Every generation has its zeitgeist. Even though this overarching spirit of the age presents itself in many spheres, music is definitely one of the main protagonists. While voguish producers can extract an entire body of work out of their laptop, Mom and Dad will have delighted in hazy rock concerts back in their psychedelic day. Delineated and borderless, the evolution of music has never been a clean sheet on which every new musician could unaffectedly write. Old music is recycled, refreshed and adapted in tune with the desires of the age.
In collaboration with Antwerp-based artistic hub Scheld’Apen, producer Andrew Claes has created a gem that illustrates this musical narration. As a midi-expert, he was asked to compose a 21st century piece for an instrument dating from days long gone: a mechanical Decap organ with a midi interface, which can best be described as an entire mechanised orchestra that plays itself.
The Decap family has been building them in their Antwerp workshop since 1902, though to our generation they look like a cross between something from Ridley Scott‘s Bladerunner and a scene from an early David Cronenberg film.
“It was my great-grandfather who founded this family business”, the current Decap paterfamilias explains. “As an accordion-player at the fairs and in cafés, he noticed that he could no longer compete with the small mechanical organs who were rapidly rising in the ‘entertainment industry’ of the time. He then bought one for himself, and pretty soon the Decap company was one of the biggest and most pioneering organ builders in Europe.”
The concept of mechanised instruments dates back over three centuries ago, but it was the European organ builders who really took the construction process to a new level of expertise. “Although Decap organs can be found all over the world, their use according to what they are built for is restricted to the area south of The Netherlands and extending to the north of France. There used to be tons of them in dance-halls and roadside bars, where people would spend the entire afternoon enjoying a beer and a smoke while waltzing to the tunes of the organ. But over time, this tradition has become more and more rare. We used to build six to seven new organs a year here, while today I spend most of the time restoring the few organs that are still around.” Roger seems to realise that he could very well be the last of the Decaps in the family business; it has become a relic of the past, and his only son has chosen to take up engineering studies instead.
When Andrew enters the workshop, where over ten organs are stored, his playful enthusiasm immediately banishes these nostalgic reveries. “As an experimental electronic producer, you can hardly blame me for admiring Richard D James from Aphex Twin. He once worked with Decap organs, so when the guys from Scheld’Apen asked me to put something together, I didn’t even think about turning them down.”
Andrew wasn’t surprised that a new wave collective like Scheld’Apen would pick up an instrument with such a profound folklorish character. “These kind of organs extract digitally produced music back into the genuine acoustic and out of the purely virtual. Once again, it’s a physical experience in which a drum, though programmed, will cause a snare to vibrate, thus combining the advantages of computer-based music and instrumental performances: until now, I haven’t met a single drummer who can handle a 1/64 tone on 300 bpm. These machines can!”
According to Andrew, acoustic musicians and electronic producers have constantly interacted and influenced one another in the creative process. “Progressive jazz drummers embraced elements out of the rising drum ‘n’ bass genre, and for a few years, even R&B is produced almost entirely electronically. When a mechanised, but still acoustic, instrument like a Decap organ performs a computer-programmed arrangement, I see a full circle completed. It’s time we bring our computers to life!”