Tombs, hundreds in number, line the concrete floor. There are written dedications, a set number of years and an epitaph engraved into each one of the well-trodden grooves, the letters themselves seeming to absorb the penetrating wall of sound, able to pick up the resonating frequencies even though they are under the ground level, left in the pews of the crypt.
In the cathedral above, golden-coral archways take the breath away in a sudden swoon. Smoothly carved arcs hang above, linked to one another as if they were huge, chained cauldrons lit to reflect the face of angels. Through the deep peace and the quietude, the soft footsteps over stone and the occasional cough comes the sound of an organ, residing in her splendour, at home inside the majesty. It’s this instrument that shakes the elderly stone foundations and the illuminated stained-glass windows, snaking its way into the tombs below. She is shaped in such a way that the pipes reach to the Heavens. When you add to this her sizable scale, both in weight and in height, the intimate, gentle love of a higher register and the brutal power of the lower, and she may as well be sitting on a throne herself.
Organist James McVinnie spends a lot of Cycles inside a cathedral of rich, rosy tones. The thirteen pieces were arranged to be played on a pipe organ by composer Nico Muhly. Not only are these pieces deeply meditative, but they are also sacred. As the record plays, the path returns again and again to a spiritual one.
His playing illuminates the forward trail, leading to an altar that is lit with ghostly candles, and where the pipe organ is the only instrument left standing in the silence. His archways are created from their own type of architecture, constructed not out of human material, but out of music. They invite you inside the living, ancient domes that have stood throughout the centuries, as easily as if they were mere days in a week. Candles, slow burning in a light breeze, are left as a prayer. The music is another form of prayer, too, and just as grand and as impressive as a cathedral itself; a suitable offering inside a Holy place.
Organs have substantially helped shape the sound of the church. The organ constructs an often dazzling, beautiful architecture that is all of her own making, a shrine to the force of music and the possibilities; it is, more importantly, a devotional offering to a higher power. Mozart once called the organ the ‘king of instruments’, and it’s easy to see (or hear) why. Organs shroud everything, every last corner that may try to hide the shrivelling silence, filling the gaps with a sense of infinite space and a cloudy, dusty atmosphere.
James McVinnie’s playing is cavernous and lifted. The higher notes are like cascading crystals that sparkle in an abundant, musical flourish, but the instrument is also capable of an unrivalled thunderous roar. Cycles switches between the two extremes at one point or another, taking in the wide, intervallic range of the instrument, allowing the music to breathe deeply but keeping everything compact and restricted to an upright, almost regal posture.
Cycles is perfect for spiritual reflection, but it isn’t restricted to religion alone; the early ‘Hudson Preludes’ are so still that they could reflect a stream of untroubled water – power is not only a sudden storm, but the quiet progressive determination, too. Sometimes, the organ’s notes soar as if they were swooping angel wings; the pipes are thin lungs that cry out in 24/7, constant praise.
At other times, the deeper tones stir into life, awakening what could be a fire breathing dragon, pumping out the intense, tonal power that no other instrument can match, one that shakes you to your core in what is a sonic earthquake that engulfs the surroundings with ferocious peace.
‘Slow Twitchy Organs’ adds a violin (Nadia Sirota) to the slowly developing sound. The organ is a distant drone, quietly sitting as the rock for the primary sound of the sweet violin. It almost becomes a modern classical interpretation, the deep, cooling resonance of the organ helping to colour the ordinarily black and white genre. The organ is at peace.
The Seven O Antiphon Preludes, each prelude based on the Seven Great O Antiphons for Christian Advent, form the centrepiece of Cycles. Each antiphon is a name attributed to Christ, mentioned in scripture – O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations) and O Emmanuel (O God Is With Us). Ancient chants fill the silence, appropriately still in their devotional delivery. A sense of sublime peace descends as soon as the beautiful, lighter melody of ‘O Sapientia’ rings out. Traditionally sung during Evening Prayer, the seven O Antiphons are the musical apex of Cycles, as high as the stunning Cathedral architecture itself; reminiscent with their dusty centuries of offered prayer, where monks chanted reverentially, reciting in particular the Prophet Isaiah, under dusky skies and alongside pacified, silent gardens. The deeper register only enhances the already calm and reflective mood.
The music is heard billowing outwards in awe-inspiring clouds, with notes that twirl around and around, higher and higher like a spiral, stone staircase that leads to the church tower. ‘Beaming Music’ lifts Cycles even higher, and is a fitting coda complete with percussive sections nearer the end. James McVinnie has created a cathedral of sound with a mighty instrument; it is music of the highest order, Heaven sent.