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Organ to the Limit: The Sorabji Project

Kevin Bowyer conquers a monstor of organ music: the eight-hour Organ Symphony by composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji.

Eight and a half hours playing time. 300 A3 pages of score. Difficulty level: unplayable. Anyone who voluntarily tackles the organ works by the British composer of Parsi descent Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, born in 1892, is either crazy or crazy good. Definitely the latter applies to the British organist Kevin Bowyer: he takes on works that no one else has dared to touch; he is the repertoire's final opponent, so to speak.

No wonder, then, that Sorabji's compositions magically attract Bowyer. They are by far the most difficult works of music ever composed for organ – not only technically. Even their gigantic proportions go beyond any classical concert format. The Elbphilharmonie now offers a unique opportunity to experience Sorabji's eight-hour Organ Symphony No. 2, featuring Kevin Bowyer on the keys, pedals and manuals. An XXL sound experience in two parts, almost made for the Elbphilharmonie organ with its extensive technical and tonal potential.

In an interview Kevin Bowyer talks about the daily routine that revolves around fascination and surrender, his personal encounter with the composer and why it pays to wait eight and a half hours for the final chord.

The Sorabji Project

An eight-hour orgy of organ at the Elbphilharmonie: Kevin Bowyer performs Sorabji's Organ Symphony No. 2. The concert takes place in two parts, which may also be visited independently from one another.

View the Concert Details (Part 1)

Sorabji's organ symphonies makes all those notoriously difficult contemporary pieces look like finger exercises.

Kevin Bowyer

The Sorabji Project: Interview with Kevin Bowyer

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji's works have kept you company for quite a while – how did you first discover the composer?

I remember the day that I first discovered the composer. It was November 1979, I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I was very enthusiastic about organ music and I went to the library to look for new pieces. While I was standing at the back of the library, looking out through the window, I became aware of a big red score on the top shelf. It was the 1925 Curwen edition of Sorabji's Organ Symphony No. 1 – the »baby«. It only lasts for two hours. I looked through the score and was amazed how complicated it looked. Someone had written next to the last chord, »You need four hands to play this«, followed by six exclamation marks. From then on, I knew I wanted to play it – I just needed a challenge. Sorabji's been in my life ever since then.

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji © The Sorabji Archive
  • The Composer: Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji

    The British composer of Parsi descent lived from 1892 to 1988 and is one of the great, idiosyncratic talents in the history of music: he developed a completely independent style, which makes reference on the one hand to the music of his ancestors, on the other hand to composer colleagues such as Liszt, Scriabin and Busoni. Sorabji's hallmarks are highly complex rhythmic layers, ornaments and elaborate architectural structures in which he embedded his works. The composer lived in seclusion, worked as a music critic and essayist and is said to have spoken out against the performance of his works for decades.

  • The Organist: Kevin Bowyer

    Kevin Bowyer is one of the most important organists and organ teachers of the present day. Born in England in 1961, he became known primarily for his performances and recordings of contemporary organ works, which are considered enormously difficult or even unplayable. His recordings features pieces by composers such as Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne and Marcel Dupré and, most importantly, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. Bowyer's discography spans about 90 recordings across the organ repertoire of Bach, Brahms, Alain, Messiaen and Hindemith; he has taught at universities like Glasgow and Manchester. He first performed Sorabji's Organ Symphony No. 2 in 2010.

Later, you dared to tackle the Organ Symphony No. 2, although there was no big red score for this one?

Yes, the symphony existed only as a manuscript back then. Only the very earliest pieces of Sorabji were published and this one from 1932 was too late to be one of the early prints. The score runs for over 300 A3 pages. I copied it by hand and later typesetted it. There are various reasons why you cant’t play the symphony from the manuscript. Sorabji’s original manuscript was quite untidy and there are still many thousands of issues that need to be resolved before you can even begin to learn it: the ambiguities in the handwriting, errors from time to time in the rhythms, passages that are almost or completely impossible to play and need to be sorted out first.

Excerpt from the Manuscript of Sorabji's Organ Symphony No. 2
Excerpt from the Manuscript of Sorabji's Organ Symphony No. 2 © The Sorabji Archive

The work is just crazy. In some ways I curse the day that I started to play it.

Kevin Bowyer

You were the first person to start working on this piece. Why did no one else consider working on the composition before you?

There is a story that Sorabji decided that no one was allowed to play his music. It wasn’t quite as straightforward as that, but the result of that story is that actually no one played any of his music between 1936 and the early 1970s. By the time the 1970s came along I think his organ symphonies were so far in his past that in a way he’d almost forgotten about them. Sorabji was never particularly interested in getting a performance of any of his pieces anyway. It was only the performers who came along and asked, »Can I please do this?« And as a young musician, I was foolish enough to do that.

Did you meet Sorabji?

I did – in the year that he died, which was 1988. He was living in a nursing home in Dorset, England. I met him several times, the last a week before he died. (Author's note: He died at the age of 96.) He was a fascinating man and very interested in talking about the music of other composers like Leopold Godowsky, Franz Liszt und Ferruccio Busoni – his heroes. But he very rarely said anything to me about his own music.

The Symphony No. 2 is technically extremely difficult. How would you describe it in relation to other pieces that you have played in your career?

This is really not an overstatement. If you imagine the hardest piece in the organ repertoire, excluding the works of Sorabji, it’s like a distance of ten miles, then Sorabji's Symphony No. 1 is a distance of 100 miles – the Sorabji's Symphony No. 2 is 10,000 miles. The work is just...crazy. In some ways I curse the day that I started to play it.

What are the challenges of the work?

It’s difficult – not only for me but for the audience as well.  The hardest music to listen to for the audience is the first half hour. The first movement sounds very tense, very aggressive in places, bordering on the aternal and it's very tense and volcanic. The sound texture after the first movement is completely different. There is a reason for this: after completing the first movement, Sorabji put the symphony aside. He then spent nine months writing this huge piano piece called »Opus clavicembalisticum« – his most famous work. When he came back to write the Organ Symphony No. 2, he was completely changed as a composer. The second movement is much more lyrical, much more tonal.

How do you manage the performance physically?

You have to dive in on one end and hope that you come out at the other end. For some performances I ate superfood salads between the movements. I don’t know if this is necessary or not. I think, ultimately, the way to do it is to think of it as a long song. In your mind you try to forget how long it is. You start the journey and you don’t stop until the story is told.

Video: Kevin Bowyer on Sorabji's Organ Symphony No. 2

Kevin Bowyer

Any opportunity to play this piece is both a privilege and a terror to me. I expect in the days and weeks prior to the performance I’ll be desperate again. But someone has to do it and I’m the fool.

Kevin Bowyer

Were there moments where you had the feeling: I can't cope with this anymore?

Absolutely! And I expect there will be this time as well. There was one day I remember in 2010 when I played it for the first time in Glasgow. I was sitting at the organ practicing and suddenly I found that my fingers wouldn’t move anymore. The connection between the brain and the fingers was muted and I thought to myself »Oh my God, I can’t do it, I can’t do it«. I got into the car and went shopping at the supermarket and I felt so happy, so happy not to be playing the piece anymore! The sun was shining and my heart sang.

What does it mean to you to play the work here at the Elbphilharmonie?

It’s fantastic, it’s amazing! Any opportunity to play this piece is both a privilege and a terror to me. I expect in the days and weeks prior to the performance I’ll be desperate again. But someone has to do it and I’m the fool. I am this work's comedian. I try my best but I’m just a man.

Kevin Bowyer
Kevin Bowyer © Linda Fullarton

Have you sometimes cursed Sorabji?

Yes, but I think that shows how small I am. It says nothing about him. I’m glad he wrote it and I wouldn’t have him change anything about it. But I hope someday someone comes along who really is superman and will be able to play all the notes and all the nuances – and not have to escape to the supermarket.

The preparation time for this piece is also enormous. You spent 12 days at the Elbphiharmonie planning the registration. Can you explain more about this?

My job as an organist is to come along and choose all the sounds, which are going to be deployed for the piece. It’s not like coming along and playing the piano, where you just sit down and you have in your mind a sound image of what the result is supposed to be. When you play an organ, you have thousands of pipes to choose from and sometimes hundreds of sounds. Sorabji rarely specified these. I needed to go through the piece, note by note, bar by bar, listen very carefully and determine how I was going to use the sounds to make the texture as clear as possible for the audience. For 65 hours, I fed the 1,475 sequential register combinations into the Elbphilharmonie organ’s computer.

Do you have any advice for the audience?

It’s an endurance test. When the audience applauses in the end, the applause is as much for them as for me or for the piece. The end of the piece is extraordinary. It really is like arriving at the top of the tallest mountain in the world and looking down where you see all the other jagged peaks below you and the clouds. The last chord is in C major but is has so many other notes in it that it’s like a tonal chord coloured by God. It’s amazing. That last chord is worth waiting eight and a half hours for. Believe me!

Interview: Francois Kremer, 5 July 2019

The Sorabji Project: Kevin Bowyer at the Elbphilharmonie

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