Origins and Futurities

By Jocelyn Robert

The pipe organ is an ancient invention. Its creation is attributed to Ctesibius, a Greek engineer of 3rd century BCE. It was played by blowing pressurized air accumulated in water cisterns through pipes. The mechanics of the modern pipe organ are different—the water cisterns have been replaced by lighter, more flexible systems—yet they represent a similar desire to create a kind of orchestra of mechanically animated wind instruments.

But what about the organ?

The barrel organ was a musical version of the technological innovation mentioned above, but this instrument was always considered to be a poor cousin and often used only at fairs and by street musicians. Nevertheless, the affiliation between the technology of the loom and pipe organ and that of bourgeoning computing systems is indisputable.

As of the second half of the 20th century, the valves of new or restored organs were electro-pneumatic, which meant that they could be activated through relatively simple electronic circuits. This represented an unprecedented opportunity for a renewal of the interface and for artistic creation, an opportunity that has yet to be fully explored. This is what we hope to do through Plein Jeu.

We wish to pick up from this stalled moment in history, reconsider the interface in light of developments that have taken place in other domains—particularly digital technology—and re-establish a link between computing and the pipe organ. More specifically, we wish to reimagine and explore the possibilities of the sonic and musical language offered by applying electronic and computerized innovations to the design of the organ’s interface. In addition, we wish to open up the field of organ music to non-musicians or to musicians whose expertise is not specific to keyboard instruments by providing interfaces that encourage creative involvement without requiring virtuosity or extensive prior training. Lastly, we wish to do this in a research-creation context, in which the theoretical and creative aspects enrich one another and are both disseminated.

We intend to create, simultaneously, electronic/computerized interfaces and innovative musical compositions, particularly because of their openness to collective expression or composition, as well as share the results of our research.

With Plein Jeu, we are pursuing three main objectives:

a) participate in the renewal of organ music by designing new interfaces;

b) allow non-musician creators to work with this otherwise inaccessible instrument;

c) enrich, through our research, the methods of working collectively in the arts in general.

We believe that in the long term, the project will take us one step further in creating bridges and common languages between disciplines.

The “we” mentioned here consists of ORCA (Orchestra of Research-Creation in Art), a research group at the Art School of Laval University, and Avatar, an artist-run centre in Québec City dedicated to the creation and dissemination of audio and electronic art. During our preliminary research, undertaken in late 2018, we discovered that the organ in Guérande, near Saint-Nazaire in France, had been transformed a few years prior by an artist collective interested in similar questions. We contacted the members of Athénor scène nomade – Centre National de Création Musicale, a organization in Saint-Nazaire dedicated to new music, and they expressed interest in supporting us and getting involved in our research. We have also collaborated with Palais Montcalm to hold creative and training sessions (involving students from the Art School of Laval University and professional artists). We have done this groundwork in order to create a context of discussion and reflection conducive to research development.

Avatar then set up an entire series of events and activities for Plein Jeu: three creation residencies, tests of the sound simulation equipment and the instrument itself, theoretical reflections on the works, the creation of electronic and computerized interfaces, public dissemination through concerts and a publication. The publication concludes the first phase of Plein Jeu. We hope that it will open new horizons of listening and creating for you as much as it has done for us.