Willie Reviews James McVinnie and Darkstar @ Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis

Willie Reviews James McVinnie and Darkstar @ Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis


What do a pipe organ and a table of electronics have in common? If you don’t know, organist James McVinnie and electronic music duo Darkstar can enlighten you. They premiered their piece “Collapse” Saturday night in the Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. Expansive and grand, but still an intimate experience, it’s yet another hit in the Liquid Music Series. Here’s how it went down:

James McVinnie and Darkstar play the same game, roughly. Both halves of the collaboration are knob twiddlers of a sort—McVinnie on the stops of the organ and the two members of Darkstar on electronic dials. McVinnie is a renowned organist with a background in church music who is also a champion of new music. He has held positions at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, but also works with names like Nico Muhly and Philip Glass. Darkstar is an electronic music duo whose projects range from dance music to the ambitious Foam Island, which incorporated voices of young people in northern England into a musical tapestry.

McVinnie and Darkstar’s third collaboration, “Collapse,” premiered Saturday night in the Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota as part of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series. And liquid is an apt descriptor, considering the organ physically and acoustically fills the size of its container. Taking full advantage of Northrop’s recently refurbished Aeolian-Skinner Organ, the three collaborators explored similarities and differences in texture, repetition, and floating sounds.


The pipe organ is, in many ways, a matchless, singular instrument. The player sits at the center of the stage with their back to the audience, using every muscle in every limb to pull sound out of the massive contraption. The organ has roots in the walls of its room, and as noted by McVinnie in his program notes, it’s notoriously gothic and unforgiving. Bending it to the player’s will is challenge in itself, so for the instrument to participate in a joint musical effort, not as a soloist or a lead, it requires an equal and opposite source of strength. Darkstar provided that, and the concept of matching the two performers quickly makes total sense. McVinnie is able to play off both the ambience and the frenzy of Darkstar’s warm electronics.

The fog machines were running the moment the theater doors opened, and I can testify that I wasn’t the only one to do a double take and check my glasses for smears. I blame society for conditioning me against special effects at an organ concert. The feel of the performance space was decidedly un-churchy–ambient music set the tone, and it smelled unusually good in the theater. This setup knocked down some barriers to entry, and I say that despite the fact that a child in front of me asked “Why are they making it so frightening?” There was no grand opening chord and no pomp. The music spoke firmly enough. Instead, McVinnie sat down at the organ quite modestly and played a quiet drone while the crowd was settling in. I assumed he was doing a very late sound check, but the lights started to dim and it soon became clear that things were already in motion. The theater became entirely dark, except for a few red and blue lights on the stage enveloping the performers in a glow.

Whalley and McVinnie, photo by Pamela Espeland


McVinnie played a series of drones by himself in the first section, letting more air through the pipes gradually. Often his movements were hidden behind him, subtle and undetectable changes in notes or rhythms. Aiden Whalley eventually walked on stage and sat beside him at a keyboard setup. The progression felt spontaneous in a way it clearly wasn’t. Maybe the better word is conversational. I wouldn’t want to deny its bigness, but it descended stepwise.

From there, the performers worked section by section. McVinnie and Whalley played on the stage and James Young, the other member of Darkstar, controlled the mix from somewhere behind the audience. Each part of Collapse used cyclical motion in the organ and the keyboard, supplemented by a looping sound sample that introduced roughness to the overall sound. McVinnie’s movements were very much a spectacle, and his affinity for Philip Glass showed. Watching him work the pedals is a treat.

The music was very much dominated by rising swells and the together/apart dynamic between the organ and the electronics. By virtue of its construction, the organ doesn’t give out predictable arpeggios, and every movement by the player is amplified. You can hear the precise duration of every key stroke, and that honesty plays well with the prerecorded electronics. This was played up in the piece, as McVinnie worked a groove into the organ just out of phase with the rest of the instrumentation. It remained unsteady for a long while, but when the two halves joined, it was loud and it was beautiful.


McVinnie gave a short thank you afterward and stressed the importance of cross-genre collaborations and partnerships. He said that we need more music like this and more series like the Liquid Music Series. That got a big cheer from the crowd, and I couldn’t agree more. Having new, weird music performed is a refreshment that’s hard to find elsewhere. So if you didn’t get a chance to see McVinnie and Darkstar, I’m sure next year’s Liquid Music lineup will be phenomenal as well.