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Classical organ music aficionados will be aware of the world-class organ in the heart of the city. The Melbourne Town Hall grand organ dates to 1929, and consists of 9592 pipes, drums and bells. When you’re playing the organ, you’re playing the entire Town Hall – such is the acoustic resonance of the room.
Classical organ music aficionados may be less aware of Scale II, a new album from electronic artist Sow Discord. It’s a dissonant, dense and sonically challenging album built from electronic sound, field recordings of construction sites … and the huge, gothic bellow of the Town Hall grand organ.
David Cohen, aka Sow Discord, with the organ at the Melbourne Town Hall: “The bass tones on it are incredible.”Credit: Eddie Jim
“It’s powerful,” says David Cohen, the artist behind Sow Discord. “The bass tones on it are incredible. When I was trying out the work with the organ, some of the bass frequencies were shaking the room.”
Cohen has been a figure in the Melbourne music scene for decades, from experimental hip-hop to the doom metal of his band Whitehorse. Sow Discord is a small-scale solo project, usually reserved for home recording and live shows in small music venues like the Tote.
Scale II will be a challenging listen for many. It is, as Cohen describes it, heavy, abrasive, and “sonically oppressive”. But its harsh atmosphere and stabbing, crunchy electronics are deepened by the organ’s acoustic warmth.
“It’s a completely different sound I normally wouldn’t use,” says Cohen. “I was a bit dubious at first. Could I make the two worlds work together? But it works. It was an opportunity to work with something outside of my normal methods and my normal sound world.”
Philip Glass with the organ at the Melbourne Town Hall in 2001.Credit: Craig Abraham
The city’s grand organ is closely associated with classical music. It gets used for speech nights, corporate events, and traditional organ music recitals. But as the City of Melbourne’s curator of music Miles Brown reminds us, it belongs to everyone. Brown is passionate about seeing it used in as many contexts as possible. “This isn’t a sacred instrument,” he says. “It’s in our Town Hall, and it’s for the city. We want everybody to engage with it.”
Just a few weeks ago, local indie musician Evelyn Ida Morris performed a new live score to a 1918 short film by Ernst Lubitsch at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival launch. Key contemporary Melbourne artists including Sarah Mary Chadwick and Taipan Tiger Girls have used it, as well as global artists Philip Glass and prog rock legends Tangerine Dream and Goblin.
Brown has been music curator since 2017 and is a renowned figure in the Melbourne music scene himself. His band the Night Terrors recorded a live show using the instrument in 2014, released as Pavor Nocturnus.
He is no stranger to niche instruments either, as a virtuoso thereminist. He says both instruments have a conservative culture around them. “To be an organist in the classical sense is like being an athlete,” he says. “You have to train your whole life. Some people see it as just for classical music, that it should only be used to express the greats.”
Regardless, Brown says that Cohen “had a cool idea”.
“A doom industrial record with the organ?” says Brown. “We definitely hadn’t done that. It’s always great when people can incorporate the instrument into their sound and it feels like it belongs there.”
Cohen isn’t a classically trained musician. He’s part of Melbourne’s diverse, broad web of underground artists.
“It’s very rare in the world for a pipe organ to be used for contemporary music like this,” says Brown. “Organs like this are usually in churches.”
“A doom industrial record with the organ? We definitely hadn’t done that.”
In addition to the grand organ, Brown is in charge of other obscure and arcane instruments, like the Federation Bells, a sculptural instrument consisting of 39 bells in Birrarung Marr. You can hear the bells on the new album Faithless by Melbourne-via-Berlin darkwave artist V.
Brown says he started off trying to get people work with these instruments, and now he has the opposite problem – trying to keep up with requests. “So now, rather than trying to sell it, we think about who we really want on this stage,” he says. “Punk, rock, metal, every genre we can think of. Melbourne’s underground scene is world class in these genres.”
Scale II will be launched at the Town Hall on November 9, in a diverse bill of bands including psychedelic hardcore group Geld and an electro-acoustic set from Wolftöne, followed by Sow Discord on the organ.
People who have never had a reason to set foot in the Town Hall before will get to experience this powerful instrument firsthand, and possibly brush shoulders with the city’s more sonically conservative gig-goers.
So does Brown get a lot of pushback from the more traditional corners of the Melbourne music world?
“So much!” he laughs. But his approach undeniably brings different – and younger – people in.
“Some people don’t like that. But maybe that’s all right. I never thought it would happen, but we have classical people coming to the rock stuff, and rock people coming to the classical stuff. And maybe we have a little connection happening.”
Cohen agrees that people shouldn’t be afraid of the organ being used in contexts like this.
“Why? Embrace the newness,” he says. “Things like this don’t need to be boring. It all depends on who has access to it.”
Scale II is out now online and on vinyl. Sow Discord plays the Melbourne Town Hall on November 9.
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