Eivind Groven's Pure-tuned Organ

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        Norwegian composer and ethnomusicologist Eivind Groven (1901-1977) spent much of his life's work striving to bridge the gap between his native folk music and Western classical music.  His most noticeable accomplishment in this regard was the construction of a 36-tone pipe organ which can automatically adjust the tuning dynamically during performance.  The tuning system used in Groven's organ is based upon just intonation, in which major and minor triads are tuned to acoustically pure thirds and fifths.  Groven's organ uses a standard keyboard manual to which each individual key can be connected to one of three possible pipes each tuned to a slightly different frequency.  Of the organ's two modes of operation--fixed and dynamic tuning--the former was intended primarily for playing arrangements of traditional Norwegian folk music, and the latter for Western tonal art music. Groven built three such organs, the first of which was completed in 1936. 

Inspired by the phone company, Groven built his first tuning device using automatic telephone switchboard relays which, in essence, routed calls from the organ manual to the bank of pipes. In the 1960's, the closet-sized switchboard interface was replaced by a smaller device using electronic transistors, built by Bjørn Raad at the Central Institute for Industrial Research, Oslo, Norway. This interface remained operational for many years and served both the pipe organ and 36-tone electronic organ built in 1965. These organs, along with a 43-tone electronic organ (built in 1965, but no longer in operation), are housed at the Eivind Groven Institute for Just Intonation (EGI) on the outskirts of Oslo, Norway. Unfortunately, the 1960s interface is no longer fully functional, severely limiting the use of the organ for public performances or recordings. The last recording made on the organ was in 1985 and there have been only limited performances with it since that time.


The current project being undertaken by the Eivind Groven Institute, together with NoTAM (Norwegian network for Technology, Acoustics, and Music), is to replace the old electronic interface with a computer-operated system, the design of which I conceived. The electronic relays for each individual organ pipe will be reconnected to a custom-made MIDI-controlled device. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a standardized computer language which allows electronic instruments and computers to exchange musical performance data. With the MIDI interface installed, it will be possible to manage and operate the organ pipes with a computer program in place of the old hard-wired, transistor tuning device. The software will be modeled after that which I developed and presently use for the Groven Piano, described in detail in my article "Groven.Max: An Adaptive Tuning System for MIDI Pianos." The Groven Piano, which premiered in Norway as part of the Groven Centennial in 2001, is a digital network of acoustic pianos in which a master input piano controls the actions of three specially tuned output pianos via a computer MIDI-interface. (Pictures and recordings of the Groven Piano can be found on my web site: http://www.wmich.edu/mus-theo/groven.) Similar to a pipe organ, this network functions as a single instrument with the combined resources of all the pianos available to the pianist from a single keyboard with MIDI output capability. Such a keyboard will also be used to replace the present organ manual. The computer software linking the keyboard with the organ pipes acts as a kind of artificial intelligence, deciding contextually how best to tune a passage and re-routing the music being played by the organist to the appropriately tuned pipes. This feature triples the pitch palette of the organ, allowing for more subtle nuances of pitch akin to that experienced by a string quartet or an a cappella vocal ensemble. With the computerized system in place, the organ will once again be restored to its original function and be capable of changing tuning in real-time during performance.


The new software-based control will do much more then merely replicate the actions of Groven's original hardware, it will allow for new experimentation and expansion of the organ's capabilities. Groven himself constantly revised and refined his system, experimenting with both different scales (e.g., a 43-tone just scale) and different tuning criteria. Each change necessitated physically rewiring the hardware and consequently displacing the previous system. Before his death, Groven left plans for an alternate tuning-logic which was never implemented. With my new computer program, it will be possible to test this and other new tuning strategies and permit performers to choose from among these multiple systems of interactive performance.

The use of a MIDI-controlled system also allows for new modes of performance and recording. A live performance by an organist can be captured and saved as a MIDI data file. This MIDI file can later be played by the computer software alone (without the keyboard) to recreate the same acoustic performance with the organ. I plan to create a digital archive of performances of works by Groven and other composers for the organ. These MIDI performances can be used for demonstrations for visitors to EGI's organ house and can assist the Institute in producing future audio recordings. Likewise, the transference of Groven's compositions (many available only as unpublished manuscripts) to a digital format will be a tremendous asset for scholarly research. I also plan to translate some of Groven's theoretical writings into English for this purpose.

In building his original organ, Groven, unfortunately, only had sufficient funds for a single set of pipes, and thus the organ has only one timbre, or tone quality. Most large church organs, for example, have multiple sets of pipes to produce a wide variety of different sound colors. However, with the proposed computerized system, it will be possible to expand the number of timbres by mixing sampled organ sounds stored in the computer together with the acoustic pipes. This would also create, in essence, an electronic organ which could be performed independent of the pipe organ. In other words, the synthesizer, computer, and software could be used as a stand-alone system which could be transported to other concert venues outside of the organ house and allow Groven's work to reach a much larger audience.

As described above, Groven originally conceived of his organ system as a kind of local telephone network between the keyboard and pipes. By incorporating the technology I have developed from my inter/Play research project, the organ can now become part of the global network of the internet. (In addition to the renovation project, NoTAM is also a research collaborator for inter/Play.) Organists from around the world could perform on remote MIDI keyboards and be heard live by audiences at EGI's organ house. Likewise, organists in Norway could have their performance transmitted over the internet to be simultaneously realized by a MIDI instrument at another location. In particular, I wish to establish a lasting reciprocal connection-both online and institutionally-between the Groven Institute's pure-tuned organ and Western Michigan University's Groven Piano.

From telephone relays, to transistors, and now to computer software and hardware, the organ has been in a state of evolution. The history of Groven's pure-tuned organ has always been one of experimentation and innovation; utilizing the most recent technology of the day in the service of a musical and aesthetic vision.

About Groven * Organhouse * Keyboard Dilemma * 36-tone Just Scale * Dynamic Tuning * Fixed Scales * Groven Piano Project