On the 30th January 2023, Composer Benjamin Tassie visited Bradford Cathedral to record the Wingfield Organ, which has been in the building since last year’s Bradford Organists’ Association Organ Day.
Benjamin Tassie has been studying for a PhD at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire for almost three years. We spoke to him about his recording work, to discover more about this exciting project.
“This is looking at new ways of using historical musical instruments, particularly using technology such as electronic music tools to expand them. A big project that I’ve been doing over the past year has involved going to record very old organs – such as the Wingfield Organ currently in Bradford Cathedral – and sampling those. I record every single note, so back in my studio I can recreate digital instruments that are then playable by any kind of electronic keyboard, but especially a very new keyboard by ROLI called a Seaboard RISE, which are squishy and you can shape the music as you play it; you can push into the keys, and bend the pitch, and transform the sound in any way imaginable!
“I’ve been able to access such incredible collections of musical instruments; not only organs, but harpsichords and lutes, and genuinely really old instruments from the 1500s.
“Organ-wise, last Spring I went to Amsterdam, to the Orgelpark, where they have a giant organ – The Van Straten organ – which is a reproduction of a late Medieval Dutch organ from 1479.
“That was such an astonishing instrument, and it was a real privilege to go there and spend a couple of days on my own with this enormous organ, the biggest that I’ve recorded. The scale was impressive.
“I also recorded an organ in Knole House (Kent), which is an original organ and probably dates from around 1600. It was a little cabinet organ.
“It’s a kind of a mad thing to do – to be able to play an instrument that has been around throughout the English Civil War; something that has seen so much!”
What is it about organs that captures Benjamin’s creativity and imagination?
“Organs themselves are amazing from a musical perspective; they come in so many different sizes and varieties. The Wingfield Organ sounds really beautiful, purely from a sound perspective, but they’re bound up with so much history – especially liturgical history.
“And that’s a big part of this research that I’ve been doing: what do these organs say to us? They communicate lots of ineffable things. The Wingfield Organ sounds Tudor – just like you imagine how a Tudor Court would be. They transport you back in time, which is amazing when you’re making brand new compositions, because you can borrow some of that in your own music and use it in your piece.”
We asked Benjamin how all this work would come together.
“It’s going to be a concert piece. It was a commission from Dr Zubin Kanga at Royal Holloway, and that project is called ‘Cyborg Soloist’. It’s a multi-year research project where he is working with composers to use technology to take his piano skills to make totally wild new music.
“The piece that I’m making is an hour long, and, when performing, he plays three keyboards. Each is mapped to a historical organ that has been recorded and recreated, and the whole piece is created in surround sound. He will be in the middle of a performance space and the audience will be around him, and in turn around them a circle of loudspeakers. So it’s this immersive experience, in a concert setting.”
Though Benjamin has said he has music left to write, it should be completed by summer 2023, and then performed later that same season. This project will go on tour with dates to be announced soon.
We asked Benjamin how well the technology can recreate these instruments, or what is added in this process.
“This is something from a technical perspective that you have to engage with creatively. An organ is so unique in how it makes its sound; the sound emanates from all the different pipes, from different directions, and each note is quite different character. And so it’s impossible to totally accurately record that, and then recreate it, within a laptop. It’s a compromise: you make the best of what you can do.
“Having done this with several organs, what I’ve learnt is to listen to the instrument and think about what unique part of the organ’s character it is that I want to capture, and then technologically how I do that.
“For instance, with the Wingfield Organ, it’s got this very intimate sound on the purest of its stops. It’s a really beautiful, pure sound – and it creates a quiet around it – which is why I was very careful to mic it up to capture the best of that and then, in the studio, I’ve began making the instruments, and not doing too much to damage that.
“But having this technology and the amazing ROLI keyboard to work with, I then can – as part of the piece – transform it quite a lot. There is a section towards the end of the piece where Zubin can push into the keys and it makes the notes pulse on- and off-. It’s almost like an ocean, with over-lapping waves: each note can separately pulse, speed-up and slow-down. You can take something that’s a Tudor organ in its sound – based on this historical instrument – and take it somewhere totally different, maybe far away from an organ and instead closer to something like an analogue synth.”
Benjamin also talked about how the location of the organ and the acoustics around it can make a difference to the sound.
“It’s the liturgical aspect. Organs are, more often than not, in churches or cathedrals, and so when we think of them, we think of a religious space. Cathedrals are magical spaces: I’m really interested in how that, even now when we think of ourselves as really modern and that we’ve figured out the world, but you go into a Cathedral it’s kind of humbling and magical, and so I think there’s something of that magic bound in with organs, and we experience a kind of enchantment.”
And what did Benjamin think of our visiting organ?
“The Wingfield Organ is very charming. It’s got a character that wins you over immediately. The hand-operated bellows are great as well.”
We wish Benjamin the best of luck with the on-going composition and we’ll keep you updated with future developments. You can find out more about him on his website and more about the project at cyborgsoloists.com.