Gail Archer is an international concert organist, recording artist, choral conductor and lecturer who draws attention to composer anniversaries or musical themes with her annual recital series in New York City: An American Idyll, Liszt, Bach, Mendelssohn, and Messiaen. In spring, 2013, the five-concert series is, "The Muses Voice: A Celebration of International Women Composers". Ms. Archer was the first American woman to play the complete works of Olivier Messiaen for the centennial of the composer’s birth in 2008; Time-Out (www.timeout.com/newyork) New York recognized the Messiaen cycle as "Best of 2008 " in Classical music and opera. Her recordings include Franz Liszt: A Hungarian Rhapsody, Bach, the Transcendent Genius, An American Idyll, A Mystic In the Making on Meyer-Media LLC and The Orpheus of Amsterdam: Sweelinck and his Pupils on CALA Records, London (http://www.calarecords.com/us/acatalog/info_CACD88043.html). Ms. Archer is college organist at Vassar College, and director of the music program at Barnard College, Columbia University where she conducts the Barnard-Columbia Chorus. She serves as director of the artist and young organ artist recitals at historic Central Synagogue, New York City and is the founder editor of the new on-line magazine for women organists, Musforum.
This CD presents some of the most prominent women composers of the 20th and 21st Century. So much respect is owed to Nadia Boulanger’s (www.nadiaboulanger.org) legacy and her influence on countless students, her contribution to the our musical heritage today is immeasurable. "Te Deum" by Jeanne Demessieux (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeanne_Demessieux) is based upon the Gregorian Chant melody, as late chromatic work composed in 1965. It is unfortunate that her untimely death cut short such a creative soul, but her we get a glimpse of the musical genius Jeanne possessed. Judith Bingham (http://www.judithbingham.co.uk/) shares her tour de force composition "The Everlasting Crown", and is a story of immense imagination. Judith can be found explaining this work in her own words on Musforum here. "Ceremony Suite" by Jennifer Higdon is a free form reduction of a larger commission. Perhaps you would enjoy the Pulitzer Prize winner explain how this work came about in a conversation between Gail and Jennifer:
Gail: I see your piece was originally commissioned by The American Guild of Organists in Philadelphia, was this part of the larger work "Ceremonies?"
Jennifer: Yes, that was the original commission. I wanted the piece to be flexible between sacred and secular, so people could assemble it according to their needs.
Gail: So that the piece can be taken apart, because I only know the Suite for Organ and have not heard the rest of the piece?
Jennifer: Exactly, and even in the Suite people have chosen to perform just one movement. It allows for flexibility for the musician’s use.
Gail: And it gives the piece more performance options, be it just the brass movements, or organ movements, or ensemble. I particularly enjoy the middle movement of the suite for the rocking fifths in the pedals and unusual spacing of the rhythm. It is both technically challenging and has a calm feeling about it while playing. The fifths just slow you down and you line up all the things that are going on in your hands along with the fifths going on down in your feet ‒ I really like that part of it! How did you come up with this particular idea because I don’t run into that kind of double pedaling in a whole movement?
Jennifer: I have to admit that I came up with it just because I liked the sound, it really was that simple. There wasn't much strategy about other organ literature; I don’t know a ton of organ literature and this is the only piece I’ve ever written for organ.
Gail: Is that right!? Oh my goodness! Did you confer with any other organists while writing this work?
Jennifer: Yes I met with Matthew Glandorf at Curtis and John Weaver, and asked them lots of questions as well as had them demonstrate lots of things for me; and then I went off to write the piece.
Gail: There is double pedaling in lots of modern literature, I mean, Messiaen has these sorts of things, but it is not as consistent through a whole movement like yours and I enjoy that! It creates a stability about it. There is also something a bit medieval about it if you don't mind me saying (laughs)… The idea of parallel fifths in the pedal parts reminded me of medieval organum and chant performance. This "fifthy" thing about it, which composers reach to the ancient past to make something that sounds so fresh and modern, I'm always struck by that sort of thing.
Jennifer: You know I have to admit I've also used that configuration in choral work. That is most likely why I gravitated in that direction, much to the horror of my counterpoint teacher who was like, 'Oh, good grief, Jennifer is writing parallel fifths again'. (laughs)
Gail: Yes! But I'm with you there because the chant is so basic to so much music! Did you talk to your colleagues about registrations?
Jennifer: We did talk about registration. They were showing me possibilities but mentioned how every organ is different and most organists tend to register their own performances based on the instrument. I just followed that suggestion and let them decide on registration.
Gail: I agree with you. An organist who is a composer can suggest registrations, but even there I think a lot of organists synthesize those suggestions with their own performance and instrument. You get what you can but every organ is different, so you follow the suggestions to the extent that one can achieve. Going from instrument to instrument, it leaves a lot of freedom to the musician.
Jennifer: I found that even when I write instrumental works for strings and such, I often defer to whomever is the expert on that instrument. They know the instrument very well and it is much smarter to listen to your musicians and their take on it. It is also a personal decision, so a musician can make their mark on a piece and put their voice in it.
Gail: Absolutely, and that is what is so amazing about organ music. You can play music from the 17th in the scores. You are really wide open for creative interpretation, and I think modern music benefits from that too.
Jennifer: Right, and I often found even with a piece that moves from orchestra to orchestra, one needs to play the acoustics of a room. When there is an organ in these fantastic halls, it is best to give freedom to the musician to "play the room".
Gail: I know exactly what you mean, as I often modify my performance to the space. In a very live room I find myself slowing down so as not to "over play" the room. You want the listener to have the time to hear everything. I think about this all the time. It is as much about performing with time as your instrument along with the organ in these spaces. Well, Thank you very much for your piece as I have enjoyed performing it so much and plan on many more inclusions in my programs. Thank you for the suite, I just think it is beautiful.
Jennifer: Thank you Gail, I am glad you enjoy it.