I am intoxicated with the magnificent irony of Cameron Carpenter’s “international touring organ,” debuting this weekend in New York. It is at once a brilliant creation of modern science, and an act of murder.
Cameron Carpenter is a musician of exceptional skill and talent. The irreligious and irreverent Carpenter already brought a new perspective to an art form dominated by church musicians and classicists. The uniqueness of each instrument, though, frustrated his efforts to expand the boundaries of organ performance. Each organ has a unique collection of pipes, keyboards, stops, and pedals. A magnificent performance on one machine would need to be adapted and re-learned for another. Further, no organ belongs to its organist, leaving the organist forever a vassal to his patron. Thus, an artist intent on performing widely is forever hampered by the capacity of the local instrument, or his ability to quickly learn its quirks.
Carpenter’s performances are known for their athleticism, pushing the limits of human-machine interaction. The organ is his dance partner–but he has a different partner each night. To advance his craft, Cameron needed a permanent dance partner. To solve this dilemma, he commissioned his very own touring organ. An electronic organ. No pipes. It is arguably an organ simulator, with the ability to recreate the world’s great pipe organs, even modifying their sounds to fit the venue in which it is played. In this device, the organ is ripped from its steampunk magnificence and firmly planted in the 21st century. Like modern Americans, the organ has been freed from its place-bound existence and made endlessly mobile, for better or worse.
To be sure, this organ meets his purpose. Carpenter is now a touring organist who owns his instrument. It is no mere calliope or accordion, but rather the grand organ of a cathedral, a concert hall, or a theater, packaged “to go.” Now, Cameron will play from the same console, with the same mechanical capability each night. His dances on the pedals and keys will be more precise, not hampered by inconsistencies between instruments. The organ may well become a prototype console, allowing for consistency among future instruments. In these ways, the new organ breathes new life and new possibilities into an ancient art form, and allows its owner to display his great prowess.
Amid the technological marvel and personal triumph, though, I find myself asking, “at what cost comes this advancement?” To make a disembodied pipe organ is to remove the essence of the instrument.
As an architect, I know that the entire building in which an organ is housed is part of what creates the distinct sound experience of the organ. The music of a pipe organ is shaped and tuned by a blend of architecture, mechanics, and artistry. The room shapes the sound of the organ. The physical and acoustic needs of the organ shape the volume and appearance of the room. To make a placeless pipe organ capable of replicating every organ, in any room, is to create the ultimate generic instrument, and to allow its performance in generic space.
To be sure, electronic organs have existed before, but none so grand and fabulously ironic. After all, the original purpose of the organ to be a generic instrument, replicating other instruments. I fear, though. that with the international touring organ Carpenter has simultaneously taken the art and craft of organ-making to its highest height, and signed its death warrant. Nonetheless, I will be there for the first act of that glorious funeral at Lincoln Center on March 9.