The purpose of organon is to provide explanatory materials for contemporary organ music, specifically for composers. These materials include texts, images, short video tutorials, concert recordings, as well as a list of works.

The video tutorials demonstrate the general structure and operation of the organ as well as general playing techniques. Contemporary playing techniques are demonstrated and explained in greater depth.

Alyssa Aska, Klaus Lang, Pablo Abelardo Mariña Montalvo, Martin Ritter

 

Special Thanks to:

KUG

Stadt Graz


 

The large pipe organs we are familiar with today are the result of hundreds of years of gradual development. While evidence suggests the earliest organ ancestor would appear in the 3rd century B.C.E., some earlier instruments had features resembling parts of the later developed organs. One of the earliest such instruments was a type of pan flute called the Syrinx, which dates back to at least the 6th century B.C.E., and appeared in the writings of scholars such as Plato. The Syrinx consisted of a series of flutes connected and tuned to different pitches.

There is also evidence of bagpipes being used in ancient Greece by connecting compressed air bags to the aulos. These two features: multiple flutes in different tunings being connected to form one instrument, and the use of compressed air to produce a sustained tone, were then used in conjunction to form the first organs.

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The first instrument for which we have documentation that is a predecessor of our modern organs was called the hydraulis, which first appeared in the 3rd century B.C.E. The invention of the hyrdaulis was attributed to Ctesibius of Alexandria. Ctesibius lived in Egypt during the reign of the Ptolemies, an era which was known for its advanced hydraulic engineering. The hydraulis consisted of a series of connected pipes, much like the Syrinx, but with a wind supply that was maintained through water pressure.

 

We have evidence for organs in the 2nd century B.C.E. using leather bags filled with compressed air to produce sound. Interest in the organ had grown substantially by the 1st century B.C.E., and there were even staged competitive events for organ playing. Organs were often used in theatrical performances due to their ability to project sound throughout the large and noisy environment.

The organ was particularly prominent in the Roman Empire, with Emperor Nero taking a special interest in the instrument. Spectacles and events such as gladiatorial games often included music, mostly performed on instruments capable of carrying throughout the large colosseums such as horns and organs. Organs continued to be used in Constantinople as an Imperial instrument even after the fall of the Western part of the Empire.

 

 

We often associate organ with Catholic and Protestant churches although the organ was initially used in other contexts. It was never used as a church instrument in the Eastern Roman Empire, in fact there are no organs in Orthodox churches because instrumental church music was forbidden by the Orthodox faith. The organ had all but vanished from the Western half of the empire until the year 757, when Pepin the Short, a Frankish king, received an organ as a gift from Emperor Constantine V. It is speculated that this gift was an attempt to gain favour from Pepin in support of Constantine's iconoclast position. Pepin's son, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), was impressed by the organ and requested one for the Palatine Chapel in Aachen in 812.

By this time, bellows systems for the organ had been developed. It was this organ design that would be seen by several priests and other clergy, including the renowned monk Notker Balbulus. These clergy were able to study the organ and document it, which allowed for further re-building. Although the organ is considered by many to be a church instrument today, instrumental music was initially banned from early Christian churches. It has been surmised that the organ could have been considered especially unsuitable for religious environments as it essentially consists of collections of many aulos’, an instrument that was synonymous with excess and lust. During the later Eastern Empire, the organ became and Imperial instrument, reserved for Emperors. This Imperial prestige of the instrument and the close connection between kings and clergy helped to introduce it to the church.

Many churches had organs by the turn of the millennium due to the fact that clergy and monks had the most access to and resulting knowledge about organs. The clergy also recognised the great potential of the organ for teaching music.

 

 

Organs were widespread in churches in Western Europe by the 14th century, and these organs began to develop into instruments that resemble ones we use today. Most of these developments were made between the 14th and 17th centuries. More and more stops were added of different sound colours, often to imitate other instruments, including stops with names such as Krummhorn or Viola da Gamba. The ranges of the stops also expanded. There began to be differences in design in the organs of different nations, not only with timbre and visual appearance, but also with tuning. Organs in France were tuned to an A up to around 60 hz lower than that of the organs in Germany, for example. This time period also would see the addition of the organ pedal. All of these developments enhanced the versatility and musical possibilities of the organ.

One of the most profound developments was that of the organ keyboards. Earlier keyboards did not allow for as much versatility in performance, especially as the original role of the organ was primarily that of accompaniment. The development of the keyboard would result in more virtuosic performance possibilities. Even the pedal developed in such a way that intricate and complicated pedal passages could be played. Therefore, in the 16th century we see the rise of the organist-composer, with figures such as Girolamo Frescobaldi and Jan Sweelinck being prominent. Keyboard music grew in importance during this time and along with it. Later, German composer-performers such as Buxtehude, Bruhns, and Reincken would serve as predecessors to Johann Sebastian Bach, who would be monumental in the development of organ and keyboard music. A substantial library of organ music developed during this period.

During the classical period, the organ did not undergo any development, as the piano was the preferred keyboard instrument for concert music due to its more versatile dynamic capabilities. Instead, the next developments in organ design would take place during the Romantic period, when the potential for the organ as an orchestral or symphonic instrument was realised. There was also a change in the ideal of organ sound during this time. While distinct stops and timbral differences were ideal during the Baroque period, the desired sound during the Romantic period was a homogenous but full sound. During the 19th century, organs were built with even more stops of increasing range and with the possibility to play grandiose orchestral swells. Importantly, organs were installed in large concert halls, cementing their role as a concert music instrument. Composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns and Max Reger composed large-scale works for organ that even incorporated orchestra. Even Gustav Mahler composed an orchestral work that used the organ. Later, Olivier Messiaen and others expanded the possibilities of the organ through the exploration of colour and harmony. 

Technological advancements in the 20th century allowed for even more developments to be made on the organ. Electric and later Electronic stop action became possible - prior to this all stops had to be pushed and pulled manually. This electric stop action made the changing between complex stop combinations more fluid and faster. The development and implementation of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) protocol increased the possibilities even further, allowing for the storage and recall of stop combinations and the automatic playing of keys. Pipes could even be replaced with digital playback systems, and such systems were often favoured due to a lower price point. Some organs were hybrid, with some digital pipes and some manual. Creators of digital organs put extreme care into making the instrument sound as realistic as possible, and such organs had sounds based on sampling technology.

Alongside these technological developments, there were several movements during the 20th century to restore old organs, organ-building practice, and performance practice. The Organ Reform Movement desired to build organs based on historical models, specifically those that replicated the clarity in polyphonic music of the Baroque era, and the distinction between voices that had been abandoned as an objective during the Romantic period. Such historical modelled organs also allow for newer and extended techniques. While electronic organs are convenient and allowed for certain unique sound possibilities, some things are not possible on these instruments, such as half-drawing stops. During the second half of the twentieth century, composers explored the possibilities of the organ as a versatile solo instrument capable of producing a multitude of timbres, among them György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis. However, the potential of the organ as a contemporary instrument, even in the 21st century, has not been fully realised. Still, several composers have been exploring the possibilities of the organ in the 21st century, with the organ beginning to reclaim its rightful place in art music.

 

The organ does not exist as an instrument like the piano or the violin. There is not a fixed plan how to build an organ. The organ is more like a variable concept that can be actualised or realised in many different forms.

Organs are like a big family with more or less strong family resemblances but rarely two members of the family look precisely the same.

How can we define and describe the underlying basic concept?

The organ is a mechanical wind instrument. As every wind instrument it has three components:

  1.  a part that produces air pressure (the human lunges or bellows) and
  2.  a part that puts air molecules into oscillating movements and thereby produces sound waves (reeds or labia).
  3. a connection between 1 and 2

How are these components constructed in an organ?

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Air pressure in organs is produced mechanically using pumping devices, bellows, and weights.

Unlike flutes or oboes or accordions the main idea of the bellows-machinery is to produce air pressure that is as stable as possible. In organs, like in bagpipes, the air pressure or wind is traditionally not used as a means of musical expression and is not meant to be manipulated by the organist while playing.

 

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The part of the organ that produces sound waves is generally a set of pipes made of different materials.

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In some wind instruments, the interface used in order to produce different pitches from only one tube is part of or attached directly to the tube (holes and /or keys). In other types of wind instruments, pitch changes are produced through lips and embouchure etc.

Unlike wind instruments, each organ pipe produces only one pitch. The organ-human interfaces are therefore not devices for manipulating a single tube but are tools for connecting the pressurised air to the pipes that are selected by the player to produce a specific sound structure. These interfaces are the keyboard(s), the pedalboard and the stops.

 

The smallest possible organ consists of one keyboard (also referred to as „manual“), one rank of pipes and bellows. Organs can be enlarged:

  1.  by adding more ranks of pipes that are controlled through one keyboard. 
  2. by adding another keyboard or pedalboard.

Adding another keyboard / pedalboard is actually like adding another additional organ. Each keyboard / pedalboard is a complete organ / instrument by itself. Large organs with many manuals are multiple organs that can be controlled from one common console. These manuals are referred to with specific names that vary geographically and also depend on the time period in which they were constructed. Very often they have a hierarchical structure with one main manual (in german „Hauptwerk“ or in french „grand orgue“) and various other manuals. The pipes that belong to one keyboard are also located in a specific section of the instrument as a whole. e.g.: some organs have a „rückpositiv“: this is a separate box full of pipes that is located to the back of the organist but that is still controlled from one of the manuals of the main console.

 

There are two different sets of interfaces that control different parameters of sound.

 

 

Every organ has on the one hand manuals and pedals:

 

and on the the other hand stops:

 

One needs to pull out at least one stop and press at least one key at the same time in order to hear a sound from the organ.

 

 

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Through keyboards and the pedalboard pitches are selected and (potentially endlessly) sustained. The key will produce a stable sound as long as you keep it pressed. Organ keyboards are not touch sensitive (different dynamic levels are produced through changes in stops and swells) and they are usually built in a way that keys respond to a very light pressure. All the playing can be done with minimal movements from your fingers only. You do not use the weight of your hand, and you do not need to bring it to bear to play large chords very loud. The loudest and heaviest chord can be played with exactly the same movement as the softest and most ethereal sounds.

 

 

Traditionally, the pedalboard was played with the tip of your feet only. In the late nineteenth century, a playing technique was established that used both the tip and the heel of the feet. Even though with this technique it is possible to play scales or fragments of scales more easily, it is still important to understand that the most common way to play the pedal is to always alternate between right and left foot, comparable to playing a percussion instrument like vibraphone with a mallet in each hand.

 

The different timbres and pitch levels are selected with the stops. Pipes with the same timbre are equally built and placed in a series from low to high. Such a series of similar pipes is called: a rank. Pulling a stop means to ready a whole rank of pipes. The choice of ranks also influences the dynamics: different ranks have different dynamics and of course the more stops you pull, the louder the sound will become.

 

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Organs also contain tremulants. The tremulant is used to create a tremolo effect on the organ. It is a mechanical device, which periodically interrupts or varies the wind supply to the pipes causing their amplitude to fluctuate regularly.

 

Another way of controlling dynamics is the so called „swell“. As explained above: larger organs consist of several independent organs that are controlled through one common console. Pipes that are controlled from one keyboard can be placed in one section or form a segment or separate box of the organ as a whole. These separated boxes full of pipes are sometimes built in a way that these boxes have doors / blinds (swell shades)  that can be opened or closed by the organist using a swell-pedal. Opening or closing these boxes gradually while playing produces a crescendo or decrescendo.

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The wind produced by the bellows is let to the pipes via a system of tubes to windchests  (= wooden boxes containing and storing the wind (pressurised air)) on top of which the pipes are positioned.

 

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Pulling a stop or pressing a key means opening valves in order to direct the wind into a pipe or a group of pipes. If you pull a stop, the windchest underneath a rank of pipes will open.

If you press a key, all of the valves of all the pipes of the pitch belonging to the key will open.

It is very important and needs to be emphasised:

Different organ types use different ways of connecting the pipes with the stops and keyboards / pedal i.e. of opening or closing valves.

The connection between the keyboard and the stops can be either mechanical (wooden rods), or pneumatical (using wind pressure) or electrical (using electric current and cables). Obviously these different modes of connection result in different possibilities of influencing the actual sound.

Until the second half of the 19th century, only wooden rods called trackers were used to make these connections. New organs built in the last decades tend to be mechanical. Very often, one can find a combination of mechanical keyboards with electrical stop action. The advantage of mechanical trackers is that the player has a very precise control over the way and speed of the opening of the valves allowing the player to open them only partially or gradually and thereby to influence the quality of the sound. This is not possible with pneumatical or electrical actions, they offer only two choices: off or on. Whenever you write for an organ, you have to decide in which way you want to use the organ depending on how specific to a certain type of organ or even a specific instrument the piece should be.

 

  1. labial or flute pipe:

 

wind is directed against a sharp lip (=labium), causing the air column inside the pipe to oscillate. (Like a recorder)

 

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2. reed pipes:

vibrating reeds cause the air column inside the pipe to oscillate. (like a clarinet or saxophone)

 

 

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These two "clans" (reeds + labial pipes) are subdivided into smaller families of pipes.

Flutes, Diapason / Principals, Strings, trumpets, oboes, .…

Each family consists of many variations of the general type. They differ in material, diameter, form etc.

 

E.g.: The „family“ of flutes belongs to the „clan“ of labial pipes. Nevertheless, within the family of flutes, there are again different individual members with their special sound characteristics that are described or expressed in the name of the rank that is shown on the stop. A  „Blockflöte“ sounds very different from a „Gedackt“ even though they are both flutes.

 

In order to select a rank of pipes, you pull a stop on which the name of the type of pipe is written. e.g.: „flute“ or „oboe“.

If you press one key and pull one stop one pipe will be activated. If you press one key and pull two stops, two different pipes will be activated, etc. On large instruments, pressing only one key or pedal can activate dozens of pipes.

In scores, some composers indicate the precise name of the stop they expect you to use, some give only the family names (e.g.: „reeds“). In early music, there are often no indications because there were clear conventions regarding the type of sounds to be used for specific musical forms.

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Organ stops are also distinguished by different pitch levels, which are indicated on the stop next to the name of the pipe. The pitch levels are given in „feet“.

They indicate the length of the lowest pipe of the rank chosen: A pipe with the length of 8‘ (= "eight-foot" = 2.5 m) produces the pitch of approximately the „C“ two octaves below the middle C. (=lowest string on the cello).

 


Examples:

When you pull an 8‘ stop and press the lowest key on the keyboard, a pipe with the length of approx. 8‘ will sound and the pitch produced will have approx. 132Hz.(=lowest string on the cello)

When you pull an 4‘ stop and press the lowest key on the keyboard, a pipe with the length of approx. 4‘ will sound and the pitch produced will have approx. 264Hz.(=lowest string on the viola)

When you pull an 16‘ stop and press the lowest key on the keyboard, a pipe with the length of approx. 16‘ will sound and the pitch produced will have approx. 66Hz.(=lowest string on the double bass)

Stops can range from 64‘ to 1‘.

Special types of stops will not produce octaves of the pressed key but other intervals like fifths or thirds. They are indicated with fractions: 2/3 = fifth, 3/5 = third  etc.

Notation for organ works like notating for transposing instruments. In the score, the keys that have to be played are notated. Additionally, you can indicate the pitch level in feet.

 

 

 

e.g.: When a notated „d“ above the middle „c“ is played simultaneously by a piccolo flute and by a bass flute the resulting interval will be a double octave. The same double octave will sound on an organ if you press the „d“ above the middle „c“ and pull a 16‘ and a 4‘ stop.

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Special types of stops are called „mixtures“. If you pull one stop, several ranks (usually octaves and fifths) of pipes are activated. If you press one key and pull just one „mixture“ stop, several pipes will sound. The Roman numeral next to the name will indicate the number of ranks. e.g.: „mixture IV“ means that 4 ranks are used. 

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Couplers are devices that connect the different manuals and pedal of an instrument.

When you press a key on one manual the same key on the coupled manual is mechanically connected and will therefore also be pulled down.

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Sometimes composers want fast changes of stops within one piece. The easiest way to do this is of course to change the manuals. But often, this is not enough and you need to change the stop combinations (registrations) while playing. In order to do that, you very often need an assistant. Another option is offered by a so-called „combination action“. With the help of this device, the organist can save stop-combinations and easily change these combinations with just one tap on a button (piston).

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Pulling out and pushing in a stop to generate pitch glissandi and transitions between noise and tone.

 

Examples:

  • principal

    principal

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  • flute

    flute

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  • reeds

    reeds

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  • other

    other

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Pressing and releasing a key to generate pitch glissandi and transitions between noise and tone.

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Removing the weights on the bellows to destabilize the wind pressure.

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Reeds can be retuned quite easily and fast. But take into consideration that especially in large organs they can be very hard to reach inside the instrument.

 

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Various materials can be placed in front the pipe to manipulate the air flow and change the sound of the pipe.

 

Never touch the pipe or the labium but bring preparations close to the pipe!

 

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You can use wedges or weights to fix keys.

 

  • Demo 1

    Demo 1

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  • Demo 2

    Demo 2

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  • Improv 1

    Improv 1

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Regarding notation, there is no fixed standard in any respect. The most common notation for organ nowadays is using three staves:

Two for the hands and one for the feet. 


 

As mentioned above, the organ is a transposing instrument: Therefore, in the score, the keys and pedals that have to be pressed are notated in musical notation.

Usually all the other necessary information regarding the manuals to be used, the stops and pitch levels, etc. are indicated verbally with written text.

The main difficulty in notating for organ is that organs are very different in every aspect (tuning, range, timbre, from mechanical action to midified keyboard etc. ) from each other and most importantly, are placed in very different spaces. Unlike other instruments, the organ has no resonating corpus, no soundboard, which means that the space where the organ is situated plays an extremely important role in the actual quality of the organ sound.

This leaves you as a composer with two extreme options: either you take one specific instrument that you know very well and write in the score exactly how you use this instrument. This gives the organist the chance to imagine what you wanted and recreate a similar sound structure with the organ at hand.

The other extreme option is to leave it completely to the organist to find a sound for your structure.

In each piece you can then decide if you tend either to one or the other extreme or define your middle ground.

eg.: Instead of notating

Rückpositiv: Krummhorn 8‘+ Hauptwerk: Waldflöte 2'

you could notate

Manual 1: reed 8‘, Manual 2: flute 2‘

For the notation of non-traditional playing techniques there is no standard notation. That is why here follows a series of examples from different pieces showing various sound structures and their notations.

 

 

At the beginning, Messiean defines the exact registration for each manual.

The manual names are given with the following abbreviations: R = „recit“, Pos = „positiv“, G = „grande orgue“, and Ped = „pedal“.

Messiaen defines the registration for three different manuals, but not all organs will have three manuals.

R: „cymbal 3 rangs“ indicates that the cymbal 3 rangs (a mixture with 3 ranks)

stop should be pulled for the (a mixture with 3 ranks)

Ped: „tirasse R“ means that the „recit“ should be coupled to the pedals.

In the first bar, the notes in the uppermost stave are played on the grande orgue (indication „G“) with the right hand, the notes in the second stave are played on the „positiv“ (indication „Pos.“) with the left hand.

The lowest stave is for the pedals. Messiean even notates the fingerings for hands and feet. They clearly show that he wants everything to be played „legato“ (as indicated). The first note „bb“in the pedals is played with the tip of the right foot, the following appoggiatura „a“ is played with the heel of the right foot, the „f#“ with tip of the left foot, etc.

The way the pedal is used is very idiomatic and in line with the physiognomy of the foot: A sequence of high black key and lower white key fits perfectly the foot especially when wearing a shoe with a little higher heel. The fast appoggiatura and all the fast movements in the pedals are always alternating left foot – right foot sequences.

Olivier Messiaen – livre d‘orgue II

 

Sometimes composers choose to notate the material using a separate staff for each manual.

How a composer notates this will depend on the material and what is the most effective to convey the information to the performer.

Alyssa Aska – stagnation.transmutation
  • Stagnation.transmutation (2019) - for E-organ

    Stagnation.transmutation (2019) - for E-organ

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In this example, the composer provides most of the registration details in the performance notes:

Klaus Lang – Das kaum wahrnehmbare Lächeln Dostojewskis
Klaus Lang – Das kaum wahrnehmbare Lächeln Dostojewskis

Written above in German, the composer explains that the piece should use one manual with the quietest 8’ stop, and one manual with the quietest 4’ stop. The piece also MUST be performed on an organ with mechanical stop action. The piece uses partially drawn stops, an effect which is not possible on other non-mechanical organs. Different stop positions are explained in the instructions from 0-2, with 0 being completely closed, 1 is only open enough to produce noise sounds, and 2 open enough so that there is an extremely quiet tone, and some overtone and noise audible.

  • "Das kaum wahrnehmbare Lächeln Dostojewskis" for Organ and Female Voice

    "Das kaum wahrnehmbare Lächeln Dostojewskis" for Organ and Female Voice

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This example demonstrates another way to notate stop action.

The organ is to be played in two ways:

A.

The two stops are gradually moved while playing, these movements are notated verbally.

 e.g.:

8': 0%tone 0%air -> 50%tone 50%air

means that the 8' foot stop should be pulled out gradually and slowly until the sound consists of half tone and

half air.

Klaus Lang – dunkle schwäne

 

This example shows a number of things already seen above (i.e. fixed notes, text indications) but adds:

  1. turning motor on/off for special effects
  2. text indication for the duration of the system

 

 

Next an example for changing fixed keys:

  • Saturate

    Saturate

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Playlist Electronic Organ Concert, February 2022, Graz, Austria

Listen here 

 

All pieces were created specifically for the electronic Rodgers Organ at Institute 6, University of Music and Performing Arts Graz.

 

 

 

Concert Program

 

 

  • Boris Filanovsky

    Boris Filanovsky

    Infinite Superposition #3, iteration 1

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  • Alyssa Aska

    Alyssa Aska

    every star. every planet.

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  • Martin Ritter

    Martin Ritter

    Nexus II - various tunings

    • equal temperament

      equal temperament

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    • mean tone temperament

      mean tone temperament

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    • pythagoren temperament

      pythagoren temperament

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    • switching temperaments

      switching temperaments

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    All pieces performed by Aleksey Vylegzhanin

    All pieces were recorded without audience due to current COVID-Restrictions.

  • Pablo Abelardo Marińa Montalvo

    Pablo Abelardo Marińa Montalvo

    d.b.a. no. 2

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