Plein Jeu, the Organ Today

By Anne-Marie Bouchard

“Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.” 1

Although in the collective imagination heritage is often thought of as an object, building, work, cultural practice, or tradition that must be passed on intact and protected from any kind of transformation, in reality, passing on heritage is at once more complex and open-ended. Given that it belongs equally to living culture, tangible and intangible heritage can be perpetuated by current cultural practices that integrate it, are inspired by it, and even put it back in circulation.

Every era, ours is no exception, has seen the establishment of hybrid creative forms based on a dialogue between the past and the present. In recent years, many artists have resorted to using techniques considered outdated, such as old photographic processes, for example, and have even based their art practices on them. The actualization of certain artistic and musical techniques plays a role in the continued existence of art forms that were once dominant but are now marginal. Furthermore, it ensures, in a sense, the transfer of technical knowledge.

In this context, the project Plein Jeu, which highlights one of the most emblematic instruments of Québec’s musical and architectural heritage, the pipe organ, stands out from other recent initiatives for its objectives and originality. The project aims to develop new compositional interfaces for a MIDI-controlled pipe organ, making it possible for works to be created and disseminated remotely without using the keyboard. In addition, Plein Jeu is a collective project, a unique aspect that in itself decompartmentalizes the typically individual activity of the organist. By circumventing the necessity of having specific musical and technical skills in order to play the instrument, these interfaces will allow musicians and artists of diverse backgrounds to reimagine the language traditionally associated with organ playing and more easily integrate it into multidisciplinary practices. This creative potential is a concrete example of an active concept of heritage.

The organ holds a unique place in the history of Québec. Some of the first organs of New France appeared in Québec City as early as 1657. In 1664, first bishop of Québec Monsignor de Laval imported an organ for the parish of Québec City, which then served as a model for sculptors and even skilled amateurs to reproduce it, thus equipping many churches with the instrument at a lower cost. Nevertheless, the most prestigious organs in the province were imported, such as the one made in 1753 by a Parisian builder for the cathedral in Québec City, which unfortunately was destroyed in a fire six years later during the Siege of Québec2. Not surprisingly, the subsequent establishment of more permanent colonial settlements encouraged artistic production due to an increasing need for ornamentation and musical instruments. The British victory and the ensuing relative isolation of the colony contributed to the local development of the arts.

However, it wasn’t until the first half of the nineteenth century, with the arrival of American Samuel Russell Warren to Montréal in 1836, that the local construction of organs became more professionalized3. A few years later, autodidact Joseph Casavant also built approximately twenty organs. Though none are still in existence, his name remains associated with Québec-made organs. Trained in Europe, his sons established a business in 1879 and built an enviable reputation after making the organ for the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal in 18904. Dedicated and keeping up with advances in their craft, the Casavant brothers were able to favourably position their business at the start of the next century.

Many developments have marked the history of the pipe organ since its invention, but its keyboard remained stable until very recently, when electronic and computer innovations began offering new creative possibilities to the community. These innovations not only have led to a genuine renewal of the language related to the instrument, but also, in the fruitful words of artist and musician Bruno Bouchard, to the possibility of “exceeding its human limits.” This interest in going beyond the limits is a leitmotif at the basis of all, or almost all, technological development, from the Industrial Revolution to today, whether this has been for better or for worse given climate change and the sociopolitical challenges of our time.

Still, in the context of Plein Jeu, this leitmotif becomes an innovative and promising way of decompartmentalizing and desacralizing the organ. These two words, decompartmentalizing and desacralizing, summarize the key stakes of any heritage mission, particularly that of museums, whose conservation and research mandate often involves removing the object or work from their context in order to ensure their long-term survival. This is not a simple paradox, especially since new generations, who have received a minimal religious education, increasingly make up the museum public. The more this occurs, the more we need to develop new discourse that can offer ways of reflecting on religious works. In this regard, a project that facilitates access to a heritage organ and reimagines its language demonstrates a remarkable effort of conservation and development, augmented by an artistic process that reinterprets the history of this essential instrument, present in our province since the founding of the colony. Above all, such a project reimagines and greatly increases the potential that the pipe organ holds for future art and music practices.

1 “About World Heritage,” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, World Heritage Convention, accessed November 24, 2021,

2 Antoine Bouchard, “Les orgues du Québec,” Québec Religious Heritage Council, accessed November 24, 2021,

3 Anne-Marie Bouchard, Croire, Devenir, Imaginer, Ressentir, Revendiquer (Quebec City: Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, 2018), 5.

4 Antoine Bouchard, “Les orgues.”