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Published 22 October 2008, doi:10

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
Ubiquitous  Iconoclast
Sunnyvale, CA 94089-1622 USA

ubiq_icon@hotmail.com

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 [1] (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, [2] (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, etc.).

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 through music."

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 meaning.

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: pattern recognition.

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 [3]. 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."[4]

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. [5] (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." [6]

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 Michigan.[7]

Notes:

[1] Hofstadter, Douglas R., Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid... Twentieth-anniversary Edition (New York, NY, Basic Books, 1999).
[2] 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.
[3] 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.
[4] 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).
[5] Hofstadter, Douglas R., GEB Ibid. (fn 1) p. viii.
[6] 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.
[7] 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.


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