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Carpenter’s Amazing Organ Transplants

Jesse Owens’ track shoes, Ty Cobbs baseball spikes, Pelé’s soccer cleats, Peggy Flemming’s ice skates, Edmund Hillary’s mountaineering boots: the footwear of sportsmen, not those of musicians, are the usual candidates for bronzing, or immortalization in one or another hall of fame. The young organ virtuoso Cameron Carpenter hopes to change that, or at the very least make his the most musical feet on the planet. The only organist ever to be nominated for a Grammy for a solo recording, Carpenter is the most exciting, and certainly the most popular, thing to happen to the oldest member of the European instrumentarium in a long time. Carpenter sprints towards fame on gleaming white organ shoes.

The greatest of all organists, Bach, too, was proud of his feet. The most vivid contemporary accounts of him as a performing musician focus on his lower appendages. He was also concerned with how his feet were clad when demonstrating his astounding footwork.  Among the effects listed in Bach’s estate were an “old-fashioned silver shoe buckles.”

The design of men’s shoes were quite uniform across the 18th-century; the way to dress them, make them stand out, was with the buckles. These became increasingly ornate.  By the time of his death in 1750, Bach’s talismanic buckles were indeed old hat, the inexorable tide of fashion having changed several times. But these buckles were still Bach’s, and still full of magic. Is it a coincidence that one of Bach’s last students, the enigmatic genius Johann Müthel, also left a pair of “old fashioned silver shoe buckles” in his estate? Perhaps they were Bach’s, given to the young Müthel by Bach’s widow for municipal musical services in Leipzig rendered after her husband had died. Perhaps this fashion-backward, but nonetheless timeless accessory spurred the moody virtuoso Müthel to some of the outlandish pedal passages  that formed one flashing facet of his own legacy.

During his own lifetime, Bach swept professionals and princes away with the musical drama of his feet, as in the following account of Bach at the organ written by the school rector of Minden, Constantin Bellermann:

“Bach deserves to be called the miracle of Leipzig, as far as music is concerned. For if it pleases him, he can by the use of his feet alone while his fingers do either nothing or something else, achieve such an admirable, agitated, and rapid concord of sounds on the church organ that others would seem unable to imitate it even with their fingers.  When he was called from Leipzig to Cassel to pronounce an organ properly restored, he ran over the pedals with this same facility, as if his feet had wings, making the organ resound with such fullness, and so penetrate the ears of those present like a thunderbolt, that Frederick, the legitimate hereditary Prince of Cassel, admired him with such astonishment that he drew a ring with a precious stone from his finger and gave it to Bach as soon as the sound had died away.  If Bach earned such a gift for the agility of this feet, what, I ask, would the Prince have given him if he had called his hands into service as well?”

Ernst Ludwig Gerber, whose father had studied with Bach in Leipzig, described superhuman technical deeds enacted with precision and ease:

“On the pedals his feet had to imitate with perfect accuracy every theme, every passage that his hands had played.  No appoggiatura, no mordent, no short trill was suffered to be lacking or even to meet the ear in less clean and rounded form.  He used to make long double trills with both feet, while his hands were anything but idle.

This organist  is a one-man three-ring circus in which the feet are constantly stealing the limelight.

As these reports, and many others like them from astonished natives and tourists to German organ lofts, make clear the spectacle of the organist going at it with all four limbs was unforgettable for many, almost unbelievable for others. The paradox was that in the most typical arrangement of the organs of Bach’s time, the organist himself was hidden from view. Those down in the church saw only the towering façade of the organ, gleaming and immobile. The most physically demanding of musical acts was perceived below only as monumental sound.

Carpenter hopes to achieve organ fame, if not immortality, through the same Bachian spirit of flamboyance, but to do so by making his feet visible to the world.  His strategy, whose prerequisite is vast natural talent and unrelenting practice, involves detaching the organ itself from its massive, usually ecclesiastical, architecture, and devotion to the moving image. Like the flamboyant Virgil Fox before him, Carpenter generally plays an electronic organ. It can be moved close to the audience, or taken to high school gyms and old folks’ homes, as can be seen on a number of YouTube clips featuring this musical track star.

For centuries one had to come to the organ, now it comes to you. The rare visit to Bach’s organ loft is made accessible to the masses through leveling democratization: now all who care to can become a prince ready to be amazed by flying feet.

The internet extends the reach still further.  Carpenter’s  performances at Trinity Church on Wall Street, where the smoke from the 9/11 attacks asphyxiated the organ and allowed Carpenter to encourage its replacement with a digital instrument, now approach 200,000 views.  These demonstrations of musical acrobatics make the multi-tasking of Wall Street floor traders seem downright cryogenic.

A flashier, more highly produced video, in which Carpenter’s sequined t-shirt, snug trousers, and  form-fitting pumps—all of them a matching white that is devilish, rather than angelic—glitter in the theatrical lighting is now available at YouTube, put there to hype the organist’s Grammy-nominated TelArc CD, rather immodestly entitled Revolutionary.

In fact, this would-be revolutionary treads the same path towards his own organ Utopia that Bach did before his. The writers of Bach’s obituary claimed that “with his two feet, he could play things on the pedals that many not unskillful clavier players would find it bitter enough to have to play with five fingers.” The century after Bach, keyboard players pushed those five fingers to the breaking point.  But Carpenter wants to show that the Bachian standard still applies, that he can toss off with the feet what Chopin, Liszt, and later Horowitz could do with their hands.

The opening number of Revolutionary is the warhorse Carpenter mounts to leap over the barricade of organ pipes:  Chopin’s eponymous Étude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12.  Carpenter takes the grueling left-hand part with the feet. They fly up and down the pedal board with breathtaking speed and accuracy, while the hands change the stops and slash at the jagged chords, until at last the final full sonorities are given only to the feet in a replay of the Bachian two-footed heroics of yore.

The CD continues with an irreverent reading of what Carpenters calls Bach’s “Evolutionary” Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the performer garnishing this water-logged chestnut with trills, flourishes and endearing grotesqueries. All help reanimate a piece whose sarcophagus should long ago have been covered with earth. (By the way, the tombstone above this Toccata reads “Bach?”: most scholars now reject the attribution to him). Other less-than-sacred offerings presented on the disc are Carpenter’s “Humorous Fugue on Five Themes,” a musical potluck which plays fast and loose with the venerable contrapuntal genre, and probably has Bach shaking his head in his own grave, even while he can’t help but tap his feet to this schlocky romp. There’s another sometimes fiery Romantic duel with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, and an unexpectedly demure encounter with Chopin’s C-Major Etude, Op. 10, no. 1, which converts that entrance exam of 19th-century piano technique from icy avalanche to delicate, shimmering snowflakes. In the tradition of the 19th-century showmen at the organ, especially French ones, Carpenter is a hugely talented transcriber and reformulator of the musical past. That taste defers to the imperatives of entertainment, and flash often snubs nuance, are all to the record’s credit. Carpenter’s is not always a subtle art, but his mastery of technique and affect is complete.

The penultimate track is an “Homage to Klaus Kinski”. That Carpenter portrays the fierce, unhinged German actor on an organ disc otherwise devoted largely to flash and filigree is reason enough for its praise.  While the antic gestures and teetering moods of Carpenter’s musical tribute capture something of Kinski’s melodramatic physicality, his scowls and psychoses, the piece earns my praise merely for having been attempted.

Aside from these brave, brilliant transcriptions and original compositions, there are classic showpieces of the organ repertoire by Dupré and Demessieux. The beloved setting of Bach’s “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (Come now, Savior of the Heathens) serves to clear the overstimulated palette and overburdened digestion, though even here the spirit of Busoni, whose often bizarre confrontation with music of the Bach and others clearly informs Carpenter’s own musical mission, whispers somberly from the digital shadows. At the very least, this Bachian classic takes on a somewhat different meaning when one knows it is being played by a self-proclaimed “devout heathen.” Busoni himself transcribed this very organ prelude for piano, thus tracing the reverse course now charted by Carpenter in the works by Chopin and Liszt represented on this CD.

Given the centrality of the visual to Carpenter’s Revolutionary, a DVD accompanies the package. TelArc knows as well as anyone that this is music that has to be seen be believed.

Carpenter’s renown, or perhaps notoriety, is already borderless, thanks to YouTube, but his recital career has also gone global.  Last year he made his debut in London’s Royal Albert Hall, and this month he’s Down Under at Melbourne Town Hall, proving that the  sun no longer sets on his organ empire.  There he’ll add Coltrane and Patsy Cline to his revolutionary ranks.

At both the Albert Hall, in Melbourne, and at many of his other engagements, Carpenter plays organs with pipes. The term “pipe organ” is redundant, and this is not merely a semantic, academic or even snobbish distinction.  I love the sound of the B-3 “organ” (Carpenter first learned on one, hence his love of jazz) and the rich repertoire it spawned, but it is a different machine than the King of Instruments.  A violin has strings. We don’t call it a “stringed violin.” That the digital instrument played by Carpenter has the same apparatus of keyboards that allows for four-limbed performance does not mean it is an organ.

Ironically, the digital keyboard played by Carpenter on Revolutionary is perfect for modern recording; it comes off well, indeed very much as itself, on CD.  The same cannot be said of a real organ, which is as much an architectural monument as a musical instrument. His exertions hidden from all but a few select visitors, the organist has not faired well over the past two centuries, and continued to falter in our current visually obsessed age. Carpenter has brought the spectacle of performance onto screens both big and small, and he has done so with unparalleled precision, creativity, and commitment.  But the profundity of the organ, the strangest of beasts in that it combines monumentality and refined beauty in the form of real handmade pipes arrayed in beautiful architectural configuration to be operated by mechanical means, has yet to be matched by such attempts at electronic reproduction. For all that is gained by airing the spectacle of four-limbed performance in which the feet run away with the show, it should not be confused with the mystery and complexity of the age-old organ art. For all the resounding difficulty and dash of Carpenter’s compositions and transcriptions, immensely fun as they are, his organ playing lives and dies in the entertaining, enthralling moment, and projects a simple message: these shoes are made for dancing.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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