This past weekend at New York’s Lincoln Center the iconoclastic organ virtuoso Cameron Carpenter unswaddled his restive imagination’s latest brainchild, a year-and-a-half in gestation. Midwife was the firm of Marshall & Ogletree which specializes in the delivery of so-called digital organs. The newborn has a console of five keyboards for the hands and one for the feet with its vast panoply of sampled sounds emanating from a bank of speakers to be stationed according to the layout of any given hall where Carpenter is playing. Carpenter has baptized his child the “International Touring Organ” and at the New York premiere he apparently did unparalleled things on it, things that leave other organists dumbfounded and often not a little jealous, while general listeners thrill at the gymnastic brilliance of his playing and the variety of a repertoire extending from venerable organ works to pop music explorations and his own highly personal compositions. Whether you call Carpenter a musician or a performer—or both—you have to admit he is expert at drawing attention to himself and his initiatives.
Now armed with this transportable machine—transportable if one has a very large truck—Carpenter must no longer adapt to immovable organs that are part of the architecture of churches. Now he will be able to avoid the necessities of adaptation that have, he believes, so long constrained his musical vision—vision being the right word, since so much of Carpenter’s appeal stems from the spectacular sight of his frenetic limbs in motion and from the flamboyance of his stage persona, in its current update taking the physical form of Mohawk hair, black leather trousers, tight t-shirt, and high-heeled shoes.
Gifted and hard-working, Carpenter enjoyed a thriving international career even before the advent of his new creation, the ITO, an acronym that for people of a certain generation automatically brings up thoughts of the inscrutable judge from the O.J. Simpson Trial. Carpenter’s chase, however, is anything but low speed. He believes he can pilot the ITO at great velocities to distant, kaleidoscopic galaxies. His performances inspire rapture in large swaths of his audiences, even if within their numbers there are generally more than a few surreptitious organists who tend be put off at being called inert and irrelevant by Carpenter himself, for whom the august traditions of the instrument are dead weight preventing his lift-off towards new worlds.
I was not at the New York premiere of the machine, nor I have ever heard Carpenter live. Indeed, I seem to have a habit of not going to his concerts.
After draping him with laurels in these pages back in 2009 for his Grammy-award nominated debut album Revolutionary, I was away from my home in Ithaca, New York when he swung through here in 2010. My absence didn’t stop me from writing “a review by hearsay” documenting the local reception of that recital, dismal by all reports, including his own. My critique did not go down well with Carpenter’s agent and more than a few of his devotees, and they responded in high dudgeon.
Although I found my colloquy with Carpenter’s defenders invigorating and useful, I have resisted returning to the subject of the bad boy’s playing and his fondness for bromides against the culture of the organ—its music, history, performing traditions. When Carpenter appeared in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra 2011 Finale under Michael Tilson Thomas, an extravaganza beamed live from Sydney to the rest of the world, I had to stifle the urge to throw a couple of sequin-seeking brickbats in his direction. With the Sydney opera house organ bathed in a dazzling light show, Carpenter played J.S. Bach’s Toccata in F, an unforgiving test of “hands, feet, and mind” as Thomas said in his introduction. As if the piece isn’t hard enough in its pastoral tonality of F Major, Carpenter transposed it up a half-step to F-sharp major, shifting the relentlessly perilous action from the wide diatonic keys to the spikey accidentals. (Carpenter’s performance begins at minute 22) With this transposition, the Toccata’s feared pedal solos, serpentine passagework, and bouncing chords instantly became far more difficult. It was like a figure skater attempting a series of quads on rough and rutted ice on super thin blades. With the on-line world as his audience, Carpenter went for gold, and however silly the stunt was, I had to admire his chutzpah, especially since this display of daring went unannounced and would have been lost on all but a relatively few in the know. Carpenter was showing off for all those organists he finds so dismal: a thumb (and a big toe) in the collective eye of the so-called experts.
The performance that ensued summed up the paradox of Carpenter: loud in decibels, silent in musical conviction; tremendous verve, numbingly soporific. Hoist on his own petard he made a couple of muffs on the first of Bach’s celebrated of pair of pedal solos, fanny planting after the first quadruple axel attempt. Hacking on through the thicket of black notes, Carpenter caused plenty more collateral damage to the piece while continually deflating the energy of this Olympian epic with wild tempo swings and pointless changes in registration whose only discernible purpose was to draw attention away from the sloppy, unconvincing interpretation. Yet the flash and sparkle of his outfit and pantomimic gesturing seemed to help convince the world audience. However impressive Carpenter’s idea and to some extent his execution of this monumental work, the result was rather like watching our figure skater do a routine made up exclusively of jumps, many of them bungled. This YouTube emission fueled disquieting suspicions that without dry ice, mirrors, and a hatful of digital magic, Carpenter falls flat. He lacks any concern for the devilish details that lie at the heart of the musical arts. He is an effects man.
Even after Carpenter’s F (sharp) Major Toccata, enthralling and appalling in equal measure, your Musical Patriot did not reach for those brickbats. Fear not, Carpenter Crew, this will not be another review by hearsay of the New York ITO party. Instead I’ll concentrate on what I can experience directly: the six-minute video disseminated by Carpenter chronicling the conception and birth of his new baby. If you care to follow me on a walking tour through its sumptuous galleries of messianic delusion and bad aesthetics, join me here next week.