How Cameron Carpenter Blew It in Ithaca

Nothing is more ephemeral than a concert. Once played it is gone. A recording cannot reproduce or even fully recall it.  Such documents are at best approximations. Yet concerts both great and ghastly have a kind of afterlife not only on vinyl,  CD or iPod, but in what people say about them. Nothing substitutes for being there, but a successful career in live performances is built on reputation.  As with movies, word of mouth is crucial.

Some time ago I lofted here a paean to the young American organist Cameron Carpenter’s extraordinary feet. Sheathed in white leather organ shoes, these feet have gained a curious immortality in YouTube where, with the click of a mouse, they can be unleashed to race up and down the pedal board in one of the greatest stunts in the annals of musical bravura: Carpenter’s transcription of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude in which his two feet match the considerable demands given by Chopin to the five fingers of the pianist’s left hand.  On the internet these feet never tire. It seems that Carpenter’s pedal revolution is the most visited organ clip on YouTube, and has certainly been vital to the building of a reputation that has Carpenter traveling around the world from Sydney to London and now to Ithaca.

Last Friday Carpenter made his way Upstate from his home in New York City for a concert at Ithaca College.  Unfortunately, I had to do my own gig in the Big Apple that same day. Perhaps Carpenter and I  passed each other on I-81 in the Poconos. I imagined him in a brilliant white Volkswagen Bug glittering with sequins racing through the still-brown hills, but there was nothing even close to that level of flash and dash on the interstate.  Perhaps this revolutionary was transported to his destination in a sealed car.

While I’ve already admitted that I wasn’t even at the concert, I offer this virtual review of Carpenter’s Ithaca appearance, or better a report on its reception among a pair of music lovers dear to my heart: my two daughters, Elizabeth and Cecilia, ages ten and twelve respectively. They’d been taken to the concert by their mother, Annette Richards, the Cornell University organist. It is from children that the truth, musical or otherwise, is most likely to emerge. They’ve heard recitals and services by their parents on organs across North America and Europe, from the electronic travesty in the Christian Science church at the bottom of our street to the great Silberman organ from 1755 in the Catholic Cathedral in Dresden.

Call it a new genre: the review by hearsay.

On my return to Ithaca on Saturday I got home just as the kids were getting back from a walk with the dog. I asked them about the concert. They’d seen the YouTube clip  a couple of times and from it had gained a sense of the Carpenter persona.  So on the evening of the concert they were disappointed to see Carpenter greeting concertgoers at the entrance to the hall not in his trademark white body suit but in black t-shirt and jeans. But they liked the idea of meeting the virtual virtuoso beforehand in the flesh.  Indeed, the disappointment at seeing him in somber black only made his eventual appearance on the stage a few minutes later in his concert rig all the more exciting.

Carpenter’s mystique is built on image: the physicality of organ performance—extreme in his case—is what is so vividly conveyed on YouTube and he uses a pair of screens in concerts to give the audience close-ups of his feet and hands.  For centuries the organist was hidden from view of the congregation, operating his mighty machine from a distant choir loft often fully shielded from the listeners down below by a section of the organ built onto the gallery railing. The miracle of drawing music from the largest of musical instruments, bringing pipes as far as fifty feet from the console to singing life with precision and finesse through purely mechanical connection made the organ the technological marvel of pre-Industrial Europe. But in our visual age, the miracle of late Gothic remote control in which the unseen organist—much like the jet captain locked behind his terror-proof door and piloting his plane in full command of a daunting panel of lights and switches—sends music into the vast architecture has been turned against the organist.

With Carpenter the only way to believe that the music is being made with the feet and hands is to see it on the screen. He is not the first organist to project himself on big screens, but certainly the most committed to that mode of connecting to his audience.  The girls, ages ten and twelve, liked the visuals. “It was cool,” said Elizabeth, the older of the two.

“He made a lot of mistakes with his feet,” the younger one said. “I thought he was going to be better than that after the YouTube thing.”  In principle tallying errors hardly counts as a valid form of music criticism. But if the player is all about flamboyance and high-speed accuracy then such observations seem warranted.  If a musical gymnast muffs the dismount, even the sympathetic pre-teen judges will adjust their marks accordingly.

 “He did a lot of goofy stuff with his thumbs, fiddling around,” said Cecilia. This was her take on Carpenter’s trick of “thumbing down”—a flashy and not unuseful technique in which the thumbs are used to solo out a melody line on one manual while the rest of the fingers are busy on another manual.  It’s a trick called for occasionally in the repertoire. What is for most a rare procedure forms a crucial aspect of Carpenter’s technique because it looks good on the screen: as if four limbs weren’t enough, the thumbs pair up to make a third hand.

“He needs to work on his bow,” said Elizabeth.  “He puts his hands together like he’s praying and says ‘Thank You.’” Elizabeth is a good mimic and she gives me a version of the bow with its Japanese flavor. “He acts like he’s humble but I don’t think he is.”

“He did this improvisation using the theme of Super Mario Brothers,” said Cecilia. “It didn’t do anything, just repeated itself a lot. I guess that’s like a video game, but it was really boring. In the Bach he was always making these crescendos and diminuendos and changing. It was kind of like seasick.”

“He talked a lot and was always saying bad stuff about the organ,” said Elizabeth. “He kept saying what a pain it was to have to go to deal with other organs.” These are girls who have been dragged around Europe by their organ-playing parents to visit historic instruments from as far back as the 15th century. “He thinks pipes are stupid and he kept talking about the VPO like it was better than the real organ.” The VPO is Carpenter’s Virtual Pipe Organ that he has designed and is soon to be finished.  It’s a provocative misnomer in that it doesn’t have pipes. He’ll be able to bring this thing to his concerts rather than have to discover and deal with real organs. “Maybe the VPO is cool or whatever, but he doesn’t have to say the real organ is bad, does he?”

The program included Carpenter’s transcription of Schubert’s most famous song. “He had the Erlkönig singing on this croaky little reed sound in the bass,” Elizabeth went on. These girls know more than your average American about the organ; amazing what they pick up. “But the creepy thing about the Erkönig is that he sings so beautifully when he comes in. That’s what makes the song so spooky. Cameron doesn’t get what the song is about. It’s like he’s trying to make it funny, not scary.”

“He played three encores and the concert was way too long,” said Elizabeth. Carpenter takes care of the Revolutionary Etude in three-and-a-half minutes over the internet. His concert ran to two-and-half hours. “And he kept saying what a hassle it is to have to come to play on a different organ. But isn’t that what playing the organ is about?”

Cecilia concluded. “He’s a lot better on YouTube.”

At this point the girls’ mother returned from the grocery store after her Saturday morning shopping. If you suspect that her own views had substantially informed those of our children, you are certainly correct. Yet her critique was for more intense. She went to the concert hoping to be impressed, but the picture she drew was of a player of considerable but largely squandered talent, repeatedly unhorsed by that touchstone of the organists’ art, the music of J. S. Bach. “That Bach can withstand Carpenter is proof—as if any were needed—of just how good that music is.”

Annette was turned off by Carpenter’s repeated comparisons of playing an unfamiliar new organ to a one-night stand: meretricious, unfulfilling, and in the end hardly worth the effort. Charging someone twenty dollars to watch this anonymous encounter came across as pure opportunism on the part of the artist, and more than little mean-spirited. If the organ is the King of Instruments, the Ithaca College organ is its Prince William —unattractive and grating to the nerves.  Yet does such a public roll in the hay necessitate a wholesale attack on the organ? Annette’s report made it clear that she found it far from pleasant to watch Carpenter grapple with a partner he continually disparaged over the course of the long evening.

That Carpenter had chosen an educational institution to blast away at the oldest and most venerable member of the European instrumentarium, seemed to the Cornell University organist misguided and downright pernicious. “There are many ways to entertain and uplift,” Annette said, “and these two things are not mutually exclusive.”  Did the immediate standing ovations that the largely-student gave to the showy visitor offer an irrefutable rejoinder to such views on the ethical potential of music? “He has a gift for musical demagoguery, but incessantly dumbing it down is the wrong thing. Even a ten-year-old can see that.” In the flesh the virtual virtuoso, white and glittering, covers himself and his profession in mud.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. 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


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at