16 Pieces for Organ
SOFA 507

Further evidence of the foot-weary tourist complaint that Europe has a lot of churches, this CD is another session of free music created on the pipe organ of the cathedral in Oslo.

Using the keyboards, stops, pedals and bellows of this room-shaking liturgical instrument for improvising is a concept that's probably as old as J.S. Bach's work. Some of Europe's more committed improvisers like Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove have in recent years tried their hand at the many keyboards with mixed results. In truth, the church organ is a pretty unwieldy beast to control and get to do more than merely raise the roof, as Nils Henrik Ashein finds on this disc.

Ashein also brings a different set of values to his first solo attempt at free improvisation. A composer of orchestral, electronic and chamber music, his career highlights include writing the fanfare for the Lillehammer Olympic Games in 1994 and creating a wedding march for Norway's crown prince in 2001. He has recorded improvisations before, however, most notably on a disc where he accompanied a local soprano interpreting folk psalms. Plus his composition for two choirs and two organs christened this particular organ in 1998.

But as any musician can tell you, playing on your own for, in this case, a little more than 48 minutes, is a lot different than following written music or accompanying a soloist. And there's much in Asheim's performance here that sounds tentative. Throughout he appears to be trying different styles, tempos and pitches on for size, without being truly comfortable.

One telling sign is that only three of the studies here clock in at more than four minutes, with six less than two minutes long. He attempts many strategies. Some offer up pastoral trifles, this side of New Age blandness that then fade into nearly soundless rumbles, or, in one penultimate case, a very churchy melody. On others pieces he seems content to churns out a set of staccato tones or limit himself to an exercise in repeated notes. Seemingly enamoured of the escalating crescendos that the apparatus can produce, he doesn't lose many opportunities to introduce glissandos.

Then there are times he appears to be pressing on the keyboards with all his strength, perhaps with his forearms, to hear what will result. There’s even a section close to the beginning where he seems to directing his hands and feet towards a feeble attempt to swing. But that, unfortunately, is a pipe organ concept best left to Count Basie or Fats Waller.

Far more interesting is when he's able to coax unusual sounds from the instrument that range from freight train accelerations to church bell-like suggestions to an incessant fuzz tone that almost sounds like a highly amplified bass tone. On one track he's able to use the bellows to create a bagpipe-like cacophony of echoing treble honks. Later the stops are directed in such a way that a long variegated treble tone is held, while bubbling underneath is a continuo of basso tugboat horn blasts. The longest track even suggests otherworldly space timbres complete with suggestions of bells, vibes and a bow hitting the strings of a bass. Cat-like screeches and smear of melody ends the track. Unfortunately, judging from the sounds that surrounds these advances, you wonder how much there was serendipity or happenstance rather than cerebral puzzle solving.

An interesting effort from Asheim and he should, after all, be praised for attempting an unusual project. But perhaps some woodshedding — if that can be down with a church organ — maybe with some of his home country's exceptional improvisers is in order before he tries free music in public again.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. 01 2. 02 3. 03 4. 04 5. 05 6. 06 7. 07 8. 08 9. 09 10. 10 11. 11 12. 12 13. 13 14. 14 15. 15 16. 16

Personnel: Nils Henrik Asheim (pipe organ)