Ratingen hyper organ residency

Briefly about the residency

2019 September. Ansgar Wallenhorst plans a composition residency for the hyper organ at the Saint Peter and Paul church in Ratingen (DE). With the advice of with Jacob Lekkerkerker and Trevor Grahl, I am invited to be the composer in residence and the trip starts. A concert for September 2020 is scheduled by Ansgar, including a piece of mine for the hyper organ, to be performed by Jacob. This piece is part Ratingen’s Organ Book.

Ratingen, an old town next to Düsseldorf in Germany, is the birth place of the Sinua hyper organs. Benedikt Aufterbeck and Thomas Stöckl are behind the Sinua system, which was developed together with Ansgar throughout years of explorations on new ways to control and play the organ.

I visited Ratingen numerous times in 2019-2020, travelling by train from Amsterdam and staying at Ratingen’s organ scholar’s apartment. Not being an organist myself, I decided to research the hyper organ register by register and sound by sound. This lead to a large amount of recorded material and a long list of ideas, which made it difficult to arrive to a 20′-long composition. On top of that, because of the nature of the instrument, I wasn’t able to really work remotely. I could only take decisions and actually compose when being on the organ, playing it myself. Due to the corona restrictions, I had limited time with Jacob to work together on the instrument, while, on top of that, most of my ideas were still in my head and on my hands. We took the decision that I am going to play the piece, since there wasn’t really a finished score (not even by the concert date), rather than a cloud of ideas.

The hyper organ

Being a recently invented term, the “hyper organ” tries to describe emerging concepts of sound aesthetics and of organ building. By definition, the word hyper carries the meaning of something being over, above, beyond, exceeding, to excess. In some cases a hyper organ comprises two (or more) different organs, built in different eras that each carry its aesthetics of organ building and sound. With the help of innovative technology (mechanics, electronics, networks), Sinua has been developing a control system that gives new possibilities on the ways the organ produces sound. The actual result is acoustic – we still listen to an “analogue synthesizer”. As of 2020, there are five Sinua hyper organs in the world, all in Europe.

The hyper organ in Ratingen comprises two separate organs. The main one, the church’s actual organ, is a large romantic organ built above the church’s entrance. The second organ is a newly built organ, placed behind the altar, named the “Choir”. The two organs face each other on the two opposite sides of the church.

In order to have access to the new controls on the organ, a touch screen functions as an interface, in combination with the organ’s conventional console. On each manual (Pedal I II III IV) we can assign registers (or stops). Some registers are bound to a specific part of the organ and cannot be independently assigned to any manual (this depends on how the actual mechanics and wind paths are built), others can (these are built recently), giving more freedom.

On each manual we can add one or more layers. In each layer we can select registers of our preference, as well as parameters we want to work with for that specific layer. The basic parameters are:

Pulse = the frequency and width (how much we let the pipe’s mouth open)
Staccato = how short the note will be, no matter how long we press a key
Delay = how late the sound would come after pressing a key
Transposition (we can as well select the range of the keyboard we want to transpose)
Sostenuto = how long to keep the note for when pressing a key

Next to the manuals (the pedal keys and the four keyboards), there are three “car” pedals (or: balanced expression pedals). These can be assigned to control:
Boxes of parts of the organs (closing-opening to change the dynamics)
Amount of Wind supply for the Choir organ
Parameters in the touchscreen (hotwheel function)

Layers should be thought as sound ideas that can be juxtaposed on a manual. Whatever we play on that manual will trigger all the layers added to it. For example, adding three layers with a different amount of delay for each one (e.g. L1=0ms, L2=80ms, L3=160ms) will result in listening to the same note we play three times, with the assigned delay. Adding three layers with different transpositions, will result into creating a chord (that we basically transpose when playing along the keyboard).

On the organ’s console and interface we can save registrations. They can be recalled anytime. Before a concert there has to be time booked for the necessary preparation, so that the saved registrations are organised in a way that helps the flow of the performance.

Of course the hyper organ can be as well controlled by a computer. The assignment of this residency was a composition that can be performed by an organist on this as well as the rest of hyper organs.

Working with the hyper organ in Ratingen

My residency started in November 2019. I arrived to Ratingen without a compositional plan or music ideas. I devoted the first four visits to get to know the hyper organ’s sounds. I used two notebooks, one for writing in numbers, observations and other information, and one for music ideas. I used a Zoom H6 to record my explorations on the keyboard. After each visit I would listen back to the recordings and make a sound library with all ideas. These recordings included other kinds of sounds as well; church bells ringing, people walking around, talking, stuff moving things around, babies crying. The Saint Peter and Paul church in Ratingen is quite alive. Sometimes people would sing along what I’m playing or complain about my bad sounds.

Abbreviations in my notes:
R = ideas in the music notebook / “variate” when in a circled arrow
J / A = Jacob and Ansgar find those ideas interesting
SO = Solowerk box
SW = Schwellwerk box / SW = Schwellwerk registers
VW = Vox Winnie box
CW = Choir box
WD = Wind of the Choir organ
RP = Rückpositiv
HW = Hauptwerk
any = “free” registers that can be assigned independently to any manual
T = Tremolo
% = the pulse’s width

The Solowerk, Vox Winnie, Pedal and Choir registers can be independently assigned to any manual.
The registers of Hauptwerk, Rückpositiv and Schwellwerk are restricted in use.


2019 November 19-21
[ideas 1-53]

Amsterdam-Düsseldorf-Ratingen. Ansgar is a great host and so are Bene and Thomas. Besides giving me a tour at the church and the organ, they made sure I get to know the right places to go eat. Actually eating together lunch or dinner proved to be an important activity in Ratingen. There I was, exploring the main organ, starting with the Pedal and how each register reacts to the various Sinua parameters.

2019 December 16-19
[ideas 54-116]

December was a retake on previous ideas and continuing exploring the main and the choir organ. Jacob drove me to Ratingen by car, where we spent a couple of days on my November ideas. His feedback on register colours, sound balance in the church and ways to combine different ideas was a guid about how to continue. After he left I continued alone creating new ideas. Quite a cold winter in that church.

2020 January 7-10
[ideas 117-121]

The last registration ideas in the notebook tent involve more layers and combinations of different parts of the hyper organ. January was focused on understanding the sound balance in the church. The console is portable, however it demands too much effort to move it around the church, due to the different levels of the floor. It is primarily located at the altar, close to the Choir organ. However, what you listen to when playing is quite different from what the audience would, sitting at the other side of the church, under the main organ. A lo-fi solution was found; a midi keyboard in the middle of the church. I could set up this portable station within 10′ each day (tablet and keyboard had to be stored for safety).

2020 January 25-27

I put a lot of effort in not creating new ideas. The hyper organ is like a magic box; you sit at the console it and new things pour out. Sound balance was still something I had to better understand in the church, while developing a selection of ideas. Of course the midi keyboard was a bit limiting; no “car” pedals and extra manuals.

Saving all these ideas in the console needed some re-organisation. Next to the touchscreen interface, the console has its own built-in system called the setzer. All presets are saved to your account. A common way to turn on the organ is by using a card that you touch over a reader, logging in to the card’s account number. I listened to all ideas in the sound library and grouped them together, trying to find a way to evaluate them and narrow them down by selecting the most interesting ones.

For this trip, Ansgar organised a short lecture for his organ students. He invited me to discussed with them the new possibilities of the Sinua system and play some of the material I was working on. Next to that, I managed to find some time and take the train to nearby Wuppertal to watch the performance Bluebeard. While Listening to a Tape Recording of Bela Bartok’s Opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” by Pina Bausch and Tanztheater Wuppertal. Such a composition of movement in space and time, I felt very lucky I could be there and watch this piece live.

2020 June 7-10

The pandemic changed the residency’s timetable. I was supposed to finish the piece by March or April 2020. After my last visit in January, the next time I managed to travel to Ratingen was June. Ansgar extended the residency till September. We planned September’s concert; a piece by Trevor, Jacob and me.

I used June’s trip to refresh my memory and try to start narrowing down the material. However, by simply working on some of the ideas in my notebooks I ended up with new material. It was so hard to not play around with details and “accidents”, leading to new results.

I was asked to start thinking of a title. My first idea was this piece to be a collection of fragments or short ideas. A sort of diary of the residency, creating a pluralistic sound journey. The sound of the people passing through the church in my recordings was inspiring. I wanted to incorporate this into the composition, creating soundscapes or sound events in the church in dialogue with the hyper organ’s part. Maybe by placing a few speakers in space. Steps, shoes, doors, coins, newspapers, babies, church bells. Thoughts for my next trip.

2020 June 29 – July 2

Before heading again to Ratingen we met with Jacob at my place in Amsterdam (during a heatwave) to help with the latest selection of ideas. That would be Selection #4. We managed to narrow down our list to 25 ideas and he proposed which ones would be interesting to combine together (e.g. put them on different manuals so that we can play around with them simultaneously).

By scanning these music ideas again and again already since January, I noticed a few similarities. All ideas could be generally grouped as:
[: L.H. :] + R.H. melody = a loop on the left hand + a melody on the right one
subcon counterpoint = improvised counterpoint of multiple voices moving independently
μ = microtonal, involving controlling the Choir’s wind amount
gestures = mostly referring to ascending broken chords
colour/timbre ideas = mostly involving quick pulse

Once again, I’ve spent quite sometime re-organising the presets in the setzer. This would be a time investment in the case of Jacob being able to visit Ratingen in the summer without me, playing around with the Selection #4.

Leaving Ratingen for my summer break, what would be a better early morning goodbye before catching my train than a warm breakfast at Ansgar’s. Not only he has been an inspiring coordinator of this residency, but a fantastic host too.

2020 August 31 – September 2
[idea 122]

Not having the piece finished yet, last decisions had to be taken in order to make it for the concert. Unfortunately the pandemic and the planning changes didn’t help that much in working closer with Jacob on the organ. I managed to come down to seven clusters of ideas and make clearer music notes.

We decided that I would be playing the piece myself, with Jacob and Ansgar being there to coach me. My next trip would be about figuring out the order of the seven clusters and practicing the music. Still, there were lots of decisions that had to be taken composition-wise. Part of the music wasn’t even written down. During re-organising the material and clearing it up, I couldn’t help it; once again I ended up with new material.

A title had to be decided as soon as possible. During spring I came up with I can’t think of anything with R. Ansgar proposed an alphabet format, a collection of short ideas: the Ratingen Alphabet. During the summer I checked the subtitles I had given to some of the recordings. Hilarious Transcending became the piece’s working title. Discussing with Jacob and Trevor, What Will Happen was the final choice. The piece would have about seven movements.

2020 September 16-19

Travelling to Ratingen to meet the team and practice for the concert. Last decisions have been taken, there is now a form for the piece; it consists of 10 parts and it lasts about 22 minutes . Jacob, Trevor and me are all sharing the available time in the church to each practice our part of the concert. We all try to keep distances and socialise outdoors. Sunny weather, but autumn starts kicking in with some nice chilling temperatures in the evenings.

More work on the setzer, to pass through the final decisions and be able to jump from one preset to the other without stress. Meanwhile, I have created a mockup out of recordings from previous trips. Jacob, Ansgar, Trevor and Bene pass by each to play for them the piece and give their feedback. To our surprise, Thierry Tidrow, our friend from Canada with whom we studies together in Amsterdam and now lives in Germany, is in nearby Düsseldorf and drops by. The concert’s poster is at the church’s entrance; it’s promo week.

I [93 + 7]
II [36 + 114 + 119]
VIa 118
VIb 105
VIc 49++ [49 + 118 + 105]
VII [58 + 62 + 63 + 98 + 99]

oRgel 3.0 | The concert

The concert took place on September 18. Lots of people are around, including Hans Fidom (Orgelpark’s organ researcher in Amsterdam). Large church, lots of space for distancing and a good audience. I started the concert with What Will Happen, Jacob followed with his improvisation The Superabundance of Being, and Trevor closed the evening with Of Ancient Days. All pieces were performed on the hyper organ.

What Will Happen

we know / I told you
lady walk
what will happen
I can’t think of anything with R
ascending laundry
ultimate popup
boring adult wisdom
I can’t think of anything with R
aujourd’hui c’est un beau jour
help me I’m stuck in a small orbit

We did not know how the audience will receive the concert, most of the repertoire in the church is either mass-releated / religious or concert programs that tend to be more conventional. Although our pieces were exploring the possibilities of the hyper organ, we didn’t go that much the “experimental” way. The audience found the concert challenging enough and fun to listen to, we got quite a few positive comments.

What is now left for the residency is to clear up the score for a publication that Ansgar has arranged. We are waiting for the recording’s final mix too. There is a chance for this concert to be repeated at another hyper organ location, we are looking forward to it. The residency is practically over, but I need to go back to Ratingen, just because I want it. I already miss working on the hyper organ and hanging out with the galactic Rrrratingen team. ~


About Thanasis Deligiannis

Composer | Sound Designer | Stage Director | Performer
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