You wrote your doctoral thesis on the Hammond organ. What is it exactly?
“The electric Hammond organ came on the market in 1935 and was originally intended as an alternative to the large, unwieldy church organ. The idea was that organists could (literally) warm up in a small, heated room before going to play in the big, cold church. The organ first became known in jazz, but caused a frenzy in symphonic rock in particular. It has quite a specific sound. One of the more well-known songs with a prominent Hammond organ is the rock hit A whiter shade of pale.”
You are a gifted Hammond organist yourself. Why did you want to get a PhD?
“I studied at the conservatory and I’m really a practice-oriented person. I led two departments at Codarts in Rotterdam for ten years, but after that I wanted to get back to the substance behind it all. Just not by performing as a musician three hundred times a year and touring day and night; that’s no longer my ambition.
“As an artist and musician, I’m innovating the Hammond organ myself using new technology. It all started at age 18 when I wanted to transport my first iconic Hammond for performances. I wasn’t stuck on the idea that the instrument had to remain in its original state, so I modified the frame. In the long run, that became a sliding scale in which I’ve modified the organ with the help of technology, including to generate data, for example. I did a few projects with Erasmus while at Codarts, and Professor Liesbeth van Zoonen saw a doctoral research topic in my fascination with the Hammond organ and innovation.”
What is your research about?
“I researched the history and future of the Hammond organ. In the beginning, the format of the study wasn’t clear. I delved into the archives of the original factory, which are in Chicago. This painted a different picture than the usual story, which starts with the inventor Hammond, the musicians who popularised the instrument and the long dip in which it was hardly used, and ends with its rediscovery in the 1990s.”
That story isn’t true?
“It’s mostly incomplete. My intention was to write a broad story that also included the forgotten actors, such as the role of the factory and all other economic, social and cultural circumstances. I did this according to Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. Then I projected that story onto the present day to see what innovation of the instrument could look like in the future.”
What are the main conclusions?
“There were several different circumstances that were key for the invention. Hammond was a successful clockmaker who had invented a synchronous motor for clocks. There was less demand for clocks after the market crash in 1929, so he set out to find new applications for the synchronous motor. That led to the Hammond organ.
“Another important conclusion is that the real innovation was there right from the start. Jimmy Smith was the first musician to use the Hammond organ in the 1950s, with a style all his own on the popular Blue Note label, which marked the organ’s breakthrough into jazz. This was later followed by the organ’s breakthrough into pop and rock in the 1960s and 70s. It was the distinctive sound in symphonic rock. Only there was no real innovation; all those musicians said they were indebted to Smith.
“The Hammond organ appeals to the imagination. There’s magic in the sound and the instrument. The longing for nostalgia, for how the instrument sounds, looks, feels and smells, has been the basis of all developments. All modern (digital) Hammond organs still sound like the first Hammond organ. Musicians aren’t keen on innovation either; they don’t think the instrument can be improved.”
Why is it important that an instrument continues to evolve?
“Because that way you can stay relevant and connect with a larger audience, and above all inspire new generations.”
What social lessons were you able to learn for innovation?
“It’s not about a good idea, or a great product. That’s the basis. But then, as an innovator, you have to be aware of the players and the game. This means surrounding yourself with the right people and ensuring the right timing. Ultimately, it’s about gaining insight into processes and being able to apply it. And there’s also such a thing is being too enthusiastic, which scares people off.”
What was the PhD programme like for you?
“It was a cathartic experience. In six years, I haven’t had a single moment to sit back and relax. I didn’t see that as a negative thing, by the way, but in retrospect it was intense. It was also a learning process for my supervisors to supervise someone like me who comes from the creative world and was all over the place. But fortunately they did a great job.”