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Cameron Carpenter's dizzying improv on the organ

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Thank you so much for being here and for listening. My mission in life, in a sense, has very little to do with the organ. It has to do with people and especially with education, and freedom, artistic freedom, and sustainability. And these are things that I think are incredibly lacking in the organ. And I'll tell you how. I'll tell you what I mean. But first I want to epitomize what I consider the ultimate in artistic freedom, not a discipline-less freedom, but a freedom of identity, particularly one in which there is an experience that is shared between a performer and an audience.

We don't have the time for me to go on at the length that I would like. But, in a sense, that's a good challenge, because it means that the improvisation has to be a complete Gettysburg address, rather than a major epic. This is an improvisation, and like in dance, sometimes in cinema, sometimes in performance art, improvisation is a creation of the moment, and yet, to me, it's an embodiment of that which is most native to the musical mind.



Thank you. I mentioned that the organ's problems I think, in the 21st century, are freedom of expression and sustainability. And I'd like to go into that briefly, if I may. Basically the organ has an incredibly rich and noble tradition, which extends over 2,300 years in one form or another, originating essentially with the hydrolis in ancient Greece, which was a water-powered instrument, into which pipes were inserted, at gladiator-style events, to make music that was heard miles away, possibly not music.

The organ today has evolved into a machine that is, in potential, capable of expressing everything in music, and therefore, essentially, everything in human experience. The problem is, I feel, that that the organ, particularly in the 20th century, but at the latter half of the 20th century and persisting on to today, has been typed, reduced to a caricature of sorts. and organists have been victimized as a result. And in a sense, when you come to understand some of the challenges representing the organ community, you can understand why they almost seem, at times, nihilistic. There is no such thing as a brotherhood. There is no sense of fraternity in organ music, as there is in dance or drama.

When I was home-schooled and studying dance, even as a little kid, doing tap and ballet, I was able to see that there was something amazing about being part of an organic whole. And the nature of the organ perhaps doesn't lend itself to that. After all, it's the ultimate soloistic instrument. It uses every element of the body. It creates a contrapuntal, at times orchestral, texture. And it requires the greatest degree of physical control, in a sense, of any instrument. But one doesn't have, as I said, that sense of brotherhood when you play the organ.

Now, if you go to the organ of the 17th century, it was, as the time, the absolute most-complicated and highly evolved technical device that humankind had created. And until Babbage's difference engine it really was not surpassed. And even then, until the 19-teens, The organ remained, in a sense, a leading source for examples of logic gates, in this case produced with pneumatic devices and primitive electrics, and really, in a sense, a form of analog computation, if at least by computation you can mean the transfer of data from one medium to another. That is essentially what the organ is about.

Numerous people who have been great cryptologists and who have informed our history through the study of mathematics and other related numerical sciences, such as Alan Turing, among others, have known of the organ, played the organ and understood the computational ability of this device, and yet its entire history, artistically, has been somewhat defined by the relationship, and oftentimes and increasingly, the fight between old and new.

The organ that I'm playing tonight is a digital organ. It is built by Rogers, an organ company in Oregon, which is one of two primary builders of electronic organs in the United States, and really, in the world. And the evolution of the pipe organ has enjoyed its richest success in the 20th century. In the 20th century the application of electricity to organ-building and the seemingly ceaseless font of money, channeled into organ building from sources from Andrew Carnegie to Charles Schwab, who had organs, major organs in their houses, and gifted organs to institutions, bore the brunt of the terrible expense of building pipe organs.

The other thing that made it really desirable to build pipe organs was that at the time pipe organs were the ultimate in the production of organ tone. We have lost sight of that in the American organ community. And it is very much my hope to change that. Because I feel that the future of the instrument absolutely depends on it. Depends on two things, sustainability of instruments, and sustainability of artists. The instrument that you see before you is an example of the technology that I believe will prevail to preserve the organ. Because the era of building instruments which are massively consumptive of natural resources, rare metals, resource metals, exotic woods, and, incredibly, an enormous amount of animal products because hide glue and all kinds of highly refined rare leathers are commonplace, in fact necessary for pipe organ building.

Instruments that cost millions of dollars have become, instead of being working, living, musical parts of a fabric, of an institution, have in a sense, as I said, been reduced to caricatures of themselves. They've been reduced to the backdrops for concert halls and the accoutrements of vain religious institutions which attempt to one-up each other. This does not make for great artistic progress. I am not, of course, saying that the pipe organ should be abandoned. But I think the tradition of the organ can best be preserved in a non-analog form.

And this, along with my passionate devotion to organists of the future, particularly organists younger than myself, is what has lead me to create a program which I'm calling Models of Excellence. And there are three, essentially three main goals to this, to capture the sounds of existing great organs in the world, to make it possible for me to seek out young organists from around the world, bring them to New York for mentorship by myself, and by other great artists, especially artists outside of the organ community because I feel that conducting, visual art, a sense of drama, performative drama, and most especially dance, are absolutely critical for an understanding of great organ playing.

And to build a touring organ of my own design, which will make it possible for me, and notably other organists, to have the relationship with their instrument that Joshua Bell, for instance, has with his. Every night when he walks onstage and when he plays for you, you will hear him playing an instrument that is close to his heart, that I presume has been his for some years, and that he knows -- possibly his life -- and which he knows intimately. And yet when I go to Royal Albert Hall, or when I go to this organ, or when I go to any pipe organ in the world, and I'm playing a recital, I'm attempting to give you, the audience, the impression that I have been married to this organ for 27 years. When in reality I'm having a tawdry one night stand. (Laughter) And all humor aside, this makes it impossible to totally devote oneself to the performative experience.

So those are essentially my goals. And I feel that by giving organists an opportunity to play in places where there are not instruments, by creating the New York City Organ Salon, which will start in February, of which Eric Frikke, seated behind me, is the first member, to create a place, a safe space environment, where organists can be free from the conservatism of conservatories, from considerations of secular versus sacred, which are so often detrimental to performance of music of multiple genres. And where organists from different backgrounds particularly non-classical, jazz, funk, gospel, arch-classical, neo-romantic, and all other conceivable forms of organ music can come together under one roof. This does not yet exist in the United States, and I'm determined that it will.

This is Eric Frikke. He's 15 years old, and I would describe him as my protege, except that I would never presume to do so. Because I am not interested in proteges, I'm interested in cultivating identities. And I would presume that the teaching of the organists of the future will rely on the authority of no authority, not to cultivate organists who play like their teachers, organists who are formed for church work, to give us an outlet to organists who are interested in jazz, and who may have musical leanings which go outside the sacred. This is what I'm attempting to establish. And I want you to hear what I think will be the first result of this, from hands other than my own. (Applause)



That was the "Perpetual Motion for Pedals Alone," by Wilhelm Middelschulte, one of the great modernist pedal solos. You will notice that that was played, until then end, of course, which was Eric's improvisation -- much appreciated Eric -- by the feet alone. And this goes to exemplify what I have always said, organists must become uninhibited in their bodies, in their movement. You see, the caricature of the organist bent over has got to go. (Laughter)



Video Details

Duration: 29 minutes and 30 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 438
Posted by: tedtalks on Nov 25, 2009

At the 2008 EG conference, revolutionary organist Cameron Carpenter performs a classic piece of organ repertory -- and then cuts loose in an incendiary improv. Young organist Eric Fricke closes the set.

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