The atmosphere at the Union Chapel catches me off guard. I’ve been here several times before, but only ever in the evenings – often when the lighting is lower and the music is drearier (Earth, Oxbow Orchestra). It’s noon when I walk in. I’m immediately greeted by a table full of quaint café treats – cake, quiche, bacon rolls – as old couples and families with small children gather in the pews. Ed Dowie disperses organ chords through the space like a gentle perfume. I feel calm. That’s probably partly down to the gig being free of charge, which alleviates the usual dynamic between artist and audience (or payer and payee). Gone are the expectations around professionalism and guaranteed fulfilment. Some of the artists here are using the church organ for the first time today.
It’s one of those instruments that is inextricably intertwined with its original context and history. Partly that’s because one must be in a church in order to play it – thus unavoidably making use of those distinctly reverent church acoustics, and visually framing the music within distinctive church architecture – but there’s also an omnipresent warmth and power to the organ that can’t help but recall the grandeur of traditional religious music. The opening performance by William Drake and vocalist Louise Kleboe wields that rich, declarative organ hum within a suite of emotionally nomadic songs, veering from chords that channel the light spilling through the stained glass windows to dissonant counterparts that retreat to the chapel’s darker nooks. Each chord is a gentle subversion of the one before it. Kleboe’s voice matches the organ’s power and ambiguity, swooping away from Drake’s low drones and then returning to melt inside them, destined to descend from even the most powerful flights of triumph.
Angèle David-Guillou’s piece, bearing the unambiguous title of “Too Much Violence”, is equally restive in its emotional allegiance. Single notes pulse and subdivide until a melody starts to emerge, scrunching into tonal discomfort and expanding into grand, spacious triadic shapes. After a while it begins to sound like rain beating down ceaselessly, or an insistent question to which I can’t quite fathom an answer. The piece shifts through various forms of unease, and when it finally comes to a close, the audience don’t applaud immediately. Is that really the end? The final chord is bleak and crooked. Peace is never restored.
Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch and Kieran Brunt only nurture the melancholy further, and their music wanders dejectedly through the open space of the chapel. Levienaise Farrouch’s prolonged chords loiter in my gut until they curdle into ill feeling – homesickness, perhaps – as Brunt’s voice weightlessly rides the currents of air pressure, mimicking the swoop and sway of a falling leaf as the organ catches and lifts him from beneath. When he falls silent, the chords start to arpeggiate and spin like pinwheels, or thoughts without speech to urge their coherent consolidation, whirling between the direness of the present tense and glimmers of optimistic foresight.
As Adrian Crowley and Gill Sandell take their turn, song gives way to spoken word. Crowley stands at the front and recites stories – tales of gentle contemplation and tiny ripples of happening – as Sandell’s organ melodies trace the swell of curiosity within his protagonists. Her melodies sink downward during descriptions of dilapidated hotels and fading ferris wheels, or glimmer in nascent wonder as an individual follows a fallen angel as she glides across a market square. Crowley is deliberate in pace and tone. Words become snagged on protrusive consonants and tumble down slopes of prolonged vowels. He sinks deep into descriptions of neglected grand pianos and birds feasting on thorny magnolia flowers, accelerating through poetic imagery as though each of these objects is fleetingly manifested in the air before his eyes, destined to evaporate before he can fully articulate their nuances.
With the final two artists on the bill, complexity gives way to naked sincerity. Ed Dowie turns Billy Bragg’s “Between The Wars” into a funeral for vacated patriotic pride, each word pronounced with frank, unembellished simplicity. Toto’s “Africa” becomes similarly rich and heartfelt under the same treatment. The final song of Dowie’s brief set (titled “Why Do You Live In France?”) uses an slow, wobbly oompah rhythm to evoke both the joy of the fairground and the solemnity of nights spent alone. Each song speeds up and slows down constantly, haphazardly tracing the undulations in performer excitement and anxiety with each passing chord, channelling both the desire to make it through to the other side and the delight of music cycling on its own momentum.
Dowie retreats behind the organ to accompany the singing of Lætitia Sadier, whose three covers are equally candid and straightforward. Her voice neither exaggerates nor understates. A gentle intimacy protrudes through her cover of “Golden Brown”, although it’s only just rendered audible through her soft, carefully-measured enunciation of each word. The swing of the original piece gives way to a slower, more melancholic pacing, using the subdued warmth of the organ to cast doubt and longing over the song’s lyrical narrative. In centring itself on the interaction between organ and solo voice, the programme finds itself reframing the organ as a conduit for the emotions of the individual – not a means of dispersing a vibrant, unambiguous truth, but a funnel for the amplification of doubt, wry realisation and inner sadness. A wonderful celebration of emotional intricacy, and far better than any free show needs to be.