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Published 22 October 2008, doi:10

Cameron Live!

by Cameron Carpenter et al
TELARC International, Cleveland, OH, 2010
DVD/CD.  Sales, $14.00
Distributor’s website:  http://www.telarc.com/

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Ubiquitous  Iconoclast
Sunnyvale, CA 94089-1622 USA


An e-mail from a longtime friend and favorite discussant, sent in August of last year, had as its subject, "Garnell Copeland reincarnated?". The body of the message had links to a few YouTube performances of Cameron Carpenter, including his transcription of Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever, Organ Revolutionary, a CBS Sunday Morning puff-piece, and a wonderful lecture he gave at the University of Michigan (under the title Killing Me Loudly: On the Abdication of the "King" of Instruments) [1] where he is billed as the "Outlaw Organist".

Despite clever promotion and the fact that Carpenter is the first organist nominated for Grammy Award in multiple categories, one must understand at the outset that the mostly-classical repertoire of his performances for 21st Century audiences (live and in Cyberia) most likely confine him to a predestined ceiling within his lifetime in terms of potential fame. Accordingly, mention in the opening sentence of this review of the late Garnell Copeland (1942 - 1977) will prompt recall from perhaps the smallest fraction of those organ aficionados still living who ever heard his concerts and recitals or the handful of CDs still in existence of his performances.

Given this limitation, what significance of either of these artists merits consideration of similarities and contrasts in their views on aesthetics and other attributes that define that which makes us human? For this reviewer at least, the answer boils down to that seemingly never-ending struggle between "head and heart" [2] or "intellectual v. visceral".

The similarities between these two artists are fairly self-evident and probably most superficial. Both were discovered in earliest youth to possess fantastic technical abilities and went on to complete their formal musical education at two of the leading universities of their day. Copeland studied at Curtis, and Carpenter at Julliard.

The obvious contrasts are equally stark. Copeland grew up in the northern California high-crime area of Oakland when the infestation by Black Panthers and other thugs was in its most embryonic form, and he was bullied for looking "too white". (As of 2013, that period probably seem to locals as the quieter idyllic days of yore.) Carpenter, by contrast, grew up in rural Pennsylvania where he was nurtured in a warm family environment, home-schooled, and given every opportunity to immerse himself obsessively in the classical music he so loves.

One similarity between Copeland and Carpenter is that both, as is the case with so many organists and graduates of the best music schools, became accomplished composers. Both also seem occasionally to have incurred the condescension of "old school" auditors who felt that their approach to some of the classics bordered on tastelessness.

Carpenter has been compared to Virgil Fox because of his showmanship replete with Swarovsky-studded attire from his tops to foot-ware. Although Copeland credited Fox for having captured his imagination, in terms of what the organ could do that the piano could not, and causing him to switch his field of study from piano to organ, he rejected as excessive the showmanship gimmickry of the near-Liberace-like outfits worn while playing Bach with laser-shows. No doubt his view of Carpenter would have been similar but that, of course, is pure conjecture.

The hostile environment of Copeland's youth might, again pure speculation, explain much of the pent-up rage many often ascribed to his ostentatiously loud (and admittedly all-too-often tasteless) attacks on fortississimo passages. Yet one must consider his composition, Prelude in C minor "Evocation" (written in memory of Leo Sowerby -- 1895-1968), which reveals a quieter, often reflective bordering on introspective capability.

Both Carpenter and Copeland occasionally, as almost every other musician from time immemorial, felt the composer (or the "traditional approach" to rendering the work) couldn't be serious in the notations of tempi, dynamics, or other specifications. The performance by Carpenter on the subject DVD of the Widor Toccata is prefaced by his declaration that beginning the piece pianissimo and building to a more climactic ending was far more logical and thus more effective.

Carpenter's opening of the Bach Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (BWV 543) is in stark contrast to that of Copeland and most other musicians who have ever played the work in that he uses a more "Fantasia-like" pianissimo with crescendos and diminuendos (as well as accelerandos and rallentandos). This paragraph is neither an attack nor defense of either position as correct; merely a citation of divergence of views.

The Carpenter transcription for organ of Vladimir Horowitz's Carmen Fantasy is surprising in that the Busoni treatment (his Sixth Sonatina, subtitled Chamber Fantasy upon "Carmen") with its wider use of thematic material and far more innovative ending (even if a tad more somber ... like Bizet's opera) seem a more intellectually stimulating pursuit replete with the clever faux-triplet depiction of the "fate motif".

Carpenter also explains to DVD viewers how his transcription for organ of the Fifth Prelude and Fugue (BWV 850) from Book 1 of Well-Tempered Clavichord was motivated by his love of these "microcosmic gems". Perhaps he never happened upon Busoni's reworking of his 1894 footnote [3] to his edition of WTC -- specifically, his Prelude, Fugue and Fugue-Figures (the opening of his An die Jugend) of 1909.

With all these similarities and contrasts between Carpenter and Copeland duly noted, we should examine, even if only briefly, the "intellectual versus emotional" issue of what makes music (or any of the arts or sciences) command attention. The University of Michigan lecture/demonstration cited in the first paragraph of this review as well as the spoken preface to Carpenter's treatment of the Chopin Étude Op. 10 No. 2 (his  Will o’ the Wisp) credit Leopold Godowski [4] as his inspiration for re-working various of the Chopin Études and even his proclivity for combining seemingly dissimilar works.

About one hour and five minutes into the lecture/demonstration, Carpenter performs his own superimposition (again, à la Godowski) of two Chopin Études along with a jazz motif atop the entire combo. Such idiomatic transcendence nearly renders the entire question of "head v. heart / intellectual v. visceral" moot.

The only remaining issue covered in this lecture/demonstration by Carpenter is what he terms his "love/hate relationship" with the organ and, specifically, as relates to its drawbacks, the enormous amount of time and effort that goes into scoping the particular idiosyncrasies of each organ a touring performer must acquaint oneself with at the expense of actual time practicing and thinking about the music itself. In short, Carpenter yearns for that same immediacy of cause-and-effect a violinist or cellist feels and imbues with emotion as bow is moved or string plucked.

His solution is a new portable electronic organ made to his own specifications that seeks to replicate the best features of the sound produced by the traditional pipe organs while requiring none of the odious squandering of precious time having to "customize performer to instrument".

One can not help but note that this lecture (the subject DVD/CD set and most the YouTube postings cited) took place in 2010 when Carpenter was not yet 30 years old. By age 32, Glenn Gould had decided to forego the concert stage for the recording studio [5] and Garnell Copeland was murdered.

Carpenter appears to have a bright future ahead of him, and one looks forward, with eager anticipation, to many years and decades of serendipitous creativity.


[1] Cameron Carpenter- Killing Me Loudly. youtube.com/watch?v=JeOvWB8TeV0&feature=related.

[2]  Review of “I Am a Strange Loop.”  http://leonardo.info/reviews/sept2007/i_kade.html.

[3] Bach, Johann Sebastian, edited by Ferruccio Busoni The Well-Tempered Clavichord (New York, NY, G. Schirmer, Inc., 1894, renewed 1926); p. 32.

[4] Leopold Godowski: 53 Studies on Chopin's Études. boosey.com/shop/prod/Godowsky-Leopold-53-Studies-on-Chopin-s-Etudes-Volume-2/682845 .  In much the same way that Busoni dealt with the musical issues of transcription and “original intent” of the abstract ideals in the works of Bach, so did Leopold Godowski (1870-1938) in his 53 Studies on Chopin's Études.

[5] Gould, Glenn. [edited and with an introduction by Tim Page] The Glenn Gould Reader, New York, Knopf, 1984. pg. 318. In his famous article, "Gould on Gould About Gould" in the February 1974 issue of High Fidelity, the self-described "Canadian writer, composer and broadcaster who plays the piano in his spare time" addressed the relationship of "artist to audience" eloquently -- framing it in moral terms where a new utopian order would supplant the old "zero-to-one relationship" in favor of "an altogether more meaningful level [of contact] than that which relates any stage to its apron."

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