If You Could Read My Mind
by Cameron Carpenter, et al
Sony Music Entertainment, Warszawa, Poland, 2014
CD & DVD. 1:17:51. $25
Distributor’s website: CameronCarpenter.com, Edition-Peters.com
Reviewed by Richard Kade
Sunnyvale, CA 94089-1622 USA
The random nature of how events all-too-often unfold and force some to seek
meaning (patterns, rationale, "rhyme or reason") where none probably
exists has been thrust, again, (at least upon this reviewer) by another
juxtaposition of sheer happenstance: the release of the newest CD/DVD set, If You Could Read My Mind, from Cameron
Carpenter less than one week after the unexpected death of comedian and Academy
Award-winning actor, Robin Williams.
The notes in the printed booklet with these two disks (in English, German and
French) begin by asking, "What was Astor Piazzola thinking ... ?"
(Was mag sich Astor Piazzola gedacht haben ... ? [und / et] Ŕ quoi pensait
Astor Piazzola ... ?) posed both to explain the thought process leading to how
and why the album was thusly titled (beyond inclusion of the song by Gordon
Lightfoot) and the selection of those pieces comprising the CD and DVD.
Almost as quickly as Carpenter poses the question he zooms from macrocosmic to
microcosmic consideration leaving the matter in the realm of visceral instinct
unlike the near-shrug-of-shoulders confronting readers of Gödel, Escher, Bach  (which serves as a backdrop for dealing
with the question of what is so special about the human mind) and its sequel, Le Ton beau de Marot,  (a backdrop
for sorting out just what is so special about the human soul or spirit).
However unwittingly, Carpenter's non-answer, "It falls to more
academically-[oriented] minds to analyze the complicated labyrinths of genius
underlying many of the works on this album. I can't give you the secret details
of Bach's harmonic constructions in an archly-stated turn of phrase and dour
narrations of the mechanisms of beautiful music leave me as cold as lead
type" stirs recall of the way such nonsensical terms as
"genius", "intellectual" and the like tend to lead to
dead-end reasoning when trying to sort out results in the mythical never-ending
tug-o-war between "head and heart".
Citing inability to read minds seems, at best, an attempt by Carpenter at
distancing artistry from its primary task: interpretation. By intrinsic nature,
performers have two extremes along that spectrum of interpretation: the purist
or the free-thinking (evolving) transcriber/arranger, ad-liber, extemporizer
etc. The vast majority of performers do not slavishly attempt faithful
recreation of some imagined ideal inspiration nor should they.
Consider the gulf between the first recording of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with the Paul Whiteman
Orchestra and the 1998 CD of the work by Michael Tilson Thomas with the New
World Symphony on the BMG label. Consider, also, the performances of Bach using
"original instruments of the day" as compared with the 20th Century
reconfigurations (the Mahler screech trumpets employed in the Third/Second Orchestral Suite composite,
Once Carpenter sidesteps his own poser, he does explain how he selected the
works in the album: "Each offers a different taste of ecstasy." A
little further he continues, "Ecstasy is my motivation as a performer. It
may be the deep yearning of the Vocalise
[by Rachmaninoff] or my own naďvely triumphant extemporization of Bach's cello
prelude [from the G Major Suite BWV
1007], but the drive is the same. It is a seeking toward vastness that pushes
the limits of conceivability, a need to become something that I can only be
Again, unwittingly, another set of psychological and anthropological
misapprehensions require clarification as concerns that sloppily thrown-about
term, "genius". Each of us has at least one area in which we excel if
we are lucky enough to figure out what it is in time to exploit it to the
fullest. Thus, by its ubiquity, the term "genius" really has no
At best, Einstein was a "physics savant", Bach a "fugue and
counterpoint savant", Shakespeare a "lexicographical, iambic
pentameter and dramatist savant" and so on.
Most of this was reinforced by media coverage of the suicide of Robin Williams.
Almost no mention of the late celeb was made devoid of the assessment
"genius." Yes, Williams (like his mentor, the late Jonathan Winters)
was a "comedy ad-lib savant" but, as with all human perception
leading to creativity, everything really boils down to its truest essence:
Beyond this, one must recognize that strokes of brilliance in thought in any
discipline are merely a Darwinian offshoot or, really, what all living
creatures do. Einstein and Oppenheimer, figuring out how to split the atom to
halt Hitler seems not that far removed from the crows picking avocadoes off the
tree in the back of our house and flying with them a few stories higher to drop
them on pavement and get at the delicious post-splat fruit inside rather than
merely pecking away.
The occasional disconnect between brilliant and stupid is amply and concisely
documented in a piece a couple decades ago by Arno Penzias . Use, therefore, of the term genius says far more about the
person employing it than anybody being thus labeled.
Understanding that pattern recognition is what we all do, exposes far
more than the similarity between "head and heart" including the lack
of difference between the arts (encompassing the fullest range of expression)
and sciences. Again, since everything is about actuating abstractions (formulaic
pattern recognition -- Duh!), those things found in nature that defy
explanation (where, for example, mathematicians will label the universal
constant, "pi" [π or 3.14159265 ...] as irrational) might be
little more than a fingerprint of some cosmic (divine?) sense of humor?
Of the selections on this CD/DVD set, the most (unwittingly) noteworthy might
be the Fourth Piano Sonata, Op. 30 by
Alexander Scriabin. Written in 1903, this work, flawlessly executed by
Carpenter, might not have been as perfect an opportunity to express ecstasy as
the next in the series, four years later, the Fifth Piano Sonata, Op.
53, or its orchestral counterpart (also titled Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54 -- both were written concurrently).
While the actual poem upon which these 1907 pieces (which share no thematic
material) were based was written by Scriabin himself, the opening question
posed by Carpenter (what was he thinking?) might well have been best answered
by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakow, (who, along with Rachmaninoff and Glazunov, heard
the composer play bits of Op. 54 on the piano in advance of the New York premičre
performance), "Everyone has known for some time that he's nuts."
The Bach/Carpenter Cello Suite
Elaboration was best summed up by Carpenter himself as "naďvely
triumphant extemporization." This exuberant expression starts off with the
pedal bravura statement of the original version followed by a near-spontaneous
eruption of Gounod-like "hymn/meditation-like superimposition" that
seemingly explodes to Rick Wakeman-like proportion (See the 1975 album, Lisztomania).
By this most circuitous routing, we now return to answer the initial poser (and
de-shrug all shoulders) with some minor reframing. The proper question was not
what Astor or Doug were thinking so much as what motivated their oeuvre.
GEB likens the Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas/Partitas and Cello Suites works of Bach to being next to someone speaking by
phone where you can only hear that person's side of the conversation and must
conjecture what is being said by the person on the other end of the line. 
(That analogy worked fairly well for me for a couple decades.)
Only after hearing and reading attempts at contextualizing Bach, by everyone
from Schumann to Rachmaninoff, did the thought occur that the process was far
more akin to the Rorschach ink-blot tests in terms of shedding more light on
the person doing the transcription than on anything that might have been going
through Bach's head. (Also, a number of the unaccompanied violin pieces were
transcribed for keyboard by Bach himself showing, indeed, what was going
through his head in terms of context.)
Perhaps that is what makes Carpenter's Elaboration
(on both the CD and DVD) the most interesting for this auditor/viewer.
What has motivated various interpretations of Debussy's piece for solo flute, Syrinx? In music, contextualized
expressions have been written by Louis Palange and Jacques Loussier, amongst
others, and the solo line inspired a number of works in various styles by
Richard Rodney Bennett. Beyond music a number of choreographers have been
motivated to give utterance to their impressions including Georgi Alexidze of
the Kirov, Roland Petit in his Proust ou
les intermittences du cśur and Nacho Duato, at the Compańia Nacional de
Danza in the Netherlands to name only three. How might Carpenter express
feelings, if any, inspired by the haunting flute solo?
The bottom line on those Hofstadterian "twin shoulder-shruggers" is
that our imperfections -- those irksome, annoying, lapse-inducing traits that
cause us to forget where we put the car keys or if we locked the door before
heading out to dinner -- those are
what enable the "Eureka!" moments where insight is revealed or that
flash of brilliance occurs. Those also are what will never be replicated in any
Kurzweilian "singularity" where our collective intellect is to be
"reinstantiated" in some "non-biological medium." 
In most instances, Carpenter's playing is flawless even if his kaleidoscopic
changes of voicing (just one facet of his dazzling technical virtuosity) become
almost schizophrenic when the voice changes several times within one phrase
reminding one, almost, of the old ransom notes where individual letters were
cut from different publications and pasted to form messages without revealing handwriting
or identifiable typewriter traits. In some instances, this extra self-imposed
technical challenge seems almost too much for him to handle causing the brief,
unintended, slow-down to enable his "third hand" or "third
foot" to take up the slack.
One final item must be noted for the sake of completeness: Carpenter's co-star,
the International Touring Organ. Built to his specifications so as to optimize
the best in a number of pipe organs upon which the artist has performed all
over the world, this digital composite has the added attribute of immediate
satisfaction of cause-and-effect that a violinist, oboist or almost any other
instrumentalist experiences when blowing, bowing, plucking or striking. The
documentary in the DVD's bonus section is a quick overview of a more thorough
lecture/demonstration given 1 April 2010 (on piano!) at the University of
 Hofstadter, Douglas R., Gödel,
Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid... Twentieth-anniversary Edition (New
York, NY, Basic Books, 1999).
 Hofstadter, Douglas R. Le Ton beau de
Marot: In Prasie of the Music of Language (New York, NY, Basic Books,
1997). Please also see Hofstadter, Douglas R., "I am a Strange Loop" Seed Magazine March 2007 Vol. 2 -- Issue
9 pp. 68-72. http://seedmagazine.com/news/2007/04/editors_letter_march_2007.php
as well as http://leonardo.info/reviews/sept2007/i_kade.html and http://leonardo.info/reviews/pre2000/kadeton.html.
 Penzias, Arno “Putting the Idiot Back into Idiot Savant” Fortune – 15 Jan 1996 p. 46. The article
is posted at: http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1996/01/15/207158/index.htm.
 Galeyev, Bulat M., "The First Experiments of SKB 'Prometei' in
Video Art," Leonardo, 27, No. 5
399-402 (1994). See also Vanechkina, I.L. with Bulat M. Galeyev, "Prometheus: Scriabin + Kandinsky" Leonardo, 31, No. 3 183-184 (1998).
 Hofstadter, Douglas R., GEB Ibid.
(fn 1) p. viii.
 Kade, Richard, "Will Spiritual Robots Replace Humanity by 2100?" Leonardo, 34, No. 1 82-3 (2001) http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/leonardo/v034/34.1kade.html.
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeOvWB8TeV0&feature=related Killing Me
Loudly: On the Abdication of the "King" of Instruments -- (83 min) at the
Univ. of Michigan umich.edu.