Anywhere Organ: Interview with Matthew Borgatti

Anywhere Organ: Interview with Matthew Borgatti

Anywhere Organ Matthew Borgatti

When was the last time you thought about pipe organs? Maker of all trades Matthew Borgatti has turned his childhood fascination with the massive instrument into a mobile, open source, MIDI-controlled version, further proof that if you can dream it, you can make it. Matthew will be bringing his aptly named Anywhere Organ to our second Maker Faire New York, taking place this weekend, September 17 and 18, at the New York Hall of Science in Queens.

1. Tell us about The Anywhere Organ. What inspired you to make it and how long did it take?
A high school friend who went on to be come a renowned church organist informed me that churches are getting rid of their pipe organs en masse and replacing them with PA systems. He also told me that there were folks who went around rescuing these abandoned organs to recycle them, use them for spares to repair other organs, or install them in their own homes. I met up with some of these renegade organ surgeons and found a wealth of miscellaneous pipes and parts all going spare.

I began thinking the biggest shame with pipe organs fading out of the public eye was the fact that so few people ever got to interact with them. They’re such big, complex, powerful toys and only a select group of musicians ever get to fiddle with them. I thought if I could create something mobile, where I could turn any space into a pipe organ, and make it MIDI powered, I could create interactive installations to spread the love of this awesome instrument.

It’s been about a year, all tolled, designing, building, hunting down parts, and raising funds to get everything into a happy working state. Now that I’ve laid the groundwork, though, expanding the project will be pretty simple. All the parts are actually driven by some simple tables in CAD. As soon as I get myself more pipes, all I have to do is plug in a few measurements, and the pattern for the organ will be automatically generated.

2. When did you first become interested in pipe organs? What’s the main appeal for you?
Just down the street from my childhood home was a monster of a pipe organ brusquely shoved into an average suburban home. I can remember touring it as a Boy Scout, watching the elderly couple who owned the place pull up sections of the floor to reveal wooden organ pipes cut at odd angles to bend around the joists and conduit. I got to sit at the console and play the Imperial March.

It’s hard to decide what the most captivating element of an organ is. Organs were some of the first computers, using banks of switches, magnets, and acid jar batteries to do things like play a complete chord at the touch of a button, and then reprogramming that button to do something completely different in the next song. They’re one of the first battery-powered objects to go into mass production, and some pipes are still made the old-fashioned way: molten lead spread out into a sheet like screen-printing ink and then rolled into shape.

I’ve got to say, though, the coolest thing about a pipe organ is that it’s an instrument that also happens to be a building. The fact that the acoustics of the building, the form of the organ, and the mechanical components are all so integrally tied together is astounding, especially when you hear the result.

3. What types of places are you hoping to install The Anywhere Organ?
I’ve got two favorite ideas for installations, though I’m hoping to get it everywhere I possibly can. I’d like to have the instrument completely fill a fire escape for a street concert. I’d also like to find an abandoned building or warehouse with multiple floors and install different voices and pitches of pipes on each floor. I’d like to see the effect of the echoes on each floor resounding with the other voices being played above and below. I think the effect would be chilling.

I’ve currently got a Kickstarter going on to raise funds for a bigger, better, more enormous version of the Anywhere Organ. Please give it a look at

4. How did you hear about Maker Faire and why did you decide to participate?
I attended my first Maker Faire while I worked for Instructables. A friend of mine, Miss Monster, won an all-expenses-paid trip there as the result of a Halloween contest we had, and it ended up being a magical day. The next year I was back, demonstrating CNC machines on behalf of TechShop and making their Tormach sing the Ghostbusters theme. It’s been a part of my life for so long I can’t recall how I first heard about it.

I decided to participate in the World Maker Faire because of all the times I had a chance to participate in earlier Faires and missed out. I want to give back, to share the stuff I love, and meet awesome folks. Besides, hanging out behind the scenes with passionate, inspired, intensely talented makers is a reward all in itself.

5. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
I tinker. I dabble. I love so many different aspects of the way things get built, manufacturing techniques, material science, the maker movement, different projects and ideas that I’m often driven to distraction. In many ways my skill ADHD ends up being frustrating, especially when explaining to a potential client that the art school education, the animation jobs, the sculptures, and the book credits are part of the story of why I’m a good engineer, not a detraction from it. On the other hand when I get to unleash the fruits of my many dabblings everything becomes sweetness and light. Fixing multifaceted high-stakes projects where I’m pulled in just as the job is careening towards a deadline and they need someone who can handle any emergency that comes up, or working on layered projects where I’m designing something needs to be functional, elegant, strong, inexpensive, and easy to construct all at once is so incredibly rewarding. There’s a selection of my work on my site.

Broken toys were my first avenue into making. Any broken toy was an opportunity to explore, to fix, to sort out all the fiddly inner bits that actually made things go. My first real project was shoehorning the guts of a toy train into a tin can with some pulleys for wheels to make a little R2-D2 robot.

I ended up going to school for industrial design, figuring that was the surest path to becoming a professional inventor. After a year of model making and sketching fictional products that would never exist outside of our studios I got completely fed up. What saved me was a job offer from the special effects industry. I’d been sending out portfolios and resumes so promiscuously that one landed on the desk of a SFX shop owner who needed another machinist cranking out robots for Snakes on a Plane. That job soon led to another and it started a cycle where I’d spend my school year in the air dreaming up impossible designs and my summers cranking out high-precision props for films like AVP:II and I Am Legend.

I have too many heroes. Bruce Shapiro and Arthur Ganson leap immediately to mind. Their work has an incredible blend of precision and personality. I’m always entranced when an incredibly controlled mechanical movement can have humanity and expression and tell a story without words. I also adore Ze Frank for making small, simple, clever, infectious ideas.

Anywhere Organ Matthew Borgatti

6. Is the organ strictly a hobby or is it related to your day job?
I’m actually a semi nomadic contractor with a jewelry business on the side. I do a lot of product design, contract mechanical engineering, and every odd push-my-boundaries absurd mystery job that comes along.

I used to work for a place called Instinct Engineering, working on the design behind large interactive sculptures like the Raygun Gothic Rocket. It’s where I got a lot of my sensibilities for designing stuff as simply as possible with the certain knowledge that you’re half as smart when you put things together as you were when you designed them. If you design something with all kinds of intricate interlocking parts at your cleverest, you’re going to feel like an ape with a hammer when it comes time to fit that baby together.

7. What new idea has inspired you most recently?
Hackerspaces. There is a kind of mesh developing between hackerspaces as more and more spring up. While working on the Hackerspace Passports I realized how much potential there is for creating a network of teachers and spaces all trading info and techniques. The low-orbit-ion cannon power of this network could be astounding if focused on specific problems. Yes, essentially I’m proposing that hackers will save the world.

Anywhere Organ Matthew Borgatti

8. What advice would you give to the young makers out there just getting started?
Fail often. It’s worse to never start than to utterly brick a project. If you don’t give yourself opportunities to learn, you’ll simply never learn.

9. What’s your motto? Favorite tool?
“Apathy is obsolete. Sincerity is the new irony.”

There’s this thing called a Rotodrive countersink. It’s essentially the very tip of a drill bit with a little offset shaft that kind of makes it look like a lazy letter “Z”. You put that in a tool handle that lets it spin freely, and it makes cleaning up any hole drilled in metal an absolute delight. It’s a pleasure to use. It leaves a beautiful finish. I don’t know why every human simply isn’t issued one at birth.

10. What do you love most about NYC?
Variety. I like that I can get the mad whim for tajine or Belgian waffles at 3 a.m., and serendipity will simply deliver me to an all-night Euro-Moroccan takeout joint.

Thanks Matthew! For all the information you need to come check out the Anywhere Organ and meet a few thousand of your newest friends, head on over to the Maker Faire website.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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