UCLA organist Christoph Bull pulls out the stops with 'Organica'

UCLA organist Christoph Bull pulls out the stops with 'Organica'
AT THE KEYBOARD: Organist Christoph Bull at the organ at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus in Westwood. (Richard Hartog, Los Angeles Times)
CLAD IN jeans and a long-sleeved Von Dutch T-shirt, blond, blue-eyed Christoph Bull shucked his rock 'n' roll boots and got set to work. Nearby, Max Kaplan, a twentysomething student in a T-shirt, khaki shorts and flip-flops, whipped out his ax and got ready too.

Soon, the sounds of a clarinet-organ jam filled the air of the UCLA music studio. Bouncing on the pedals of a Noack mechanical-action pipe organ in his blue socks, as his hands flew across the multi-rowed keyboard, Bull traded licks with Kaplan, both clearly caught up in and relishing the improvised musical moment.

"It is important that you try a little bit of mixture -- of traditional and modern, of classical and contemporary," Bull told Kaplan and the other students, all from such nonorgan majors as saxophone, trombone and violin, with whom he would play this day -- sometimes in duos, sometimes in trios.

Such groupings might seem odd, but not to Bull, who insists that the organ is far more than a musical relic best left to churches and horror movie soundtracks. It's "back in vogue," says the German-born scholar-performer and UCLA faculty member, who is among those happy to pipe up to explain how and why.

Since coming to Los Angeles in 1990 -- after training in Mannheim, Germany, and at the Berklee College of Music in Boston -- Bull has played not just in cathedrals and concert halls but also at the Whisky a Go Go, the Viper Room, Cinespace and the Hotel Cafe. His fellow performers have included funk bassist Bootsy Collins, P-funk master George Clinton and violinist-composer Lili Haydn, with whom he opened for Cyndi Lauper.

Tonight, though, Bull will be appearing in more traditional surroundings -- UCLA's Royce Hall, where he will present the latest version of the show he has dubbed "Organica." In the UCLA Live presentation, scheduled to emphasize French organ masterworks and especially pieces in honor of the 100th anniversary of Olivier Messiaen's birth, he will be joined by mezzo-soprano I-Chin Feinblatt; artist Norton Wisdom; videographer Benton-C Bainbridge, who will create live images for projection; Catch Me Bird dancer-choreographer Nehara Kalev; and two other organists, Chelsea Chen and Maxine Thevenot.

"The music dictates my imagery, guides my hand," says Wisdom, explaining his paint-by-music role in the program. The "organ is like a symphony. It creates forms. It has an imagery that is very archaic and like the collective unconscious of the human race. It is inclusive of human feeling." The instrument "really mimics almost any human feeling and emotion, and that kind of depth" truly inspires him, he says, adding that Bull is on the "leading edge in both the rock 'n' roll and classical music communities."

Says David Sefton, the executive and artistic director of UCLA Live, for which Bull has performed "Organica" twice before, "I have always been open to a less-conventional approach to the organ, which is why Christoph and 'Organica' are a perfect fit. He brings a different kind of enthusiasm, a multidisciplinary and much more 21st century approach, which is not what you would expect to find from traditional organists." In audience terms, Sefton says, "You get more people when it is Christoph than a conventional classical recital or a straight organ repertoire."

Bull, 41, has twice been honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for his innovative programming. The "Organica" concept, he says, is "my creation. I started it nine years ago and trademarked it. I was playing a lot of rock on keyboard or piano in clubs with other musicians. Then I wanted to do an organ concert with the flow and feel of a rock concert. The idea is to present the organ in a fresh and colorful way."

As an instrument, Bull says, the organ "is modern and predates the synthesizer and electronic music." He tries to play it "with the spirit of a rock musician. In 'Organica,' there is a way of doing it. It is different every time I do it. Lots of innovation."

When it comes to technique and training, however, Bull has deep, traditional roots. He started as a pianist at age 5 but soon switched to the organ, partly because his legs were long enough to reach the pedals and "anything with black-and-white keys," he jokes, "fascinates me."

New World, new ideas

BULL'S education in his native Germany -- at the Heidelberg School for Church Music and the Freiburg Conservatory -- emphasized the conventional aspects of his instrument. "Germany has a good education system," he says. "But they only taught classical. I did not want to play only church music or pure classical music. I liked pop, rock and wanted to make my own music." So he decided to come to America, and he found the ideal destination at the Berklee school in Boston, where he could study not only organ but also composing, songwriting, recording, rock, jazz and music for film.

"He was already a musician when he came to us," says Berklee songwriting professor Jon Aldrich, who rates Bull among the Top 10 of the hundreds of students he has taught. "He was born with this art in his soul, brain and heart." Aldrich credits the conservatory with encouraging Bull's pop bent -- and with advising him to go to Los Angeles, a city that would welcome his eclectic aspirations.

As a result, Bull continued his studies at USC as well as the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Eventually, he became organist and music director at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood and the German-language Christuskirche in Glendale. He now is organist of the First United Methodist Church, Santa Monica, and plays at churches around Southern California. Last year, he performed a recital at First Congregational Church in Long Beach, where the organist there, Mark Dickey, says of him: "It is unusual to find an organist who has been trained by good teachers but also likes to play the Beatles. He is a great improviser and turns this to fun. He did a little bit of Beatles in addition to his classical repertoire. A few people were surprised, but others were happy."

Dickey responded especially to Bull's modest, populist approach, he says, adding, "If people like Christoph do not help to get more people interested, pipe organs are going to die."

According to at least one expert who has seen "Organica" and knows the power of its massive instrument, Bull and his novel methods will help ensure that doesn't occur. Manuel Rosales, who with architect Frank Gehry designed the spectacular "French-fry" organ in Walt Disney Concert Hall and is that instrument's curator, observes: "Though the organ is the most exciting instrument, it has been marginalized. Many organists have become complacent. They do not want to learn new music, know what average people listen to and what young people want to hear. And that is where Christoph has come in and tried to energize his organ recitals with music that appeals to more than just the traditional organ crowd."

All the same, Bull plays a big role as a keeper of tradition as well. A few years ago, when one of the great new venues in Los Angeles for religious repertoire opened with a dazzling new instrument, he auditioned to be the organist for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. He was not picked. But he did catch the attention of UCLA, where the much-admired Thomas Harmon was retiring after 34 years as university organist.

"I was impressed with his excellent playing," Harmon says, speaking by phone from his home in Oregon. "His program was very innovative. I thought that he might be a very good way to put a new spark in the organ audiences at UCLA. And as I look in at what he does over the years, he very much stays in touch with the latest trends."

Indeed, Bull was hired as a consultant on Steven Spielberg's 2002 film, "Minority Report," with its key character of an organ-playing guard, and besides "Organica," he regularly employs Royce Hall's rumbling pipe organ for rollicking accompaniments to silent movies.

His technique in that role has won the praise of, among others, Times Music Critic Mark Swed, who after seeing the organist play in a white UCLA T-shirt and shiny red pants, likened the impish Bull to legendary organ showman Virgil Fox.

Swed noted that Bull, in showcasing Walther Ruttmann's "Berlin: Symphony of a City," mashed up a little Baroque, Mendelssohn, Rheinberger and Brahms to contribute "significantly to the mesmerizing depiction of a day in the life of a city. . . . 69 minutes of dramatically effective improvisation was no small accomplishment."

In addition, Bull has brought the art of improvisation to his repertoire of academic specialties. His students for those classes aren't organists but clarinetists, saxophonists and other instrumentalists who say they get a kick out of jamming with him in the small UCLA organ studio.

Chika Inoue, 20, a saxophone major, notes that "you can do a lot of sounds with organ. And this instrument goes well with saxophone and other wind instruments. The most exciting part is to improvise with him." For his part, Roger Bourland, who chairs the music faculty at UCLA, is gratified by the student interest that Bull has built. "He generates more interest in the organ," Bourland says. "I am surprised to see how students get excited once they get into the organ studio." That energy, he says, "could change their mind" about the virtues of the instrument.

For Bull, it's fascination like his students' with the possibilities of the pipe organ that promises a real future for it, because "especially composers [will] find it interesting and write for it. This will keep it alive.

"At my concerts," he says, "you will find people from all ages, young and old -- which is not the norm. I like old people, but the young people who normally do not go to an organ concert come to mine. And this is good!"