We spoke to James McVinnie ahead of his performances at Brighton Dome

On Tue 2 Oct, James McVinnie will be playing two concerts at Brighton Dome. His afternoon performance (2pm) will feature a programme of classical compositions, while his evening performance will see James performing work from the influential composer Philip Glass.

Have you ever performed on Brighton Dome’s organ before?

I’ve never played at Brighton Dome and I’m looking forward to getting to know the organ — each organ is custom made for its own space — every organ is different; each has its own unique disposition of ‘stops’, ‘registers’ (or ‘instruments’ in all but name) which are voiced to sound their best for the acoustic space they inhabit. One of the amazing things about playing the organ is that the room you're in becomes part of the instrument itself — just as the body of a guitar or cello resonates and the sound is projected into the space of the room — with the organ, the entire room is part of the resonating chamber of the instrument. For me, thinking of the organ as a massive sound installation is a very inspiring prospect; you're not only playing the organ, you’re playing the building as well. The repetitious, beautiful arpeggios of Philip Glass’s music will resonate and reflect around the room in a spectacular way.

What is it that appeals to you about playing the organ? 

The organ has a rich and varied history — together with the clock, it was the most sophisticated piece of machinery before the industrial revolution — back in the 17th and 18th centuries (a ‘golden era’ for the instrument), it would have been the loudest musical instrument ever known to man and would have been able to inspire and awe its listeners of the day like nothing else. The vast power of the instrument can still be overwhelming to modern ears.

One of the particular aspects of the organ that interests me is how it relates to electronic music. The organ is a wind instrument where the sound is produced from air going through pipes, whereas synthesisers produce sound through electronic means. The way synthesisers are conceived on a musical level however is based on pipe organ models, and the way you approach making music on these two seemingly different instruments is essentially the same. On the organ, you orchestrate the music according to the sounds you have at your disposal in the same way as you preset sounds on a moog synthesiser. Philip Glass’s music is the ideal vehicle for an exploration of these similarities — much of it was conceived for early synths such as the Farfisa — loosely designed to imitate the pipe organ. In my concert next week, I’ll be trying to reverse that process by making the Dome organ sound like a bank of Farfisa organs.

Why do you think the organ isn’t used more widely in contemporary music?

It’s all about perspective — you’re not at fault by asking this question, but the fact is that there are so many examples of organs being used in contemporary and experimental music. Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible features the organ, Tim Hecker’s Rave Death is based entirely on pipe organ samples, Oneohtrix Point Never’s epic R Plus Seven album places the organ as a central element of an electronic music soundscape Anna Von Hauswolf, Sarah Davachi, Philip Jeck, Claire M Singer feature it in all of their albums. All very inspiring in their own way. It’s easy to think of the organ as being that thing which plays hymns in church (wonderful though that can be), but the reality is that there is much more out there to discover.

Can you tell us more about the Philip Glass works you’ll be performing? And can you link us to any particular performances of works that you’ll be playing that you’d like to share with everyone?

Philip Glass has had an extraordinary and prolific life as a composer in so many different fields in the arts. In putting together this concert, I wanted to create an immersive 80 min sequence of music. So, I’m pairing some of his very early works from the 1960s — austere, mesmeric, intricate and intense which I’ll be playing on the organ, together with some more recent works — more contemplative and meditative, on the piano. This particular music provides an architectural ‘space’ to inhabit, for the listeners’ contemplation. Much of the music is based on repetitive structures. Through these repetitions, we begin to hear the music in a different way — just as with a piece of minimalist visual art — you notice the minute differences in shapes in the music and feel the intricacies of the music on a much more heightened level of appreciation. The music is both ‘easy listening’ and also involved and intense. Glass’s output as a film composer as entered into mainstream culture (particularly through his scores for The Thin Blue Line, The Hours, Notes on a Scandal) — it’s music which is unmistakably ‘him’, but uniquely so: it’s often imitated by others, but never bettered! 

You’ve worked with members of Arcade Fire and The National before, as well as Squarepusher and Oneohtrix Point Never. Do you think that fans of more traditionally indie/rock music and electronic music would enjoy this concert?

Definitely — everyone should come! This is not going to be like a traditional organ concert.

What music are you enjoying at the moment?

I’m listening to a huge mixture of stuff at the moment — Villagers new album ‘The Art of Pretending to Swim’ has been on repeat this week since it came out on Monday. There’s an amazing playlist ‘PEOPLE’ put together by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National featuring collaborations by likeminded artists who defy categorisation. I’ve got my own playlist here based around my recent album of music by Glass — ‘The Grid’, some of which I’m playing at the upcoming show. Then there’s this epic 25 min track by Claire M Singer from her album Solas. Claire plays drone clusters of slow moving notes on the organ of the Union Chapel. She draws the registers of this organ by minute increments at a time, making an incredible symphonic sound palette. 

Book for the afternoon concert (Classical compositions) here

Book for the evening concert (Philip Glass) here

Listen to The Grid on Spotify, James McVinnie's album of Philip Glass compositions