A Calvin Theological Seminary Publication by Students & Alumni
Algorithm Providence a la Pipe Organ

Algorithm Providence a la Pipe Organ

Anna von Hausswolff took me completely by surprise — I was just mindlessly scrolling through my facebook feed, and there she was. I’m not sure what compelled me — besides providence! — but I decided to give her most recent album, “All Thoughts Fly,” a listen. As it played through my car speakers in the McDonald’s drive thru, I was close to tears, and I could feel that this was exactly what my soul needed:

A Pipe Organ.

Hausswolff doesn’t just play the pipe organ, though, like someone might play “A Mighty Fortress” in a church service. Instead, she makes noises I never knew an organ could make — at times unnatural, unsettling, but also perfectly within the space the music forms. And most powerfully for me, she wasn’t playing melodies, so much as ideas. 

“All Thoughts Fly” is like verbal processing. You start with an idea, simple and largely unformed, and then you speak it again, this time with a little more nuance. You might add a note here, or go on a brief tangent there, but you remain floating on and around that first central idea. Eventually, you reach a sort of climax, the destination of thought you knew you were going to arrive at since the beginning, but it’s the fullest and realest version of that destination. And it surprises you, and it is all-together unsurprising.

You’re unsurprised because you could feel from the beginning that you’d arrive here, but you’re also surprised at how you got there. You’re unsurprised because your thought destination was predictable, stable, and sure, but you’re surprised because you somehow didn’t see it coming. “All Thoughts Fly” is all of these things and more. Hausswolff begins with simple ideas, then molds and develops them toward their destination — a destination entirely predictable and unpredictable — until you realize, as the song ends, that you were there all along. 

The title track is for me the most powerful example of artistry from this project. Hausswolff displays technical skill along with the ability to turn emotion into sound. About 8 minutes into the song, the tone notably shifts to despair, so effectively that you feel it, and feel lost and insecure, but then just as suddenly as you felt that despair, the song shifts to hope, and then finally security and surety, even while the main “idea” that she is playing remains largely the same. 

There’s also something incredibly tangible about the music. Now, I’m a huge fan of synth-pop (CHVRCHES is my most played band on Spotify!), and I’m no enemy of “computer generated” music, but hearing such a specific, physical instrument has power. This album wasn’t only played on a specific instrument (like a rock star uses their own guitar), it was played on the only instrument which could have possibly played it: 

“All Thoughts Fly is the fifth album, recorded on a pipe organ situated in Gothenburg. The organ is a Swedish replica of the Arp Schnitger organ in Germany. It is the largest organ tuned in Quarter-comma meantone temperament in the world.”

Thus this album is profoundly embodied. It is incredibly particular to a time, place, instrument, and artist. But thanks to the power of technology, it has been transported across time and space into my ear canals — and my heart. This album won’t be everybody’s cup of tea — my wife hates it! — but for those of us who need to take a breath and stabilize ourselves, this album is a godsend straight out of Facebook’s algorithms. 

This is perhaps the most important part of the album for us as we re-enter a time of internet learning and social isolation. Zoom is an incredible technology which allows classes to continue despite a dangerous global pandemic, but what Zoom is not and can never be is a proper replacement for the physical space of a classroom. We can’t read one another’s body language. We can’t orient ourselves in the physical world. We are embodied creatures, body and soul combined to form one being, but because of social distancing we are forced to surrender our embodied-ness. Our very humanity is threatened by COVID-19, not only by risk of death, but by the loss of our physicality. Hausswolff’s music is a reminder that we are physical beings in a physical world, and hearing the wind move through the pipes to vibrate the air around it calls us into a fullness of being that many other artists fail to manifest.