Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Infinity Gradient review – Minimalism for organ and 100 speakers

23 March 2024

James McVinnie and Tristan Perich’s collaborative 2021 work for organ and 1-bit audio comes to the Royal Festival Hall.

Infinity Gradient

James McVinnie at the Royal Festival Hall organ (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

At its most basic and completely objective level, music can be described as ‘patterns in sound’. It’s a statement so obvious that it makes your nose bleed, but since the late 19th century, when music became subject to rigorous, emotionless academic analysis and experimentation, any number of composers have rebuilt from this reductio ad absurdum position to prove some sort of point. We have, for example, the utterly clinical early twelve-tone piano works by Schoenberg, Ligeti’s exploration of periodicity in his Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes, John Cage’s As Slow As Possible, which will be grinding away on the organ in Halberstadt until the year 2640, and, of course, the latter composer’s famous 4′33″ during which the chosen instrument is not sounded, but the audience is invited to consider the nature of the ‘silence’. These musical equivalents of conceptualism in the visual arts are nothing new, and while they might be seen as philosophically interesting in a postmodernist way, the listener is also entitled to remark: “I can understand the intellectual stance, but where is the emotional payoff?”

Infinity Gradient for organ and 100 speakers (these are loudspeakers rather than a group of people declaiming) is another of these ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I did this?’ works from the American composer Tristan Perich – whose fascination is with the ‘pure’ wave-forms produced in a 1-bit output from a microchip – in collaboration with British organist/pianist James McVinnie, who is at the start of his one-year residency at the Southbank Centre. The concept of the work is relatively simple to grasp – each of the speakers (not the massive banks of boxes that one might have encountered at a Black Sabbath gig, but many of them the small versions that might be found on a kitchen worktop) is attached to a chip that’s programmed to produce a note of defined pitch and length, allowing for the possibility of 100 sounding notes, either together or in sequence, complementing the possibilities of a keyboard instrument – in this case an organ, whose notes, while operating under the same binary ‘on or off’ logic, allow for multiple timbres from different types of pipe from woody peeping to metallic flatulence. The ‘interest’ comes from the interaction between the two systems.

“I can understand the intellectual stance, but where is the emotional payoff?”

Infinity Gradient

Some of the speakers for ‘Infinity Gradient’ (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

It’s a severely Minimalist work, so there’s very little in the way of melody (perhaps the occasional sequence of low pedal notes), and tonal, so there’s nothing there of serialism or aleatoricism to frighten the horses. It is in three sections (or, at any rate, there are two moments where everything comes to a halt), the outer two being generally faster and louder, the central one slower and quieter. The familiar Minimalist busily repeated arpeggios/split chords are present, each changing minimally, and the central section contains a deal of slowly accreting note clusters. There is some playing around with the resultant ‘beats’ produced by sounding adjacent low organ pedal notes, and (perhaps the most ‘exciting’ part) a section where the speaker version of a shimmering split chord, initially at one with the organ version moves up in pitch in a slow glissando, giving the impression of ‘lift off’ from the earthbound organ. The whole, then, is really an exercise in timbre, dynamic, tempo and pattern in their most basic forms. The shifting of these abstract elements provides some aesthetic pleasure, but the work contains little in the way of the harmonic tension and release or melodic shape that provide drive, direction and trajectory to music, and one is consequently left slightly unsatisfied.

There’s no doubt that McVinnie is an accomplished organist (the precision of those repeating patterns, while easy to programme digitally, requires skill and stamina to maintain manually), and one can admire the ingenuity and work that has gone into the programming of the electronically produced sound into coherent architecture (much as one might be intrigued by the work of Nancarrow and others who composed straight to piano roll). It’s also pleasing to know that someone, somewhere, is experimenting with musical form, albeit in a slightly academic and dispassionate way, and it’s interesting, and not totally unpleasant, to witness the fruits of their labours. I did, however, leave the experience thinking: “so… that happened”.

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Infinity Gradient review – Minimalism for organ and 100 speakers