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Glamorous organist working on grand designsBy William Dart10:40 AM Saturday Aug 27, 2011 Visit Cameron Carpenter's website and you could be bowled over by the glamour and glitz. The American may be described as the Horowitz of the organ, but Liberace might seem more of a soul-brother.As for those glittering runs that the original Mister Showmanship dispensed with bejewelled fingers, Carpenter can do the same with his feet, his sequined shoes flitting over the pedals in Chopin's Revolutionary Etude.Online, talking to CBS's Sunday Morning, he plays with his pet cat, explains how he needs almost four litres of milk daily to get his 5000 calories and is even happy to be called the bad boy of the pipe organ. When I catch up with him, a week before his appearance with the NZSO National Youth Orchestra, he is unexpectedly tetchy.My first mistake is asking how important the flamboyant Virgil Fox might have been in turning him on to the organ. "Absolutely unimportant," is the clipped answer. "I have no remote interest in almost anything that has to do with the organ's past."The competition is the past," he continues. "The organ is in need of a dramatic reinvention, one that is only possible after its effective death, which I regard as having taken place at the end of the 20th century."I discover that, despite his reeling off everything from Schubert's Erlking to a Sousa march in a New York church for last year's live DVD, he is no fan of church organs.Far from being a venue of choice, a church is a "nonentity in terms of the musical market of the world," he says. "It is not a respected place for a pianist, a violinist or an orchestra and certainly not for an organist."The central sphere of my work is to make sure my career continues to ascend and that I continue to refine and develop the concept of what I want to be. I'm not dependent on pipe organs because they simply don't have a future." It will be pipes for Carpenter when he plays in Auckland Town Hall next Saturday, but the American's ambition is for a pipe-free instrument, with two models custom-built in Berlin and Boston."It will be the greatest organ in the world," he enthuses, "totally free of sonic limitations and any fixed entities which can't be changed without the ministrations of an army of overpriced organ-builders." And, one presumes, it will be the perfect vehicle for his showy transcriptions, rescoring the music of Shostakovich, Rachmaninov and Chopin so the instrument can "transcend genres".This young man, who features his own Serenade and Fugue on Bach alongside a selection of original Bach on the live CD, seems most interested in his own "compositional potential".The success of his recent The Scandal for organ and orchestra proves that "audiences are crying out for vehemently coloristic romantic music".Surprisingly, Carpenter does not have much to say about Samuel Barber's Toccata Festiva which he is due to play next Saturday."I don't know it well enough," he admits. "I'll have to wait until I'm able to work with the orchestra; inevitably they will inform my feeling."It would be professionally inappropriate for me to come floating in with a grand concept in mind."PerformanceWhat: NZSO National Youth OrchestraWhere and when: Auckland Town Hall, Saturday September 3 at 8pmBy William Dart
The organ world needs eccentric characters, without them we will get consigned to the stuffy dustbin!
In a one-size-fits-all, mass-production, chainstore age, the pipe organ is an outlier. The people who make and play pipe organs are participants in a unique art form that is seldom understood by the general public. Organ builders maintain a tradition of interdisciplinary craftsmanship that dates back centuries. They combine knowledge of acoustics, metallurgy, electrical and mechanical engineering, cabinetry, musicianship and, more recently, computer technology to create custom-designed works of art that must be visually striking, aurally pleasing and practical. Each project results in a one-of-a-kind instrument.If every instrument is unique, how does the organist know how to use it? What if all 747 cockpits had different layouts of dials, switches and buttons and each aircraft responded in its own fashion to these controls? A pilot would have to spend hours learning the ins and outs of any individual airplane before taking flight. This is exactly like what a concert organist must do when she travels to a new location to perform a recital. Most other musicians travel with their own instruments and never face this challenge. The way that a concert organist custom fits her recital program to each instrument and the craftsmanship that she displays run parallel to the organ builder’s art. Each performance is an ephemeral, unrepeatable work of art.The first step in creating this one-time-only performance is finding out about the organ on which the concert will take place. Even from a distance, the organist can learn much about the organ from reading its specifications: who built it, when it was built and what stops it has. Organs almost always conform to a particular historical or geographical style. Organs built in France in the 19th century, for instance, are very different than organs built in northern Germany in the 18th century. An organist must know the difference and choose pieces that fit the instrument. “With [the specification], along with what I know of different builders, eras, styles, etc., I can make an educated guess as to what the organ will ‘want’ to play,” says Ryan. “When organs are built with one particular style of music in mind, such as French Baroque or North German Baroque or English Romantic, and so forth, [it] can allow this music to be heard in a manner closer to what the composer heard and knew.”Having chosen appropriate music for a recital, the organist must then learn the music. Often, he will select music that he already knows, in which case rehearsing or relearning are required. This is when he learns the coordination between hands and feet (slightly different with each piece) and flexibility as to which keyboards (“manuals” in organ-speak) the hands will play. Since organs normally have pedals plus two, three, four or even five manuals, this aspect, too, is different from one venue to another. If he is lucky, the performer might practice on an instrument near his home, one that is similar in style and size to the concert instrument, making preparation less unpredictable.Upon arrival at the concert location, the organist’s main tasks are to adjust the coordination of hands and feet to the specific physical demands of the organ console and to select appropriate stops for the music. (Eating, drinking and sleeping tend to be optional at this point.) “Stops” are the knobs that control which pipes are speaking. Generally, each stop controls one kind of pipe and each kind of pipe has a different sound. Wood pipes sound different from metal pipes; tall, skinny pipes sound different from short, wide pipes. The combinations of these sounds and the changes throughout a piece create a kaleidoscope of tone color. The art of “registration,” or choosing which stops to use, is unique to the organ and a difficult skill to master. While the organist can learn notes before arriving at a concert venue, the registration must be done on-site.If you think of each stop as a different instrument, registration can be seen as analogous to orchestration. “An organist must be the equivalent of the conductor, all the members of an orchestra and half of the composer all in one,” says Ryan. “As the composer chooses what instruments to use in the musical score, whether it is piano only or string quartet or voices or trumpets or full symphony, so organists choose the sounds (called ‘stops’) to use in solo and in combination.” However, registration is even more complex, since the makeup of the “orchestra” can change with every performance. Imagine a conductor having to prepare a Mahler symphony with a different combination of instruments for each performance—this is essentially what an organist does. The organist’s creativity in using a particular organ is of tremendous importance and is often unrecognized by the average listener. The selection of stops, along with getting used to the physical differences between organ consoles, can take hours prior to a performance. While most other instrumentalists can show up shortly before a performance to check the acoustics of a hall, an organist will normally need to plan a full day or more for preparation. Ryan says that he spends “a minimum of six hours of practice on the performance organ, but more typically 10 to 12 or more if it’s a large, difficult program and/or an unusual organ. I greatly enjoy registration, and I often look for hidden sounds, colors and effects. The possibilities are nearly limitless!”Present-day organ consoles most often have combination actions—electro-mechanical technology that allows the organist to change quickly from one combination of stops to another by pressing a button (usually located between the manuals) with a finger- or toe-stud (larger buttons just above the pedals) with the feet. These buttons (known as “pistons” in organ lingo) can be custom set by the organist in preparation for a particular piece. In some pieces these pistons can be used quite frequently, creating changes in sound color, sometimes subtle and sometimes quite abrupt. Since pistons are located in widely differing places from one organ to another, a significant amount of the organist’s preparationtime at a new location is practicing these piston changes. The timing of such changes requires utmost precision and pushing those buttons is like playing another note in the music. Imagine playing an instrument where the keys for playing these “notes” change places at every venue!Very little of this work is apparent to the audience—nothing happens visually to correspond with the stop changes. At its best, an organ performance can offer relatively little for the audience to watch, unlike a virtuoso violinist. In the worst cases, the organist can be hidden from view entirely, especially if the console is in a balcony behind the audience. In recent years cameras and projectors allow close-up images of the organist to be viewed by audiences in real time, which often adds interest to the performance. Many organists will also combat this problem by speaking to the audience between pieces about the music or the organ. This can be a surprise for audiences whose expectations are based on the majority of classical performers who typically don’t break the fourth wall.
Any musician will tell you the touring life has its challenges, but consider those who play the organ.Eight hours, says Cameron Carpenter, the flamboyant virtuoso of the organ, the world heavyweight of the instrument eight hours, "at a minimum", is what he needs to get to know a new organ.And they're all new organs, when you're an organist playing in cities throughout the world."The great bane of playing the organ is, in my case, that every single organ is different. And so I'm a homeless performer in the sense that I have no ongoing relationship with any single instrument."Unlike a violinist, who can just walk on stage with this thing they've held in their hands their entire life."Carpenter, 29, who is in Wellington to play with the National Youth Orchestra, has a reputation to match the biggest of pipe organs.First there's his musical ability a teacher at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York said he possesses "a talent of Mozartean proportions, and a technique the likes of which I don't think has existed on this planet".Then there's his defiant, exuberant personal style, apparent in everything from how he greets the audience at his concerts as they walk through the door, to the glittering crystal-studded shirts and shoes he wears for his performances."It's always been clear to me that a certain degree of forthrightness and honesty is a very valuable thing in a performer," he says. "And in my case, the last thing that would be an appropriate expression of that would be a tuxedo."Today, in the lobby of a Wellington hotel, he's wearing a tight black T-shirt, gold necklace, and a bleached blond hairdo. His dedication to physical fitness is intense. He does one-handed push-ups to warm himself up before shows. He drinks 3.5 litres of milk a day to stop himself from losing weight.He says he is totally uninterested in food, except as fuel, which he has every two hours. "I have a more physical relationship than most organists," he says of his need to be in shape. "Because my feeling is that the organist in the ideal sense should be the uber-pianist. And this is almost never the case."The instrument represents potentially a greater liberation of musical thought than almost anything I can think of except the human voice. But that's also at a massive cost in the sense that it's the most mechanical instrument of all. Even a digital organ such as the one I'm proposing still has hundreds of moving controls."Which brings us to another element of Carpenter's outsized personality. He's deeply frustrated by what he sees as the inflexibility of organs and the organ community. One American TV network even dubbed him "the bad boy of the organ".Organs are stuck in concert halls and churches, inaccessible and underplayed. It's as bad as having a sports car you buy but never use."It's suddenly got all of these mechanical problems and slippages and out-of-tunenesses and little things that are wrong. And also like a great sports car those little things add up fast to a huge decline in control and sensitivity."His despair with the organ community is just as deep. He paints them as a crowd of obsessives and cranks, a "mini-cartel", circling the wagons around what's left of a tradition that stopped growing 50 years ago.His solution to both problems is the instrument that's become his driving passion an electronic, portable organ that he can take out of the churches and concert halls and to the people. "It's the biggest, and in my opinion, the most potentially important project to hit the organ in the last 100 years."He first got sold on the idea when he played a digital organ in a church in central New York after its pipe organ was destroyed in the September 11 attacks. He is now working with the company that created the digital organ to build a $2.5 million touring version of his own. Sounds are harvested from real organs all over the world, he says."And it has a vast sound system that's specially built, it's robotic so that speakers go up to about 35 feet [10.6 metres], and there are these wheel chassis with custom-built subwoofers. It's a massive affair."The result will be a technological and cultural revolution, he says."I'm proposing to build an instrument that has never been dreamed of by the cultural capitals of Europe, let alone heard in Asia, which as we know is the most important market for the keyboard."Carpenter, who suspects he's the best-paid organist in the world "by far" doesn't hold out much hope for the rest of the organ world."I have a lot of sympathy and strong feeling for other organists because I don't envy them ... I expect the pipe organ to be a fairly obsolete proposition within about five to 10 years, if for no other reason than simply economic reasons."Carpenter looks to other disciplines for inspiration. He likes artists as diverse as film-maker Werner Herzog, singer Laurie Anderson and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld."The fashion community values revolutionaries, values free-thinking, values those who go out on the edge and take huge chances."Don't get him wrong. Carpenter still loves the organ, which he has called a "glittering emotion machine". He just doesn't love some of its baggage, such as its close association with church."It's always seemed to me the most unlikely possible thing that the organ would have any relevance to church, because I can't imagine an instrument more violent or more sensuous or more psychologically manipulative than the organ."Now he wants to take what he loves about the organ and make it portable. Among other bonuses, it will mean he can finally have a lasting relationship with just one instrument.