One Friday evening in mid-August, I took a car through a looming thunderstorm to get to the San Domino Mission Catholic Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for “Blow Hard,” a night of organ and electronic music performed by various artists. The event was in celebration of Night Eyes, a 2010 modified organ recording by the artist Raphael Lyon’s longstanding music project Mudboy, which recently saw a vinyl release on the Baltimore label Eshe Records.
“It’s not so much that you go to church to listen to the pipe organ, it’s rather that you enter a pipe organ to go to church,” Lyon told me that night, as a way of paraphrasing a statement in the record’s accompanying monograph. “The room and the church are the body of a guitar, so you’re inside of this instrument, and the church is sort of just wiped on the walls,” he continued.
To that end, all of the night’s six performers utilized the church’s organ in one way or another. The instrument was recently built by Gluck Pipe Organs and uses historic parts alongside newer technology (for example, it has a MIDI input, allowing for exciting possibilities in synthesis). The artist and musician Kayla Guthrie performed a series of pre-written songs through the organ, layering the instrument’s power onto her productions. “I was really surprised by how seamless it was,” she told me after her performance. “Raphael told me about this, and he basically just emailed me the manual with no comment. I was actually just really glad that I’d read so many manuals in the past.”
Darren Ho, who, beyond being a musician, is the proprietor of the modular synthesizer specialist store Ctrl-mod in Brooklyn, echoed the sentiment. “I didn’t have to do anything other than run a cable,” he said, noting the organ’s futuristic features. Ho performed later in the evening using a guitar with a MIDI pickup to control the organ. “I liked it, you know—people seemed to enjoy it way more than I did,” he joked. “It was positive.”
After Guthrie’s performance, side one of Night Eyes was played on a turntable in its entirety. The record was recorded using a converted pipe organ in Dortmund, Germany, in collaboration with the musician Peter Schutte and at times it gets pretty harsh. It should be noted that Lyon comes out of the early-2000s Providence, Rhode Island community centered around the legendary warehouse space Fort Thunder, and is no stranger to noise music—during one particularly abrasive passage that sounded a bit like an airplane taking off, I saw a few children cower and cover their ears.
The Mudboy recording wasn’t the only piece to insert abrasive sonics into the context of a church. Although the music of Guthrie, Ho, and a collaborative set from Takuya Nakamura and Noah Prebish all veered towards the serene (though the latter did play a piece whose groove set itself into the techno idiom), the night’s final performance by the composer and performer M. Lamar ratcheted up the intensity level.
Lamar was the only performer of the night to play the keys of the organ proper from its resting place on the balcony of the church. Over a sustained organ bass drone, Lamar emitted a variety of emotive noises through a delay pedal, and at times it felt like an exorcism of some sort. Throughout these mostly abstracted noises, the artist kept returning to one concrete phrase, stated intensely: “Power concede nothing without a demand,” a quote from the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Lamar told me that the piece, which was made specifically for the night, was in line with his larger concerns as an artist, which include “questions of trying to map the history of black people in the U.S.” Within those contours, Lamar noted that “you necessarily have to grapple with white supremacy, so this isn’t like a new thing for me.”
Lamar also pointed to the vocalist and composer Diamanda Galás as a kindred spirit. “She just suffers in her life and the work is a reflection of that, and I think that is just my vocation, unfortunately it is my calling—to do this work that is about suffering and about anguish and pain,” he said, adding that “if your work is about suffering and has a sacred, holy dimension to it, then it’s always great to get to play in places like this.”
All of the night’s performances were enhanced by their context. In the corner of the church, friars, lit by a sparkly blue party light, sold beer. Lyon spoke highly of the clergymen’s generosity. “These guys are, the only way I can say it is, they’re down,” Lyon said. “They want to have a good time, they want to have young people visit them, they want to be a resource for the community.”