Review: Cameron Carpenter Introduces the International Touring Organ in Akron

By Timothy Robson

The brilliant and iconoclastic organist Cameron Carpenter performed at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron on Friday evening. It was his first local concert using his self-designed digital instrument known as the International Touring Organ, built by Marshall and Ogletree of Needham, Massachusetts. The builders digitally sampled and stored sounds from a variety of pipe organs that are then reproduced on an array of speakers. At E.J. Thomas Hall, the speakers occupied most of the stage.

The console has five keyboards (manuals) and a pedal keyboard with extensions at either end, both lower and higher, beyond the range of a standard pedal compass. A dizzying array of tabs and buttons controlling the sounds of the instrument surrounds the keyboards. There are some who object to the use of the term “organ” to describe an instrument lacking physical pipes, but for the purposes of this article, I will refer to this instrument as an “organ.” With a couple of reservations, organ and performer were a stunningly successful match.

Cameron Carpenter is controversial in his use of non-traditional playing styles, although he certainly is aware of them and could use them if he wanted. He has been quite outspoken in his disdain of the organ being “locked away” in churches and concert halls, and has said that the limited resources of most pipe organs restrain his artistic vision. Although Carpenter rejects the suggestion that he is on a crusade to bring organ to the masses (he says that “playing the organ is not a military mission”), he is interested in reviving interest in the organ as a medium for large-scale popular enjoyment and entertainment, unlocking it from its sacred and academic past.

For Carpenter an organ concert should also be visual. The organ console was front and center, with a large video screen suspended above him. Stage lighting changed depending on the mood of the piece. There was no printed list of the program selections; Carpenter announced his program from the stage. Between selections he spoke, an odd mixture of the polemical, egotistic, and self-deprecatory. Several times he described himself as “a nerd.”

If you accept Cameron Carpenter on his own terms — and why shouldn’t you — he is a brilliant and compelling musician. His concert crossed many genre boundaries, including classical, popular, jazz and theatre organ styles. Sometimes he bent genres within a single work. He has seemingly unlimited technique. He can “solo out” musical lines on multiple manuals at the same time, play chords in his feet, and manage a kaleidoscopic and ever-changing range of sounds on the organ. The International Touring Organ is the only instrument that could carry out his artistic aims.

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