Review: Tom Johnson – Orgelpark Color Chart

“I have two good minimalist composer friends who have been writing drone music for many years: Phill Niblock and Eliane Radigue. When I told them I had finally left my metric melodies and harmonies and was writing a one-note piece, they were quite surprised and pleased. So am I.”

Namedropping two of my favourite drone musicians in the press release for Orgelpark Color Chart – a 50-minute piece for four organs and a single note (“C” played across various octaves) naturally sets my expectations rather high coming into this one. But whereas Niblock sends pitch bending gradually inwards or outwards via microtone transitions, and Radigue sets drones against eachother in very subtle juxtapositions of pitch and rhythm, Johnson’s piece is one of cleanliness and symmetry.

Orgelpark Color Chart makes a measured descent through the octaves through the course of the playing time, beginning at an uncomfortably high pitch and then gradually easing into a more “pleasing” frequency range during the latter half. The opening ten minutes are slightly unsettling, with piercing high pitches in spotless octaval parallels and interjected with the odd reverberant rustle of the audience. The steady decline feels like a plane coming in to land – hovering awkwardly to begin with, feeling hollow and unbalanced with the gaping frequency void that lingers in the lower registers, before nestling into deeper drones that cushion the sound as it begins to hum and rumble through the earth.

But while pitch is fixed, the note durations are forever in flux. Sometimes two organs can be heard, sometimes all four…each player is constantly departing and re-entering, bringing a sense of motion and structure to what could have been a very flat and tedious exercise in stasis. I don’t think I’m wrong in identifying a couple of mistakes here and there (including what seems like a glaring fumble onto a wrong note at about 47 minutes in), but they’re not frequent enough to tarnish the experience. Unlike the music of Johnson’s aforementioned “minimalist composer friends”, there’s not a whole lot of mystery or subtlety to Orgelpark Color Chart – it’s simple and single-minded in both its intention and execution, like a solid block of vibrant colour on a canvas.