Programme The Enchanted Forest with flautist Martijn Alsters

There are more options, but basically the programme will be:

1. Invocation
2. Rotations
3. Wild energy
4. Thin air
5. Birds, Drums and Signals
6. Stillness
7. Listening to the fairies
8. In memoriam Claire Delbos
9. Terra ferma
10. Madonna of the sky
11. Visions
12. My friend the Indian


Update programme notes The Enchanted Desert

The Enchanted Desert, for organ, flute and percussion and including dance and performancewas premiered on June 30th, 2016 to celebrate the Schnitger Dream Prize awarded to Willem Tanke in 2015. 

The Enchanted Desert has a strong message, namely that creativity, spiritual force and imagination can transform negative energy into positive energy. This is represented by the metaphor of a barren desert turning into a flowering desert. Associative relations between sounds, images and titles of pieces replace a logical storyline. They leave impressions which may be different for everyone in the audience, but have a similar basic pattern or "blueprint" in the subconscious mind. Consequently, The Enchanted Desert has an archetypal quality that surpasses differences in cultural background, race and religion. The duration is about 60 minutes.

The following video shows fragments of the first performance, with Eliana Stragapede, dance; Martijn Alsters, flute; René van Commenée, performance and percussion; Friso van Wijck, percussion, and Willem Tanke, organ. Rick Kaijser made the choreography.

Photo by Guy Tal

The Enchanted Desert
programme notes by the composer

Part One

1. Intro consists of sparse, percussive sounds, produced by a wandering, enigmatic figure.

2. Stillness is originally a composition for organ solo, written in 1996. It expresses the emptiness of a desert; an emptiness that is nevertheless full of concentration.
 In January 2017, I had a vision that referred to my ancestors who during many centuries were labourers in the fields or peasants with a small piece of ground in Twente, a region in the east of Holland, bordering Germany: 

Springtime. At the end of a hard day’s work a farm worker is resting a while before going home. He is leaning against a tree, his face in the late afternoon sun and his thoughts nowhere. Suddenly and for a very short time he sees Eternity. Some years later it happens again and after that never more. But the longing for it encourages him during the rest of his life and strengthens him at the hour of death.

3. Listening to the fairies was written in 2003, also for organ solo. The mood is light, easy-going and cheerful, a quality which is almost impossible to find in contemporary classical music. The improvising flautist strengthens the feeling of joy.

Video Listening to the fairies (version Der Aa-kerk, Groningen, 2016)

4. Wild Energy is the last movement of Five Dances for organ, composed in 1997. It depicts forces of nature, such as a may be found in a thunder storm.

Video Wild Energy (version Der Aa-kerk, Groningen, 2016)

5. Terra Ferma is a composition for alto flute by Martijn Alsters. The high sound of a bowed cymbal suggests sizzling air on a hot day. The air vibrates above the solid ground, accompanied by strange sounds of the organ that increase the concentration.

Video Terra Ferma (version Der Aa-kerk, Groningen, 2016)

Part Two

6.The Loop Man # Ardha Jai Taal originated in 2016."The Loop Man" is a nickname which Mike Garson gave me because of the many rhythmic-melodic patterns which I composed for in particular the left hand. By frequent repetitions these patterns function as a "groove" or a "loop".They are particularly suitable for cross-overs between genres of music. The loop in this piece has 13 beats, following the example of Ardha Jai Taal, a rhythmic pattern from Indian music. 

Video The Loop Man (version Der Aa-kerk, Groningen, 2016)

7. Exaltation is like Wild Energy originally a movement from Five Dances for organ. The neo-Celtic melody came to me after watching a performance by Riverdance, an Irish dance group that was famous in the '90s.

Video Exaltation (version Der Aa-kerk, Groningen,2016)

8. Howling Sands is a title which spontaneously rose up when I made this piece in May 2016, after visiting the Der Aa-church in Groningen. When I entered it as a search term on Internet, I saw to my surprise that howling sands really exist. It is a natural sound phenomenon of up to 105 dBs, lasting as long as several minutes, that occurs in about thirty-five desert locations around the world, for instance the Mojave Desert in California.

Video Howling Sands (version Der Aa-kerk, Groningen, 2016)

9. Birds, drums and signals is the second movement of Three Light Pieces. Similar to Listening to the fairies a mood of naive, childlike joy can be recognized. The loop or groove (with a 13/8 time signature) is played by the right hand and accompanies an improvisation on the flute and a rather virtuoso part for the organist's left hand.

Video Birds, drums and signals (version Der Aa-kerk, Groningen, 2016)

10.Terra Incognita is in line with the title the freest movement of The Enchanted Desert. Its content depends on the circumstances of the location and the moment. In Groningen it resulted in an improvisation by percussionist-composer Friso van Wijck.

Video Terra Incognita (version Der Aa-kerk, Groningen, 2016)

Part Three

11. Grooving Angry Elephants originated in May 2016, when the magnificent trumpets of the Schnittger-organ in the Der Aa-church served as a source of inspiration. Before they sound there is a wild passage in octaves, played with a plenum of the positive. The 11/8 groove that follows, with the sound of the main organ reeds and played by the left hand, suggests the swaying back and forth of the elephant's trunk and its trumpeting. The improvising right hand expresses a feeling of rage and powerlessness. The title came to me after watching a video about hunted elephants on YouTube.

Video  Grooving Angry Elephants (version Der Aa-kerk, Groningen, 2016)

12. Madonna of the sky plays a key role in The Enchanted Desert. It refers to the Assumption of Maria, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, who was born as a Mohawk Indian, the unforgettable image of the Angel in Messiaen's opera Saint-François d'Assise in the Parisian performance in 2004 and symbols of fertility all over the world, like the bee.

Madonna of the sky suits the following passage from Valle-Inclán's novel The Flower of Sanctity very well:

"Adega, cuando iba al monte con las ovejas, tendíase a la sombra de grandes peñascales y pasaba así horas enteras, la mirada sumida en las nubes y en infantiles éxtasis el ánima. Esperaba llena de fe ingénua que la azul inmensidad se rasgase dejándole entrever la Gloria. Sin conciencia del tiempo, perdida en la niebla de este ensueño sentía pasar sobre su rosto el aliento encendido del milagro. ¡Y el milagro acaeció!…Un anochecer de verano Adega llegó a la venta jadeante, transfigurada la faz."

(fragmento de la novela Flor de Santidad de Ramon María del Valle-Inclán)

"When Adega went up to the mountain with her sheep, she would lay herself down in the shadow of large boulders and spend many hours there, her eyes fastened upon the clouds and her young soul in ecstasy. Full of naive faith she hoped that the immense blue would tear apart, letting her see the Glory. Unaware of time, and lost in the haze of this dream she felt the burning breath of the miracle pass her face. And the miracle happened!…One summer nightfall Adega arrived out of breath at the tavern, her face transfigured."
(fragment of the novel Flower of Sanctity by Ramon María del Valle-Inclán, translated by Peter Clark)

13. Mirage - Intensity - Vision brings the third and final climax, that surpasses the two before. The first part is based on an improvisation which I played to express a storm in Henk van Ulsen's performance Job in the '90s. It also appeared with the title Breakwave on my CD Imaginary Day. The second part originates in an improvisation from the mid '80s, when I was still studying with Jan Welmers at the conservatoire in Utrecht.

Video Mirage -Intensity - Vision (version Der Aa-kerk, Groningen, 2016)

14. My friend the Indian was originally written for a Yamaha SY99-synthesizer in 1996 and is dedicated to Rien Roggeveen and —in 2017— Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. The piece evokes an image of a desert that flourishes after heavy rainfall. An indian is sitting on the ground, looking quietly around him.

Photo by Guy Tal


The Cave of Forgotten Sounds with Indian musicians and Bennie Maupin

As it is rather doubtful if the following will succeed I removed it from my website.

I am actually working on an ensemble version of my organ solo project Olivier Messiaen and the Cave of Forgotten Sounds, with some of the most prominent Indian musicians and Bennie Maupin. This implies mastering the technique of playing an Indian rhythmic cycle with the left hand while improvising with the right and vice versa. In the improvisations I assimilate and transform numerous atonal bird songs by Olivier Messiaen which I have been internalizing since the early '80s (Messiaen was one of the greatest composers of 20th century Western classical music and used to imitate bird song in his compositions). Combined with numerous formulae from the church modes they leave an impression of modality as seen from the perspective of the 21st century, which is what I have been aiming at in the past few decades. 

The project is inspired by Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the prehistoric Chauvet cave in the Ardèche in the South of France, discovered in 1994. Besides prehistoric paintings on the walls an approximately 30.000 year old flute was shown, made of the bone of a vulture and tuned according to the pentatonic system which characterises modality throughout the ages and everywhere in the world. After watching the documentary I imagined a prehistoric flutist and Olivier Messiaen imitating a bird together, the flutist on his instrument and Messiaen while writing on music sheets. When the bird flies away, the flutist and Messiaen stop their work and look at each other with a smile of satisfaction and happiness. This image stimulated me to start the project and create new music that surpasses differences of cultural background, race and religion. 

The first movement establishes a spiritual atmosphere which suits the encounter of music from the East and and the West. Invocation, the beginning of the organ solo version of the project, will serve as a starting-point for a dialogue between raga Bhimpalasi, the notion of alap, Bennie Maupin's solo and my own modal style, derived from Gregorian chant with which I was raised. The organ solo version is:

Video: Invocation, version St. Stephen's Church, Nijmegen 2017

This will be followed by movements based on Indian rhythmic cycles, similar to the following:

N.B. The project is closely related to my research Dancing Bach on the Organ.  For many Western classical musicians, Bach interpretation is a process of lifelong learning that is at the very heart of their musicianship. My particular concern is to transfer the lightness and souplesse of performing with tabla masters to the interpretation of organ works by Bach. With the involvement of Messiaen's bird songs the result is what I experience as a perfect symbiosis between Bach, Messiaen and playing with Indian musicians and Bennie Maupin. 

Looking forward

I removed the following from my website, had enough of all that looking back and reflecting. From now on just looking forward. 

Tanke's musicianship can be understood knowing that as a teenager a favourite album of his was, besides Bach, Messiaen and Webern, Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. In addition he was overwhelmed by John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and intrigued by Frank Zappa's albums, Stockhausen's Aus den sieben Tagen, a recital with Indian classical music in his hometown Hengelo and pianist Cecil Taylor. 

For some decades Willem Tanke was puzzled by his musical identity, because he could not relate the nature of his own improvisations and compositions to being a Western classical organist and theorist. Only in the past few years he managed to overcome conventions of music life and integrate seemingly contradictory sides of his musicianship, knowing that they are essentially related and feeling that they make each other stronger. 


Visiting Bernard Jeunet in the Jura

During a visit to the Jura in France in the autumn of 2017 I had the following experience:

On October 16th, 2017, between seven and half past seven in the morning, it appeared to me that I met a shaman, who was as the same time Olivier Messiaen and My friend the Indian, according to a composition I wrote in 1996, shortly after my father died. The shaman had the following message: “abandon the ideal of playing the organ with as less movements as possible, as put into practice by Marcel Dupré, his student Olivier Messiaen and many others including yourself and introduce a dancing way of playing, to bring lightness into organ art. Identify with the instrument that you play and feel a spiritual unification. Be like a chameleon regarding the inmense variety of organs and other keyboard instruments.” One day later, the shaman c.q. Olivier Messiaen and My friend the Indian returned. This time he had a spiritual message: leave the strict, catholic context of Messiaen’s music and strive for a message which everyone, regardless of cultural background, race or religion, can understand.

This happened while I was practising on a keyboard without sound in a holiday home with a view to a lake, Lac Chalain, near Doucier in France, at about twenty kilometers of La Champagnole, where my wife and I would meet Bernard Jeunet later that week, who was a friend of Olivier Messiaen between 1972 and 1992, until the latter’s death in 1992. It was still half dark, the sun was rising.

With "My friend the Indian" I refer to a native American Indian, quietly seated somewhere in the Mojave desert, in a place where the energy of the archangel Michael can very well be felt."

Both the musical and the spiritual message refer to lightness, space and relaxation. This possibly represents Messiaen's afterlife, as his life on earth which made him a famous composer was evidently filled with internal conflicts.


Variations on "To God be the Glory", Lons-le-Saunier, with score

Between1998 and 2000 I was the organist of the African Choir of the Scots International Church, Rotterdam. During this period I learnt about 40 songs from Ghana and Cameroon. I was impressed by the swing, soulfulness and indestructible optimism with which members of the choir expressed their faith through their music. The choir performed W.H. Doane’s “To God be the Glory” in a particularly cheerful way.To remember this I composed a set of variations on this hymn in what —not without a twinkle in the eye—might be called “African baroque” style. The piece is typical of the 18th century in regard to harmony, voice leading, texture, ornamentation, fingering and registration. However, I
rhythmicized it in a way that would stimulate the choir to dance. The organ part may be supported by percussion, for instance a talking drum.The original melody can be sung before the variations.

It sounded very good on the Callinet-organ in Lons-le-Saunier (1842-1844).


Physical, mental and spiritual dialogue with Messiaen

Henk ten Holt wrote: "The musical dialogue between Messiaen and Tanke is a radical mental and spiritual experience which, at the same time, touches you very physically." Indeed I feel it that way. This is an example; the end of my project "Olivier Messiaen and the Cave of Forgotten Sounds".