© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Eight-Hour Work Introduces A New Organ In Iowa City

John Pemble / IPR
Organist Kevin Bowyer with the new Klais organ in the University of Iowa's School of Music Voxman Building. He is playing the first public recital with the eight hour Organ Symphony No. 2 by Kaikhosru Sorabji.

Floodwaters destroyed the University of Iowa’s School of Music in 2008.  Last fall, it was replaced with a new building that includes six organs. A Klais organ from Germany is in the largest performance hall at the Voxman Building.


“Organs are individually unique,” says University of Iowa Associate Professor or Organ Greg Hand.  “You can’t sort of order one out of a catalog, but you have to say what repertoire will this organ that we’re building sound really good?”

Hand says he chose the Klais because it compliments 19th century Romantic-era composers. It also works well for newer works like the Organ Symphony No. 2 written in 1932 by English composer Kaikhosru Sorabji.  It is in three movements lasting between eight and nine hours.

“It frightens me. It’s big.  It’s much bigger than I am,” says organist Kevin Bowyer.  

He’s been rehearsing the Sorabji work for two weeks since arriving here from his home in England. Playing it requires great physical stamina and mental concentration.  This isn’t the first time Bowyer has played the difficult work.

“In the two performances I gave in 2010, it was only the adrenaline that carried me through to the end,” says Bowyer.

The biggest difficulty for Bowyer happens during the second movement.

“There’s a group of variations in the middle which are so demanding and dense to play that’s it’s very easy to suddenly find yourself completely devoid of energy and if that happens then there’s nothing to do.  The brain stops working. The fingers don’t work anymore. You just can’t go on,” he says.


He intends to play the entire work, but if he becomes exhausted during the second movement he will stop, take a long break, and skip to the third movement. It is also physically challenging to play.

“It’s in four sections. A prelude, sort of improvisatory 20-minute movement to start with and then a long adagio, about half an hour and then a toccata after that, which again isn’t hugely long. It’s 15, 16 minutes or so.  And then the crowning glory of the piece is an enormous triple fugue lasting for two hours,” says Bowyer.

Typically, a recital showcasing an organ for the first time has pieces by Bach, Widor, or Liszt.  Greg Hand originally planned this kind of concert. Then he changed his mind after recalling a conversation he had with his friend Kevin Bowyer about his 2010 performances of Sorabji's symphony.

Credit John Pemble / IPR
The manuscript for Kaikhosru Sorabji's eight hour Organ Symphony is around 300 pages. Organist easily Kevin Bowyer manages the volume with a computer screen instead of printed pages.

“I finally said Kevin, this Sorabji thing... this is just a stunt, right? And he took offense to that,” says Hand. “He told me with a, just a straight face that it had changed his life completely and that everyone who had come to the concert and stayed for the concert, it had changed their lives completely.

Most of Sorabji’s music is for piano, but he wrote three organ symphonies. Kevin Bowyer is the only organist in the world to study and perform them. He is eager for collaboration.

“I’ve been playing this music since 1987. I would love to hear somebody else play it. That’s my dream, before I die I want to hear somebody else play some of this music,” says Bowyer.

This Iowa City performance will be the first time Sorabji’s Organ Symphony Number 2 is played in the United States.

The entire organ performance will be streamed from the University of Iowa’s website, starting Friday at noon.  You can see it here.

John Pemble is a reporter for IPR