Album: just 3 organs
Author: empty j
Publication: Heathen Harvest
This is a pretty esoteric release from an enigmatic artist that can only humbly be described as a 21st century renaissance man. The German-born 42-year-old Rothkamm, who now lives in Los Angeles, has an early classical music training and a varied pedigree that includes composer, conceptual artist and computer programmer. His endeavors have found him in both the commercial and underground worlds working with (and/or for) corporations such as Warner Bros. and Ford, and obscure but well-respected musicians like DJ Spooky and Zeena Parkins. In addition he has worked with 3-D technology ('Star Wars' no less) and some of his programming concepts were derived from studies involving the groundbreaking UPIC system devised by the Greek composer/genius Iannis Xenakis. It all sounds made up, but truth is stranger than fiction I suppose. So why on Earth would such a tech-savvy and well-connected individual release a CD of music recorded using the type of electric organ that populated so many homes, shopping malls and storefront churches in the 1970s and 1980s you might ask? Well, there is a story of course.
At the age of thirteen, young Frank was on a skiing trip with his family in Switzerland where he happened upon a small village chapel. Upon entering the empty church, he discovered an organ and proceeded to play Bach's 'Toccata & Fugue in D minor' from memory. This first experience playing the organ left a lasting impression on the young prodigy, although he wouldn't play the instrument for another twenty-three years. This was when he found a Yamaha Electone in a thrift store in Los Angeles and purchased it to realize the 'tone shapes in a reverberated space between heaven and earth' that he had long imagined since that fateful day in the Alps. 'Just Three Organs' was five years in the making and is a manifestation of Rothkamm's idea of 'utopian-scientific composition.'
Although this music is microtonal, you should know that the 'just' of the title does not refer to just intonation. It turns out that Rothkamm has a thing for numbers as well, in particular the third one. The three organs are tuned 33 cents apart and the entire length of the disk is 33 minutes and 33 seconds in 9 (or 3 times 3) tracks. Something lost in the stereo recording here is that each organ was amplified with 3 speakers 'suspended in mid-air in a triangle...with a monophonic reverberation phantom channel circling at 3 rotations per minute between all speaker triangles.' Now that is something I'd like to see and hear, but at least we have this intriguing document.
Listening to 'Just Three Organs' obscures to what degree traditional composition techniques were used and how much was left open to chance or intuitive playing. Composing for three like instruments tuned less than a quarter-tone apart is a daunting task at any rate, and if it's notated I want to see it! The first track focuses on some bass tones and sinister differentials, but sporadically gives way to some more whimsical bursts of melody and chaotic vamping. It reminds me of little else that I've heard, but if you can imagine a microtonal version of the early works of Christian Wolff then we might be on the same page. 'The Irvine Master Plan' is a brief chorale-style number with some wonderfully clashing chords amidst a rather simple melodic structure. Try and do a harmonic analysis of this, kids! The third piece employs the electric organs' inherent gift of automated arpeggiation to wonderful effect. It's completely fun while remaining genuinely weird as shit and sounding not unlike an early instrumental track by The Residents. The right-hand soloing is especially entertaining over the bizarre and consistently shifting harmonic base. 'Half Man, Half Amazing' seems to bridge the schism between old-school electronic music and instrumental serial music. There are aesthetic elements of classic 'musique concret' posited against deliberate keyboard riffing that is, again, unlike anything I've ever heard. And that's a compliment. 'Grand Ducal' exploits the variable tempo features of the organs presets to present a srt of time-warped microtonal cartoon soundtrack. Who says complex music can't be enjoyable? Come on over to my crib for dinner and a glass of wine and we'll do some listening. The sixth track opens with a dense polychord and proceeds to some rather prog-ish riffing. Thick harmonic clouds are never far away, however, and the bass pedal solo near the end is one of the standout moments on the disk with its endearing clumsiness. 'Encounter With Remarkable Trees' is more like a trip to the beach on LSD, or at least what I imagine that such a trip would be like. On the other hand, the eighth track is like a brief journey through Milton Babbitt's brain forty years ago, which probably had more to do with solving numbers' conundrums thatn it did with writing music 'for the people.' The concluding piece is also short in duration and consists of a thick drone followed by a four-note flourish that reminds the listener of what was, what could be, and what was never fully realized.
While I genuinely enjoy this release, I don't feel that it reaches its full potential. Given that it took five years to come into fruition, I guess I expected more. The microtonal nuances are rich and thoroughly interesting, but I'm not feeling a sense of completion here...maybe that's the point. If you want to hear music unlike anything else, then this comes highly recommended. If you're some sort of microtonal purist and don't dig Rothkamm's math, then you'll probably be disappointed. Either way, it's a fun ride and wholly original music.
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