Writing this, while listening to the Xscape album…

The late Michael Jackson’s songs have been adapted in every way possible. From rock bands covering his classic tunes to school marching bands offering a medley of his hits, the King of Pop’s music lives on in various forms.

But did you ever think of hearing one of his songs on a mechanical barrel organ? Musician Patrick Mathis answered the call and transcribed “Smooth Criminal” for this unique instrument.

Mathis has been playing the barrel organ since the 1980s and spends most of his time arranging sheet music for the instrument. He’s played concerts both by himself and with others, such as Viviane Loriaut and Isabelle Bonnadier. Along with creating original compositions, Mathis also covers contemporary artists aside from Jackson, like Miles Davis.

Sounding an 8-bit version of the Jackson song, Mathis carefully transcribed each note and beat himself through a process of punching holes on the sheet in specific locations. This is a time intensive process, but done right the results are stunning. Plus, the sheet music itself looks like an intricate modern art piece you can hang on your wall. Here he is playing the final piece.

Mathis’ organ of choice is one built by the 42 keys Odin Ets in 1990. The company, established 40 years ago by André Odin, began in the 70s and has been passed down through the family. Odin Ets offers a range of organs all with different number of keys, designs, and range of portability. All of the company’s instruments are handmade and crafted in France. They also offer a number of perforated cards to play.

Barrel organs are usually made of metal pins and staples. Each are a different length depending on whether the note is long or short. The music is then hard-coded onto a barrel, which will vary in size depending on the number of notes. It’s played by cranking a wheel which offsets the crank shaft causing bellows to open and close to produce their signature sound. The barrel turns slowly thanks to the worm gear on the crank shaft and, as you may guess now, where we get the term ‘organ grinder’ from.

The barrel organ is a unique instrument that’s finding new life thanks to musicians like Mathis, who has realized that modern music can most definitely be recreated on this traditional, nearly forgotten instrument. Maybe Mathis will treat us to a rendition of “Thriller” next.

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Images: Odin Ets

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