The Friday post


cameron blogCameron Carpenter, the spectacular indie classical organist, has major news. He’s signed a major record deal, with Sony Classical. And he’s also unveiling a new organ, which he can take with him everywhere he tours, and play anything from his repertoire. Thus freeing the organ from concert halls and churches. And unleashing Cameron, with lots of well-deserved fanfare, to play more or less anywhere.


He’ll unveil the new organ with performances at the 2014 Lincoln Center Festival. Of course, some old issues come into play here. The new organ is of course a digital organ, electronically recreating organ sounds. What else could it be, freed of the old superstructure of organ pipes? And some people in the organ world, I’m sure, still disapprove.


Well, let them. It’s a new era, and there’s no reason a digital organ can’t sound fabulous. I can imagine that many of the people who’d object are (if they watch TV) watching TV shows with orchestral scores, unaware that these scores are digitally synthesized.


But the main thing here is the flowering of Cameron’s career. I go way back with him. When he was at Juilliard, he took my course on the future of classical music. He’s an irresistible spirit, visually, musically, personally, you name it. I saw him, some years ago, in a Halloween performance at Trinity Church in New York. He came out in all-white white tie — a dazzling white tailcoat. And among other things improvised an accompaniment to a classic silent horror film (was it Nosferatu?), incorporating, with great flair and finesse, the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan.


He plays classic organ rep, makes transcriptions of other music he likes (classical or not), and writes his own music. Like a contemporary Liszt, with…well, I won’t say as much public flair, but certainly a lot of it.




The Chicago Lyric Opera is collaborating with Second City, Chicago’s famous comedy club. This started back in January, with a Second City show — “The Second City Guide to the Opera” —  hosted by Renée Fleming and Patrick Stewart. Now it’s expanded into a series of Second City opera guides, presented on the Chicago Lyric’s stage — the audience will be on the stage, too — with food and drink available.


But the part of this I especially like is that Second City members have been teaching improv to singers in the Lyric Opera’s young artist program. This isn’t mentioned in the link above, but it’s in a press release the company sent out:


Then, as the relationship between the two companies developed, it became clear that the collaboration could extend into other areas, to mutual benefit. Starting in May, two instructors from The Second City  began holding weekly improvisation classes with ensemble members of The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, the professional artist-development program at Lyric Opera of Chicago. The instructors are Tim Sniffen, one of the writers and performers in The Second City Guide to the Opera, and Anne Libera, director of comedy studies for Second City’s program with Columbia College. “They love what they’re learning and how it greatly benefits them as performers,” says Dan Novak, director of the Ryan Opera Center. “It’s also bringing them closer as a group.”  Novak noted that it’s The Second City’s first workshop with opera singers. “This is why you do these collaborations – the benefits keep evolving.”


That could be a good way, I’d think, to teach opera singers to be looser — freer, more imaginative, more flexible physically and emotionally — on stage.


Pianist and composer Jed Distler will premiere Broken Recorda piece for grand piano and 128 keyboards. That happens on June 21, in front of the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York, at 11 AM, with a repeat performance at noon. I used to live on Cornelia Street, which is all of one block long. Jed will just about fill it!

This is an example (as I said of other events last Friday) of what’s now a very common kind of conceptual music piece — the musical equivalent of what in the visual art world would be called installation art. (As opposed to the old formal visual art genres, painting, drawing, sculpture, photography).

Says Distler:

Think of this piece as a sound sculpture, where the keyboards are set up from one part of Cornelia Street to another in waving formations. Audience members can walk through the ensemble, and experience the music as it unfolds from different perspectives. While the music is notated, the performers have a lot of freedom, and no single performance is identical. Through bringing 175-plus participants together, from students to professionals, from avid keyboard enthusiasts to newcomers, we hope to create a joyful sense of community.

There’s a lot of this going on. At the very least, it’s often fun. And often much more than that. Which raises a question. Why don’t mainstream classical music institutions jump on pieces like this? Some do, of course. But you could be a long-time opera or orchestra or chamber music subscriber, and never know that work of this kind was going on. Outsiders to classical music, of course, would eat it up.


Similarly — or approximately so — Joseph Bertolozzi, an American composer, is creating a piece based on sounds he makes on the Eiffel Tower, hitting various parts of the structurer with various implements — mallets, logs, whatever. He samples the sounds, and will use them in his piece. Called Tower Music, of course. To be premiered, Bertolozzi hopes, live on the Tower itself — by people literally playing the Tower as a musical instrument — when the landmark’s 125th anniversary is celebrated next year.

There’s been much media for this (here and here, for instance), partly because Bertolozzi has been in Paris, finding what sounds the Eiffel Tower can make, maybe also because he has a good publicist, but also, I’d think, because, well, it’s the Eiffel Tower.

As a kind of warmup (he’s has been dreaming of his Eiffel Tower piece for quite a while), Bertolozzi made Bridge Music, a similar concept, but using sounds from the Mid-Hudson Bridge, which connects two New York towns, Poughkeepsie and Highland. There are listening stations at either end of the bridge, for those who want to hear the piece on site. And FM broadcasts, allowing you to hear the music as you drive across the bridge, or walk.

Which means that the piece was quite a local success, and gets more ongoing exposure than any classical music event in the area. And so I’ll ask, once again, why classical music groups aren’t doing things like this. Bridge Music could just as well have been presented, on the bridge, by a local orchestra. Or Carnegie Hall could create music on the Brooklyn Bridge. And then commission an orchestra piece that also uses sounds from the bridge. If the New York Philharmonic did this, they could use sounds from the piece as the intermission-ending chimes in Avery Fisher Hall. Or they (or Carnegie Hall) could have created a piece using sounds from the steel skeleton of the Freedom Tower, rising on Ground Zero. Or…

So many tie-ins. So many possibilities. So many ways to open the doors separating classical music from the outside world.

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  1. arel says

    There is nothing new in Mr.Carpenter that Virgil Fox hadn’t bettered years earlier.
    Mr. Fox travelled around with a Rogers organ , Mr. Carpenter brings us nothing new
    except a flamboyance and blather to suit the times . He is clever and puts
    on a good show and Sony $$$ is not too dumb to notice . He suits the times
    for those that haven’t heard the “originals ” like Fox .

  2. richard says

    ” It’s a new era, and there’s no reason a digital organ can’t sound fabulous. I can imagine that many of the people who’d object are (if they watch TV) watching TV shows with orchestral scores, unaware that these scores are digitally synthesized.”

    I, for one, can tell a lot of the time. The synth sounds can be too perfect. Paul Krugman had an op-ed in the NYT a few days ago about modern “Luddites”. He points out that we might be entering a time where automation etc. will doom many people, even highly skilled/educated people with no chance of finding employment. I know from personal experience and from friends that synths have put a lot of studio musicians out of work.
    BTW, I wonder if Cameron will be able to play Ligeti’s “Volumina” on his new instrument.

  3. Ariel says

    It would be of interest if Mr. Barnhill would define his interpretation “wonderful take ” concerning the Rite of Spring.Does he mean creative variation on the original pulse of the work
    or does he mean banging drums to underly an already given beat and pulse . It seems at
    least to one listener that take away the music and all you have is a person banging away
    at the drums – the drumming seemingly is hard work as much so as the Liszt” wonderful takes”
    on operas of the day – or even the Sarasate or Wieniawski .wonderful takes . Could Mr. Barnhill
    explain the fine points of why he considers this a wonderful take ?

  4. Brian says

    I love the blog, but I don’t like the thought that people who aren’t in favor of digital organs are Luddite curmudgeons. By and large, digital organs (with some exceptions, especially from Marshall & Ogletree) are a poor substitute for fine pipe organs.