How Cameron Carpenter Blew It In Ithaca

by David Yearsley, April 15, 2010

Nothing is more ephemeral than a concert. Once played it is gone. A recording cannot reproduce or even fully recall it. Such documents are at best approximations. Yet concerts both great and ghastly have a kind of afterlife not only on vinyl, CD or iPod, but in what people say about them. Nothing substitutes for being there, but a successful career in live performances is built on reputation. As with movies, word of mouth is crucial.

Some time ago I lofted on CounterPunch.org a paean to the young American organist Cameron Carpenter’s extraordinary feet. Sheathed in white leather organ shoes, these feet have gained a curious immortality in YouTube where, with the click of a mouse, they can be unleashed to race up and down the pedal board in one of the greatest stunts in the annals of musical bravura: Carpenter’s transcription of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude in which his two feet match the considerable demands given by Chopin to the five fingers of the pianist’s left hand. On the internet these feet never tire. It seems that Carpenter’s pedal revolution is the most visited organ clip on YouTube, and has certainly been vital to the building of a reputation that has Carpenter traveling around the world from Sydney to London and now to Ithaca.

Last Friday Carpenter made his way Upstate from his home in New York City for a concert at Ithaca College. Unfortunately, I had to do my own gig in the Big Apple that same day. Perhaps Carpenter and I passed each other on I-81 in the Poconos. I imagined him in a brilliant white Volkswagen Bug glittering with sequins racing through the still-brown hills, but there was nothing even close to that level of flash and dash on the interstate. Perhaps this revolutionary was transported to his destination in a sealed car.

While I’ve already admitted that I wasn’t even at the concert, I offer this virtual review of Carpenter’s Ithaca appearance, or better a report on its reception among a pair of music lovers dear to my heart: my two daughters, Elizabeth and Cecilia, ages ten and twelve respectively. They’d been taken to the concert by their mother, Annette Richards, the Cornell University organist. It is from children that the truth, musical or otherwise, is most likely to emerge. They’ve heard recitals and services by their parents on organs across North America and Europe, from the electronic travesty in the Christian Science church at the bottom of our street to the great Silberman organ from 1755 in the Catholic Cathedral in Dresden.

Call it a new genre: the review by hearsay.

On my return to Ithaca on Saturday I got home just as the kids were getting back from a walk with the dog. I asked them about the concert. They’d seen the YouTube clip a couple of times and from it had gained a sense of the Carpenter persona. So on the evening of the concert they were disappointed to see Carpenter greeting concertgoers at the entrance to the hall not in his trademark white body suit but in black t-shirt and jeans. But they liked the idea of meeting the virtual virtuoso beforehand in the flesh. Indeed, the disappointment at seeing him in somber black only made his eventual appearance on the stage a few minutes later in his concert rig all the more exciting.

Carpenter’s mystique is built on image: the physicality of organ performance—extreme in his case—is what is so vividly conveyed on YouTube and he uses a pair of screens in concerts to give the audience close-ups of his feet and hands. For centuries the organist was hidden from view of the congregation, operating his mighty machine from a distant choir loft often fully shielded from the listeners down below by a section of the organ built onto the gallery railing. The miracle of drawing music from the largest of musical instruments, bringing pipes as far as fifty feet from the console to singing life with precision and finesse through purely mechanical connection made the organ the technological marvel of pre-Industrial Europe. But in our visual age, the miracle of late Gothic remote control in which the unseen organist—much like the jet captain locked behind his terror-proof door and piloting his plane in full command of a daunting panel of lights and switches—sends music into the vast architecture has been turned against the organist.

With Carpenter the only way to believe that the music is being made with the feet and hands is to see it on the screen. He is not the first organist to project himself on big screens, but certainly the most committed to that mode of connecting to his audience. The girls, ages ten and twelve, liked the visuals. “It was cool,” said Elizabeth, the older of the two.

“He made a lot of mistakes with his feet,” the younger one said. “I thought he was going to be better than that after the YouTube thing.” In principle tallying errors hardly counts as a valid form of music criticism. But if the player is all about flamboyance and high-speed accuracy then such observations seem warranted. If a musical gymnast muffs the dismount, even the sympathetic pre-teen judges will adjust their marks accordingly.

“He did a lot of goofy stuff with his thumbs, fiddling around,” said Cecilia. This was her take on Carpenter’s trick of “thumbing down”—a flashy and not unuseful technique in which the thumbs are used to solo out a melody line on one manual while the rest of the fingers are busy on another manual. It’s a trick called for occasionally in the repertoire. What is for most a rare procedure forms a crucial aspect of Carpenter’s technique because it looks good on the screen: as if four limbs weren’t enough, the thumbs pair up to make a third hand.

“He needs to work on his bow,” said Elizabeth. “He puts his hands together like he’s praying and says ‘Thank You.’” Elizabeth is a good mimic and she gives me a version of the bow with its Japanese flavor. “He acts like he’s humble but I don’t think he is.”

“He did this improvisation using the theme of Super Mario Brothers,” said Cecilia. “It didn’t do anything, just repeated itself a lot. I guess that’s like a video game, but it was really boring. In the Bach he was always making these crescendos and diminuendos and changing. It was kind of like seasick.”

“He talked a lot and was always saying bad stuff about the organ,” said Elizabeth. “He kept saying what a pain it was to have to go to deal with other organs.” These are girls who have been dragged around Europe by their organ-playing parents to visit historic instruments from as far back as the 15th century. “He thinks pipes are stupid and he kept talking about the VPO like it was better than the real organ.” The VPO is Carpenter’s Virtual Pipe Organ that he has designed and is soon to be finished. It’s a provocative misnomer in that it doesn’t have pipes. He’ll be able to bring this thing to his concerts rather than have to discover and deal with real organs. “Maybe the VPO is cool or whatever, but he doesn’t have to say the real organ is bad, does he?”

The program included Carpenter’s transcription of Schubert’s most famous song. “He had the Erlkönig singing on this croaky little reed sound in the bass,” Elizabeth went on. These girls know more than your average American about the organ; amazing what they pick up. “But the creepy thing about the Erkönig is that he sings so beautifully when he comes in. That’s what makes the song so spooky. Cameron doesn’t get what the song is about. It’s like he’s trying to make it funny, not scary.”

“He played three encores and the concert was way too long,” said Elizabeth. Carpenter takes care of the Revolutionary Etude in three-and-a-half minutes over the internet. His concert ran to two-and-half hours. “And he kept saying what a hassle it is to have to come to play on a different organ. But isn’t that what playing the organ is about?”

Cecilia concluded. “He’s a lot better on YouTube.”

At this point the girls’ mother returned from the grocery store after her Saturday morning shopping. If you suspect that her own views had substantially informed those of our children, you are certainly correct. Yet her critique was for more intense. She went to the concert hoping to be impressed, but the picture she drew was of a player of considerable but largely squandered talent, repeatedly unhorsed by that touchstone of the organists’ art, the music of J. S. Bach. “That Bach can withstand Carpenter is proof—as if any were needed—of just how good that music is.”

Annette was turned off by Carpenter’s repeated comparisons of playing an unfamiliar new organ to a one-night stand: meretricious, unfulfilling, and in the end hardly worth the effort. Charging someone twenty dollars to watch this anonymous encounter came across as pure opportunism on the part of the artist, and more than little mean-spirited. If the organ is the King of Instruments, the Ithaca College organ is its Prince William —unattractive and grating to the nerves. Yet does such a public roll in the hay necessitate a wholesale attack on the organ? Annette’s report made it clear that she found it far from pleasant to watch Carpenter grapple with a partner he continually disparaged over the course of the long evening.

That Carpenter had chosen an educational institution to blast away at the oldest and most venerable member of the European instrumentarium, seemed to the Cornell University organist misguided and downright pernicious. “There are many ways to entertain and uplift,” Annette said, “and these two things are not mutually exclusive.” Did the immediate standing ovations that the largely-student gave to the showy visitor offer an irrefutable rejoinder to such views on the ethical potential of music? “He has a gift for musical demagoguery, but incessantly dumbing it down is the wrong thing. Even a ten-year-old can see that.” In the flesh the virtual virtuoso, white and glittering, covers himself and his profession in mud.

Storm Over Cameron Carpenter

John Roberts of San Francisco didn’t think much of this Ithaca review

Carpenter’s agent, Richard Torrence, thought even less of it, as we’ll hear in a moment. In boldface letters, Roberts requested that the piece be chased from the CounterPunch site: “It’s irresponsible for anyone in a journalist’s position to review a concert they didn’t attend.”I have a basic objection to the notion that one cannot write about an event at which one was not present. Did one have to be deafened by the cannons’ roar at Waterloo to report on the battle’s aftermath? I was writing not about my own experience of Carpenter’s concert, but about its reputation among a certain circle (my family) in the town where it was given.

To say that a concert’s afterlife is irrelevant does not take the concert life seriously: as I wrote in my account of Carpenter’s Ithaca appearance, concerts both famous and infamous live on not just in recorded form, but in the minds and mouths of those who were present.

Consider what was arguably the greatest organ concert of all time: J. S. Bach playing in Hamburg’s Katharinenkirche before the assembled magistrates and virtuosos of that greatest of organ cities in the Fall of 1720. The report of it appeared in Bach’s Obituary in 1754, and was written by one of his sons and two of his students, none of whom had been there. Yet the reputation of that concert was so great that it was worth recounting, and indeed the history of the organ would be poorer had it not been. The account surely survives because it was told by Bach to his son and then recounted much later in Bach’s Obituary. Any educated reader of the Obituary must read this important document in light of its source and author and treat it with what he sees as the appropriate degree of skepticism, in light of the bias of the writer and the mythical contours of the story, perhaps adjusted over the decades between the event and its recounting.

I don’t mean to make a direct comparison between the illustrious Bachs and the lowly Musical Patriots of Ithaca. But reporting on reception is not automatically gossip: it can take the reputation of performer and the legacy of a concert as a matter worthy of critical consideration. Roberts would reduce live performance to the merely ephemeral. Roberts then trains twin barrels at my parental pride and the first two of my sources— my two daughters, aged ten and twelve: “It’s impossible to take this article seriously, except as an ode in praise of the writer’s own children.”

You’re right, Mr. Roberts: talking about your own children is usually bad form, and deathly boring. All I can say is, that I was eager to learn about Carpenter’s concert when I returned from New York City the day after, and they were eager to tell me about it. If its any consolation, the other attendees I spoke with in Ithaca were far more damning with their remarks about Carpenter’s performance.

Yet Roberts believes that I was dishonest about what those kids said: Are we supposed to believe that a “ten and twelve year old” would ever use the expression “in the bass,” more the domain of a theory professor analyzing a score? ‘“He made a lot of mistakes with his feet,” the younger one said.’ How would she know?

This is a man who seems to want to infantilize children: kids do fine with Barney but not with Bach? That a ten-year-old cannot attain musical literacy and discuss matters as rudimentary as the bass-line is ridiculous. Are these children of mine a pair of Mozarts ready for a full examination of their musical knowledge and skill by the Accademica filharmonica di Bologna? No. They are simply normal girls who’ve been given the chance to learn about music. Roberts is guilty of a widespread error: that music is unimportant to the education of children and that children are not capable of musical sophistication both in performance and the discourse surrounding it. Roberts needs to take music and children (not just my own) more seriously. As for the organ: kids love it. If you tell them that the organ is boring, as Carpenter did repeatedly at his concert, they might begin to believe it. But if you show them its unmatched richness, they’ll exalt in it. Below is a photo of a first-grade field trip to the organ in Sage Chapel at Cornell University:

I assume that Roberts has already run screaming from the room where his computer sits, as the Ithaca organist breaks out the family album. It’s true that, as children of a pair of organists, the junior Musical Patriots have put in a lot of time visiting organs in north America and Europe. Below is a shot of one of my daughters at the famed organ of 1624 in Tangermünde, Germany. As I practiced for a concert there on a Spring afternoon in 2005 my daughters were nearby, and in this image one of them inspects my footwork. Can she spot mistakes in the pedal? Damn right she can.

Every “childish” word I reported in that “review by hearsay” is true. Are their attitudes towards music guided by those of their parents? I hope so, and without apology. Was dragging these girls to Tangermünde and other such places a bizarre form of punishment destined to condemn them to years of therapy once they are freed from these parental organ chains into adulthood? Time will tell.
Informed of the article by Google Alerts, Carpenter’s agent, Richard Torrence, appeared in my in-box within minutes of the posting of my piece. He’d written me some months back with warm words about my review of Carpenter’s grammy-nominated CD, Revolutionary. His attitude towards the most recent offering was somewhat less enthusiastic.

“Dear Mr. Yearsley: I’m rather shocked. You should have recused yourself because (1) you weren’t there, and (2) you ended up putting down the audience. I can’t even fathom why you accepted the assignment; or were you looking for clay feet? Further, you should have made much more about the horror of the Schlicker organ [Schlicker is the now-defunct company of Buffalo that made the Ithaca College organ]. All Schlickers were and are (if they are still around) horrors. To rebuild one is the height of folly (did you and your wife have something to do with that?). Cameron had just played a rebuilt Schlicker in Cleveland two weeks before, and he said it was the worst organ he had ever played publicly–and said that he had memory slips (in five years, I’ve never seen him have one) and played badly. However, after encountering the Ithaca organ he called to say that the Cleveland organ couldn’t hold a candle to the horror of the Ithaca organ. And he said that he, once again, played badly. Don’t worry, he knows full well how he plays, and he was profoundly unhappy. His girlfriend, who was with him, said that she had never seen him so distraught. Yes, he blamed the organ, but that was the truth. Was he supposed to lie? Why was he asked to play such an organ? Is there no one up there who knows anything about organs, you and your family’s claims not withstanding?

“I managed Virgil Fox [one of the greatest 20th-century organists, and after his tenure at the Riverside Church in New York City, a proponent of the electronic organ; see Torrence’s illuminating “irreverent biography” of Fox, for 17 years, and he often had to walk into bad situations. For him, as bad as it was, the Rodgers Touring Organ was a godsend; he could at least know, in advance, what he was dealing with. A specification won’t tell you that, but I can now see that the Schlicker name can–and as Cameron’s manager I will see that his talent is not maligned again because of a Schlicker organ.I would also hope that a person of supposed integrity would not send his children and wife to a concert, and then review it himself. You thought you took yourself off the hook because you told the truth, but you obviously didn’t have a clue, yourself, what Cameron was going through. Further, you have gone out of your way to make a great and serious artist–stuck with a piece of shit for an organ–look bad. Bad form, and not a recommendation for Ithaca or Cornell. The one positive result of your review? He will never be invited back to play in the area. Your loss.
Richard”
My response:

“Dear Richard, It was clear I wasn’t there, and you and anyone else can take the review with as many grains of salt or insult as you wish. I made no claims for that organ: the comparison to Prince Charles was meant to be pejorative. You managed Virgil for 17 years and have just now discovered the horrors of Schlicker? Ditto for Cameron. I’ve played many recitals on worse. But do I insult the instrument in question and the organ more generally in front of my audience? Never. Quietly over a drink afterwards? As often as I can. The real problem for many at the concert was the larger assault on the “pipe organ,” not the particular and manifest faults of the Beast from Buffalo chained to the Ithaca College Ford Hall stage. After Cameron’s gig last Friday, the audience is now meant to think that classic organs of Europe—from Schnitger to Silbermann to Cavaillé-Coll are cadavers? St. Sulpice [the great 19th-century organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s masterpiece] versus the VPO [the Carpenter-designed Virtual Pipe Organ]? Let history decide …If Cameron is going to be polemical on stage, then he’s going to have to take the ricochet polemics from these quarters, and from others who care about the organ. Whether or not Cameron returns to Ithaca or not, I think it bad form — and I’ve heard this now from many other organists and non-organists who responded to my first piece on him — to attack organs with pipes [which organs have by definition] as musty old relics. That is pure ignorance and I will continue to hammer it when so moved. Cameron does many great things. I like his sense of fun and his style. He’s a huge talent and I do wish him well. But the insulting of the organ more generally is bad form, regardless of the troubles of a given night. We all have those, Cameron probably far fewer than I. But his jeremiads against organ culture are the true candidates for retraction. Let him do the VPO and wow and whiz as he does best. But attacking the august traditions of the organ is self-defeating. He doesn’t need to do that. He shouldn’t do that — especially in a place full of students, who need to be brought to the organ not alienated from it. Best, David.”

A trio of emails followed over the weekend. All were written by Torrence, but apparently reflected the views of Carpenter, who has been informed of the review by Torrence but refuses to read it, and also, through his agent, declined my invitation to enter this colloquy. Here are some highlights from Torrence:

“I hate the pipe organ, also; sorry. We’re for a new world, and the students better quickly get that there is a new world out there. Bringing more of them to the limitations of the pipe organ is harmful– to music and to themselves. Cavaillé-Coll? Cameron and I played one recently. Extremely limited. The rest of the European organs? I really have no interest in them. Relics. I do think that Cameron made a mistake by attacking pipe organs, especially since he was hired to play one. But he had to try to explain, even if only to himself, why he was in such a pickle. He didn’t badmouth that specific organ, I understand; pipe organs in general. … Oh yes, and he doesn’t care about the organ; only himself and the music. The organ is only an instrument, and it needs to do its job well. Cameron was prevented from making music, and as an artist he knew that he looked bad–and he was shocked at how badly he played.”

My response: “Dear Richard,

Thanks for this. Your position couldn’t be clearer, and I respect its vast distance from my own. Ambivalent (not that yours is) attitudes towards the organ (I hate the phrase “pipe organ”; cf. Peter Williams, New Grove Organ volume) are not new: Goethe and Adorno come to mind. I don’t condemn the VPO as you do the “relics” of Europe. Have you been to Dresden? To Bologna? To Poitiers? To Haarlem? No interest in them? Wow! I think you’re missing out on something, if I may say so. I love Jimmy Smith and his B-3 and indeed am a fan of the VPO and Cameron’s video stuff and recording — as I said in my first piece on him. I hope you two allow yourself the chance to discover some of these great treasures, not just of the organ but of European civilization.
Best, David.”

A final excerpt from Torrence’s rejoinder: “I have been to many European places and heard the organs. I attribute most good sounds to acoustics. The organs I don’t worship, although we do need to keep them current; otherwise, what would we sample? So the instruments of the past, from Silbermann’s organs to Stradivarius’s violins, need to be maintained so their sounds can be digitized and added to the array of facsimilized sounds on the dashboard of high-tech instruments. This is a view of art that sees the chief value of the Mona Lisa in its availability to be reproduced on t-shirts.”

My thanks to Mr. Torrence for responding to the article with passion and honesty. The Musical Republic—in whose vast skies the personalized VPO and its gymnastic pilot can jet around at will, avoiding the mighty Kings of Instruments moored to their ecclesiastical berths from St. Sulpice in Paris to St. Jacobi in Hamburg to San Petronio in Bologna—is richer for it. This Republic is not a No-Fly-Zone, just don’t drop any bombs.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London,” has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu.

2 Responses to How Cameron Carpenter Blew It In Ithaca

  1. Skylar Strickland Reply

    November 14, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    “A bad workman blames his tools.”

    Mr. Yearsley, thank you for your review. It has helped me make my decision as to whether or not to go see Mr. Carpenter when he comes to perform here in North Carolina in a few weeks.

    While I agree and admit – as a fellow organist – that there are some tragically bad pipe organs out there, it shows a sincere lack of manners, respect, breeding, and class to insult an organization’s instrument on their stage, and boo to Mr. Carpenter for having done so. I will not be attending his concert.

  2. Jim Stettner (Seattle) Reply

    May 9, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Mr. Yearsley is SO far ahead of Torrence, that Torrence doesn’t have enough years of life left to ever hope of catching-up. His views of the pipe organ are appalling..and if he’s so damn interested in is “new school” and the VPO…then why even digitally record the pipe organ at all? He should just “create” new sounds for the 21st century…mimicing the pipe organ be damned, right? As for Cameron…if he’s hired to perform…he would do well to familiarize himself with is medium before the performance. Less need for the blame and excuses then. Bottom line for me: Torrence is nothing more than a narrow-minded, aging pimp trying to make excuses for one of his showy whores!

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