Cameron Carpenter is without a doubt the most visible organist on the planet. First of all, the 33-year-old Juilliard graduate’s abilities as a player are second to none. He possesses an astounding technique and unfailingly sure musical instincts, whether the repertoire is Bach, French Late Romantic, or his own virtuoso transcriptions. Then there’s the “package” you get encountering Carpenter as a performer on video or in person—the mohawk, the eye liner, the shiny jackets and bejeweled shoes, the rippling biceps, the out-there sexuality, his views on the Church as an institution. But none of this is what truly sets Carpenter apart from other current masters of “The King of Instruments” and what makes him as controversial as he is in the organ world. What he’ll be remembered for is this: Cameron Carpenter has had it with pipe organs, those leviathans that reside, immovably, in churches, concert halls, and even department stores. And he’s done something about it.
Since March of 2014, Carpenter has been performing publicly on a digital organ of his own design, built by the Needham, Massachusetts, company of Marshall & Ogletree. In late August, Sony released a CD/DVD set with Carpenter playing a wide-ranging program on what’s called the International Touring Organ. Carpenter grew up in a small town in Northwestern Pennsylvania but now divides his time off the road between Los Angeles and Berlin. I spoke with the musician by phone from Germany. “It sounds blasphemous, but I think it’s a demonstrable and observable thing that this organ is a much richer instrument than most of the pipe organs in the world,” he told me. “It has the ability to place the traditional resources of the instrument at the behest of the player without engaging such fundamental realities as the entropy, inertia, and momentum of moving parts and the wear that friction will bring to bear on those parts. The idea of building an instrument which could somehow short-circuit the realities of friction and momentum would have been an idea highly desirable to the great organ-builders of whatever era—people like Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, Robert Hope- Jones (the inventor of the theater organ), Ernest Skinner, or G. Donald Harrison. All of those men went to their graves trying to build an instrument that was technologically better. That the organ, for centuries, along with the clock and the loom, was the most sophisticated device built by man makes it all the more ironic that it has come to us as a church instrument. It is the most tangible example of the irreconcilability of religion and science that there is. The fact that the International Touring Organ is able to walk away from those things, both in a metaphysical and a Newtonian sense, is for me so irresistible that it just has to be told to the world.”
Electric/electronic organs have been mass-produced since the 1930s, with increasing sophistication and musical value. For about 35 years, the methodology has been “digital” with sound produced either synthetically or, better, as the result of sampling a real pipe organ. Marshall & Ogletree, a relative newcomer to the industry with under a dozen completed instruments to its name, has gone to the greatest lengths to faithfully reproduce the sounds of the organs it samples. Many manufacturers will briefly sample a note from a given stop, loop it to provide as long a tone as the music requires, and then use DSP to derive different pitches. Marshall & Ogletree’s “PipeSourcing” technique involves a 15- to 20-second recording of each individual pipe, utilizing several high-quality microphones in the nearfield. For his ITO (a considerable investment on Carpenter’s part; he owns it) M & O’s large sample library, mostly sourced from Boston-area organs, was incorporated along with samples from several other instruments the artist admires—the organ in the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, two organs from Carpenter’s youth in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a large Wurlitzer theater organ now resident in a private home in Great Falls, Virginia. But the goal is not to emulate a specific pipe organ but rather to create an instrument that is supremely dependable and musically flexible.
Marshall & Ogletree’s very first organ—their “Opus 1” in the lingo of organ-builders—was the instrument built to replace the Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ at Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan that was irreparably damaged on September 11, 2001. It was this organ that made Carpenter a believer in the brand. “It was something immediately clear at the moment that it happened. That moment occurred on November 4, 2004, which was the day I played the first of Marshall & Ogletree’s organs at Trinity Church, Wall Street. This is an unprecedented example of an emerging, fledgling organ-builder having their first instrument installed and immediately become one of the most famous organs in the world because of the importance of the venue. It’s played practically round the clock and used extensively in television and web casts. As a student at Juilliard, I had, of course, heard about this—mostly in terms of bitter resistance on the part of organists and their outrage that a [digital] instrument was replacing a pipe organ, itself a rather telling sign of the fetishism of the physical by organists. I got to know the builders and Owen Burdick, the director of music at the church. They allowed me to play the instrument and have access to it. The first day that I played it—the first minute that I played it—I immediately saw two things. I saw that this was a much greater organ than the pipe organ it replaced ever could be and that if I didn’t have this instrument in my future, I would be profoundly unhappy.”
The International Touring Organ, M & O’s Opus 8, travels from concert to concert by truck with a driver and one technician. Setup of the instrument and all its associated amplification and loudspeakers can be accomplished in around four hours. Typically, the speaker complement includes 40 full-range Definitive Technology loudspeakers and a dozen custom-built subwoofers; amplification is provided by the Swedish pro-audio firm Lab.gruppen, chosen for dependability as well as sonic excellence. Setting up this formable assemblage of equipment and setting levels is surprisingly routine, Carpenter reports. “I have a series of complicated diagnostic tests but the organ is shockingly consistent.
We think it’s because it’s not just speakers sitting on a stage, it’s speakers that are in little chambers, not unlike pipe chambers. These cabinets are just as responsible as the speakers are for the consistency of the instrument. I’ve had it in a great many rooms and the number of changes that I’ll make from hall to hall are in the one-to-two-minutes of work range. There’s almost nothing that has to be done. Sometimes you get a situation where part of the stage is rattling or something’s loose in the venue, or there are room nodes or idiosyncrasies—but all those things can be addressed. The organ always retains its identity every place I’ve taken it. When I sit down, it’s exactly the instrument I designed.”
It should be noted that both Carpenter and M&O view the International Touring Organ as “a multichannel instrument” which should be experienced with the array of amplifiers and loudspeakers designed for it. Once it was necessary to play the ITO through a venue’s house audio system that summed the multichannel output into a stereo mix. This compromise “makes the organ, in my opinion, sound slightly two-dimensional. Well, perhaps more than slightly. It’s not something I feel is true to the spirit of the instrument,” Carpenter says.