When most people think "pipe organ," they imagine one of a few things: cathedral, Toccata and Fugues, some echoey tones of Catholic guilt, etc. Or, to summarize, zzzz. Luckily, artist and cool-things-maker Matthew Borgatti is changing all of that with his giant mobile musical instrument called the Anywhere Organ. Using salvaged organ parts, Borgatti runs the pipes through an electronic system that allows the monstrously large instrument to be played from a piano keyboard. Maybe the most amazing part about it is the true-to-title anywhereness of the thing. The organ's lovely sounds can be brought wherever Borgatti pleases, including this year's World Maker Faire, where it won the Editor's Choice award.
Wanting to know something about Anywhere, we shot Matthew an email with a few questions. Check out his answers below, and stop by his project page here.
How did you get started on this project?
It started when I bumped into a friend from high school about ten years after graduation. He'd gone on to become a professional organ player and started talking about the art of organ building. He clued me in to the fact that organs are steadily fading away, being replaced by digital music systems. He told me about how organs are being put into dumpsters wholesale and how a small group of dedicated hobbyists save them from the graveyard.
I began thinking what I might do with a few hundred organ pipes. I thought of filling spaces with sound the way an organ does. I imagined caves, abandoned theaters, and bridge underpasses all filled with the deep thrumming reverberations of a cathedral organ.
I ended up coming up with a distributed system, where a whole network of boxes each containing a handful of pipes could be spread across a space to reproduce that signature sound.
Magically, the organ seems to be an instrument that combines the physical with the digital. How does it work, exactly?
Pipe organs are actually remarkably digital instruments. Inside of an organ there are mechanical relays fit into big pressurized boxes called wind chests. Above each relay is an organ pipe. When a key is pressed the relay pulls away from the bottom of the pipe, exposing its toe hole there and letting the compressed air rush out. It's a simple on and off.
As traditional mechanical organs have been modernized the mechanical relays have been replaced by magnetic ones. Tools have come along to simplify controlling these relays, like the MIDI to parallel converter I use to control all of my instrument's valves from a standard piano keyboard.
What is important about the fact that you can move it anywhere?
I wanted to experiment with spaces, filling them with sound, feeling out their character. Since the Anywhere Organ is so mobile, I can shift everything around and play with the relationship it has to the local acoustics.
Since it's so portable, I can easily share the Anywhere organ; taking it to festivals, setting it up for friends, and making sure it's getting played. Much of the purpose of this project is to get people interacting with an instrument that few people have access to.
It's also an unshakably cool image: picturing Daft Punk mashing Verdis Quo through an organ that's spilling from a rooftop and all down a fire escape, turning an alley into a street cathedral for a night.
People tend to have specific associations with organs (church, religion, Bach), and the Anywhere Organ seems to charmingly shatter them. What have people's reactions been like?
People have been unilaterally excited about the Anywhere Organ. So many people have come up to me at Maker Faire or gotten in touch through my site saying their father was an organ builder or that they inherited a set of pipes from their uncle. It's amazing that pipe organs have been around so long that they've insinuated themselves into so many lives in small ways. The detritus they leave is fascinating as well. I've started seeing organ parts in random places, hidden away after someone couldn't find a use for them but couldn't stand to throw them out. Boxes full of organ pipes are often found lurking in church basements.
Although there's a strong connection between pipe organs and the church (especially as the incredible presence and physicality of their music has an ineffable transcendent quality), many of the world's largest pipe organs are actually found in theaters. Theater organs were a replacement for full orchestras complete with drum sections, horns, and chimes all controlled from a mind mindbogglingly complex multi-tiered console.
I'm incredibly excited to see how musicians react to the Anywhere Organ. As I perfect the sculpture I'd like to get both digital and analog musicians playing it, pushing where the sound can go, and helping me create an even more vibrant and expressive instrument.
In the hopes that other people can follow in my footsteps and experiment with their own recycled organ project I've uploaded all the design files for the Anywhere Organ to Thingiverse.