FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Corona Carpenter

Cameron Carpenter, the irrepressibly brilliant American organist, is not one to stay still. To watch him in the cockpit of his International Touring Organ, a two-million dollar technological marvel contrived not by Lockheed Martin but by the digital organ building firm of Marshall & Ogletree, is to witness energy so explosive that you expect Carpenter to lift off the bench at any moment. An eighteenth-century eye-witness to J. S. Bach’s callisthenic organ pedaling thought his feet were winged like Mercury’s, but Cameron’s appendages appear rocket-powered, and he pilots his musical space ship to planets old Johann didn’t even know existed. Carpenter must be among his generation’s most-travelled virtuosos, and he boldly goes where no man has gone before.

The ITO has five keyboards for the hands and one for the feet. These keyboards are framed by banks of colorful buttons and tabs that bring on and off sounds sampled from the great church organs of the world, musical vehicles anchored to their architecture. Carpenter’s fingers jump and jab from one keyboard to the other, constantly manipulating the sonorities and often bringing out unexpected melodic lines that require him to play on three manuals simultaneously—a Hydra sprouting not new heads but new hands.

Carpenter is a force of nature and technology: a vastly gifted, endlessly creative, and indefatigably hard-working musician, who, I’d venture to say, has practiced his astounding craft more than any organist of his—or perhaps any other—time.

Carpenter is spectacular. Indeed, being visible is crucial to his art and entertainment. The organs of pre-industrial Europe were the most advanced machines in the world with their complex system of mechanical remote control in which an organist could operate thousands of pipes far from his fingers and feet. Yet the organist was often hidden behind large cabinets of pipes, or placed too far above the audience for his movements to astonish visually. The just-cited report of Bach’s pedaling heroics was possible because an eyewitness had been invited into the organ loft. Carpenter has to be seen to be believed, and making the organ portable—with aid of a big-rig and a platoon of roadies—allows him to descend from distant balcony to concert stage. The lunar module lands before blasting off again.

With the astounding physicality of his performance Carpenter has ushered the King of Instruments, freed from unwieldy pipes, into the YouTube age. As far as I can tell, the Dutch organist Ton Koopman’s 4.6 million hits for playing a short Bach fugue on one of those giant old organs of Europe captured on micro-chip for digital dissemination, surpasses Carpenter’s individual metrics. But Carpenter has many YouTube videos with hundreds of thousands of hits and these offerings cover a vast range of repertoires and styles: theatre organ romps, impossibly difficult symphonic transcriptions, sprawling video game fantasies, light-speed études, and organ classics weaponized with his full arsenal. He likes to retrofit the Bachian warhorses with cruise missiles. In these hugely varied and ceaselessly impressive videos you can also hear him speak: he’s articulate, provocative, witty, thoughtful, irreverent—and always energetic.

However astonishing on screen, Carpenter is driven to reach his audience—from kids to seniors—in live performance. For more than a decade he has been based in Berlin, but continues to tour the globe, from Sydney to Shanghai to Moscow.

The lockdown has curtailed these travels, but could not keep him from his public for long. More than a month ago, on Easter Sunday, Carpenter presented a live-streamed concert in the empty Konzerthaus in Berlin. His younger self was often costumed in abundant sequins, but on Easter Carpenter was dressed in simple black t-shirt and trousers. The only sparkles to be seen were those on the heels of his organ shoes. Vertical wands of colored light ringed, séance-like, the ebonized console of the ITO, with larger beams illuminating the columns looming in the recesses of the hall. Especially in the hulking neo-classical interior of the Konzerthaus—a favorite Berlin building of the Nazis—this tableau summoned thoughts of Albert Speer’s monumental, menacing light sculptures.

Carpenter started the program already seated at the ITO with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat. Uncharacteristically, he did not indulge his penchant for kaleidosonic registration change. Those chromatic shifts were left to the light show. But Carpenter larded on ornaments and flourishes to Bach’s majestic work as if he were trying to bewitch rather than orate. His hands and feet were possessed: every bar offered the chance to cast another fidgety spell.

Carpenter then tangoed with Argentinian master Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion—an ominously atmospheric counter to the preceding Bachian uplift. Mussorgsky’s Old Castle brought more portents of ruin, before Louis Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster opened tantalizingly optimistic urban vistas, Big Ben back in business for the crowds of tourist down below. From thence we re-entered the labyrinth with Joe Hiasishi’s soundtrack for the dystopian (or so it seems to me) video game, Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind. It is perhaps in these soundscapes that Carpenter navigates his ITO most deftly, and always with demonic delight. The music was eerily, unsettlingly beautiful before plunging into the apocalyptic. From that virtual world Carpenter made a quick flyover of verdant fields with Percy Grainer’s “Irish Tune from County Derry” — the digital (and pedal) wizard enjoying some hi-tech leprechaunery. Carpenter’s volcanic transcription of Howard Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony hardly finished off the hour by calming Corona fears. This extraordinary organist played the Prince of Darkness on a day meant to mark light and resurrection.

Sequestered in his solitary Valhalla on Easter, Carpenter then took his talents to the people in May with a series of 36 half-hour concerts given on four consecutive days outside of senior homes and other care institutions. That’s nine-and-half hours of recital playing per day. Olympic marathons have been won by runners in their thirties, and it’s clear that Carpenter has not lost a step, even over the long haul. Few, if any, have the physical and mental endurance to meet such a challenge.

He played the programs from the bed of a Mercedes-Benz transport truck half the size of the big-rig required for the ITO. The tarpaulin pulled back to reveal him at another of the King of Instruments’ lesser courtiers—a machine called the Viscount. It’s less flashy but more portable than the ITO, ideal for these commando performances.

From windows of the multi-story building above seniors looked down and listened, some with binoculars so as to get an even closer look at what from afar might have seemed impossible. This time Carpenter wore funky tails, and the brightest thing in his sartorial ensemble were orange earplugs: the speakers boomed out high-decibel Bach. The E-flat Prelude and Fugue took up the first half of the thirty minutes, but Carpenter’s incessant additions seemed more like slightly bored doodlings than a conjurer’s off-the-cuff incantations. One can hardly blame him for trying to keep interested over such a grueling docket of live performances.

Carpenter then tossed off an assortment of Goldberg Variations. Once again he overlaid Bach’s filigree with his own. Even if these intrusions violate the precepts of good taste, I nonetheless admire how enough is never enough for Carpenter, even in Corona Time. The show is everything, and accordingly Carpenter’s feet sometimes took over the athletic line the composer had originally assigned to the left hand, which idled nonchalantly as if to underscore the feat taking place below. The concert ended with the Goldberg’s last number, the so-called Quodlibet. In it Bach masterfully combines at least two lowly folk tunes above the governing Goldberg bass-line. Thus the arduous, ingenious set concludes with irreverent humor, both self-effacing and self-aggrandizing. Rather than demurely winking and nudging in the manner that the Quodlibet seems to call for, Carpenter launched this sublime bagatelle towards the twilight with a mighty crescendo so that the seniors could be sure that he’d come to his suitably rousing conclusion. Carpenter took his richly deserved bow after a long day on the bench and off it, to disparate but sincere applause from the windows above and the courtyard beyond.

An autonomous orchestra unto itself, the organ is the musical instrument of social-distancing par excellence. Old-school types like me safely ensconce themselves in fortresses of pipes and behind railings in balconies. Carpenter has often claimed that far-flung arrangement as something to be fought against, even demolished. With Carpenter, as in any number of folk tales, the King rides out to meet his people. Much is lost and much is gained through the organ’s mobility and storage capacity of different sounds.

Corona cannot stop Carpenter, and it is exhilarating to see and hear him—even if from a few floors up or on a computer screen a continent away.

More articles by:

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  dgyearsley@gmail.com

July 09, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 Exposes the Weakness of a Major Theory Used to Justify Capitalism
Ahrar Ahmad
Racism in America: Police Choke-Holds Are Not the Issue
Timothy M. Gill
Electoral Interventions: a Suspiciously Naïve View of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War World
Daniel Falcone
Cold War with China and the Thucydides Trap: a Conversation with Richard Falk
Daniel Beaumont
Shrink-Wrapped: Plastic Pollution and the Greatest Economic System Jesus Ever Devised
Prabir Purkayastha
The World Can Show How Pharma Monopolies Aren’t the Only Way to Fight COVID-19
Gary Leupp
“Pinning Down Putin” Biden, the Democrats and the Next War
Howard Lisnoff
The Long Goodbye to Organized Religion
Cesar Chelala
The Dangers of Persecuting Doctors
Mike Garrity – Erik Molvar
Back on the List: A Big Win for Yellowtone Grizzlies and the Endangered Species Act, a Big Loss for Trump and Its Enemies
Purusottam Thakur
With Rhyme and Reasons: Rap Songs for COVID Migrants
Binoy Kampmark
Spiked Concerns: The Melbourne Coronavirus Lockdown
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela is on a Path to Make Colonialism Obsolete
George Ochenski
Where are Our Political Leaders When We Really Need Them?
Dean Baker
Is it Impossible to Envision a World Without Patent Monopolies?
William A. Cohn
Lead the Way: a Call to Youth
July 08, 2020
Laura Carlsen
Lopez Obrador’s Visit to Trump is a Betrayal of the U.S. and Mexican People
Melvin Goodman
Afghanistan: What is to be Done?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
The End of the American Newspaper
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Merits of Medicare for All Have Been Proven by This Pandemic
David Rosen
It’s Now Ghislaine Maxwell’s Turn
Nicolas J S Davies
Key U.S. Ally Indicted for Organ Trade Murder Scheme
Bob Lord
Welcome to Hectobillionaire Land
Laura Flanders
The Great American Lie
John Kendall Hawkins
Van Gogh’s Literary Influences
Marc Norton
Reopening vs. Lockdown is a False Dichotomy
Joel Schlosberg
“All the Credit He Gave Us:” Time to Drop Hamilton’s Economics
CounterPunch News Service
Tribes Defeat Trump Administration and NRA in 9th Circuit on Sacred Grizzly Bear Appeal
John Feffer
The US is Now the Global Public Health Emergency
Nick Licata
Three Books on the 2020 Presidential Election and Their Relevance to the Black Live Matter Protests
Elliot Sperber
The Breonna Taylor Bridge
July 07, 2020
Richard Eskow
The War on Logic: Contradictions and Absurdities in the House’s Military Spending Bill
Daniel Beaumont
Gimme Shelter: the Brief And Strange History of CHOP (AKA CHAZ)
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s War
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Racism May be Blatant, But the Culture He Defends Comes Out of the Civil War and Goes Well Beyond Racial Division
Andrew Stewart
Can We Compare the George Floyd Protests to the Vietnam War Protests? Maybe, But the Analogy is Imperfect
Walden Bello
The Racist Underpinnings of the American Way of War
Nyla Ali Khan
Fallacious Arguments Employed to Justify the Revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s Autonomy and Its Bifurcation
Don Fitz
A Statue of Hatuey
Dean Baker
Unemployment Benefits Should Depend on the Pandemic
Ramzy Baroud – Romana Rubeo
Will the ICC Investigation Bring Justice for Palestine?
Sam Pizzigati
Social Distancing for Mega-Million Fun and Profit
Dave Lindorff
Private: Why the High Dudgeon over Alleged Russian Bounties for Taliban Slaying of US Troops
George Wuerthner
Of Fire and Fish
Binoy Kampmark
Killing Koalas: the Promise of Extinction Down Under
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail