Pushing Boundries: A Keyboard in Three Dimensions
Extended Feature with Thomas Mellan
7/2/2021 • Reading Time: 10min
About Thomas Mellan
Thomas Mellan is an organist, composer, pianist and harpsichordist. His compositions have been performed in America, Europe and Asia.
His works include chamber and orchestral works, virtuoso works for flute and clarinet, boundary-pushing music for the pipe organ and a 35 minute set of polyphonic, serial inventions for solo violin.
He has performed as an organist around the world including at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Église St. Eustache in Paris, the Wanamaker Organ and Lviv Organ Hall in Ukraine. He studied organ with Cherry Rhodes and Jean Guillou, and composition with Frank Ticheli, Andrew Norman and Donald Crockett.
Interview with Thomas Mellan
1. As a keyboard instrument, the organ may be somewhat unfamiliar for many. Might you elaborate upon the instrument & perhaps give us a brief history?
The organ was invented in roughly 220 BC by an Ancient Greek engineer by the name of Ctesibius. It was invented to accompany gladiator games and did just that for centuries (the Roman’s adopted it). It was an outdoor instrument! It was called the hydrolis, because it used a clever mechanism of water to redistribute weight across small air containers to supply constant wind pressure. It wasn’t until about 150 AD that the hydrolis mechanism was replaced with a bag of wind, and it took until about 600 AD for the idea of bellows to be invented. The organ being a Greek-Roman instrument meant it only survived in Constantinople after the northern tribes invaded the west. It wasn’t until the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V gave an organ to Pépin le Bref in 757 that the organ slowly made its way to the west. Charlemagne ordered another organ from Constantinople 60 years later. It took centuries for the organ to be incorporated into Christian liturgy. So I always try to remember this history. It is an outdoor instrument made to accompany gladiator games! So cool.
Thomas Mellan: Chopin: 12 Études Op. 10 (COMPLETE)
2. Interestingly enough, you & I both developed an early love of heavy metal. How has this influenced your initial compositional activity & performance studies?
The three great milestone moments in my musical life are when I discovered Steve Vai at my guitar teacher’s studio, when I discovered Bach organ pieces at a bookstore and when I heard Xenakis’ Metastasis by accident in person (I was just there to hear an orchestra play for the first time). Right now, Meshuggah and Animals as Leaders are my favorite sound.
By playing bad Steve Vai covers as a 9-year-old electric guitar student, I learned about complex rhythms and harmony as color. By playing bad Yngwie Malmsteen covers as a 10-year old I learned about the importance of gestures and playing every note of a scale like it’s the last thing you’ll ever play! When I discovered baroque masters like Bach, Buxtehude, and especially French composers like Royer and Couperin, I realized that they were writing a more complex, more thought-out version of the scales and gestures I was playing in Yngwie Malmsteen. I started by playing Bach’s Solo Violin Sonata in G minor on guitar and incorporating the “riffs” into my own solos. Then, when I got discouraged trying to memorize the fugue from Bach’s Sonata, I taught myself to improvise my own fugue. That’s when I decided to teach myself perfect pitch and the audiation of classical scores. More on that later.
The most important lessons I got from playing metal are that music is to be felt physically and expressed emotionally, not to be treated as (only) the science of accuracy. I also learned to count complex rhythms in Steve Vai and Frank Zappa, which would come into use later in life as I deciphered scores by Xenakis, Stockhausen, and Boulez.
Learning electric guitar informally as I did, I only learned to read music much later, when I started composing at the age of ten. I would find out a decade later, in reading François Couperin’s “L’Art du toucher du clavecin”, that he actually recommends learning music by ear as a young child, in order to learn perfect pitch.
Thomas Mellan: Franz Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on "Ad Nos, Ad Salutarem undam"
3. Whether it’s a work of Beethoven or of your own, tell us how you envision a score in your mind.
I grew up with very limited access to computers and iPods. To listen to the pieces I liked, I looked at scores and heard them in my head. I learned to read music by looking at Beethoven symphonies and writing childish imitations of them. I gradually started looking at more music, such as Liszt orchestral scores. Discovering Liszt’s Totentanz when I was 14 led me to studying different versions of works: his solo piano version, 2 piano version and orchestral version, for example. I also extensively studied his arrangements of and fantasies on operas. Jean Guillou’s arrangements of Liszt symphonic poems and Busoni’s piano version of Liszt’s big organ fantasy helped me understand how the organ fit into this. From day one, I always equated good keyboard writing such as that of Liszt or Godowsky to good orchestration. In fact, I would say that it is equally difficult to audiate keyboard music than it is orchestral music. I say this because in great keyboard music, there are endless references to orchestral sound effects that are not always observable at first glance. This is especially true in organ music, where one has to imagine their own registrations as they audiate the score.
4. What are some of the physical or technical differences between piano playing & organ playing?
Well, the biggest difference is obviously the organ’s 32-note pedalboard. It’s a totally different instrument because of that: it means we can have total independence of three sound sources: right hand, left hand, pedal.
The next biggest difference in organ technique is that on the piano, attack is everything: tone, color, dynamic. On the organ, the attack doesn’t matter so much. It’s an on-off switch, really. But the fact that the sound will continue forever if you don’t lift the key means that the timing of the release is where the music happens. Surfacy tricks like fancy registrations and orchestral timbres aside, articulation and timing are the only ways we have to express the music. It’s very difficult.
While on the piano there are almost 100 moving parts per key, the organ functions with a much simpler mechanism, much like a big mechanical light switch. This means that organ mechanisms, if well maintained, can be much faster than piano mechanisms. Forget the stereotype of muddy, slow organ sound, it’s on organists to keep the playing clean, because a well-maintained instrument is incredibly fast and crisp!
Musically, the organ is a wind instrument, which has nothing to do with the techniques of a percussion instrument like the piano. But because of its enormous note-per-second capacity and capacity to create an orchestral amount of timbres, playing the organ is a happy marriage between keyboard technique and a composer/conductor’s mind. An organ score is best seen as an orchestral short-score, like the one’s Mahler wrote before orchestrating his symphonies.
I keep saying the word “orchestral.” I don’t mean that the organ should imitate the orchestra! Fauré warned against doing so. Where the orchestra features many instruments in collaboration, the organ is its own self-contained instrument. It just has a lot of timbres and ability to create three-dimensional sound.
Thomas Mellan with Jean Guillou (French organist he studied with) after a concert performance at St. Eustache in Paris in 2012.
5. I know you have a strong relationship with French Baroque music. As a French organist, how would you elaborate upon this tradition of performance?
A big moment in French baroque music is when Louis XIV asked Jean-Baptiste Lully to copy out on paper the rhythms of the French language in theater by Corneil. Just like it’s difficult to understand the rhythm of a Mazurka for a non-Polish speaker, French baroque music depends on an intimate understanding of French. Living in Los Angeles, studying this old music was a way for me to channel my French half and work on keeping my native language as fluid and comfortable as my adopted language of English. Harpsichord is also my favorite instrument to play. Because every interpretive element is reduced to time and tone, it actually opens a huge playing-field of potential expression.
While in the 19th century, many more composers wrote for piano than organ, the baroque era produced incredible masterpieces for organ and harpsichord. Nicolas de Grigny’s mass for organ is as musically complex and interesting as any of Delalande’s grands motets or Lully’s tragedies.
Playing music of say, Rameau or Clérambault on the organ is a solid reminder of what the organ was made to do: the trumpets, cromornes, ranquettes, cornets, flutes and other popular stops were designed to imitate renaissance and baroque wind instruments, and the organ truly shines in this music.
Learning to ornament baroque music on harpsichord also gave me finger independence that came in handy when learning complex 20th-century music like Xenakis and Boulez. The actual rhythms you end up playing to get this baroque music right (especially in François Couperin, what with the elaborate ornaments) are just as complex as those in Ferneyhough, they’re just not notated like that! As a composer, I try to meld these styles as best I can.
Thomas Mellan: Adventures in Painting (improvisation)
Thomas Mellan, Ballade De L'Impossible
6. Let’s begin to discuss your transcriptions of virtuoso piano works for organ. How did your early studies as a composer help in this “transfer”: one medium to another?
Studying and playing Liszt was my first point of contact with the idea of arrangement, although I’d “arranged” Bach violin pieces for guitar many years before. Understanding how Liszt’s orchestral versions of piano scores (like Mephisto, Gretchen or Totentanz) were different from their piano counterparts was crucial in my musical upbringing. As was understanding how Jean Guillou’s organ arrangements were different from their orchestral originals. I would ask questions like, “how did he know to add this scale here when it isn’t in the original?” In studying all these arrangements, I slowly (and I mean, slowly) began to understand the difference between structure and ornament: when you write any counterpoint exercise, you start by outlining it in half or whole notes before you fill in the actual florid counterpoint. What does that outline look like for a piece of Liszt?
Here you need to add into the mix my studies of Max Reger organ pieces such as his Symphonic Fantasy and Fugue, Op. 57. Studying this piece simultaneously as a composer and a performer made me realize the real differences between organ writing and piano writing. Organ music, because it uses three inputs (right hand, left hand, pedal), relies less on keyboard pyrotechnics to bring counterpoint to life. The organ can actually span more notes than any orchestral music before Boulez. Some Mahler symphonies can look weirdly thin if arranged for organ. Because of this, the organ is not limited to how many notes one can play, it’s limited by how many notes one can hear.
Thomas Mellan - Webern: Variations, Op. 27 for organ
7. You have transcribed & performed the complete op. 10 etudes of Chopin: on the organ. Not to mention numerous Liszt works including Totentanz as well as works of Max Reger etc: What's it like to push the boundaries of the instrument?
Difficult. I am constantly faced with a sound in my head and the near impossible challenge of realizing it on the organ. For example, there is a fugue in Liszt’s Totentanz in which the subject is stated in rapid repeated 16th notes. I know it should be possible on the organ thanks to the simpler, faster mechanism, but I have never seen repeated notes this fast in organ repertoire (Demessieux’s Études don’t come close). So I have to find a physical technique to balance getting the air in those pipes fast enough, and allowing for enough space between the notes to achieve clarity. It takes a few hours of experimenting to find something that works, and a few weeks to get it secure. The Chopin études were filled with problems like this. They pushed the boundaries of organ technique because they applied the progress that Chopin brought to the piano. In a way, it’s the organ catching up 190 years later or so.
Another facet of the progress I hope to bring to organ technique is in my compositions. I wrote this piece in 2016-17 called Ballade that in about 11 minutes puts forward each technical innovation I wish to introduce. For example, there is a double canon with tremolos, scales and trills which begins in the pedals and is elaborated in the manuals. This shows off the pedalboard’s capacity to expose complex, polyrhythmic musical material independently. It also forces the organist to separate the motion of the legs and feet from that of the upper body in order to play the wild leaps and scales. It is the most difficult organ piece written with the player in mind, save for Sorabji’s second and third organ symphonies, but those are 8 hours long!
Thomas Mellan - Pancrace Royer: Vertigo
8. You’ve also transcribed works later in our canon, works that involve subtleties in color & timbre, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Webern: how do you achieve these subtleties given the fact that pianists do so mostly with tone alone?
The first arrangement-like project I worked on is Schoenberg’s Variations on a recitatif, which is actually written for organ. But it’s really best seen as a reduction of an orchestral piece. It’s so dense and the harmony is so complex that the flat organ sound doesn’t do it justice. I was studying Schoenberg’s 5 pieces for orchestra Op. 16 when I was working on the Schoenberg organ piece. I tried to push the organ as far as it could down the full orchestral route. Every chord I played on at least three manuals at once, and I rearranged the pedal part to take more voices and make more independent textures.
Webern is my biggest influence as a composer, not in his textural style but in his use of serial rows to create expressive shapes and gestures. After spending 6 months studying Webern’s Symphony Op. 21 daily, I arranged his piano variations Op. 27 for organ, applying his concept of Klangfarben (color-sounds) to the organ for the first time. The colors and timbres in the orchestration are used to bring out the structure of the serial concept. On the organ, this meant that for a 5-minute piece, I had over 200 registration changes.
It’s very satisfying to hear the instrument you work with day in and day out make a sound you’ve never heard before.
Thomas Mellan - Bach, Fantasy and Fugue in G minor BWV 542 on the baroque organ in St. Antoine l’Abbaye in France.
Thomas Mellan - “On Transcendence” from 2016 for five solo cellos and orchestra, played by the Sakura Cello Quintet, Donald Crockett and the USC Thornton Symphony
9. I honestly can’t believe I’m asking this after everything you’ve already done, but, what’s next? What are you most looking forward to in 2021?
I just moved from LA to the East Coast and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m looking forward to some of the cool composer birthdays coming up: in 2022 I will play programs of Franck organ pieces (he’ll turn 200), Scriabin’s 9th Sonata in my organ arrangement (he’ll turn 150) and Xenakis’ terrifying organ piece GMEEOORH (he’ll turn 100).
Now that I graduated from USC, I want to focus on bridging the gap between my composing and playing, by learning to improvise music of the same complexity than the stuff I write.
I am planning a giant set with my friends Tristan Heinicke (guitarist, composer, and athlete) and Benjamin Ring (drummer). We want to combine the sound-world of bands like Meshuggah and Animals as Leaders with the aggressive complexities of Xenakis, Zappa, Braxton, and Varése. Electric guitar, drums, and organ are a dream combination!
I also want to compose more organ pieces of the same complexity as Ballade. I need to write an organ concerto and I have a cycle of études in mind.
I hope to finish the three large organ works of Reger (Op. 57, 73 and 127), arrange Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra Op. 31, Boulez’s Sonatine and some big Rachmaninoff pieces this year. I also plan on performing Bach’s Musical Offering and Royer’s Livre de Clavecin in their entirety. So much great music out there!
About Maryam Raya
Maryam Raya is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning concert pianist based in New York. Praised for her “Dynamic Stage Presence” by the Union of Excellence, Maryam has performed recitals worldwide, in countries including England, Spain, France, Italy, China, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Dubai and has performed at renowned venues across the United States including multiple appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The National Opera Center, multiple international embassies, among others.
Described as a “Complete Artist of the 21st Century” by Info Music France, she has been featured in countless international art, fashion, and music magazines across Europe as well as American news outlets such as CBS news. With an extensive and diverse repertoire, including numerous solo programs and over thirty concerti for piano and orchestra, Maryam is passionate about bringing classical music to younger audiences through her captivating performances and lectures.