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Christoph Bull: The Man Who Found the Rock in Bach

December 13th, 2009 · 23 Comments

One in a series of UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music faculty profiles written by students in a Fall 2009 course (Ethnomusicology 188, Lecture 3) that focused on music journalism

By Christopher Robinson, Jennifer Li, Jeehai Song, Ji-Won Kim, and Joseph Buchanan

Christoph Bull mixes rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and classical repertoire into his own organ pieces that he fondly calls “rockin’ organ music.” Walking into class for an interview, with a blue T-shirt and sunglasses resting atop his long hair, Bull looks more prepared for a day on the beach than one in the organ studio. But Bull – University Organist and adjunct associate professor for organ at UCLA – defies expectations wherever he goes, especially when he’s performing.

The organ is often the instrument most identifiable with the church. Its musical heritage emphasizes solemnity.

“I have different view,” says Bull, who’s also principal Organist at First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica. “I think God is fun and joy, then why not play that?”

Bull’s multi-genre concert repertoire of church hymnals, Bach preludes and fugues, jazz standards and rock tunes raise eyebrows now and then, but more often Bull’s songs receive praise for their vivacity and eclecticism. Asked about the “aim” of his work, he says he strives to capture the attention of his audience and sustain it for the entire concert, recording, or class.

Bull has performed in a array of venues, from churches and Walt Disney Concert Hall to the Whisky a Go Go and the Viper Room, and has performed with musicians as diverse as Cindy Lauper, Nishat Khan (sitar) and George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic.

A native of Germany, Bull began improvising on the piano at the early age of five, but soon began the regiment training traditionally affiliated with classical music. He attended school at Freiburg Conservatory where everything was just that: Conservative. Bull, who also attended Karl-Friedrich Gymnasium Mannheim and the University of Church Music Heidelberg, jokes that his education and classical-music training was “the real German treatment.”

As he neared the end of the German equivalent of America’s high school, Bull had to make a decision. His dream had been to be a rock musician.

“It was very hard for me to decide,” he says. “I did like playing the organ, but at that time, I didn’t necessarily like the idea that I was going to be a church musician my whole life. I thought that could be stifling.”

Bull decided to come to the United States, where he attended the Berklee College of Music. There, he was able to explore other aspects of music including jazz, rock music, and recording. After graduating, Bull spontaneously moved to Los Angeles – but found himself poor and in need of work, which pushed him in a direction he thought he’d escaped: “I needed a job, and what did I know how to do? Church music – the very thing I had fled when I was in Germany.”

Searching the bulletin boards at UCLA for job postings, Bull stumbled upon a Catholic church on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood that needed an organist.

“It had a great organ,” he remembers fondly. “Gradually, I realized that the organ doesn’t necessarily have to be a totally classical instrument. I realized it could be interpreted another way.”

Envisioning himself as a rock star without a guitar wasn’t difficult for Bull, who notes the popularity of classical pianists, “A guy like Liszt or Bach or Mozart – they really were the rock stars of their time,” he says. “The music is very rocking.”

Of course, few people think of Mozart in the same way that they think of Jimi Hendrix, but Bull sees it differently and wants to rectify that. “At some point,” he says, “classical music got taken over by very straight, square people.”

Since 1999, Bull has put on eclectic organ concerts under the name Organica, playing everything from classical pieces to rock ‘n’ roll.

After his first interview with us, Bull came back to do a performance for the class, changing into his organ shoes (pipe organ requires pushing pedals with your feet) and demonstrating his musical tapestry with a masterful rendition of a Bach prelude that reverberated around the UCLA organ recital hall. This he followed with a Charles Mingus tune that suggested a form symphonic and employed many of the organ’s rich tonal colors and timbre range. Bull’s playing was an impressive showcase of his improvisational and technical skills, along with his ability to merge genres and blur musical distinctions.

Through his passionate organ playing at churches (“I definitely pushed the envelope at the Catholic Church.”) and his Organica concerts and work with local electronic artists, Bull started getting noticed around the Los Angeles community, and in 2002 was offered to become the organ professor at UCLA.

Bull’s current project is becoming the first organist to record at the famed Walt Disney Concert Hall’s organ. The CD is due to release in February or March of 2010. Bull, who is working on a book about the Beatles, tries to avoid adhering to rigid standards, whether as a professor, an organist, or an artist.

“I think that’s the American Dream,” Bull remarks. “People don’t tell you what to do.”

Tags: Faculty

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