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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Experimental Music for Pipe Organ, The Original Synthesizer

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

You may ask yourself, why do I have a podcast devoted to pipe organ music on the Archive of Electronic Music? The pipe organ has always fascinated me because it represents the first widespread attempt to synthesize sound through the additive or subtractive combination of single sounds of different pitches and timbres. Much of what was established in the world of traditional pipe organs translates meaningfully into the world of electronic music synthesis. It is no accident that by the dawn of the synthesizer in the 1960s, the pipe organ had already been transformed by the use of electronics and the two instruments developed in parallel.

The pipe organ produces sound by driving pressurized air through its organ pipes, triggered from a keyboard. Because each pipe produces a single pitch, the pipes are provided in sets called ranks, each of which has a common timbre and volume as controlled by its associated keyboard, or manual. A given rank, in turn, is controlled by stop, a kind of on/off switch for one or more ranks. The use of stops enables the organist to selectively turn off certain ranks in order to produce different combinations of sounds, as opposed to hearing all sounds simultaneously. The player can effectively add or subtract sounds through a combination of organ stops.

A pipe organ has one or more keyboards (called manuals) played by the hands, and a pedal set played by the feet; each keyboard controls its own division, or group of stops.

It has always interested me that the dawn of electronic music on tape also saw a flowering of adventurous music for the pipe organ. The recordings featured here are primarily by artists who are also associated with avante garde and electronic music. Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, György Ligeti, Mauricio Kagel, and others. Then there is the case of Swedish composer Bengt Hambraeus (Bangt hawm-BREE-ose) who was actually an organist himself, inspired to make some of his earliest electronic music using sounds of the pipe organ. Eleven of the thirteen recordings date from 1956 to 1978, also the heyday for tape music and synthesized sounds. While most of these works are only for pipe organ, there are a few examples that are electronic music that incorporate sound material from the pipe organ. Two of the works are contemporary pieces for organ by Canadian Sarah Devachi and Danish composers Sandra Boss and Jonas Olesen.

A name missing from this list is John Cage, whose Variations I and III have been interpreted and recorded for pipe organ by Gerd Zacher. For this episode, I chose to bypass the Cage piece in favor of some other lesser-known works by others. There are three albums in particular that I encourage you to look up from which I have included several tracks in this podcast. A Second Wind for Organ from 1968 on the Odyssey label, played by David Tudor; and then two albums from 1970 with the same title, Gerd Zacher:Organ, released on the Heliodor and Deutsche Grammophon, each with a different set of organ selection played by German organist and composer, Gerd Zacher. These are among the treasures that I picked up around the time of their release.

One of the beauties of the pipe organ is that if you listen carefully, you can hear the mechanics of the instrument breathing, sometimes played ever so quietly as to highlight the keys being pressed, the stops being opened, or the bellows expanding and contracting. Other times the organ can be extraordinarily loud, producing a wall of sound that is about as dense as it can get. I’ve included examples of various styles so that you can hear the variety of sounds that are possible with the pipe organ.

Episode 104

Experimental Music for Pipe Organ, The Original Synthesizer


1. Bengt Hambraeus, “Doppelrohr II” (1956) from Cologne - WDR: Early Electronic Music (1992 BV Haast Records). All compositions are productions of the 'Studio für elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunks Köln.’ The earliest work I can find that combines electronic music on tape with sounds created using a pipe organ. 3:54

2. Bengt Hambraeus, “Constellations II For Organ Sounds” (1959) from Constellations & Interferences (1968 Limelight). Composed and played on the pipe organ by Bengt Hambraeus. 16:02

3. Bengt Hambraeus, “Responsorier For Two Organs, Solo Voice, Mixed Choir And Church Bells” (1964, final section) from Max Reger Och Bengt Hambræus (1970 SR Records). Swedish release conducted by Eric Erickson. Composed by, Organ, Bengt Hambræus; Choir, Kammarkören, Radiokören; Organ, Karl-Erik Welin; Tenor Vocals, Christer Solén.11:14

4. Christian Wolff, “For 1, 2 or 3 People” (1964) from A Second Wind For Organ (1968 Odyssey). Baroque Organ by David Tudor, Liner Notes by Richard Teitelbaum; Produced by David Behrman. 9:37

5. Hans Otte, “Touches” (1965) from Gerd Zacher, Organ (1970 Heliodor). Composed by Hans Otte; pipe organ, Gerd Zacher. 12:46

6. Mauricio Kagel, “Improvisation Ajoutée” (1966) from A Second Wind For Organ (1968 Odyssey). Organ by David Tudor; Liner Notes by Richard Teitelbaum; Produced by David Behrman. 13:41

7. Juan Allende-Blin, “Sons Brisés - In Memoriam Lothar Schreyer” (1967) from Gerd Zacher, Organ (1970 Heliodor). Composed by Juan Allende-Blin; pipe organ, Gerd Zacher. 12:36

8. György Ligeti, “Etude No. 1 "Harmonies" (1967)” from Aventures - Nouvelles Aventures / Volumina / Etude No. 1 "Harmonies" (1969 Candide). Organ of The Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, Berlin, Gerd Zacher. 6:51

9. Morton Feldman, “Intersection 3” (1953/1969) played by Gerd Zacher from Gerd Zacher, Orgel (1970 DGG). Zacher was an accomplished organist who had a reputation for interpreting contemporary works. This work is a realization for organ of a work from 1953, which Feldman offered to Zacher for this project. The work was originally intended for piano and written with David Tudor in mind. The original Intersection was written in 1952 and was created as part of John Cage’s project for works on magnetic tape. 2:36

10.Gerd Zacher, “Ré” (1969) from Gerd Zacher, Orgel (1970 DGG). Composed and performed by Gerd Zacher; vocals, Juan Allende-Blin. 8:35

11.Diane Bish, “Laudation” from Bish, Bach & Baroque (1978 Suncoast). Interesting, oddball combination of pipe organ and synthesizer. Ms. Bish was an accomplished American organist, composer, conductor, author, organ designer, television producer and television host. Written by Diane Bish and played on pipe organ (117-rank Ruffatti pipe organ made in Padua, Italy) and ARP Pro Soloist synthesizer mounted above the organ manuals. 5:25

12.Sarah Davachi, “For Organ” (2015) from All My Circles Run (2017 Students of Decay). Davachi is a Canadian electroacoustic musician based in Los Angeles, primarily working with organ, piano, synthesizer, strings, woodwinds. This work is for solo pipe organ and was recorded live at Knox United Church, Calgary, Alberta, Canada on June 14, 2017. 8:02

13.Jonas Olesen and Sandra Boss, Teaser (excerpt) from New Works for Organ (2016 private). Work for pneumatic church organ, MIDI controlled pipe organ and prepared pump organ. Premiere at Koncertkirken, Copenhagen DK. Friday May 27th, 2016. 1:43

Opening background music: György Ligeti, “Volumina (Original Version 1961/62)” from Aventures - Nouvelles Aventures / Volumina / Etude No. 1 "Harmonies" (1969 Candide). Organ of The Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, Berlin, Gerd Zacher. 16:57

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

See my companion blog that I write for the Bob Moog Foundation.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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