First in a scheduled triptych of albums, composer Claire M Singer‘s Saor, will be released digitally and on CD by Touch on 3rd November. Neil Cooper talks to her about her composing and playing career in, and her love for organs and organ music.
One imagines taking a walk with Claire M Singer to be a magical experience. You can hear hints of such magic on Saor, the Aberdeenshire born composer’s forthcoming album of pipe organ based works released on the Touch1 label, home to such environmentally inclined experimentalists as Chris Watson2 and the late Philip Jeck 3.
Pronounced ‘Sieur’, as in ‘monsieur’, Saor is inspired by wide-open space, with tracks such as ‘Càrn’, ‘Forrig’, and ‘Braeriach’ all named after Munros Singer has climbed during her wanderings in the Cairngorms. The album’s closing title track, meanwhile, sums up Singer’s worldview in an epic twenty-four and a half minute piece that translates from Scottish Gaelic as ‘Free’.
This feeling is confirmed at the end of the track, recorded in one take using five different organs in Orgelpark4, the Amsterdam based concert hall for organists containing numerous organs that span the centuries. With Singer racing between instruments to create the piece in one spontaneous take, the track ends with the sound of her walking away, slamming the door as she goes. Her work is done here, the sound suggests. Like Elvis, Claire M Singer has left the building. After the intensity of the previous twenty-four minutes, it is a wonderful moment that seems to capture the instinctive essence of Singer’s restless spirit.
This spirit has been very much in evidence ever since the then cellist and composition student stumbled on a way of utilising the organ as a sound source rather than how it might be more conventionally played. Using stops and pedals to manipulate the wind, the result of Singer’s extended explorations is an emotional mix of deep-set atmospherics and extended drones that seems to channel the wonders around Singer as she stands mesmerised and in awe.
This can be heard on all Singer’s recorded works since her debut album on Touch, Solas (2016). This was followed by a stand-alone piece, Fairge (2019) and a double vinyl compilation, Trian (2019), drawing from both Solas and Fairge.
In terms of profile, Singer is probably best known for her orchestral soundtrack for Annabel Jankel’s 5 film, Tell it to the Bees (2018), which was shot in Stirling. The romantic lushness of Singer’s score for the film may initially sound worlds apart from the seismic drone of Saor, but listen closely, and the same emotionally driven sense of place pulses both.
Key to this on Saor was the discovery of an organ in Forgue Kirk, close to Singer’s family home in Aberdeenshire. Saor was created and recorded in part on the Forgue organ, as well as on the organ at Union Chapel, in Islington, London. Since 2012, Singer has been Music Director of the Union Chapel organ, which she calls Henry, after ‘Father’ Henry Willis6, who built the Union Chapel organ in 1877.
My original idea was to talk with Claire in Aberdeenshire, where I could see the Forgue organ first-hand, and maybe go for a walk. Logistics got the better of us alas, and we spoke over Zoom, with Claire in London, and me in Edinburgh.
What you don’t get on the page is Claire’s unfettered ebullience, and the sheer joy in what she does. Pretty much everything she said was peppered with peals of laughter while her words tripped over themselves as her enthusiasm got the better of her.
With Saor the first of a planned triptych of albums drawing from the same source, given Claire’s energy, as the notion of freedom behind the record spells out, Saor is something of a release on every level.
Claire M Singer – I’ve been working on this album since before the pandemic, which of course made it impossible to travel. I was planning on recording pieces like ‘Forrig’ in Forgue Kirk, where I wrote the piece, as opposed to Union Chapel, but I couldn’t go home for a long time. I never thought there would be a day where you can’t go back to Scotland from England, so it was really weird.
Even though I couldn’t get up north to record, I wanted to try and keep the momentum going especially as we didn’t know when things were going to return to normal, so I carried on with the recordings at Union Chapel, which of course was wonderful but not quite what I had planned for the album pre-pandemic. This turned out to be quite enlightening creatively – because I couldn’t spend as much time with the organ – I returned to my studio roots.
In the early 2000s I studied studio composition at Goldsmith’s, where I focused on recording acoustic instruments, mainly my cello, and then applied further electronic manipulation in the studio. My debut album Solas in 2016 was predominantly a capture of acoustic live performances on the organ or cello with very little post manipulation, but with Saor I’ve come full circle in my creative path, in that I took the organ recordings back into the studio and spent quite a bit of time manipulating them.
It was really exciting to explore and finally combine these two different sound worlds. I dove deep into the world of distortion and it was really exciting to develop my work with the organ in this way, creating palettes of sound I had never previously explored, a bit like climbing a new Munro! I don’t think this path necessarily would have evolved without the lockdown.
Neil Cooper– How much of the album was done in Forgue and how much in Union Chapel? I know the big title track was done in Amsterdam.
CMS – Yeah, Amsterdam was a commission that organically developed into a piece for five organs – all of which I play at the same time, presenting an organ assault course over two levels! Two tracks were recorded in Forgue Kirk – ‘Braeriach’ and ‘Cairn Toul’. The interludes exploring the mechanics of the organ or the Kirk itself were all captured in Forgue Kirk and ‘Forrig’ and ‘Càrn’ organ parts were recorded at Union Chapel, with brass and strings recorded in Glasgow, and then there’s the Orgelpark piece to conclude.
NC– That’s an accidental displacement from it. You were in exile, but performing about your home. You live in London?
CMS– Yes, I moved to London to study my undergrad in Music, which followed on to Masters and half a PhD, and somehow I’m still here twenty-one years later. Union Chapel has had a lot to do with that, as I look after the organ there and it is so special to me I just can’t leave it. But I tend to come home very regularly, because I’m not a city person. I grew up in a small town in Aberdeenshire, and I obviously love climbing and being in the outdoors, so in order to survive living here I have to go home around every six weeks. I’ve always been in the way of doing it and if I don’t, I really feel it, and need to get out of the city.
NC– That must have an influence on the album and the music you make. There are two strands to the record, the organ in Forgue, then there are your walks in the Cairngorms. How did you bring those two strands together?
CMS– One of the first things I do when I arrive home is to get in the car and drive to Lochnagar and Loch Muick near Ballater. Being there gives me the gasp of fresh air and clarity I long for when in London, a stillness that is hard to describe, complete peace. For me, that has always been the fuel for me to survive.
In my studio in London, my walls are covered with maps and photographs I have taken on my walks to remind me of this feeling. I don’t know what it is. It’s just in me, but the music I write, no matter where I am – London, Aberdeenshire, Amsterdam – is completely informed by my experiences and memories of walking across the Cairngorms and being at the very top of a Munro alone and feeling completely free. Which of course is why the album’s called ‘Free’.
The Forgue Organ
NC– How did you discover the organ at Forgue Kirk?
CMS– A friend from Union Chapel, Anthony Richardson, actually recommended it. Anthony is an architect, and he was the Chair of the Friends of Union Chapel, and was responsible for kick-starting the huge restoration project of the ‘Father’ Henry Willis organ at Union Chapel in 2011. I joined Union Chapel as Music Director of the organ in 2012 when the organ was in the builder’s workshop in Durham. My job was to design and deliver a programme around the organ on its return.
So it turned out Anthony’s brother looked after Forgue Kirk, and when he found out that I was from Aberdeenshire he said, you must go and play this organ, and it all happened from there. When I came up North I would often go and play the organ and work on new material.
What was most incredible was that my Mum told me many of my ancestors are buried in the churchyard, and on my first visit I remember looking over to a pew, and there was a gravestone of one of my ancestors that was being restored, Peter Forsyth. It was an incredible stars aligning moment. From one special place in London at Union Chapel I was directed to another special place in Aberdeenshire, which has great meaning and history to my family. So it was an honour to have the opportunity to compose, perform and record there. Who would have thought their great-great-great granddaughter or equivalent would be playing the organ there.
NC– What village are you from?
NC– How far is that from Forgue Kirk?
CMS– About a forty-five minute drive. It’s just around the corner from Glendronnach Distillery. The Conacher organ there was a gift to the Parish from Walter Scott, proprietor of the Glendronach Distillery in 1872. It’s a gorgeous little organ with beautiful tone. It’s got quite a noisy blower, which is why in the recordings, it’s quite kind of like keuch, but I just worked with that, and that’s why I used a lot of distortion as well, because it’s a character that I wanted to bring out. But the tone of the organ is just absolutely beautiful.
It only has fifteen stops, but this does not undermine the power it has in the Kirk. My recording set up was super simple, with a couple of mics in front of the organ, which recorded all of my rough sketches, and the pieces evolved from there.
NC– Had you prepared them before beforehand?
CMS– No. I just would sit there and jam, basically and then just come up with things. My starting point when composing is always to sit and improvise and record everything, because then I can listen back and be like, oh, I like that bit, and I like that bit, and develop the ideas until I finally end up with a fixed piece of notated music.
But I’m just kind of being really free when I’m actually on the instrument. I also played in bands from the age of twelve, so I’m very used to that kind of jamming type improv style. But at the end of the day, it always ends up as a scored piece. So it’s never improvised in the end, but in the beginning it’s very loose. Although someone else could never look at my scores and play the pieces as I have developed a shorthand that prompts me, but it is by no means conventional notation.
NC– Bringing that love of walking and that inspiration of walking together with Forgue, which has ended up becoming quite a personal place, how did they influence each other, do you think?
CMS– I think the fact that the organ and the Cairngorms are relatively near to each other, so one day I might be walking, and then next at the organ, definitely worked hand in hand, and creatively steered the album. Plus, Forgue is surrounded by beautiful countryside, so that feeling of being close to nature and peace was very much present in both places.
NC– You’re totally in your element there.
CMS– Exactly. I’m home.
Pulling Out The Stops
NC– I was watching a video of you playing earlier on your website. You play the organ in quite a different fashion. It’s not what we think of how a church organ is played. It’s a physical thing with you. Not in a wild jumping around kind of way, but you’re playing with the stops and putting things in the keys to get different sounds. How did you develop that way of playing?
CMS– I started playing cello when I was seven, and piano followed soon after at the age of ten or eleven, but I was never satisfied playing the music put in front of me. I much preferred to sit and make up my own pieces, and even when I was supposed to be playing repertoire I would revert to playing by ear, as I could escape in my head and enjoy the sound rather than concentrate on each note in front of me.
I studied cello performance and played in orchestra at university, but as soon as I reached my second year and I was allowed in the studio I really felt at home composing my own music with lots of new tools to explore. When I was studying my Masters in Composition I was asked by organist Roger Williams7 in Aberdeen to write him an organ piece for the soundfestival 8. I’ve known Roger for most of my life, his wife Katherine taught me piano and I babysat their kids.
I was writing in the studio at the time, and I was very much doing electronic stuff, and I questioned if I was the right composer for the concert. I had very little experience with the organ, apart from maybe going to a funeral or a wedding, or going to a classical concert and hearing Bach or something. I related the instrument to classical music more than experimental, although obviously pieces from composers including Ligeti or Messiaen were closer to my sound world.
I really didn’t quite appreciate the full scope of the instrument, and I was really quite reluctant, and said, I don’t know if you’ve got the right person for this, I just don’t know if I’ll be able to do anything. And Roger said, come and just have a session and see what you think.
So I went and met the Aubertin organ at King’s College in Aberdeen – I talk about organs like they’re people – and we were trying different things, and I asked, what if you were to get down on your hands and knees and press the pedals ever so slightly? What happens then? And of course, because it’s completely mechanical, Roger began slowly manipulating the wind. Roger pointed out that this was also possible with the stops, and that was it, I was sold. I could not believe that you could create sound completely acoustically that sounded like what I was trying to produce in the studio, but I didn’t need a laptop or anything else.
After that piece, I totally had the bug. I decided that I wanted to start a festival for commissioning new work, because I knew a secret and everyone needed to know how amazing this instrument is. But of course I had no access to an organ, no funding, nothing.
Roll on six years having composed two pieces for Roger to play, in 2012 the Music Director post came up at Union Chapel, and I jumped at it. From that point on I had keys to the most amazing historic instrument. In the quiet hours I would sit for hours, and started to develop my own way of playing. I approached the organ like it was a sound source as opposed to following the rules of how you are supposed to play.
Obviously I had keyboard skills, but it wasn’t like I ever had a lesson where I was shown, this is how you do this, and this is how you do that. I was completely free to experiment, and so I would hold down keys with chopsticks or straws so I could manipulate the stops, and that was it. There was full physicality with the instrument that I hadn’t experienced before.
The organ is such a powerful instrument where you are effectively playing the space it resides in, and the sub bass travels straight through you. Now sadly my cello takes more of a back seat in the beginning of a new composition, although it always finds its way in there by the end.
Over a couple of years I continued to develop my writing and performing on the instrument – I always have a drone held where I’m continuously manipulating the wind pressure through the stops whilst also playing a melody, and I do honestly think my voice has developed in this particular way from listening to bagpipe music since I was three. I went to Highland dance classes every week from aged three to eighteen, so it’s ingrained in me to have a drone and melody. I often say I basically write bagpipe music for organ.
NC– As well as the physicality, a real emotionalism comes through Saor. It’s not a cold record at all.
CMS– I don’t shy away from showing emotion in my work. I think it originates from the passion of where the inspiration comes from, and how inspiring Scottish landscapes are to me. In many parts of Scotland when driving you feel like you’re watching an HD television it’s so perfect. I reflect on it all, growing up in those surroundings, and still needing them to be creatively fed. I hold it in me no matter where I am. Music is my main emotional outlet, so everything comes out when I’m writing, and I don’t hold back. I don’t put the brakes on. I just let whatever comes come.
A Sense of Place
NC– There’s real sense of place in the record as well. In the titles, obviously, and again, that’s down to the sense of freedom and emotional responses. I started wondering, and it’s a very obvious reference, whether Nan Shepherd 9 and The Living Mountain might have had an influence at all.
CMS– Obviously I’m a big fan and I’ve read it many times, and it’s also my favourite gift to buy friends, but it wasn’t a direct influence. I think it was the same for Nan Shepherd as it is for me. She went to the Cairngorms, she was deeply inspired by the mountains, and that emotion flourishes in her writing. I think if you’re an artist, no matter what medium, and you go somewhere that is deeply personal and inspirational, then it’s going to reflect in your art.
I bought the French translation for a good friend in Paris who had never been to the Cairngorms, and afterwards she spoke of the area like she had just climbed all the Munros and saw everything through the eyes of Nan. It is incredible how Nan managed to convey the pure sense of place in her work. I completely relate to this.
NC– You’re kind of fellow travellers in a way. She’s doing her thing and it’s different to what you do, but, to sound cheesy, you occupy the same landscape, doing similar but different things.
NC– The title track of the record is nearly twenty-five minutes long, and was recorded in one take. What was that like to do?
CMS– I think I got my steps in that day. I don’t know if you know Orgelpark, but I describe it as Disneyland for organists, because it’s got nine organs of all sizes in one room, oh and two pianos for good measure!
The Richard Thomas Foundation 10 and Orgelpark commissioned me to write a piece, and as if Orgelpark wasn’t already completely unique in what I have just described, it also houses the Hyper Organ set up. The Hyper Organ refers to one console, where the keyboards, pedals and stops are, which operates two separate organs higher up in the space. So the stops are combined on the one console, and there is an option to also programme the console to automatically play notated music from a midi score on your laptop.
So I started with these organs and after many days of sketching ideas I had a fixed part that I scored and converted to midi. On the Baroque Utopa organ 11a you can control how much overall wind flows through the organ, so I had that one on sixty per cent wind the whole time. The breathy noises at the end are from this organ, which is one of the last to finish.
So that took care of two organs, and then I ran around the other organs with my straws holding down notes, adding to the main melodies played by the Hyper Organ and manipulating the wind. The drone, which starts the piece and plays throughout, is on the 1767 Seetlef Onderhorst cabinet organ 11b from Oude Kerk, and then all obvious wind manipulation in the middle section is from the Verschueren 11c organ upstairs. Towards the end there is a delicate melody played on the Molzer 11d organ.
So I’m running up and down all day in the making of the piece and during each performance. After being commissioned to write a piece for Orgelpark, I thought I’ve got to try and play most of the organs. I couldn’t just settle with one. So I made it my mission to feature as many organs as I physically could. It was absolutely incredible to play with the tuning through wind manipulation and listen to the beating caused on each organ dancing around the room and interacting with one another.
At one point Richard Thomas from the Foundation came over to listen to the piece, and at one point I was rushing downstairs to push in the stops of the cabinet organ and slid right across the floor. He was completely oblivious, sitting there with his eyes closed. Little did he know I nearly broke my neck trying to smoothly finish the piece. I think I probably need to slow down a bit in the performance.
NC– Yeah. You don’t want to end up in hospital. Was that filmed at all? It must have been remarkable to witness.
CMS– No, thankfully not!
NC– And Richard Thomas is sitting there with his eyes shut…
CMS– He had NO idea!
NC– And you’re going back to Orgelpark to do it all again for an album launch there on November 11?
CS– Yes, Saor will have it’s public premiere on the 11th November, so I better get my running shoes or rollerskates on.
NC– I love it at the end of the record when you hear you leaving and the doors slamming.
CMS– When I was mixing I heard this at the tail end of the recording, and I thought, you know what, it’s the perfect way to end the album. And especially how I documented the sound of the organ and space at Forgue Kirk throughout with the interludes, so it felt like the perfect close.
NC– Tell me a bit about your background. You said you grew up in the village, you studied cello from an early age, but you’ve never been taught an organ lesson in your life. Are you from a musical family?
CMS– No, but funnily enough, my grandma took organ lessons although not the pipe organ. I have her certificate on my studio wall that says on the 25th November 1968 she completed her ‘first course of ten lessons and successfully played 40 pieces of music on the electronic organ.’ The certificate continues to read ‘We feel sure this early accomplishment will lead to a fuller understanding of one of the greatest joys in life – the creation of music.’
It’s a lovely treasure to have. And my great-grandma was musical, she played the melodeon, and apparently my great great-grandma was an organist in Chapel of Garioch. So it doesn’t feel so random after all that I ended up on the organ.
I started playing cello in primary school, and the reason for cello was because it was the instrument being offered at the time. I thought the audition was a great chance to get out of class, although I didn’t really know what a cello was, but that was it, I passed! From an early age I was playing cello in orchestra, and by the time I reached twelve or thirteen I started playing cello, keys and accordion in a band with my friends in the village, and that continued until I left for university.
I started piano lessons around ten, because my parents were temporarily storing a piano for someone, and I used to sit and write my own melodies for hours. I think my piano teacher always got really frustrated with me, because I never wanted to learn the music. I just wanted to play by ear. I would listen to different music on the radio, then go to the piano and I’d play it. That’s what I really enjoyed, and then I really enjoyed writing my own compositions rather than playing things she’d bring along.
I think I was a very frustrating student to have, but I knew from a very early age my path was in music, and after I left school I started auditioning, and Goldsmiths felt like the home I never knew existed. I just really, really loved it there. It just felt it had such a great art vibe.
It was hugely exciting and terrifying to move to the big city and pursue my dreams. I knew by then that composition was my main focus, but continued to play in orchestra and develop my cello performance. However, I slowly dedicated more and more time to composition.
Then of course, it wasn’t until my masters that I wrote my first piece for the organ, and I didn’t see that coming but I can’t imagine not playing the instrument now. It’s so much a part of me, I feel like I was always destined to find it.
NC– When you say you played in bands, was it rock bands?
CMS– Yes, droney rock bands in Aberdeen.
NC– Did you do gigs?
CMS– Yes we played the Aberdeen circuit many times! I also briefly re joined my friend’s new band in my twenties and we played some festivals, T in the Park being a milestone moment.
NC – Do you have the names of the bands?
CMS – Yes, my first ever band was called Neo Bohamut, or Neo B for short. To be honest I can’t even remember now if that was the correct spelling, and then we changed the name to de Barros as it was a little less awkward! I played in other bands throughout my twenties, but this band will always be the most special, being my first and with my best friends.
NC – How did the connection with Touch come about?
CMS– Mike Harding 12 from Touch and I met through a mutual friend in 2015, who said we had so much in common as I was running experimental organ concerts at Union Chapel, and he was running the Spire 13 series. So I contacted Mike out of the blue asking him to meet, more with my music director hat rather than my artist hat. He came to the Chapel and we hit it off immediately. It crept into conversation that I was writing for the organ, and he loved what he heard, and the journey began!
We released my debut album in 2016, which was a combination of some cello and organ works. It was equally exciting to meet and work with Jon Wozencroft. He takes the most incredible photos and it has very much been a hugely enriching collaborative journey with Jon and Mike ever since.
NC– It seems like the perfect home for you. It gels with the festival you do, Organ Reframed. You brought in all these people from Touch like Chris Watson and the late and wonderful Philip Jeck.
CMS– Yes it has been such a joy to bring so many incredible artists and dear friends to the chapel to work with the organ, more often than not for the first time. It was exactly what I set out to do in 2006, it just took me a little bit of time – ten years!
I played at a tribute concert for Philip in London, at IKLECTIC14 and that was probably the hardest piece I’ve ever had to write. Philip and I, we knew each other well. We were friends, and we’d always spoken about collaborating, but we were both really busy, and although we wanted to, and we kept talking about it, it didn’t actually happen.
I felt so gutted about that, and then Mary, Philip’s wife, she found after he’d passed that he’d written his part and left ‘Sketch for Claire’ on his laptop. After I was sent his part I wrote mine, and I premiered it at the tribute concert. It was the hardest performance ever, but the most special gift to have been left.
I felt a lot of pressure writing my part, and I kept talking to him all the way through when I was writing it. Obviously, when you’re collaborating, you’re very much talking all the time. You’re like, is this okay, and what do you think about this? I was having to do that, and try and hear him in my head, and hope that he trusted me to take this material and make something of it. It was a beautiful night, and a really wonderful concert, full of love for Philip, but it was really hard.
I remember the first time I ever heard him play, and I was like, oh, my goodness, why did I not know about you? I was absolutely blown away by his performance and his music. He truly was amazing.
NC– Is Organ Reframed an annual thing?
CMS– No. It tends to be every couple of years, just because I have pretty much been a one-man show running the festival and the education programme at Union Chapel, so it’s really tough to pull it off every year.
As the festival features all new commissions I like to give artists the opportunity to come and spend time with the organ and workshop the piece so they are really getting the full on organ experience. That’s when the magic happens and new ideas evolve.
As you generally need to know someone with a key to access an organ it can be difficult for composers to get any time with the instrument, or even begin to think about composing for organ. I think the organ has one of the largest repertoires, but it of course should keep growing and explore new ways. That can only happen if you allow access, so people can truly have time to experiment, rather than looking up an orchestration book and thinking, okay, the key range is from here to here, so I’ll write these notes. As I was given the opportunity of time to really explore, it is now my responsibility as the key holder to Union Chapel’s organ to make sure people have the same access and opportunities.
I’m hoping there will be another edition of Organ Reframed next year, but unfortunately, our organ currently needs a major repair after some unusual humidity and temperature shifts caused by the closure of the Chapel during the pandemic and the increasingly hot summers we have been facing.
Three weeks before Organ Reframed last year, I was practising my piece for Chris, and I hit one note, and about five others appeared. It turned out there was a split in the swell part of the organ, so the wind was escaping. The organ builders had to come in and do a temporary repair, but they kept saying to me all throughout the week, it’s goosed, and I was like, it can’t be goosed. Ungoose it. I’ve postponed this festival three times. This has to happen.
The repair held up, but the organ’s going out in January to get properly repaired in Durham. So I couldn’t do an Organ Reframed this year, anyway, because I couldn’t rely on the instrument holding up.
My focus at the moment is on fundraising for the repair and I’ll take it from there.
NC– It’s not like it’s a little event in a pub, which is stressful enough to do, but doing it in the Union Chapel, with this big organ and some of the biggest composers in their fields can’t be easy with just you doing everything.
CMS– The curation happens quite organically as I meet people through performing or I hear a new record and I know they could do something amazing with the instrument. More often than not I am commissioning artists that have never worked with the organ before, but I can hear in their work that they would take to it like a fish to water.
One incredible artist that comes to mind is Éliane Radigue14. I have been a huge fan of hers for a very long time and I knew that the organ wouldn’t be a massive jump for her and actually couldn’t believe she had never written an organ piece before. She wrote the most beautiful piece, Occam XXV performed by Frédéric Blondy15 in 2018, which became the first release on the Organ Reframed record label in 2022.
NC– I read something you said about how each organ has its own personality. The one in Forgue is different from the one in Union Chapel, and so on. You will know that, and you will respond to that.
CMS– Absolutely. A perfect example of this is a piece I wrote for the Queen Elizabeth Hall organ. Not many people know there is an organ at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, because it lives under the stage. I was commissioned to write a piece for myself on organ with the London Contemporary Orchestra in 2019 actually for the Royal Festival Hall organ, but I said I didn’t want to play that organ, which I don’t think anyone had said before, because it doesn’t have mechanical action stops, so I can’t manipulate the wind.
My good friend William McVicker who is organ curator there, told me about the organ under the stage in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. He got it restored for me, and when I premiered the piece it was the first time it had been played in many, many years. I have actually just finished recording the piece at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as it features on the second album in the triptych.
The organ was built by Flentrop16 of Holland in 1967, and I remember when I was trying to figure out how I was going to record this piece and thought, maybe I can just record it at Union Chapel. But because the Flentrop organ is made in the Netherlands, I refer to organs over there as like Dutch punks, because they’re very spiky and they’ve got a lot of raw emotional personality. Whereas the organ at Union Chapel is like a fine English gentleman, very smooth and polite.
So when I tried to play the piece that I’d written in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Union Chapel, I thought this sounds awful! It took all the edginess and raw emotion out of the piece, it just sounded too smooth, and so there was no option but to record it on the very special little Dutch punk that lives under the stage in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. This finally happened last week.
NC– I love the way you give each organ names. You have conversations and you give them little personalities and stuff. You’ve got this whole cast of characters.
CMS– Oh, I do. I think of them as good friends or family members. I am pretty sure people think I am a bit nutty at Union Chapel because I call the organ there Henry, and I’ll sign staff cards from Claire and Henry. The great thing is every artist that plays Henry learns the name, and then refers to the organ as Henry.
I have such a strong attachment to these different personalities. For example, every time I pass through Waterloo I think about the little Dutch punk. Also, the more I write for organ I realise that if I only ever write for Henry, as special as that is I will never completely push myself. Working on different commissions getting to know all these different organs and their personalities pushes you to think and compose in different ways.
When I meet an organ, I always want to find the interesting and cool quirks of the instrument that some people might think sound wrong, but I work with them and shine a spotlight on them, showing the true personality and quirks of that instrument.
So when I play different shows, some pieces I write on one organ can’t be transferred to all organs like the example of the Dutch punk and Henry, but some pieces are much easier and take on a new life. This means I can’t just show up on the day and perform in the evening, because I need to learn every single incremental sound that organ makes. It usually takes me two or three days to transfer the works, very much making it a site specific performance.
NC– Not many concert promoters could deal with those sorts of logistics…
CMS– Yes, it’s not always easy, but it’s worth it! It’s also a very social instrument, in that you go to the church or the concert hall to prepare for the performance, and you meet all the people that work there and you build a relationship with them. So you make friends wherever you play, and you keep in touch, go back again, and it’s a really lovely experience, rather than just showing up with my cello on the day.
NC – So it’s not just you and Henry?
CMS – No.
Tell it to the Bees
NC – How did Tell it to the Bees come about?
CMS– I was contacted by the director, Annabel Jankel. She’d listened to my album and really loved my music. It was the most ideal way to be brought into film. I’d never written music for film before, so when we met she gave me some cues to work on, and it was working really well, so that was it.
It was probably the steepest learning curve of my career, because I had to learn on the job, and it was such a different ballgame to the way I was used to writing. Even in the fact I write very long slowly evolving pieces of music, and some of the cues were as short as thirty seconds. I’m usually just taking breath at the point in my album and commission work, but I like a challenge!
But obviously coming from the cello classical background, and having studied acoustic and studio composition, I do have classical chops in writing more classical music, so I kind of melded that kind of world with the more experimental, so there is organ in there, and electronics, but I tried to mush them together. I had the skills to combine the sound worlds. With it being a romantic but also hugely dramatic film as well, I knew I needed to incorporate an orchestral element. It was really fun to bring all those worlds of cello, organ, electronics and orchestra together. I’d love to work on another film when the right project comes along.
NC– It’s interesting listening to Saor next to Tell it to the Bees. On one level the soundtrack sounds very different to what you do in your own work, but then there are moments in it, where it was just like, oh, hello, that sound could fit in with Tell it to the Bees. You can still hear a connection. Obviously it’s you doing both, but the two things maybe aren’t that different.
CMS– I think with the film, even although I had to lean in a bit more to the orchestral music palette, I stayed true to my artistic voice. That was really important to me, or I just don’t think the music would have sounded authentic.
NC – That’s the crucial thing. Yes, you’ve got to serve the narrative drive of the film, but it’s still your personality as well.
CMS– Yeah, and I think because Annabel asked me because she loved my music it made everything much easier from the beginning. I know that’s not always the case with composers working with directors who maybe sometimes are already married to a track by one composer and then have another try to recreate it. Whereas Annabel was amazing, because she trusted me to help her deliver the story with my own authenticity, and because she is such a champion of music she wanted my score to have a significant role in the film, and therefore involved me in every step.
I even I got to go to the mix of the film, and at one point she was asking me, what level do you think the music should be at? Which is like gold dust for a composer, to be in the mix for a film, and get to choose the level of the music.
We built a really strong trust between us, and it was really enjoyable. I’d love to have a similar type experience again, where a director likes my music and wants to bring me on board. But I don’t think I could ever be a composer for hire.
NC– Saor is the first part of a triptych of albums. What can we expect from the other two records? Is there a narrative running through all three?
CMS– Everything is written, and I have just finished recording Two. Three will be recorded next year. You will hear borrowed material across the three albums, almost like sibling tracks to one another. It’s a journey, so the works continue to evolve across Two and Three, with the final album featuring a large-scale work for organ, orchestra, choir and electronics.
The piece I just recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, that’s called ‘Gleann Ciùin – ‘Quiet Glen’. It’s inspired by walking and climbing after losing someone very close to me. They all have a shared inspiration of the Cairngorms, and they all share palettes of sound between them, and there are references that you will recognise. You will listen to Two, and go, oh, I hear that in ‘Forrig’ on One, you know, so they all connect. But it was too much to release all at the one time.
NC– Do they have titles yet?
CMS– I don’t have album titles yet but most of the pieces do. I find titles the most difficult as I don’t want people to look at a title and that word then informs their listening. As you will have noticed, I tend to use Scottish Gaelic, because it such a beautiful language to see written down.
But also I don’t necessarily want people to look at a title in English and then think about that as they’re listening. I don’t want to inform the listener too much, even though I am informing the listener, in that it’s about my walking.
I don’t want to give them an obvious word where they’re going to think about that word all the way through. I want them to have their own experience when they’re listening. And they might not even think about mountains. They might think about something else, and that’s fine. I’ve never been one to write programme notes or anything like that because I just don’t like to force an informed experience on anyone but rather let them go on their own journey.
NC – When are we likely to see and hear the second and third albums? You’re taking your time. It’s an organic thing. It’s all written, but there’s the recording and finding the right organs and all of that. How long is that process likely to take, do you think?
CMS– The second will come out next year, and the third will come out the year after. I want to leave enough time for people to digest along the way. Scheduling recording is always tricky, but the second is now finished. It also features a Scottish commission from last year. The piece features organs throughout Scotland, which was fun!
NC– What other organs around Scotland did you use?
CMS – I recorded in Inverness, Stonehaven, Glasgow and Haddo House in Aberdeenshire. I couldn’t get one in Edinburgh. There was a couple in Glasgow that I used. It was quite tricky, because obviously again, you’re talking about different personalities, and because of this a lot of the organs I chose were Henry Willis organs, the same family builder as Union Chapel. I found that if I went with the same builder, even though they were slightly different they melded together quite well. Plus because I was used to Henry Willis builds it didn’t take me long to prep for the recordings in each place.
The piece took the form of an installation for the Dandelion Festival17 premiering at the V&A in Dundee last year. It was Donald Shaw18 who commissioned me, and it was for Aproxima Arts19. Angus Farquhar20 from Aproxima Arts contacted me out of the blue, because he had come from the dentist, and I came on Radio Three when he was on his way home, and he was like, what is this? Then he contacted me and said you have to be involved in this project, I want to commission you, and then he got Donald Shaw on the case, and that’s how that came about.
The commission was part of a wider project re-establishing the Harvest as an event on the national calendar. With this in mind, and with it being about bringing Scotland together, I had the idea of trying to record on organs in different parts of Scotland, so people around the country could feel a sense of ownership of the piece. I was in very good company, with other commissions including Fergus McCreadie21, Manu Delago22 and my good friend Craig Armstrong23. Our pieces were played in the V&A with these glass boxes with plants growing in them.
NC– Saor is coming out. You’ve got album Two and album Three on the go. Are we ever going to see you perform in Scotland again? When are you going to escape from London again to get your next breath of fresh air?
CMS– I am coming up briefly in October and then Christmas time. I have a replica of my studio up north, so I can bring my laptop and plug in there. This means I tend to do most of my mixing up north. Next year I’ll be back home again mixing. The best scenario is being able to go for a walk in the countryside to clear your head and come back with fresh ears. It’s hard to have fresh ears down here. Sometimes you just need to go for a walk and clear your head and be able to listen again.
NC– In terms of playing live, with all the logistics that you’ve mentioned, you can’t just rock up with a laptop or whatever, because as you say, you need two to three days in situ. How would you or could you do that? Or where would you do that in Scotland, do you think?
CMS– Well, there’s lots of beautiful organs in Scotland. I’m just waiting for someone to ask me to come and play them…
NC– Okay. I’ll put that in.
CMS– I also now have an alternative set up. Touch celebrated their 40th anniversary last year, and they had a string of events throughout the year. They said, look, you’ve got to play one, but we don’t have any venues with an organ. That forced me into thinking about alternative sets, and how I can play if there isn’t an organ available.
I now have an alternative set, where I have a samples of the Union Chapel organ, which I can play on a keyboard, and use more electronics. I do that when I have to, but obviously my real joy is being able to play a proper organ and performing everything exactly as it’s intended. I would love to play more Scottish dates, but the opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet.
NC– I hope it does. Because, despite what you do at the Union Chapel and what you did at Orgelpark, Saor is rooted in Forgue Kirk. As you say, Saor translates as ‘Free’. Where are you going to take your next adventure with that sense of freedom, do you think?
CMS – I’m just going to stay in the Cairngorms. Do you mean after these three albums are done?
NC– Yes. I know there’s a lot of work to do with all of the albums over the next couple of years, but where’s your next adventure going to be?
CMS– Even as I finish these three albums I am already writing new material. In a way I feel I’ve come full circle compositionally by working in the studio again. I’m really excited to keep going with that, and I’m even starting to explore working with live electronics again.
I’m just really excited to keep evolving and of course meet as many new organs as I can and have the opportunity to write for them. Also, I’ve really enjoyed working with the London Contemporary Orchestra over the past few years. It’s been really nice to explore a wider palette with the organ. So I would love to continue that work, but I’d also love to explore working with new ensembles and orchestras. A bit like the organs, I’m sure the opportunity would bring new ideas and ways of working. Watch this space!
Saor by Claire M Singer is released digitally and on CD by Touch on 3rd November (pre-order from the 6th October). The album is launched at Orgelpark, Amsterdam, 11th November, when Singer will perform ‘Saor’.
1. Touch– Founded in 1982 by Jon Wozencroft, Touch is a curatorial audio-visual production company that has released a series of beautifully presented artefacts by an array of experimental electronic composers. www.touch33.net
2. Chris Watson– Sheffield born sound recordist, who co-founded and was an original member of electronic provocateurs Cabaret Voltaire before departing to work at Tyne Tees Television. Since then, Watson has become one of the world’s foremost sound recordists, working across the globe recording wildlife, environments and atmospheres.
3. Philip Jeck (1952-2022) – Liverpool based sonic alchemist, who released numerous albums prior to his death in 2022. Using vintage record players and old 78-RPM vinyl records, Jeck channelled the ghosts in the machine on albums such as Sand (2008). In Scotland, he appeared at The Arches, Glasgow, as part of the Instal festival of Brave New Music, and at Kill Your Timid Notion at Dundee Contemporary Arts. He latterly appeared at Leith Theatre in Edinburgh as part of the Hidden Door festival in a collaboration with writer Rebecca Sharp.
4. Orgelpark– Amsterdam based international concert hall for organists. The hall contains numerous instruments dating back centuries, and aims to integrate the organ into contemporary music strands with living composers.
5. Annabel Jankel– British film and TV director, who first came to prominence directing music videos and adverts in collaboration with Rocky Morton. Music videos include ‘Accidents Will Happen’ by Elvis Costello, ‘Blind’ by Talking Heads, and ‘Genius of Love’ by Tom Tom Club. In the 1980s Jankel and Morton co-created Channel 4 cyberpunk character Max Headroom, then in Hollywood directed D.O.A. (1988) and Super Mario Bros. (1993). Working solo, Jankel directed numerous TV ads, and the Live from Abbey Road (2006) series for Channel 4. She then went on to direct Skellig (2009), and Tell it to the Bees (2018).
6. Henry Willis (1821-1901) – Also known as ‘Father’ Willis, London born Henry Willis was an organist who became the foremost organ builder of the Victorian era. Beginning with rebuilding Gloucester Cathedral organ in 1847, Willis went on to build a large organ for the 1851Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace. This led to Willis building organs for St. George’s Hall, Liverpool, Alexandra Palace, the Royal Albert Hall and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Other organ builds by Willis included St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh and Glasgow Cathedral. Henry Willis & Sons Ltd, founded in 1845, still make organs in Liverpool today.
7. Roger Williams– Welsh born organist and musicologist who in 1978 became a lecturer in the Music Department of Aberdeen University, where he became Senior Lecturer and Head of Department before becoming Music Director and Organist to the University. Williams went on to work with the Haddo House Choral & Operatic Society and the North East of Scotland Music School. In 2011 he was made an honorary Doctor of Music at the University of Aberdeen, and became an honorary adviser in music to the National 22:02rust for Scotland. In 2010, Williams performed during the Papal Mass at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow as part of Pope Benedict XI’s tour of the UK. In 2016 he became organist of St. Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen.
8. soundfestival– Annual contemporary music festival that takes place in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. A four-day pilot festival in 2004 called Upbeat! led to the inaugural soundfestival the following year. Since then, the festival gas become a major platform for new music that gives composers a platform to experiment through a series of commissioned works that take in contemporary classical, sound art and all manner of adventurous sound works.
9. Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) – Writer of The Living Mountain, a seminal memoir of Shepherd’s walks in the Cairngorms. Born in Cults, Aberdeenshire, Shepherd wrote novels and poetry, and lectured in English at Aberdeen College of Education. Although written in the 1940s, The Living Mountain wasn’t published until 1977, since when it has become a modern classic.
10. Richard Thomas Foundation – Established in 2009 to foster and promote the advancement of all aspects of contemporary art, with a focus on contemporary classical music and performance in relation to other art forms.
11a-d. Baroque Utopa organ / Seetlef Onderhorst cabinet organ / Verschueren organ / Molzer organ – Details of all organs at Orgelpark can be found at https://www.orgelpark.nl/en/instruments . OnSaor, Claire M Singer played Sauer; Utopa; Molzer; Cabinet; Verschueren.
12. Mike Harding – Co-director of Touch and creative producer of Spire.
13. Spire – Experimental music programme for organ and electronic works curated by organist Charles Matthews and creative producer Mike Harding. Since 2004, Spire has presented programmes in various cathedrals, with works by the likes of Arvo Part and Eric Satie sitting alongside performances by artists including Claire M Singer and Philip Jeck.
14. Éliane Radigue – French electronic music composer. Radigue began working in the 1950s, and her first compositions were presented in the late 1960s. Until 2000 her work was almost exclusively created with the ARP 2500 modular synthesizer and tape. Since 2001 she has composed mainly for acoustic instruments.
15. Frédéric Blondy – Paris based pianist who has worked with Marie-Christine Calvet at the International Piano Center, refining a body-based approach to the instrument. In 2011 Blondy created the Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisations Musicales (ONCEIM), an ensemble of thirty musicians formed to develop links between improvisers skills and written music. Blondy is artistic director and composer for the ensemble.
16. Flentrop – Dutch company based in Zaandam and founded in 1903 by Hendrik Wicher Flentrop, which builds and restores organs.
17. Dandelion– Recipients of Scotland’s strand of Unboxed, the year long UK wide festival of creativity formerly known as Festival UK* 2022, or FUK*2022 for short. Dandelion aimed to rediscover people’s connection with food through community growing and harvest, incorporating music, song and art.
18. Donald Shaw – Taynuilt born accordionist and composer who co-founded the band Capercaillie. He has written numerous soundtracks for television, and has produced albums by the likes of Nanci Griffith, Peter Gabriel and Ornette Coleman. In 2004, Shaw composed Harvest for the opening night of the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. In 2006 he was appointed as the festival’s artistic director, remaining in post until 2018.
19. Aproxima Arts – Social action and arts organisation that has produced works such as Second Citizen, created for the National Theatre of Scotland’s Dear Europe event in 2019 on the original date earmarked for the UK’s departure from Europe. Since then, Aproxima Arts has explored long-term community based activities, with holistic environmental concerns at their heart.
20. Angus Farquhar – Creative Director of Aproxima Arts and Dandelion. Farquhar was a founder member of industrial provocateurs Test Department, and reinstated the annual Beltane Fire festival on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. In 1992 Farquhar founded the NVA organisation, overseeing environmental spectacles such as The Path and Speed of Light. Farquhar and NVA also spent a decade attempting to bring modernist ruin St. Peter’s seminary in Cardross back to life.
21. Fergus McCreadie – Scottish jazz pianist and composer. McCreadie’s style revolves around a fusion of contemporary jazz with Scottish folk music. He has released three albums as bandleader to date, with all three being listed for the Scottish Album of the Year Award. Turas was shortlisted in 2019, Cairn was longlisted in 2021, and Forest Floor won in 2022. Forest Floor was also nominated for the 2022 Mercury Prize, and won the Scottish Jazz Award for Best Album.
22. Manu Delago – Austrian Hang player, percussionist and composer based in London. Delago has featured as percussionist and hang player for several of Björk’s shows, starting with the Biophilia Tour up until the Cornucopia performances. He also performed percussion with The Cinematic Orchestra from 2014-2016. He was a composer and producer for Anoushka Shankar’s 2016 album Land of Gold, and accompanied Shankar on her world tour. In 2018, Delago released Parasol Peak, a multi-award winning album and film in which he led an ensemble of seven musicians on a mountaineering expedition in the Alps. After years of touring, Delago launched the carbon neutral Recycling Tour in 2021, performing at venues across Germany and Austria accessed only by bicycles.
23. Craig Armstrong– Glasgow born composer who worked at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and provided string arrangements for Massive Attack. Armstrong composed the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s film, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1996) and other films, as well as composing his own works on a series of albums that began with The Space Between Us (1998). He has also written for the Royal Scottish national Orchestra, the Hebrides Ensemble and the Scottish Ensemble. In 2006 Armstrong collaborated with artists Dalziel + Scullion for the opening of Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow with a joint exhibition titled Once. In 2007, Scottish Opera presented a fifteen-minute work by Armstrong featuring a libretto by novelist Ian Rankin.
All photos by Seàn Antleys
Album cover photo by Ash Todd, design by Jon Wozencroft