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.