Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

Susanne Kujala is a Finnish organist and accordionist who has won multiple awards, and both teaches and leads organizations dedicated to organ music. In addition to premiering more than 50 works for organ or accordion, she is a dedicated improviser and chamber musician, consistently striving to expand the parameters of her instrument.

Her new album, Organ Music of the 21st Century, lives up to its title and then some. (Get it from Amazon.) In the liner notes, she writes:

The richness and variety of organ types offer a tremendous amount of possibilities for expressing musical ideas. To give contemporary composers the opportunity to explore these possibilities of sounds even further, to present the features of the organ to composers and to premiere their new works are essential goals of my artistic work.

The album includes recordings of five pieces by as many composers, all written between 2006 and 2012 and all receiving their first recordings here.

The album begins with the nearly 13-minute “Cyclone,” composed by Kujala’s husband Veli. What would be birdlike trills on a flute or smaller keyboard are here transformed into otherworldly fluttering sounds, as deep, droning low notes seem to bulge up from beneath the floor. Soon, though, the piece grows frantic and almost hostile, as high-pitched spiraling scales are countered by more massive groans. It repeatedly shifts as it goes on, juxtaposing extremely quiet passages that seem to be coming from far away with extraordinarily loud chords that whack the listener in the ear, and contrasting delicate filigreed phrases with massive let’s-blow-up-the-whole-cathedral assaults.

The second piece, Maija Hynninen‘s “Trois Mondes,” was inspired equally by the optical illusions of M.C. Escher and the auditory illusions of composer Jean-Claude Rissette. It’s a three-part composition that lasts nearly 18 minutes in total. The music combines organ and electronics in order to explore various tuning systems and combinations of overtones. Notes are held for a stunningly long time, stacking up one by one to form massive, cosmic chords that swell and swoop, seeming to change shape and create almost voicelike harmonies. Eventually, as the second movement comes to an end, the sounds are no longer in any way organ-like, becoming almost underwater hums and reverberations. As the third movement begins, the baroque organ melodies are countered by swirling electronic sounds, turning the whole thing into a psychedelic soundscape halfway between Edgard Varèse and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Olli Virtaperko‘s “Dawkins” is another three-part work. The first flies by in just two minutes, and consists of short phrases which are given a tremendous amount of echo, drifting away as if blasted into the deep recesses of a cave. The second is much more complex, and nearly eight minutes long; left- and right-hand phrases shimmer by, almost battling each other. Later, some extremely heavy haunted-cathedral passages arrive, and Kujala strikes some low notes that, heard through big enough speakers, could break windows or vibrate plates off a shelf, but the movement ultimately descends to near silence. The third and final section of the piece is more conventionally melodic, with a steady bass drone providing a foundation for Kujala’s explorations.

“Cyclone” and Minna Leinonen‘s “Par Préférence” were recorded in Turku Cathedral on March 21, 2017. “Trois Mondes” was recorded in St. Paul’s Church in Helsinki on May 16, 2013. “Dawkins” and the album’s closing track, Antti Auvinen‘s “Singel Excelsis,” were recorded in Kallio Church in Helsinki on May 31, 2017. The extensive CD booklet provides detailed biographical information about each composer (and notes from them on their pieces), and full technical specifications on each organ used. Organ Music of the 21st Century is a stunning achievement, recommended to any fan of music that strives to overwhelm the listener.

Phil Freeman

Buy Organ Music of the 21st Century from Amazon

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