that pipe organ music immediately transmits however, and one could probably make a strong argument that modern religion lost something tangible when the decision was made to make church music more contemporary. Undoubtedly, Music for Church Cleaners is a unique work that makes one appreciate all that can be done with the pipe organ, yet I’d be inclined to go so far as to suggest that only very open-minded listeners would genuinely enjoy it. That being said, I’d have no problem recommending Áine O'Dwyer’s quite possibly outstanding album – I would suspect that many people caught up in the hustle and bustle of modern life would benefit immensely from having a go at this.
7.8 / 10
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