Over in the Northern Hemisphere, January tends to be a bit of a bummer. Of course, it’s the opposite here in Oz. Thanks largely to Sydney Festival, there’s perhaps no better place to spend the year’s opening month than the Harbour City.
In addition to a cracking lineup of international and local performers, each year the festival encourages Sydneysiders to check out local sites they mightn’t ordinarily visit. A chief example is Sydney Town Hall, where you can catch Sweden’s Anna von Hausswolff on Sunday January 11.
Converse to the other artists performing in the Town Hall during festival season, Von Hausswolff will make use of the venue’s Grand Organ. When it was built in 1890, the Grand Organ was the biggest pipe organ in the world, and it remains a stunning artefact.
“When I got the offer I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Von Hausswolff says. “It’s a dream. I can’t explain how excited I am to do that and how honoured I feel to have been asked to play on it.”
Since releasing her second LP Ceremony in 2013, the Swedish songwriter has familiarised herself with a number of beautiful pipe organs around the world. The record itself made use of the pipe organ in Gothenburg’s Annedal Church. Interestingly, pipe organs are entirely absent from her debut album, 2010’s Singing From The Grave. “When I finished touring with my first record, I was really tired of that record and I was also very tired of the music that I was listening to,” she explains. “So I wanted to find new music that I could be inspired by. I started to discover all these amazing bands, like more drone-metal-oriented bands. Earth was the most important discovery for me. They are my heroes, even now, so I changed my way of playing and I changed my way of approaching music and [learned] how I can let one long note be music, just as much as five different chords in a pop song.
“That’s where the organ has been really important for me, because it can fulfil my music needs. It can play long, extended notes and layers of sound. You can make a composition through sound, because there are so many sound alternatives in an organ.”
By virtue of being permanently attached to the buildings they’re in, pipe organs are unlike basically every other instrument. As Von Hausswolff has discovered, this means each organ comes with its own individual personality.
“On Ceremony, the room was so important,” she says. “The pipe organ itself was quite small, but in that room in the church it sounded huge, because there were stone walls. There was a very long, natural reverb that also increased the intensity of the notes being played on the organ.”
Von Hausswolff’s increasing allegiance to the pipe organ has had an impact on the way she writes songs. “I have the foundation of the composition, but then I always adapt the composition off the organ and the sounds that the organ contains and the effects that the organ has. Everything always turns out different, depending on what organ I use.”
Understandably, Von Hausswolff can’t secure a pipe organ in every city she visits. She otherwise makes do with an organ-emulating synthesiser, but we’re lucky enough to get the comprehensive live experience.
“I really enjoy playing at rock clubs and festivals, but the few opportunities that I’ve gotten to play on a pipe organ have been something totally different. The live project becomes something else.”
Ceremony is out now through Fat Possum. Anna Von Hausswolff will also be playing with Aldous Harding in The Sydney Town Hall on Sunday January 11 as part of Sydney Festival. Tickets are on sale through the Sydney Festival website.