Áine O'Dwyer: Music For Church Cleaners Vol. I and II
MIE Music

The rather enigmatic title Music for Church Cleaners Vol. I & II is easily explained: for a period of many months, Áine O'Dwyer was provided access to the pipe organ in St Mark's Church, Islington while the cleaners were toiling at their labours. Issued in a double-vinyl, gatefold-sleeve format, the original version of the release appeared in cassette form on the Fort Evil Fruit label and now appears on vinyl for the first time with a supplemental volume included.

O'Dwyer, who's known primarily as a harpist, embraced the opportunity to explore the potential of a pipe organ and apply her melodic sensibility to a different context. In one sense, it's almost impossible to go wrong, given how fundamentally appealing the very sound of the instrument is. And offsetting the grandiosity of the church organ are the numerous real-world sounds that seep into the recording: during “The Feast of Fools” and “We Plough the Fields and Scatter,” the whoosh of a vacuum cleaner can be heard alongside O'Dwyer's playing, while echo-drenched clatter and voices (adults and children) form an omnipresent background.

In no way, however, does she attempt to drown out such extra-musical sounds; instead, her improvisations develop in such a way that those noises are treated as part of the overall fabric of the piece as she's bringing it into being. It's an approach that lends the recording an enhanced intimacy and relaxed feel. One imagines O'Dwyer playing as much for herself as for those working in the space around her, and thus tailoring her subtly influenced playing in accordance with such conditions. There are even times, such a during “The Little Lord of Misrule,” where the organist seems to relegate her playing to the background so as to allow the ambient material, in this case children's voices, to assume the focal point.

Music for Church Cleaners Vol. I & II is many things. It's a live set of improvisations, first of all; it's also a site-specific exercise in which the transcendent (the organ playing) and the mundane (custodial work) are conjoined. Of the seventeen tracks, some are short (the two-minute “‘Deep Sound' Invocation”) and others long (the opening pieces are each ten minutes), and the material itself is varied, with O'Dwyer tackling fugues (“In a Fugue State of Mind”), hymns (“Hymn of Memory”), and laments (“Harold Camping's Lament,” “Mass of the Rosary Ring”) over the course of the ninety-minute trip. That a single instrument is involved is hardly an issue when its range is so dramatic, even if the playing is largely pitched at a soft level throughout. The recording is a treat for pipe organ lovers, obviously, but also for those who like their music both celestial and earthly.

February 2015