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Rocking the Organ


By Andriana Trang '12

Published Apr 18, 2011 12:59 PM


Photos courtesy of Christoph Bull

Is "rock-star classical organist" an oxymoron? Not if Christoph Bull has anything to say about it.

The UCLA University Organist and Herb Alpert School of Music professor's latest initiative in making hot organ-playing cool is First & Grand, an album whose concept sprang from a 2009 Bull performance with the Los Angeles Master Chorale at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

The Organ Master

UCLA Organist Christoph Bull talks Bach, the Beatles and bringing new energy to the classics.

Video by Aaron Proctor '05

Fueled by his desire to infuse classical music with "rock and jazz energy," Bull dismisses the pigeonholing response he's received from unacquainted listeners who peg him as a "boring classical" artist.

Instead, he feels responsible for representing both his music and himself with "creativity" and "color," transforming his performances into not merely traditional organ recitals but immersive events.

Which brings us to First & Grand. During the Disney Hall gig, Bull heard what he describes as a "murmuring" from the audience wondering why no one had ever produced an album played on the venue's amazing Frank Gehry- and Manuel Rosales-designed organ.

Not one to wait, Bull did just that.


Bull at the legendary Disney Hall organ.

He found patrons to fund the initial phase of recording, and then in a 21st-century twist, reached out for additional funding to an email list he'd cultivated for more than a decade. Forging the traditional record label path, Bull also created what he calls a "grassroots movement" to promote the album, with a photo-rich blog on Planet Illogica, a social-networking site for artists and fans.

Using this online platform, Bull's modern approach to recording on a classical instrument — the organ — became a visual and literary (he also thinks of himself as a writer) as well as musical endeavor.

While Bull insists that classical works like J.S. Bach's are "passionate and emotional" — with strong beats that should resonate with contemporary-music fans — he also listens to music by more recently born artists, including Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Norah Jones and Alicia Keys. Bull says his affinity for these artists comes from their strong musical messages: the thumping bass line of Spears' and Perry's songs (similar to Bach's strong rhythms), and the use of piano on Jones' and Keys' records.

But his inspiration doesn't end there: An avid Beatles fan, Bull recorded the song "A Day in the Life" on First & Grand, complete with his own vocals and an organ substituting for the orchestral background of the original.

The 11 tracks on First & Grand reflect this synergy of classical and contemporary, tradition and improvisation. Bull re-imagined Beethoven using improvisation techniques he'd developed, and paid homage to Walt Disney with his version of "When You Wish Upon a Star." But he also recognized the need to include the expected classical organ pieces.

Next on Bull's list of projects: an album of traditional organ music — and an album of pop music played on organ and piano, with the possibility of some vocals.

And why not? As Bull says, "Why stop with just the classical? I want to rock out!"