Rohrwerk: a 45-meter experimental musical instrument comes to EPFL

Rohrwerk will be installed on the exterior patio of EPFL's Rolex Learning Center © Beat Gysin

Rohrwerk will be installed on the exterior patio of EPFL's Rolex Learning Center © Beat Gysin

From September 21st-September 23rd, EPFL will be home to Rohrwerk: a ‘sound pavilion’ that is simultaneously a musical instrument, a science experiment, a sculpture, and a performance space. Members of the public are invited to the campus to experience the unique installation, which is based on the concept of Swiss composer Beat Gysin.

Named for the German word for pipes (Rohre), Rohrwerk indeed gives the impression of a futuristic organ. It is composed of seven novel ‘feedback pipes’ of various sizes, plus a ‘multi-trombone’ and other custom-made instruments. The pipes, suspended over the ground by a crane, are clustered together and taper to a point. From afar, the installation gives the impression of a towering, inverted pencil.

Previously installed in September 2019 at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Rohrwerk will be brought to the patio of EPFL’s Rolex Learning Center on the initiative of the College of Humanities (CDH) Culture program. Six composers, including Gysin, have created original pieces for Rohrwerk, which will be played at a series of concerts open to the public on September 21st, 22nd, and 23rd.

“Music as a spatial art”

Rohrwerk’s goal is to bring people and contemporary music closer together in an architectural space that also behaves as an instrument. The installation is also, as Gysin explains, something of a science experiment. Having studied both chemistry and composition at university, Gysin noticed something missing in his music curriculum: an understanding of how musical tones relate to space.

“Every tone is situated in space, so the physical behavior of tones was very interesting to me. I began to do research on this topic, and I noticed a lack of composers writing for space,” Gysin says. He adds that he thinks the relationship between tones and space is an exciting frontier for the next century of music research. 

“I am fascinated by the idea of music as a spatial art, and as a scientist, [Rohrwerk] is the instrument with which I do my experiments.”

Creative technology

Each of Rohrwerk’s feedback pipes has precise dimensions, allowing certain overtones to be amplified, generating unfamiliar tone colors. The use of electronics allows for precise control of acoustic parameters such as delay, reverberation, and feedback. Other pipes can be played by using different instrument attachments (trombone, clarinet, etc.), or by being struck with a mallet. One part of Gysin’s composition even involves shooting small balls through a tube, like a blowgun, to strike the pipes in a precise spot. In this way, the entire space becomes an instrument, offering a unique experience at the intersection of music and architecture.

Gysin explains that while the Basel Kunstmuseum created an artistic backdrop for Rohrwerk, he hopes that at EPFL, the academic setting will inspire a more technical – but still creative – interpretation.

“I think science is, and must be, very creative. I hope that visitors to EPFL will be interested in the technical aspect of Rohrwerk, and in how we are able to create art out of such a technical piece.”

About the structure

Rohrwerk is produced by studio-klangraum, and co-produced with ZeitRäume Basel and ICST in collaboration with the Lausanne Conservatory (HEMU). The concerts at EPFL are organized in partnership with the Société de Musique Contemporaine (SMC) Lausanne. The structure was designed, based on the concept of Beat Gysin, by Swiss (Geneva and Zurich) architecture firm Made In, and constructed by Peter Affentranger. Composers Nicolas Buzzi, Emilio Guim, Marianthi Papalexandri, German Toro-Perez, and Denis Schuler lent their expertise to the project, as did musicians Anne Briset, Jeanne Larrouturou, Stephen Menotti, and Miao Zhao.

Program of public events to be held on the Rolex Learning Center patio

Tuesday, September 21st
12:15-13:15. Lunchtime concert: music and discussion with composers. Sound installation “Umlaute”.
18:30-20:30. Concerts: 18:30, “Framing”; 19:00, “Hangman’s Choral”, “Rohre ephemer”, and “Lot”; 20:00, “Untitled VII”.

Wednesday, September 22nd
12:15-13:00. Lunchtime concert: music and discussion with musicians; improvisation.
18:30-21:00. Concerts: 18:30, “Framing”; 19:00, “Hangman’s Choral”, “Rohre ephemer”, and “Lot”; 20:00, “Untitled VII”; 20:30, sound installation “Umlaute”.

Thursday, September 23rd
12:15-13:15. Lunchtime concert: music and discussion with an architect; open improvisation with the public.
15:00. “Architecture and music: a dialogue under construction”. Roundtable with composerBeat Gysin, Made In architect Patrick Heiz, Archizoom director Cyril Veillon, and ZeitRäume, Baselfestival director Bernard Günther. Moderation: Constance Frei, UNIL-EPFL professor of musicology. EPFL room SV 1717
18:00. Sound installation “Umlaute”.
18:30-20:30. Concerts. 18:30, “Framing”; 19:00, “Hangman’s Choral”, “Rohre ephemer”, and “Lot”; 20:00, “Untitled VII”.