Organist Cameron Carpenter boldly flying uncharted galaxies as a champion of a virtual one-man symphony
Cameron Carpenter in rehearsal at Koerner Hall on June 15, 2011. Photos: John Terauds
Boldly unorthodox American organist Cameron Carpenter, who turns 30 this year, has never been more focused about changing the culture surrounding pipe-organ concerts.
Moses Znaimer invited him to this year's IdeaCity conference, which was held at the Royal Conservatory's Telus Centre last week. Carpenter had thought he would give a concert, but Znaimer also wanted attendees to hear about the organist's quest to build the perfect electronic substitute for the notoriously cranky and maintenance-intensive traditional pipe organ.
I sat down with Carpenter a few days later to catch up over a long breakfast.
It's been a year of changes for him: He's now with mega artist-managers CAMI and has moved to Berlin, which has turned into quite the Mecca for adventurous younger creative souls in search of open-minded audiences and cheap rents.
In Berlin, Carpenter has found the perfect large hall to house his dream instrument: a five-manual virtual concert organ designed to make any sound he desires, require (virtually !) no maintenance and be easy to pack up and ship to any location with an electrical wall outlet.
The organist is trying to raise $1.5 million (U.S.) to make this all happen. Although this sounds like a ridiculous amount of money for a pipeless pipe organ, my guess it's less than half of what it would cost to build the real thing -- and the real thing would not be going anywhere in a hurry.
The electronic engineering expertise for all this comes from Marshall & Ogletree, a small outfit in suburban Boston that has developed a particularly effective way to generate the complex waveforms needed to make a digital pipe organ sound like the real thing.
Carpenter himself is the specification brains -- figuring out just what kinds of sound should be assigned to each stop, how to arrange groups of stops for each manual, and how they can each (and all) be combined and recombined on the fly.
As we spoke, Carpenter revealed how he has even dabbled in the oh-so-fine art of modifying the sound waves of one tone to sound like another.
It's all a bit mind-boggling, but the short version of all this is that Carpenter is one of the rare artists who has the brain power and outside-the-box creativity to completely reshape their artform.
Exhibit A: Him rehearsing his paraphrase of Franz Schubert's Erlkönig on a Mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ for his latest album, Cameron Live!:
If you take Carpenter out of his creative context, it's easy to mistake him as arrogant and, at the extreme, a lunatic. Many professional organists look askance, because he repeats and over and over again how organists need to get out of the way of their own instrument.
Given how small and rarefied the world of concert organists is -- and how small and rarefied are its audiences -- I think people like Carpenter should be given as much encouragement as possible.
There is no other instrument in the history of humankind that is capable of the breadth of expression as the organ. As the great English and French organ builders of the late 19th century intended, it is literally an orchestra in a box -- so why not approach it like Gustavo Dudamel and blow an audience's hair sideways in the process.
As for the electronic organ, there are so many bad ones out there, that it's difficult to keep an open mind.
I haven't been happy with the sound of the virtual organ Cameron has now used twice in Ontario concerts (a digital replica of a beast made in 1928 by E.M. Skinner for Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Chicago). But Carpenter insists that his great Dream Opus (my name, not his) by Marshall & Ogletree will be wart-free.
It will even have special features, such as the ability to change each stop's temperament (the tuning setup) on the fly. ("Equal temperament can be so boring, after a while," said Carpenter.) The organist told me how, in one piece by Bach he has recorded, he goosed the tuning towards a towering climax, just to heighten the experience.
Purists are, justifyably, turned off by this sort of interpretive license. But there are many orchestras in the world -- the New York Philharmonic comes to mind -- that tune their strings sharp for the very same reason. They just can't do it in the middle of a piece.
The debate will continue over the pros and cons of showmanship vs toiling in relative obscurity. I'm happy to be around to watch and listen.
Since my main skepticism with digital organs is over the quality of their sound, I played several videos Marshall & Ogletree have made of their Opus 5, installed in 2008 at Florida's newly minted Ave Maria University chapel -- with specifications by Cameron Carpenter. It's sounds very impressive on my Bose speakers.
This organ has many of the features Carpenter would have on his own instrument. The first video, of a Tuba Tune by C.S. Lang, provides a visual tour of the console and speaker array and Doug Marshall makes the merry noise.
The second video is of Brian Gilkes playing Olivier Messiaen's Dieu parmi nous (if this isn't totally convincing as an affirmation of faith, I don't know what is) on Marshall & Ogletree's more traditionally executed digital Op. 6, at Gordon College (in the Boston area).
The third clip is of the Tuba Tune by Norman Cocker played by the great traditional English organist Colin Walsh at one of my favourite traditional English organs, the great 1898 Father Willis at Lincoln Cathedral.