Improvising at the keyboard—and, by association, that very special form of keyboard improvising at the console of a French electro-pneumatic organ—is in Briggs’ bloodstream. His grandfather, Lawrence Briggs, was a well-known liturgical improviser in Birmingham, where he was Organist of St Jude’s Church on Hill Street for over forty years. ‘I always loved to improvise, since I was six years old, and I remember very well the day Marcel Dupré died’, David Briggs remarks. ‘And nowadays, hearing famous improvisers like Olivier Latry, Philippe Lefebvre, Pierre Pincemaille, Jean Guillou and Daniel Roth is a source of endless stimulation and excitement.’
In the same year as Dupré’s death, Briggs encountered another huge musical presence on the Parisian scene: Pierre Cochereau (1924–1984), Organist Titulaire at Notre-Dame Cathedral from 1955 until his death. ‘I first became addicted to Cochereau’s sound-world as a nine-year-old chorister at Birmingham Cathedral, when John Pryer (the Sub-Organist, himself a brilliant improviser) lent me an LP of the maître improvising a set of Variations on Alouette, gentille Alouette. I heard Cochereau three times at Notre-Dame in the early eighties, and each occasion was a life-changing experience.’
To inhabit a musical world as much as Briggs does requires what he himself acknowledges as ‘addiction’. In 1984, newly arrived as Assistant Organist at Hereford Cathedral and taking lessons from Jean Langlais, he started transcribing a recording of Cochereau’s improvisations from Christmas Eve 1968. This was ‘primarily with the intent of sharpening my own aural senses, as well as examining in some detail the ravishing and generous harmonic and emotional language which was (and is) unique to Cochereau. I didn’t realize at the time that this was to be the beginning of an extended eleven-year process, on an almost daily basis. It was certainly a labour of love, and it’s not something you get quicker at—I worked out that the average time to transcribe one minute’s music was four hours.’ He should compare notes with two other kinds of musical transcribers of our time: on the one hand, the keyboardists of Progressive Rock tribute bands (notably, facsimiles of Genesis and Yes), whose ambitious, fiddly roles for Hammond organ and synthesizer have to be picked out, note by note, from original recordings; and on the other, the re-creators of film soundtracks whose original manuscripts have been lost or discarded. The most heroic of these is the conductor John Wilson, who has brought back to life several sumptuous MGM film scores in the last decade (the originals’ somewhat tragic destiny was as landfill for a Californian golf course). Like Briggs, Wilson knows how laborious this transcription process can be: he once spent four hours deciphering the pitches and orchestration of a single bar from The Wizard of Oz.
from notes by Meurig Bowen © 2010