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Don't play a dirge just yet

L.A.'s Christoph Bull is pumping new life into the organ's repertoire. Think Bach meets the Beatles.

June 08, 2008|Utku Cakirozer | Times Staff Writer

CLAD IN jeans and a long-sleeved Von Dutch T-shirt, blond, blue-eyed Christoph Bull shucked his rock 'n' roll boots and got set to work. Nearby, Max Kaplan, a twentysomething student in a T-shirt, khaki shorts and flip-flops, whipped out his ax and got ready too.

Soon, the sounds of a clarinet-organ jam filled the air of the UCLA music studio. Bouncing on the pedals of a Noack mechanical-action pipe organ in his blue socks, as his hands flew across the multi-rowed keyboard, Bull traded licks with Kaplan, both clearly caught up in and relishing the improvised musical moment.

"It is important that you try a little bit of mixture -- of traditional and modern, of classical and contemporary," Bull told Kaplan and the other students, all from such nonorgan majors as saxophone, trombone and violin, with whom he would play this day -- sometimes in duos, sometimes in trios.

Such groupings might seem odd, but not to Bull, who insists that the organ is far more than a musical relic best left to churches and horror movie soundtracks. It's "back in vogue," says the German-born scholar-performer and UCLA faculty member, who is among those happy to pipe up to explain how and why.

Since coming to Los Angeles in 1990 -- after training in Mannheim, Germany, and at the Berklee College of Music in Boston -- Bull has played not just in cathedrals and concert halls but also at the Whisky a Go Go, the Viper Room, Cinespace and the Hotel Cafe. His fellow performers have included funk bassist Bootsy Collins, P-funk master George Clinton and violinist-composer Lili Haydn, with whom he opened for Cyndi Lauper.

Tonight, though, Bull will be appearing in more traditional surroundings -- UCLA's Royce Hall, where he will present the latest version of the show he has dubbed "Organica." In the UCLA Live presentation, scheduled to emphasize French organ masterworks and especially pieces in honor of the 100th anniversary of Olivier Messiaen's birth, he will be joined by mezzo-soprano I-Chin Feinblatt; artist Norton Wisdom; videographer Benton-C Bainbridge, who will create live images for projection; Catch Me Bird dancer-choreographer Nehara Kalev; and two other organists, Chelsea Chen and Maxine Thevenot.

"The music dictates my imagery, guides my hand," says Wisdom, explaining his paint-by-music role in the program. The "organ is like a symphony. It creates forms. It has an imagery that is very archaic and like the collective unconscious of the human race. It is inclusive of human feeling." The instrument "really mimics almost any human feeling and emotion, and that kind of depth" truly inspires him, he says, adding that Bull is on the "leading edge in both the rock 'n' roll and classical music communities."

Says David Sefton, the executive and artistic director of UCLA Live, for which Bull has performed "Organica" twice before, "I have always been open to a less-conventional approach to the organ, which is why Christoph and 'Organica' are a perfect fit. He brings a different kind of enthusiasm, a multidisciplinary and much more 21st century approach, which is not what you would expect to find from traditional organists." In audience terms, Sefton says, "You get more people when it is Christoph than a conventional classical recital or a straight organ repertoire."

Bull, 41, has twice been honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for his innovative programming. The "Organica" concept, he says, is "my creation. I started it nine years ago and trademarked it. I was playing a lot of rock on keyboard or piano in clubs with other musicians. Then I wanted to do an organ concert with the flow and feel of a rock concert. The idea is to present the organ in a fresh and colorful way."

As an instrument, Bull says, the organ "is modern and predates the synthesizer and electronic music." He tries to play it "with the spirit of a rock musician. In 'Organica,' there is a way of doing it. It is different every time I do it. Lots of innovation."

When it comes to technique and training, however, Bull has deep, traditional roots. He started as a pianist at age 5 but soon switched to the organ, partly because his legs were long enough to reach the pedals and "anything with black-and-white keys," he jokes, "fascinates me."

New World, new ideas

BULL'S education in his native Germany -- at the Heidelberg School for Church Music and the Freiburg Conservatory -- emphasized the conventional aspects of his instrument. "Germany has a good education system," he says. "But they only taught classical. I did not want to play only church music or pure classical music. I liked pop, rock and wanted to make my own music." So he decided to come to America, and he found the ideal destination at the Berklee school in Boston, where he could study not only organ but also composing, songwriting, recording, rock, jazz and music for film.

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