The Great Fake Organ: An Interview With Robert Piotrowicz

Ahead of a performance at the ninth Sanatorium Of Sound, Jakub Knera speaks with Robert Piotrowicz about how he created the sound of organs using a modular synthesiser and his creation of ‘fake folk’ music

Photo by Igor Krenz

The organ sounds heavy. Successive waves of sound flow over each other and stratify. One can feel as if they are out of tune; the instrument sounds fragmented. Recurring chord repetitions build up a suffocating atmosphere. The sinking into the weight of the resounding noise seems endless. 


As the first track of the new Robert Piotrowicz album Afterlife, ends, the dense and heavy melody sounds like the organ is falling apart. Their sacred sublimity is absent. It recalls the records by Kali Malone, Sarah Davachi, or Phill Niblock. The snag, however, is that Piotrowicz leads us astray because he did not use the organ at all in making this album – these organs are fakes. "It’s an entirely fictional organ, it’s impossible to play the album’s content on regular organ pipe because the instrument would have to be entirely re-tuned," says the Polish composer. So instead of the organ, he created Afterlife on a modular synthesizer that he has been playing for nearly two decades, reconfiguring the electronic sound to give the impression of acoustic instruments. 

Although the composition has been executed with digital sources only, Piotrowicz spent much time minimizing the synths and electronic makeup. He evokes connotations to folk and fictional organs, doing it backward – as if entering the auditorium against the rules of logic. "You know, in a large pipe organ, in its physical architecture, there is sometimes an entrance to the backstage of the instrument," the musician jokes. In Afterlife, he’s generating just such a speculative story, playing with the sense of proximity to the imagined organ.


This new album, released by Penultimate Press, is an exploration of sound modeling and sound manipulation. The result is a bold and dramatic shimmering mass of music. "I’ve always been interested in microtonal tunings," he admits. "While working on Afterlife, I programmed selected instruments in a way that allowed me to apply third-tone intervals." This solution led to serendipitous melodic outcomes, which would have sounded sentimental on a traditional scale. Meanwhile, the sound is raw, the harmonic range is entirely different, and a third bottom is hatched. The timbre is significant; "Much of my energy was devoted to cleansing the composition from any electromechanical sound, even if that was the source of the sound," he adds.


‘Noumen’ can resemble heavy guitar strokes, the music melts away, and the fake-organs sound synthetic at times as if they have started to be played by artificial intelligence on their own. On another level, it can resemble an abstract accordion orchestra that builds up by playing polyphonically and microtonal. Part of the track sounds like someone is playing a wind instrument, which evokes associations with Wojciech Rusin, the Polish composer who uses 3D printed pipes, as heard on the album Syphon.

The imagined organ follows on from Piotrowicz’ experimentation across his previous albums. The precise Lincoln Sea was based solely on a modular synthesizer, but was reminiscent of heavy guitar music. On When Snakeboy Is Dying

, he combined the modular with guitar, piano, and vibraphone for a record of surprising tranquillity. Walserfeels like a sound sculpture, where double bass, piano, percussion, and various objects make up the rich sonic fabric of what was originally a soundtrack for Zbigniew Libera’s film of the same title). In 2002 he co-founded the Musica Genera Festival, which lasted for nearly a decade, and the Musica Genera label. In addition to his solo albums, he collaborated with C. Spencer Yeh, Kevin Drumm, Jérôme Noetinger, and Burkhard Stangle.


Throughout his live performances up until now, Piotrowicz has played and modulated his sounds as an improvisation, controlling everything with MIDI message signals. "For over a decade, I had to articulate manually most of the sounds I played live due to the synthesizer with a specific algorithm setup. Now, essentially, I write a composition on the computer, and using MIDI, it becomes a base for my live shows. I used these techniques before, however, never for concerts."


The fake organ leads to fake folk, an idea also present in Piotrowicz’s records. I first heard his music on an EP, Rurokura And Eastern European Folk Music Research Volume 2 from 2009, which sounded like psychedelically processed folk recordings from Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the whole thing was one big mystification: it contained fictional songs with traditional music and subtly referred to the violence experienced by the communities living east of the Oder River. This fooled many people, yet it had already given clues in the track titles like ‘School Girl Band Of Gromovaya Balka (Performed On the 10th Anniversary Of The Death Of Emil Cioran)’.


"Having worked for many years in theatre, radio plays, or film, I have developed ways of deploying fictional context to the music. It might be a story, a fact, or a reflection on a non-existing book or person," says Piotrowicz. This was the case with Walser, where successive tracks describe the rituals of the fictional Contehela tribe, stimulating the imagination while listening. On Afterlife, the starting point is electronic music, and the result is something like fake-folk, a dark and heavy tale for today, as it fits into Europe’s pandemic and war landscape. 


Piotrowicz likes to use abstraction. The last track on the new record, ‘Afterlife’, is an eighteen-minute track where stratified, psychedelic organs drone toward a hellish depth. The intensity can be overwhelming, but it also brings a certain catharsis – compared to its predecessors, the new record doesn’t rely on tension, making the highly intense music difficult to digest again. 


"I have never really been interested in being determined or limited by the sounds of the instruments I want to use. I mostly design records to avoid a simplistic sound association, straightforward sound images, or culture codes overtly rooted in music," he says. The musician realised some of that approach in Afterlife: the sound image is less electronic and mechanical, allowing him to exit the domain associated with music made on synthesizers, in this case, modular synths.

Nowadays, his aesthetic refers more and more to this fictional premise, music related to the region’s experience, unfortunately mainly to the experience of violence. As he says, Afterlife is a proposal to consider the world in which history is at a halt but where time does not stop. Nothing brings changes, and nothing impacts the state of things. On the one hand, it is eternity; on the other liberation or curse. "The medium of music is so enticing that it is an extraordinary experience to take the listener to a completely implausible story or state, and one does not need melodrama for any of this," says Piotrowicz. "I remain convinced that the abstract form has great potential. You are facing the real and tangible thing, which is sound. Its physicality and how it envelops you take you to another spatiotemporal reality. It’s the opposite of mundanity of everyday life; it’s a festive place."

Robert Piotrowicz’s new album Afterlife is out now via Penultimate Press. He performs at Sanatorium of Sound Festival in Sokołowsko, Poland, which takes place from 11 to 13 August. For full information and tickets, click here


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