A MOVEABLE FEAST

The following essay appeared in the Playbill for the March 9, 2014 Cameron Carpenter Festival at Lincoln Center. It was originally published in the Konzertdirektion Schmid Journal for 2013/2014.

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The wish to make music on one’s own instrument, a given for most musicians, has required one artist to redefine that instrument. Cameron Carpenter explains his vision to make a great organ mobile

By Cameron Carpenter

I fell in love with the organ at age four. For the next twenty years, loving the organ meant loving the pipe organ — from the tiny instrument in my Pennsylvania hometown, already over a century old when I first played it in 1985, to the great organs at Royal Albert Hall, Disney Hall, Berlin Philharmonie; cathedral organs from Paris to Saint Louis, the Wurlitzer at Radio City Music Hall, and hundreds more. As is sometimes also the case in love, this affair ended abruptly – on the day I played the then-controversial Marshall & Ogletree organ at Trinity Church Wall Street in early Fall 2004. It was this instrument that made me realize, and this remains a daily delight, that there is so much more to ‘the Organ’ than merely the pipe organ.

 

In Thomas Grube’s film The Sound Of My Life, justice begins to be done to the remarkable, circuitous story of how the newest and most musically versatile of the world’s great organs – the International Touring Organ – came into existence as a boundary-breaking liberation of the pipe organ from its earthbound mechanism. The rise of a humanist technology out of the heart of evil (as the Marshall & Ogletree digital organ was born to replace the pipe organ destroyed at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City on 9/11); the exhilarating confrontation of academic and religious concepts of the organ; and the re-examination of all we know about digital sound, amplification and the role of the computer in music are a but a few of the broad and diversely interrelated themes that define this organ. At its heart this is an example of what it takes to change classical music in the present, not merely in a vague future. What is required to make this change is exactly the same as to perform a meaningful improvisation, no matter what the instrument: vision, acceptance of risk, and organization.

 

The dubious label ‘the King of Instruments’1 – essentially the same idea as the theater organ nostalgist’s cloying ‘Mighty Wurlitzer’2 – strains to invoke the organ’s grandeur, that one of its many traits widely used to generalize the entire instrument. Between its physical immobility, the onus of religion and its superiority-complex monikers, its adherents see the pipe organ as an end in itself. But every organ, the International Touring Organ especially included, is by dint of definition not an end in itself but a means to expression. Presenting it otherwise ensures its relevance only to a coterie of enthusiasts, a deplorable situation currently observable throughout the world.

 

Like much of the institution of classical music, the pipe organ is slow to change, expensive to produce, resistant to genre crossing, and governed by traditions only now beginning to be questioned. Its hallways – are they cloisters? – are jealously guarded. Yet apathy among mainstream audiences is a problem against which most organists are not equipped to fight. They cannot be: if by ‘organ’ we only mean ‘pipe organ’, then it will remain nearly impossible for any organist to be truly competitive on the world stage.

 

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The combined enthusiasm of every pipe organ fan in the world cannot save it from incompatibility with today’s musico-commercial infrastructure. As is particularly visible in the overlap between commercial recording and touring, this system depends upon consistent delivery of a musician’s brand across global markets. Because every pipe organ in the world is structurally and musically different, these organs dictate to a disastrous degree what repertoire can and cannot be performed effectively. The further the organist strays from traditional repertoire performed according to academic guidelines, the more pronounced this problem becomes.3

 

This in turn foils any attempt by the artist to consistently promise concert presenters or media outlets – assuming he/she has managed to engage them at all, frequently a Herculean task itself – that the audience will actually get what they have been promised.

The astounding idiocy of this situation, the frustration of having something to say but no tongue to speak it, has been my exact experience many hundreds of times. Obvious, and yet vulgar in its non-negotiability, every pipe organ of musical significance is immobile. Here we see that the pipe organ, in its physical immobility, symbolizes resistance to change. It literally isn’t going anywhere.

 

Despite notions, still tangible in classical music, that acoustic=good / amplified=bad, digital technology is an ally rather than a threat to the traditional instrument. Many of the advances that have shaped the late-20th century organ and given us the so-called ‘eclectic’ pipe organ are all dependent upon the application of the computer to generation of music at the hands of the organist. This is true whether by “generation” we mean the system used to generate sound waves or, equally importantly, the system used to translate the player’s movements into mechanical activity within the organ. Hardly a pipe organ is to be found in any significant hall in Europe or America without a digital console control system– even in a quasi-historic organ like that at the Mozarteum in Salzburg – and the musical potential of new controls made possible by these systems has already been taken for granted in the organ technique taught in many conservatories since the mid-1990’s. At 32, I’m old enough to have shared much of the music world’s distaste at the digital organ’s adolescence. Considered in light of even the last 200 years of the organ’s history, that adolescence has however been wildly prodigious. In fact the “electronic” (by which we might mean pre-1971 analog, as well as the then-adolescent digital organ of 1971 to about 2000) is an instrument whose lifetime is already behind us.

 

In the instruments of Marshall & Ogletree, the visionary Needham, Massachusetts builders of the International Touring Organ, a leap has been made which forces casual and astute listeners alike to reconsider much about the organ in general, let alone any preconceived concepts about what a digital organ can or cannot be. M&O’s methods are capable of producing instruments, of which the International Touring Organ is the eighth, whose ideals are exactly in keeping with the stated and written values of the greatest organ builders of the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Some of the most important of these values might be summed up thus:

 

–      A commitment to increasingly expand the tonal palette and therefore musical diversity of the organ in general;

–      Seeking to provide the organist ever greater and more precise control over that palette;

–      Continual improvement in the mechanism of the organ.

 

The advances made by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, E. M. Skinner, Robert Hope-Jones, Henry Willis and the other iconic organ builders of the twentieth century were all in the pursuance of exactly these values, among many others of similar direction. The concept that organ tone of profound beauty and emotional significance could be produced with essentially no moving parts, and therefore largely outside the scope of friction and inertia except that of the player’s own body, would have seemed to any of the great organ builders of the past an idea almost blasphemous in its desirability.

 

That there is now a means not only to preserve, by acoustic sampling, the works of these masters, but also to make music with them irrespective of their origins and location in ways impossible in their traditional mediums, should only be a cause for celebration. It makes the organ a movable feast, and as the International Touring Organ has already begun to demonstrate, it also allows the organ to circumvent many of the pipe organ’s crippling public relations problems. As but one example, the installation of the International Touring Organ for a site specific performance in the course of a tour will always be locally newsworthy whilst a pipe organ, after its installation, is tied to the fates of the building that houses it and is seldom twice a story4.

 

Playing at the pleasure of an institution on an instrument he/she does not own, caught between the academy and the church – between expectations of authenticity to text and authenticity before God – the position of the organist is hardly to be envied. The price of the idea that the pipe organ is the one true path will remain steep. To believe this is to remain a local musician, a non-player even in mainstream classical musical commerce, itself a tiny fraction of global music.

 

The International Touring Organ is therefore a staggering challenge to me artistically. If the pipe organ’s immobility seems at times symbolic, then all the more so is the International Touring Organ’s mobility; it literally, physically crosses borders. It can allow me to play anywhere and at my best. It dares me to make good on my talent in delivery of performances prepared in privacy over years – not overnight, on unfamiliar instruments learned hastily under work lights at three o’clock in the morning. As an artistic conduit it dares me to be more intimate with my audience than any pipe organ would allow me to be. These are great expectations, any one of them worthy of a life’s work in music.

What worlds await?

 

© 2014 Cameron Carpenter

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Footnotes

1. And dubious it is, even though attributed to Mozart, who may or may not have said: ‘To my eyes and ears the organ will ever be the king of instruments.’ If genuine, the ‘to my eyes and ears’ is most telling. It’s an interesting qualification from a composer whose output for the organ, a few minor fugues and works for self-playing mechanical organs, is but a footnote to his hundreds of towering masterworks written for other instruments.

2. The “Mighty Wurlitzer” handle – usually uttered in tones of good-old-days reverence that may in the next breath mourn the yielding of steam locomotives to diesel – is perhaps unwittingly a testament to the relentlessly hyperbolic marketing of the Rudolf Wurlitzer Company, in its day a kind of musical Sears Roebuck. So too is the more interesting use of the term by then-CIA Deputy Director Frank Wisner in the 1950’s to describe the ‘playing’ of media networks ‘like a Mighty Wurlitzer’ by American cold war propaganda interests (cf. Ignatius, David. “’45 Papers Detail British Spying in the U.S.” The Washington Post,  October 1, 1989).

3. I am by no means the first to find this a career-limiting problem, nor the first to try to solve it by means of a touring organ. The last twenty years of the life of American organist Virgil Fox (1912-1980) were defined by his playing of ‘Black Beauty’, a three-manual Rodgers electronic organ equipped with a mobile sound system. This enabled him to appear widely on television and eventually in his Heavy Organ concert tours from 1971 to 1975. Though the Rodgers was an extremely primitive instrument utilizing analog tone generation, it allowed Virgil Fox to become by the early 1960’s a competitive figure in American musical markets in a way no organist had done before. It is not a whole proof of the ideas argued herein for several reasons (1: the organ was owned by Rodgers, not by Fox, and thus remained an institutional rather than a truly privately-held instrument; he did not use it as his primary practice instrument and therefore there is no continuous line, or closed system, from artist to instrument to audience as in the case of the International Touring Organ; 2: Fox remained vociferous about his preference of the pipe organ , sometimes referring to Black Beauty as ‘the electric’ and ‘the device’; 3: Fox did not have a career of significance in Europe, where E. Power Biggs was the dominant organist of the day; though the technology existed to do so, the instrument was never used in Europe). Cf. Whitney, Craig: All The Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters. New York: Public Affairs Books (Perseus), 2003.

4. If blame is to be laid on organists for the laughably low attendance at average organ recitals, some should be shared by the pipe organ itself: it is an odd duck in terms of public image, a holdover from the civic era and tied to the fates of the building in which it is housed.