James McVinnie: Cycles
Bedroom Community

The pipe organ's electrifying sound brings with it so many powerful associations, foremost among them the liturgical. Hearing even a single church organ chord can call forth powerful memories and deep feelings, many of them reverential and melancholy in nature. But the instrument offers possibilities that go far beyond its ties to the sacred. Despite being a single instrument, the organ also possesses enormous timbral and sonorous range, especially when its keyboards and pedals, stops, and buttons enable the musician to simulate a veritable orchestra of strings, woodwinds, horns, and percussion. James McVinnie's Bedroom Community debut is special for not only providing a marvelous showcase for his own gifts but for those of Nico Muhly, who composed the album's thirteen pieces. And though the organist is joined by Nadia Sirota (viola), Chris Thompson (marimba), and Simon Wall (tenor) on a select number of tracks, Cycles is very much McVinnie's show.

The fifty-five-minute album begins with the unusually titled “Revd Mustard his Installation Prelude” (in fact, a piece composed with a mutual friend of Muhly's and McVinnie's in mind: the Reverend James Mustard). But don't be thrown by the title: the piece itself is a stirring thing of beauty, a gentle ray of morning sunlight graced by hypnotic arpeggios and soothing chords, and even at this early juncture the orchestral range of sounds produced by McVinnie's organ is evident. The ponderous side of Muhly's music comes to the fore during a soul-stirring setting such as “Hudson Preludes: Take Care” while the celebratory and exuberant sides are well-accounted for in “Hudson Preludes: Follow Up,” whose melodic lines lunge and somersault acrobatically.

Sirota and Thompson join McVinnie on the prayerful “Slow Twitchy Organs,” with the organ taking a back seat to the violist's characteristically sensitive performance and the percussionist providing almost subliminal enhancement (Thompson's own showcase arrives at album's end in “Beaming Music”). Wall's supple tenor singing is featured during “Seven O Antiphon Preludes,” whose twenty-four-minute total makes it the album's centerpiece, with his voice often heard unaccompanied and its pure tone thus even more audible. McVinnie sympathetically supports the singer's performance by exercising restraint and ceding the spotlight to Wall.

Despite its formal status as a mechanical instrument, the organ is capable of immense warmth and humanity, not to mention subtlety and nuance—even if McVinnie is largely the one responsible for bringing such qualities forth. At the same time, it's capable of intense drama and heaviness, as heard in those moments when the organist beefs up the volume to deliver a hammering chord. As welcome as it is to hear the guest musicians joining McVinnie on the album, there's a side of me that wishes it had been presented as a collection of pure organ settings only. The sonic universe encompassed by the keyboard offers more than enough sounds that others hardly need be added to it, and the pieces on Cycles that feature McVinnie alone (“Fast Cycles,” “Revd Mustard his Installation Prelude,” et al.) cast a potent enough spell all by themselves to render the inclusion of other sounds unnecessary.

October 2013