As an improviser and a performing composer Willem Tanke has created a new musical language which brings together musicians with avant-jazz, avant-pop, Western classical and traditional African and Asian backgrounds. In a review on his CD Meditations for a lent  for American Record Guide, Ralph Blakely wrote: 

"This recording will be at the top of my critic's choice-list for the year. I believe it may be the most important recording I've reviewed for ARG. Tanke wrote that he intended to explore the direction music is heading in the 21st century. If that be so, I am excited about where it is going."

Since the '90s Willem Tanke has been acclaimed as one of the most prominent and virtuoso Messiaen and Reger interpreters of our time. Nowadays Bach interpretation is his main classical project. This is represented by his research Dancing Bach on the organ.

Tanke's musicianship can be understood knowing that as a teenager favourite albums of his were, besides Bach and Messiaen, Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters. In addition he was overwhelmed by John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and intrigued by Frank Zappa's and David Bowie's albums, Stockhausen's Aus den sieben Tagen, a concert with Indian classical music in his hometown Hengelo and last but not least the completely original musicianship of pianist Cecil Taylor. He wanted to become an organist not only because of Bach and Messiaen, but also because of these artists from other traditions.


Photo by Henk ten Holt

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 surpass conventions and infra-structures of music life, integrating these sides of his musicianship, knowing that they are essentially related and feeling that they make each other stronger. He hopes that this will serve as an example to younger generations to believe in substantial artistic and spiritual growth at an advanced age. 

To enrich his own modal language with atonal melodic lines and complex harmonies, he transforms and assimilates passages from organ works by Olivier Messiaen.This tends to appeal to avant-jazz and avant-pop musicians; there is a whole world to discover there. See also his research: Re-contextualizing Messiaen.

Two of Tanke's recent projects are Olivier Messiaen and the Cave of Forgotten Sounds  (organ solo) and The Enchanted Desert, for organ, flute, percussion and with dance and performance.

Willem Tanke teaches classical music theory at Codarts, University of the Arts, Rotterdam. His mission is in particular to connect students of the classical, world music, jazz and pop academies. For this purpose he initiated the course Soulful Grooves in the 21st Century. Very talented organ students can apply for a master degree under his guidance.

Willem Tanke maintains a blog: Some Thoughts on Playing the Organ