for organ
22 mins.

Live recording by Jaco van Leeuwen on Youtube

Programme notes

Riff-raff was commissioned by the 1983 St Albans Festival, and first performed by Andrew Parnell at St Albans Cathedral on July 9th 1983. The title reflects my concern at the time with the gulf between classical music and its popular roots. The piece uses a simple modal language, and is predominantly rhythmic, inspired by my interest in African music and a field trip which I had made a year earlier to record music of the Jola community in Casamance, southern Senegal.

The basic refrain, which begins and ends the piece (and crops up several times in between), consists of three simple chords played staccato, separated by measured silences, and repeated in many dynamics and registrations. Between its appearances, the piece develops (like Gwendolen in The importance of being Earnest) in many directions: a heavy riff on the pedals; a tinkly minimalist episode underpinned by a pedal ground which takes us through the next refrain into another tinkly passage at double speed; and what can only be described as a boogy-woogy combined with a Rossini crescendo which brings the piece to its first climax – after which the pedals introduce a variant of the earlier riff, and the dynamic level is lowered to introduce another version of the refrain.

Beneath this a pedal ostinato grows into a fanfare for the entire instrument in modal A minor, blazing into A major for a passage which owes much to the music I heard in Casamance in 1982: over a bass in parallel fifths reminiscent of Jola male-voice singing (which is often of a lewd nature), a repeated descending melody drifts out of phase with itself, then returns to synch. This is a musical greeting to my friend Kajalli Bojang, whose guest I was in Wassadu, The Gambia, when I recorded the twenty-seven reels of Jola music which are now in the British Library Sound Archive.

After a short pause for breath, a new episode begins, based on a tune I heard (I think) in a village in Casamance. This starts quietly, but gradually grows louder and more athletic, reaching a climax at which the full organ is unleashed, and which takes us into the last section, which is much faster, and couched in a muscular Dorian mode on A. This culminates iin a varied reprise of the opening refrain, in which the chords are sustained rather than staccato, and are underpinned by a wild solo on the pedals. The dynamic level then comes quickly down, and the piece ends with a repeat of the opening – but played backwards.

Riff-raff is dedicated to the travel-writer Sarah Anderson (sometimes known as the one-armed bandit), who is one of my oldest and best friends.

Giles Swayne 2009


Starting with bold, separate chords, the work really gets underway with the introduction of a rhythmic idea on the pedals, and the music grows, sometimes as free fantasia, sometimes as a chaconne. There is the most joyous outburst of dancing about halfway through the piece. If anyone had any doubts about the easy accessibility of either contemporary music or organ music in general, then this work should be heard, for it is very easily approachable, using a straightforward language, although not perhaps in a straightforward way, but making perfect sense. This is a real winner of a piece and should be in every organist’s repertoire, because it would provide such relief from what can sometimes be a solemn experience: the reverence of an organ recital! Magnificent.

Bob Briggs – MusicWeb International 2009


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Kevin Bowyer (organ)
Priory: PRCD 001

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Tobias Frank (organ)
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OxRecs: OXCD80