Profile: Roger Sayer, organist, and an “Interstellar” event at Portsmouth Cathedral

“This event will be a way of connecting a new generation with the music of the 21st century”

An interview between Simon O’Hea of Music in Portsmouth and Roger Sayer.

On Friday 7 June, Roger Sayer will be presenting an organ recital entitled “Interstellar”, as part of the summer organ recital series at Portsmouth Cathedral.

Simon

Give us some more details on what you’re going to be playing. Will it relate to the theme of Interstellar in any way?

Roger 

I think it’s better to call it an event rather than a concert. I think people who would enjoy it don’t normally go to concerts, and especially organ concerts. I’m hoping that people might come out of their comfort zones in that respect, given the association with Interstellar

I am doing a concert with space music, so it is a complete event about music relating to space. The concert begins with a famous piece by Richard Strauss called Also sprach Zarathustra. This piece was used for the sunrise moment in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey.

The organ has played a prominent role in films for quite some time; this piece was, I think, was part of the inspiration for Hans Zimmer.

Christian Nolan used the organ, but in a much, much bigger and bolder way than it was used in 2001 Space Odyssey. So that’s going to be just one minute’s worth of music, which opens the concert.

Following that, I will be playing 3 movements from Holst’s Planet Suite, which I just realised that this year is the 150th anniversary of his birth. Firstly Mars, which is the bringer of war. Then there’s the Venus, the bringer of peace. And there’s Jupiter, the bringer of jollity. And the audience might not know that in Jupiter, there’s the famous tune I vow to thee, my country which often is sung at weddings and lots of national events in the UK.

So these are transcriptions – orchestral pieces transcribed for the organ. So the idea is to just get everyone in the mood and also perhaps to introduce people who wouldn’t have necessarily come across to music that is very striking and very full of imagery. People can space out just by listening to it.

And then there will be a showing of the documentary made at Temple when Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan came. It’s only 5 minutes but it’s on YouTube and I suspect a lot of the Hans Zimmer fans would have seen it. It’s very it is well-known, but it does put the whole event into context.

Then following that I will run a question and answer session hosted by David Price (the Director of Music), asking me some questions about my experience of working with Hans Zimmer, how it came about and so on. I’ll hang around at the end to enable people to share their views about it. And then then I will play the score. Now this is the organ score and it’s the organ score that I used on the film. It’s the organ score that I transcribed from the full score for an event at the Royal Albert Hall, which was the live showing of the film.

Simon 

And what are you looking forward to, in particular, in terms of the building and the organ at Portsmouth Cathedral?

Roger 

Well, it’s special for me that Portsmouth is my hometown. And I had my organ lessons on the Portsmouth Cathedral organ. Although I was a chorister at a church in Farlington, I have always had a big association with the Cathedral.

The organ has changed since I was a boy and for the better. It is a good organ for Interstellar because it has many colours in it. It both has a sort of visceral strength, and it can also provide a poetic charm and sort of delicacy, which in fact suits the score. The acoustic is also better than it used to be, when there was a brick wall at the west end.

Because you want to hear the organ reverberating and resounding in different ways, so it makes it, it creates a wider dimension. So I think from the point of view of the score of Interstellar, the organ will represent it very well: it’s got power but also beauty in its quiet sounds, and a resonant acoustic.

So there are many reasons for coming to Portsmouth for me personally, of course, and also from the point of view of the building and the instrument that is there. 

Simon 

Fantastic. So I think we’ve covered off the event and the location and the instrument. I wasn’t going to drag you kicking and screaming through all the questions that I normally ask people when I’m just chatting to them about their experiences as musicians, but people do like to know what’s been the secret of your success, and what advice would you give to people considering a music career, particularly on the organ?

Roger 

The first thing to say is that the beauty of this event is that it’s bringing people to the organ who would otherwise not come. And a lot of younger people are likely to come – these are people who would not necessarily be old enough to have watched the film the first time around. It is a way of connecting a new generation with the music of the 21st century. And that’s very exciting.

The organ of its own nature is a very imposing instrument. It’s known as the king of instruments because of its size and because it has so many pipes. When you look at an organ, you don’t see the full number of pipes. You might see 50. I don’t know how many Portsmouth has, but it’s certainly going to be in the order of around 4,000 or so. So you don’t see the full instrument at all, and I have always found that fascinating.

My parents went to church, so I had a foot in the door, but a lot of people don’t go to church these days and they associate the organ with the church and religion and that’s a shame, in a way. The organ is a conventional instrument as well as a liturgical one.

I’ll now turn to the question about what advice I would give to people considering a music career. I don’t think it’s much different for me as a musician as for a sportsman.

You’ve got to have goals, you’ve got to have dedication, and you’ve got to accept disappointments. And bounce back from them. But if there’s a fire in your belly, if there’s something inside you that says, “I need to investigate this,” “I do love this”, then you owe it to yourself to do something about it.

You may or may not make a career out of it. I made a career out of it because I couldn’t do anything else but that. Some people are multi-talented and have got lots of options. But certainly, as a musician, the most important thing is to have a goal and to recognise there aren’t any shortcuts, therefore you’ve just got to knuckle down to the hard work and then you will see the results and eventually the rewards. But you’ve got to be patient, and keep focused. Those are the things I would say to any young person who is thinking of, learning an organ or any instrument to be fair. 

Simon 

Is there anything particular about the organ that you’d like to say in terms of people becoming being good organists? I mean, there are things that apply to musicianship generally, but is there anything in particular relating to the organ, any pathways or any advice you’d like to give?

Roger 

Well, an organ has traditionally been in a church, therefore access to an organ hasn’t been easy. But nowadays you can buy house organs without pipes, or just electronic organs. So you don’t need access to a church anymore if you want to learn the organ. It’s not an instrument that you can carry around with you, so it’s a difficult instrument just because of accessibility. However, there are ways around it.

The other thing as an organist is that you do need to have a good enough keyboard facility first because the organ involves footwork. And that means reading not just two lines of music, but three lines of music, one to the right, one to the left and one for the feet. So if you’re starting from scratch and you think you’re going to start on the organ, that’s probably not entirely sensible. It’s better to have some piano lessons to get familiar with the reading of the notation and make your hands move independently of each other, and then then move from there.

On the other hand, there’s nothing to stop people at least trying it out just to get the feel and the joy of it because you won’t make progress unless you have that.

Simon 

I wanted to be an organist as a child and my teachers said no, you need to be grade five on the piano, and I got to grade 4 so wasn’t allowed to progress onto the organ. I’m sure attitudes are completely different nowadays. 

Roger 

Yes, that’s right. I would encourage people at grade 1 to at least come and try the organ out. You need to know what it feels like.

Simon

I’m under the impression that organ playing is alive and kicking, and that there’s support and interest in it in this country these days.
 
Roger 

Yes, the Royal College of Organists are doing a very good job: they’re doing quite a lot of outreach. They’re taking an organ around the country on the back of a lorry, and having organs installed in schools. And Anna Lapwood is also doing great things for the organ.


About Roger

He is, without exaggeration, an extraordinary artist, whose humanity shines in the impeccable artistry that flows from his hands….” – Hans Zimmer, award-winning composer

Roger Sayer is at the forefront of British choral and organ music. A former organ student at St Paul’s Cathedral, Roger was Prize Winner at the 1989 St Albans International Organ Competition and won all the organ prizes at the Royal College of Music. Since then, he has been constantly in demand both as a recitalist and accompanist, and his playing takes him to many parts of the world.

​In 2023 his work took him to Germany, Holland  Denmark, Italy, Switzerland and Australia. He recently gave a live recital at Temple Church broadcast on BBC and opened the Summer Organ Festival at Westminster Abbey and the in the last few years has recorded the complete Rheinberger Sonatas and the six symphonies of Louis Vierne highlights. These recordings universally were reviewed with 5 * 

Such is Roger’s versatility he has recorded a soundtrack for a Sony video game, collaborated with jazz saxophonist Mark Lockheart and composer John Ashton Thomas in the album Salvator Mundi.

Roger Sayer’s most notable performance work is as organist as organ soloist for Hans Zimmer’s Oscar nominated score for the motion picture Interstellar. Roger later went on to perform the work live with composer Hans Zimmer in a live showing of the film at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

He was special guest at London’s 02 with Hans Zimmer and his world tour.

​In addition to his organ playing, Roger Sayer is also an acclaimed choral director with some of the UK’s finest choirs. After founding the Rochester Cathedral Girls’ choir, Roger was  Organist and Director of Music at Temple Church in 2013-2023 and created an impressive portfolio of broadcasts, concerts and recordings. The choir’s recording and performances during his time were universally awarded 5* under his direction. During the pandemic he commissioned two works specifically for the boys’ of the choir one of the works, Carmina Tempore Viri by Kenneth Hesketh led to a live BBC Radio 3 concert with the choristers as they emerged after 18 months rehearsing on zoom. He initiated a new youth choir of Boys and Girls at Temple Church.

Roger Sayer worked regularly with the London Symphony Chorus for ten year as Accompanist and Deputy Chorus Director, collaborating with many of the world’s leading conductors and soloists.

Visit https://www.rogersayer.org

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