Dr Donald Nicolson


The word ‘skeuomorph’ is fun to say—skew-uh-morf—and scores well at Scrabble (21 points before bonuses). It refers to trying to replicate the features of an old technology within a new one: rivets on jeans, for example, which were necessary originally to hold the garment together, but which, following the improvement of stitching techniques, are now applied as an aesthetic nod to the past.
Dr Donald Nicolson carefully straddles the divide between old and new music-making techniques, and his Rodgers Inspire Series organ is a significant part of his quest to explore new ways of producing remarkable music.


Where It All Started…


A New Zealander, Donald ‘followed the normal process’, he tells us, of starting to play the piano at the age of nine. It was at university studying composition, though, that his father caused a complete change in Donald’s career path, by purchasing a harpsichord. ‘Literally it was my third day, and this harpsichord appeared downstairs.’ His father, an amateur viola player, had found the instrument offered for auction. ‘We never had any harpsichord leanings or anything, but he was concerned about it just becoming a piece of furniture in someone else’s house, and he thought, ”Donald doesn’t play the harpsichord, but he’ll use it as an instrument,” and it completely changed my whole direction.’
The harpsichord in question has a storied past, having been built in England by Thomas Goff (‘the Steinway of harpsichords’) for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (later Radio New Zealand), which intended it for use by the National Orchestra for Baroque repertoire. It was delivered to New Zealand in 1956, and when New Zealand’s Broadcasting House was being demolished, it was among a large number of items sold off. It now lives with Donald in Melbourne: ‘it was a whole process getting it through Customs when I brought it over from New Zealand to Australia, which is the first time it had left the country.’
In his work with Baroque performance, Donald had often been called on to play the chamber organ for continuo parts. He more definitively entered the world of larger organs when he took up the position of organist at the church of St Mary of the Angels in Wellington, ‘which has a magnificent three-manual organ.’


Maxwell Fernie, one of the foremost choral directors and organists in New Zealand, had retired from his position at the church. ‘Robert Oliver took over as the musical director, and he needed an organist. St Mary of the Angels was still able to do the ordinary Mass in Latin, and there’s a wonderful musical tradition there, the musical director being all about sixteenth-century Palestrina, so I just dropped right in with sixteenth-, seventeenth-, eighteenth-century organ music, and I just had a wonderful time, and haven’t really looked back since then.’
With the 2020 Melbourne lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Donald found that he needed a creative outlet: and so, his [8-bit harpsichord project] was born.‘As a proud video-gamer, as I have been since I was young, the driving thrust behind that is a project I was involved with at the University of Melbourne last year. It’s still in the process of being released, but I took up the role of music director for what ended up being an online production of The Magic Flute.
‘The task was to reduce the orchestra: I’d originally made a reduction for fortepiano and harpsichord, but then Jane Davidson, the director and co-ordinator of the course, made a comment, “I was thinking of setting it in a video-game world, where the main character gets transported into video-game land,” and I thought, “oh, well then I should set the enchanted instruments in the original story to chiptune.” So, [it ended up being a trio of harpsichord, fortepiano, and the sound-chip that was in the original Nintendo Entertainment System]. That was the idea of crossing 1980s video-game tunes with harpsichord: that’s my own little personal take on the music world right now!’


Dr Donald Nicolson


In February this year, Donald was due to play for a performance of a Haydn Mass at the Haydn Festival organized by Chris Howlett and 3MBS. Chris ‘was going to put together a scratch string quartet. Stephen Hodgson [director of the Consort of Melbourne] was planning the singers, and I was going to play basso continuo. It was going to be a tight little orchestral reduction of about five of us, plus singers. Then we got shut down because we had that five-day lockdown in February, at which point things were starting to ease up a little bit, but Stephen was really worried about the numbers of singers on stage, so with barely a week to go he had to pull the plug on it.
‘Chris just said, “We’ve got this organ coming down: can you do an organ recital?” So, long story short, I did a transcription over the weekend of Haydn Symphony Number 49, and Kerry made sure that the organ came straight here, so I ended up doing a live premiere of my own version of Haydn 49! It was pretty great to be introduced to the instrument as a result.
‘I’ve known Chris now since the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall started up last year, and I was really keen to give him a helping hand as much as I could; but it’s always a nice sales pitch to be able to say “brand new organ reduction done in 48 hours”! I’ve been a bit of a keyboard-arranging nerd since I was about 12, when I was arranging orchestral pieces for the piano, so that weekend wasn’t really overwhelming at all.’


Kerry Morenos, Managing Director of Principal Organs, explains, ‘Chris Howlett was referred to contact me regarding the possibility of Principal Organs supplying an organ for the Haydn Festival. As soon as I knew that Dr Donald was going to be playing the Rodgers organ we were supplying, I contacted him to communicate all of our arrangements. The COVID lockdown restrictions were unfolding in Victoria and all our plans were rapidly changing.’ And so, it was arranged for the instrument to be delivered direct to Donald rather than to a concert venue where it looked like it would never be played.
This was Donald’s first real experience with a digital organ. Kerry Morenos put him in touch with Principal Organs’ local installer, who arranged to set the instrument up after it was delivered direct to him. ‘There are so many things that the digital organ offers you, particularly nowadays where everything interfaces and compatibility is such an important thing,’ Donald explains. ‘One of the first things I did, I think on day two, was to connect a drum machine to it to see how it sounded!’


Rodgers Imagine Series


Ever the experimenter, Donald is constantly looking to explore what’s possible, in ways that some organists might not approve of. ‘It seems to me that if you’ve got general MIDI compatibility, you’re asking for something like this. The instrumental stops that are built inside as well—whether it’s timpani, Gospel organ, or luscious string ensembles—they’re suggesting that you try exploring new worlds, and I’ve got this momentum going where having just come out of the Magic Flute production last year, or the chiptunes synth work that I’ve been doing, and my own general approach, this whole new world, I really saw that instrument as something that definitely allowed me to explore it.
‘But having said that, during the ‘lockdown jams’ process I did put in some Dandrieu as a way of explaining that I’m also, yes, a serious organist too! I think I played one of those in one of the services just before the last lockdown; and generally speaking, I’d just been playing Dandrieu on the German Baroque, and I just thought, “let’s see how it sounds with the French Romantic.” Obviously the instruments—the German Baroque and the French Romantic—are quite different, but the reeds are just so wonderful! I was feeling like I was about to blow the roof off: it was just amazing!’


Donald’s deep explorations during these lockdowns has opened up new pathways for him, but they have also reinvigorated old passions. ‘I’ve always been an improviser, and while I’ve been getting back to my compositional roots (when I started at university, I did do a degree in composition first, before I became a harpsichordist), but now with the work I’ve been doing over the last year, it’s reminded me that composing and improvising are all something that I really want to explore and get back into right now, and it’s great to be—as it were—generating my own voice and style as I’m finding it.’
One thing that Donald isn’t going to worry about is treating his digital tools as skeuomorphs: he doesn’t think that it’s essential for the digital medium to exactly replicate the analogue. ‘Especially getting into the synthesizer world, you realize how many people are like “analogue this, analogue that… the new range of Jupiters by Roland aren’t good enough because they’re not analogue.”
‘Well, apparently the manufacturers can’t tell the difference, so why don’t we think about what we can do with it, rather than just comparing it with something else? I can’t help but compare that with the early music world, where people complain that this instrument or that isn’t authentic enough. Of course it’s all very close to my heart too, but I do like to know that even the Early Music world isn’t the last word there, but rather that history repeats itself!’
[Listen to the Radio New Zealand documentary about Donald Nicolson’s Harpsichord (Harpsichord 6) here]

AUTHOR – Richard Flynn