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The Enchanted Desert

The Enchanted Desert has a strong message: 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 are different for each listener/spectator, but have a similar basic pattern or "blueprint" in the subconscious mind. Consequently, The Enchanted Desert has an archetypal quality that surpasses differences of cultural background, race and religion. The duration is about 60 minutes.

The first performance took place in the Der Aa-church in Groningen on 30th June 2016, to celebrate the Schnitger Dream Prize awarded to Willem Tanke one year before. Here is a selection of fragments, performed by Eliana Stragapede, dance; Martijn Alsters, flute; René van Commenée, performance and percussion; Friso van Wijck, percussion, and Willem Tanke, organ. The choreography was made by Rik Kaijser.

The space of the church was used in a special manner, with the dancer in the centre of the nave, the flutist and first percussionist near the organ and the performance artist moving in all directions.

Background information

As a teacher, Willem Tanke wants to give his students the feeling that they are part of something rooted in history and bigger than any individual: a music tradition that is vital and moves forward with a soulful and positive message. As a classical organist, he is himself rooted in a tradition which dates back to the 9th century, when the organ became the instrument of Western church music. The origins of the organ can be traced back even further, to the water organ in in the 3rd century BC, an invention attributed to the Egyptian engineer Ctesibius. As a catholic, Willem Tanke has been raised with raised with Gregorian chant, which is often considered as the basis of Western classical music, beginning in the 9th century. Similar to the organ, the origins of Gregorian chant are much older and related to music traditions in North-Africa and the Middle East. Reflecting on the traditions of organ art and gregorian chant in this wider perspective and its relation with modality, also in music throughout the ages from East Asia and jazz since the 1960’s, Willem Tanke developed a helicopter view on music that is the basis of his project The Enchanted Desert

The Enchanted Desert has large contrasts and a rich variety of moods, such as stillness, childlike joy, rage and powerlessness, sensuality, intense drama and exaltation. In Madonna of the sky, the twelfth movement of The Enchanted Desert, a miracle takes place, which Willem Tanke relates to being miraculously saved from death in his own life. 

In 2017, Willem Tanke founded a new ensemble, called ROOT-C: Rotterdam Out Of Time Company , especially for performances of The Enchanted Desert. 

Photo by Guy Tal

The Enchanted Desert
program notes by the composer

Part One

1. Intro consists of sparse, percussive sounds, produced by a puzzling person who enters and explores the space.

2. Stillness is originally a composition for organ solo, written around 1998. As such, it was issued on the CDs Imaginary Day and Meditations for a lent. It lends itself well to playing with other instruments and cross-overs and actually there are versions for organ/piano and violin (Western classical, Greek and Turkish), flute (classical), electric guitar (pop), voice (pop and classical) and Ut (Turkish lute). Stillness is also on the repertoire of my avant-garde jazz trio Turnstone (saxophone, piano and drums). In The Enchanted Desert the version is for organ and hand percussion. The piece expresses emptiness of the 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 unfortunately hard to find in contemporary classical music. An improvisation for flute 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 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 that I wrote for in particular the left hand. By frequent repetitions these patterns function as a "groove" or "loop"; terms from jazz and pop music. They are particularly suitable for cross-overs between genres of music. The loop in this piece is 6.5 beats, following the example of Ardha Jai Taal, a rhythmic pattern from Indian music. With the members of Turnstone I have been practising this kind of patterns since a few years ago.

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, assembled in 2016. As with Listening to the fairies, there is a naive, childlike joy, similar to what I experienced with African musicians in the Scots International Church in Rotterdam, where I played the organ from 1998 till 2000. The loop or groove (with a 13/8 time signature) is now played by the right hand, as a basis for an improvisation on flute and a rather virtuoso part for the left hand.

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

10. Terra Incognita is an improvisation for one or more members of the ensemble.

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

Part Three

11. Grooving Angry Elephants originated in May 2016 and is the most recent piece. The magnificent trumpets of the 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 was found after watching a video of 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 is based on a piano fragment which I played with Mike Garson in the television program Vrije Geluiden (Free Sounds) in 2007 on the one hand and the organ piece Queen of the sky in the same year, dedicated to Jan and Marga Welmers, on the other. It refers to the Assumption of Maria, and also to 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 written for Yamaha SY99-synthesizer in 1996 and is dedicated to Rien Roggeveen and —in 2017— Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. In 2009, I read Bruno Nettl's article Thoughts on Improvisation (1974), in which he points out that improvisation and composition among the Pima, native American Indians living in Arizona, can hardly be separated. This appealed to me, as the distinction between improvisation and composition in my musical practice is usually also very small. In addition, Nettl makes clear that improvising/composing for these Indians often consists of unraveling music that already would exist in the supernatural. It was an eye-opener for me to read this, because I could never completely identify with the notion of art as an individual expression of an individual emotion, coming from within ourselves, as was usual in the 19th and 20th century up to the present. In this sense, my music is more related to, for instance, Persian classical music or European music before 1800 than Western music after 1800. These ideas I connected to My friend the Indian, which since its creation in 1996 always remained rather enigmatic. The pieces of the puzzle fall into place: 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