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Bach was Never This Buff, Never This Bad

Is Cameron Carpenter Really Better Than the Real Thing?

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Since medieval Germans attached pedals to their organs way back in the fourteenth century, the instrument has been as much a gymnastic apparatus as a tool for musical expression. The most famous report of J. S. Bach in performance stems from a visit he made to examine an organ Kassel in 1732. The account has his feet flying solo over the pedal keys to the amazement of a young prince standing alongside the console.  So overwhelmed by the spectacle was the onlooker that he withdrew an opulent ring from his finger and gave it to Bach before the organist had even touched the manuals with his fingers. The sight of his playing was apparently even more astounding than the sounds it elicited. Bach was forty-seven years old at the time and fit enough to sprint across the pedal board to the astonishment of those lucky enough to witness the show. Before closed-circuit cameras, YouTube and other forms of broadcast and surveillance, most people never got a chance to watch great organists playing close by. Consoles were perched in organ lofts far from the mass of listeners below.

Age and corpulence were the enemies of musical athleticism at the organ.  Forty years after Bach’s Kassel heroics, the English traveller Charles Burney made a stop on his continental tour of 1772 at Dresden’s famous Frauenkirche where he watched the court’s organist Christlieb Siegmund Binder demonstrate the magnificent organ. In his popular travel diaries published the following year, Burney described Binder’s efforts as verging on life-threatening: “When he had done, [Binder] was in as violent a heat with fatigue and exertion, as if he had run eight or ten miles, full-speed, over ploughed lands in the dog-days.” The organ was the elliptical trainer of the eighteenth century, and Bach had clearly put in his time working out: he was forty-eight when he wowed the Prince. Binder was forty-nine when he nearly keeled over as Burney looked on.

World records continue to be broken: the athletes of today run faster and jump farther than the ancient Olympians. So it is with the young American organist Cameron Carpenter: he plays faster, longer, louder than his contemporaries and his forbears, often portly men whose girth was hidden by choir robes or trussed up in three-piece suits and high collars. Carpenter’s grueling practice regimen includes working out at the organ and away from it. He hits the gym and has the body to prove it, one he proudly shows off in the recently released video promoting his International Touring Organ, a digital apparatus with five manuals, a pedal board, and banks of stops unveiled earlier this month at Lincoln Center in New York.

Apparently put together by Mr. Carpenter’s label Sony Classics, the video begins with the virtuoso staring directly into the camera with his penetrating dark eyes and ripping open his white dress shirt, then pulling its tails provocatively from his black leather trousers to reveal polished white muscles beneath. The scene aims to project the sexual potency of the virtuoso, a trope dating back at least to the mid-nineteenth century when Franz Liszt made droves of female admirers swoon. Carpenter aims to exert this power over all who watch, since he’s let it be known that in matters of sex he is “radically inclusive.” In the video the erotic precedes the musical, and so too, one infers, in the performer’s approach to his craft and career.  Such an interpretation is confirmed over the course of film’s poorly edited, ridiculously stagey six-minutes when Carpenter expounds the merits of his “touring organ” while lying back in his brass bed. We also get longing twilight shots of him leaning against a lamppost smoking a cigarette as if he were walking the streets. Carpenter is not just selling his music, he’s selling himself.

The chest-baring opening scene wants to show us that the organ virtuoso of the future must be an athlete. But the gesture also serves as a metaphor for Carpenter’s disencumbering himself of the long and limiting traditions of his chosen instrument.  Carpenter’s first CD, Revolutionary, applauded by me in these pages, was meant to topple the King of Instruments from the throne it had occupied for centuries. But Carpenter isn’t just storming the Bastille, he’s the self-anointed messiah come to save the King from himself.  David Ogletree of the firm of Marshall and Ogletree that has fabricated Carpenter’s ITO avers in the video that Carpenter is “the only person in the world who could change the organ.”

Carpenter must destroy before he can build up, heaping scorn on the King and his courtiers: “Many of those pipe organs have been horribly useless and frustrating musical instruments.” Clearly, Carpenter has been spending too much time on bad organs. With an unsettling mix of messianic fervor and chilling monomania, Carpenter describes the historical inevitably of his vision: “There was a never a decision to make a touring organ. There didn’t have to be a decision. It was a conclusion.”

Rather than be subject to the unparalleled diversity and richness of the organ, attributes that demand tremendous skills of adaptation on the part of the organist, Carpenter wants to have his own instrument to tour with. “I immediately knew that [the ITO] would free me from the strictures that the pipe organ, through no fault of any single instrument, still inevitably places on everyone who plays it.”

Under the banner “A True Mission” Ogletree’s partner Doug Marshall asks, “How much fun would it be if instead of he accommodating the instrument, the instrument could accommodate him?” Carpenter wants absolute control. He wants his own toy and now he’s got it. In fairness, it has to be said the ITO is probably easier to transport than piano legend Maurizio Pollini’s enormous Hamburg Steinway, which is airlifted to his concerts around the world.

But a real organ of any size is anything but portable, so the answer to Carpenter’s problem lies in the freedom promised by technology. His video shows technicians inside an organ case poking their microphones at pipes. Carpenter puts it this way: “We take the best stops and sounds from different organs and put them into something that could never exist as any one physical pipe organ and assemble them into a new character.” Gone is the feature that has defined the organ since its invention two millennia ago: pipes. So-called “electronic organs” are nothing new, but in contrast to earlier attempts at simulation, the ITO, claims Carpenter, is even better than the real thing.

Many instruments keyboard instruments—clavichords, harpsichord, and pianos—were equipped with pedals so that organists could practice at home. No one ever called them organs. Lacking pipes, the ITO cannot be an organ: it is something new, its main affinity with its ancestor being its facsimile sound of organ pipes and the platform it provides for four-limbed performance.

It is absurd to claim that this digital can capture the presence, texture, and nuance of great organs with real pipes. Before too long, the ITO will be obsolete while the great monuments of the European organ art extending back five centuries and still cultivated today will continue to enthrall and inspire.

The main value of the ITO is not its panoply of sampled sounds, but rather the way it allows Carpenter to show off the athleticism of his well-conditioned body, from those fabulously nimble fingers through the taut torso to the feet that could have run circles around Bach, though with nothing approaching the musical impact. The expanded pedal board of the ITO and its bench perched on a single central strut allow audiences an unobstructed view of Carpenter’s vaunted footwork.

The final segment of the video has Carpenter enter Methuen Memorial Music Hall in Massachusetts, the sleek black console of the ITO enshrouded in artificial mist. Looming above are the hulking towers of the hall’s nineteenth-century organ.

On seeing his creation at the foot of this famous (and notoriously sluggish) organ, Carpenter emits the word “God!” amazed seeing his own messianic power realized, campily taking in the epoch-making moment to which destiny has drawn him. Carpenter will unseat the mute King while playing in his very shadow. In the trademark tank top that recasts musical performance as a work out, Carpenter begins pounding at his ITO body station with both hands and both feet in a frenzy of physical exertion that seems simultaneously to create and be driven by the breathless sounds that blast through the speakers and out into the cavernous auditorium. Bach was never this buff, never this bad.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com