The Eclectic Landscape of Ride in a High-Speed Train: An interview with Ad Wammes

December 3, 2015

Dutch composer Ad Wammes (b. 1953) achieved international notoriety in the organist community through the publication of Miroir in 1989. Miroir has been performed and recorded by many American and European concert organists, including Thomas Trotter and the late John Scott. The piece has justifiably yet erroneously been labeled minimalist: many of the techniques used in Miroir are similar to the techniques in post-minimalist music, but we cannot trace any direct influence from minimalism. Just as American composers Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass were attracted to the rhythmic and harmonic elements in popular music and integrated them into their style, Wammes’ primary influence was the 1970s symphonic rock group Gentle Giant. This influence can be heard by comparing a recording of Miroir to a recording of Gentle Giant’s song Proclamation.

It is entirely possible that Wammes’ more recent organ work, Ride in a High-Speed Train (2011), could be similarly mislabeled, since it too has many repetitive figures. The title suggests that it could be conceptually modeled after John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a post-minimalist piece for orchestra. Originally given the title TGV and composed for a mechanical dance organ in 1993, Ride in a High-Speed Train has an intriguing and multi-faceted history, but it was never intended to be a minimalist piece. 

For those who might attach the label of minimalist onto Ride in a High-Speed Train, I would emphasize that the presence of repetition alone is not sufficient. According to Keith Potter, minimalism is “a style of composition characterized by an intentionally simplified rhythmic, melodic and harmonic vocabulary.”1 In other words, reduction is the primary characteristic, not repetition. But, unlike visual art, music unfolds over time, so in order for a composition to be produced with a minimum of materials, it needs to have either long sustained tones or repetition of brief melodic patterns. Reduction typically manifests itself through the absence of melody (only short melodic fragments exist in the repetitive figures); a strong, steady pulse (except in the case of long tones); a strong tonal center (e.g., In C by Terry Riley, one of the very first minimalist compositions); slow harmonic change; and sometimes a limited number of pitches. The second most important characteristic of minimalism is gradual process: the idea that the listener should be able to hear and understand the compositional process as it unfolds. This creates a feeling that the music is going 

nowhere and is endless, unlike most Western music, which is goal-oriented and directional.  

Of course, the appeal of minimalism could not last forever, so it evolved. As a result, the repetitive figures became accompanimental to simple melodies, the audible process became less important, change began to happen at a quicker pace, and various means of expression and directionality were added. Both Miroir and Ride in a High-Speed Train seem to match this description of post-minimalism. For instance, the one-measure repetitive cell in Miroir remains the same throughout the piece but with simple melodies weaving in and out (see Example 1).

Despite the appearance of post-minimalism, we need to take the composer at his word when he himself denies having been influenced by minimalism. In Ride in a High-Speed Train, Wammes instead acknowledges a debt to symphonic rock music, Balkan music, and the process of composing for The Busy Drone (the name of the mechanical organ). The repetitive devices alone do not convincingly indicate minimalism, but they do give the piece a compelling energy that makes it a refreshing contrast in any concert program.  

While I was preparing to present this and several other pieces in a lecture-recital, the composer revealed to me many details about the unique genesis of Ride in a High-Speed Train through e-mail conversations in December 2014 and January 2015.


Brenda Portman: What was your inspiration for choosing the title? Is the piece meant to be programmatic?

Ad Wammes: In 1981 my wife and I cycled for seven weeks through Europe. When we were in former Yugoslavia I had a breakdown with my bike (broken spokes caused by the terrible condition of the roads). I rang the doorbell of the nearest house and we were warmly welcomed by the man and woman living there. It was difficult to communicate as they spoke only Serbian. Anyway, in the evening the man placed a map of Yugoslavia on the kitchen table, took his accordion, pointed at a certain district, and then played music from that district. This way he went through the whole map. And this story came to my mind while composing, as it had Balkan influences in it and, in my mind, I kept seeing a train (probably caused by the ongoing 5/4 beat) going through an ever-changing landscape. 

In 1993, the year in which I composed this piece, a train named TGV (“train à grande vitesse,” French for “high-speed train”) was introduced in Europe. In 2011, I made a transcription for (normal) organ and renamed it Ride in a High-Speed Train (as English-speaking people probably don’t know what TGV stands for).

[The TGV, with its hub in Paris, is a network of high-speed trains that can reach a speed of over 300 miles per hour. It was introduced in Europe beginning in 1981, with its first line between Paris and Lyon. In 1993, the year Wammes composed the piece, the northern Europe line opened from Paris to Lille, which was a connection for destinations in Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern Germany.2]


Can you point out specific places in Ride in a High-Speed Train that show Balkan influences? 

Ornamentation, scales (especially the Lydian mode), unequal deviation over 5/4. [At this point Mr. Wammes referred me to an e-mail attachment that contained the first four pages of the original score to the piece.] I withdrew this version after one day because Boosey & Hawkes immediately took interest in publishing it. The original version differs from the score published by Boosey & Hawkes concerning the notation of the rhythms. In the Boosey & Hawkes version all the rhythms are notated in the deviation of 2-2-2-2-2 eighth notes. (See Example 2.) But in fact the deviation constantly changes and is often diverse for both hands and feet at the same time [See the table on page 23 showing the piece’s structure.] When changing the scale, root key and rhythmic deviation, it feels like slipping into another landscape.

Was Gentle Giant also an influence on Ride in a High-Speed Train, as it was for Miroir?

I don’t know, but I am not the kind of composer that tries to escape from his influences, so probably yes.


Could you tell me more about the mechanical dance organ for which Ride in a High-Speed Train was written? 

[From the author: Ad Wammes sent me the manual for The Busy Drone, which he wrote himself, explaining the instrument and how to appropriately write music for it. The following information is derived from that manual.]

The Busy Drone has three manuals (Zang, Tegenzang, and Accompagnement), pedal (Bassen), and limited percussion capabilities (big drum, woodblock, cymbal, and snare drum). It is a transposing instrument and sounds a minor third higher than notated. Each manual/pedal division has a compass of only one to two octaves, but, with stops ranging from 32 to 4, it actually spans six octaves. The disposition can be found on the website for Het Orgelpark Amsterdam [].

The speed of the engine is 360 centimeters per minute, so the lengths of notes have to be calculated in millimeters for the organ book, based on the desired tempo.3 The speed of the engine is the key to understanding optimal tempos and note values that could be written for the organ. If the note is too short, it does not have enough time to sound, and if it is too long (longer than approximately six beats at a tempo of quarter note = 120), then the organ book will weaken. [An “organ book” is comparable in function to a player piano roll.] The most effective compositions have a perpetual-motion type of energy and are dance-like, in order to capitalize on the instrument’s history as a dance organ. If performed at the indicated tempo, Ride in a High-Speed Train has a continuous energy that propels the piece forward, making it sound like the motion of a train. The piece consists primarily of eighth notes, although the organ is able to accommodate durations as short as thirty-second notes. The longest note value in the piece, which occurs only a few times, is nine beats long at a tempo of 152.


Did you intend for Ride in a High-Speed Train to be played on this organ only, or did you write it with performing organists in mind as well?

Intentionally it was only written for the mechanical organ; I had no real organists in mind. It was only in 2011 that I made a transcription for “normal” organ at the request of the Dutch organist Age-Freerk Bokma. He heard TGV on The Busy Drone and asked me if it was possible to make a transcription for organ. I answered him: “Well, I’ll have a look at it.” After a week the transcription was ready, and although difficult, it is playable!


What else can you tell me about the process of composing TGV for The Busy Drone? 

In 1993 I was asked to make a composition for The Busy Drone. While I was in the possession of the computer sequencer program PRO 24 (ancestor of Cubase), a sound sampler (ASR10 by Sequential Circuits), and a portable DAT recorder, I decided to do it differently. First I recorded all the different stops (there is an organ book called GAMMA, which runs through the different stops note by note) and put the sound samples in my sound sampler. Then I made my composition and put the information in the sequencer program on my Atari computer by playing it live. Finally I notated the score on large files of paper by indicating with pencil what had to be chopped out. This gave me the benefit of getting a musical interpretation of my piece instead of a stiff interpretation of a normal score.


How did other composers create their scores?

They made normal scores and from that the book-choppers (I don’t know if this is the correct word for their profession) made the organ books.

The first person that delivered his piece as a MIDI file was Eric de Clercq. He made his piece Een meter sneeuw in 2001. The book was chopped by Johan Weima, who has a chopping machine connected to a computer. However, Een meter sneeuw was only premiered on October 7, 2009, in Het Orgelpark Amsterdam, because the concerts at the City Museum stopped and shortly after that the renovation of the Museum started (2004–12). The second person that delivered his piece as a MIDI file was me! In 2010 I went to Het Orgelpark to listen to TGV. (The organ was restored, so now it would sound much better!) The organ book, however, was nowhere to be found. Then Johan Luijmes (the director) told me about this MIDI file chopping machine. I still had the old MIDI files and from that a new version of TGV was chopped, now with the correct tempo at 152 per quarter note. (The first version was chopped at 150 while the translation of the MIDI data was too difficult at 152.)

From that time, 2010 till mid-2014, I was the intermediary between composer and chopping machine (handled by Johan Weima) by translating normal scores to MIDI files. Many times the composers (especially the young ones) came with MIDI files. I checked those and corrected them (notes being out of range, notes being too short, adding bridges (short interruptions) to the notes that were too long).


Can The Busy Drone read MIDI files directly?

Since mid-2014 a MIDI device has been installed in The Busy Drone by the Belgian manufacturer DECAP (Herentals). Now it is no longer necessary to make organ books. The Busy Drone directly reads the MIDI information.


When you composed TGV in 1993, was The Busy Drone still in the museum in Amsterdam or had it been moved to the museum in Utrecht?

Yes, it was still in Het Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (The City Museum). It stayed for one year (2008) in the museum “Van Speeldoos tot Pierement” (“From Music Box to Street Organ”) in Utrecht. It was taken over by Het Orgelpark Amsterdam in 2009.

[We have little knowledge of mechanical organs in the United States, but they were used frequently in various settings in Belgium and the Netherlands for many decades. A mechanical organ is like a player piano, which plays itself, but someone has to work the controls. This particular organ was built in 1924 by the Belgian firm Mortier. It has 92 keys and 17 registers. Originally a dance organ in a café, it had fallen into disuse and been abandoned. In 1965 it was purchased by the Amsterdam publisher De Bezige Bij (The Busy Bee), with the intent to provide background music for an annual book fair. The organ was given a new look and a new name, “The Busy Drone.” In 1973 the organ was moved to the auditorium of the City Museum and remained there for nearly 35 years, playing a role in a concert series entitled “Music Now.” Contemporary composers were encouraged to write music specifically for the instrument during its long stay at the City Museum. These included Louis Andriessen (a key figure in the European minimalist movement), Misha Mengelberg, Willem Breuker, Bo van der Graaf, and others.4 When the City Museum underwent renovations, it was moved to the museum “Van Speeldoos tot Pierement” (“From Music Box to Street Organ”) in Utrecht in 2008, restored by the Perlee firm, and then moved in 2009 to Het Orgelpark Amsterdam, where it stands today.5]


What exactly does it mean for a person to “work the controls” of the  organ? 

They change the organ books and see to it that the transport of the organ book runs smoothly. By the way, the organ books can also be run by hand. Yes, the registrations can be handled on the spot, but usually the stop changes are already programmed (chopped out) in the book.


Do they still have to do this now, even with the organ reading MIDI files?

No, because there are no organ books to be transported anymore. The stop changes still can be done by hand, but usually they are programmed in the MIDI file.


Thank you for taking the time to tell me more about Ride in a High-Speed Train. It is much easier to understand the musical language and performance challenges after learning about all of the factors involved in its composition.


Postscript: Performing Ride in a High-Speed Train

As alluded to by the composer, there are some performance challenges in Ride in a High-Speed Train, due to its original function as a mechanical-organ piece. For a live organist, the execution of multiple complex rhythmic patterns at a tempo of 152 is daunting at the very least, if not close to impossible. Performers may need to dial the metronome down a few notches to communicate the piece effectively. It is also impossible for an organist to carry out the intended registration changes and still maintain the tempo without either omitting notes to hit a piston or enlisting the help of an assistant. For a mechanical organ, though, these details are programmed into the organ book (or now the MIDI file) and present no problems at all. Additionally, the size of an organist’s hand or the distance from one note to the next were not an issue for The Busy Drone; therefore, there are several instances of quick leaps greater than an octave, sometimes at the same time as a manual change (see Example 3). It is also worth mentioning that the rhythmic precision in this piece renders a mechanical-action organ more suitable than electro-pneumatic, and a three-manual instrument is necessary in order to implement all of the desired colors.

YouTube features recordings of young American organists playing Ride in a High-Speed Train: Karen Christianson (, Chinar Merjanian (, and Brenda Portman (, and the Hauptwerk version by the composer himself ( The first professional recording of the piece was recently released on the Acis label, by Jonathan Ryan ( Information on Ad Wammes’ organ compositions is at ν



Miroir by Ad Wammes, © 1992, 2006 by Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers, Ltd. Reprinted by permission.

Ride in a High-Speed Train by Ad Wammes, © 2011 by Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers, Ltd. Reprinted
by permission.



1. Keith Potter, “Minimalism,” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online (Oxford University Press, 2007–13), accessed July 3, 2014.

2. Russ Collins, “TGV History and Speed Records,” TGV—High-Speed Train, last modified 2014, accessed January 16, 2015,

3. The Busy Drone manual, sent in an e-mail attachment from Ad Wammes on December 15, 2014.

4. Thom Jurek, “The Busy Drone,” AllMusic, accessed December 27, 2014,

5. Orgelpark, “The Busy Drone,” accessed January 16, 2015,

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