No pipe dream for organists

A new wave of young musicians is promoting the pipe organ—no hymns, no religious baggage

No pipe dream for organists

Adrian Boxall

Pipe organ music is often associated with two unpleasant events: a vampire attack by Bela Lugosi—da, da, da, dahhhhhh—or an endless Sunday liturgy. Its reputation has been tarnished by pianists banging out hymns on unfamiliar instruments, like tourists driving badly in a foreign country. And the popularity of pipe organ music has also been hampered by, well, organists themselves.

“We’re the geeky outcasts playing an eccentric instrument,” notes John Terauds, an organist and classical music blogger for the website Musical Toronto. “When I tell people I’m an organist, I’m met with dead air.”

Sarah Svendsen is a 23-year-old, award-winning organist who recently formed a group called Organized Crime Duo with colleague Rachel Mahon. “We don’t have the best set of social skills,” she admits, laughing. Their goal is to change the outdated image of organists as blue-haired church marms; their strategy involves stilettos, sequins, some theatrics and lots of mascara. For their debut in October 2011 at Toronto’s Phantoms of the Organ concert at the Metropolitan United Church, they vamped it up, spoofing Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; this year, they played the Star Wars theme. “What better to attract a 12-year-old boy than a 23-year-old girl in a sexy dress?” asks Svendsen. “And Star Wars?”

Gordon Mansell, co-founder of Toronto’s Organix organ festival, where Organized Crime Duo will perform crowd-pleasers like James Bond themes and possibly some Beatles tunes next May, says it’s a new day for the pipe instrument. “There’s a wave of young organists who want to promote the organ as a viable performance instrument. No hymns, no religious baggage.”

As church attendance dwindles, organists have had trouble finding future audiences, not to mention players. Anxious to broaden the image of the organ as more than a pious instrument, the Royal Canadian College of Organists (RCCO) is in the middle of a major rebranding. “We’re getting the organ out of the loft and into the theatre, where it can better build bridges to mainstream culture,” reports RCCO national president Nicholas Fairbank. He points to Vancouver organist Michael Dirk, 30, who played an original 1927 Wurlitzer organ at the Orpheum Theatre’s 85th anniversary this fall. Dirk performed a sold-out tribute to iconic organ showman Virgil Fox at Music Fest Vancouver last summer, when he also accompanied the silent Laurel and Hardy film The Second Hundred Years by playing songs by the Beach Boys, Elvis, the Rolling Stones and Faith Hill. “It’s the coolest instrument,” says Dirk, a full-time music teacher. “It’s ‘organ meets airplane cockpit,’ but half of my students at school ask, ‘What’s an organ?’ ”

To fill the generation gap, a series of one-day workshops for kids called Pedals, Pipes and Pizza, sponsored by the RCCO and other arts organizations, takes place across the country. “The future of the organ is no longer wedded to the church and we have to get creative,” says Neil Cockburn, who teaches the organ at Mount Royal University in Alberta and runs the Calgary Organ Festival and Symposium each fall. Cockburn recently held a workshop for kids, filled to capacity. “I strongly suspect two organists were born that day,” he notes enthusiastically.

McGill University’s organ department recently received a boost with the arrival of new department chairman Hans-Olå Ericsson, a famed professor from Sweden. Ericsson’s avant-garde organ music was included in the soundtrack of the Leonardo DiCaprio film Shutter Island, but that isn’t his claim to fame. He is the project leader for the creation of a symphonic invention, the Studio Acusticum organ, built for a new concert hall in Piteå, Sweden. The pipe organ, which had its debut this fall, has a built-in lighting system and is about to be fitted with a processor. “There is the possibility it can be played by a remote keyboard over the Internet,” explains Ericsson, who describes his evolving creation as “open concept” in order to accommodate styles of music that have yet to be invented. “Progressive musicians like Benny Andersson from ABBA are thrilled.”

In early November, Ericsson performed at Montreal’s thriving Rendez-vous des Grands pipe organ festival, where the audience was peppered with Ericsson’s hip and tattooed graduate students. “Young bands really like what an organ can bring to the overall sound,” says masters pipe organ student Gwen Bergman, 22, who settles for using an electric organ in her Montreal folk band, Lakes of Canada. Rock band Arcade Fire used a large Montreal church pipe organ for several songs on their 2007 album Neon Bible, but obviously it is impossible for groups to haul around a pipe organ. This portability problem has plagued the instrument from the start, which explains the creation of the electric organ, which became popular after it was introduced to the market in the 1930s. Designed to simulate the sound of a pipe organ, to some musicians it is a shabby compromise more suited to hockey arenas, not concert halls and churches.

Certainly the most dazzling proponent of the pipe organ is Cameron Carpenter, a Berlin-based, Ziggy Stardust character with virtuoso talent that cannot be ignored. A TED talk that has yet to air makes his position clear. “I’m demanding organists learn to live and work within the commercial framework of society,” says Carpenter, 31, who performed with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in November wearing a Chanel coat, Preen glitter pants and Latin dance shoes with sparkly heels. “You need to use sexuality and court publicity. You need a personal identity. You don’t go to hear Yo-Yo Ma’s cello; you go to hear Yo-Yo Ma. Look at what Jake Shimabukuro did for the ukulele. That’s what I’m doing. There is no known name for organists until now, and I’m known for reasons that have nothing to do with the pipe organ. People accuse me of having a big ego. Only in the world of classical music is ego a dirty word.”

There’s another reason his colleagues take issue. He just invented a new instrument—a digital touring organ. It cost $300,000, a bargain compared with a standard pipe organ, which takes years to build and months to install. Carpenter thinks the cost of the average pipe organ is unconscionable—“$5-million-dollar organs in concert halls are a late-blooming vanity.” So he sent his team around the world to digitally record the best pipe organs making their best sounds for his organ, which works much like a synthesizer. It’s portable, and breaks down to fit into a few cases, each weighing less than 75 pounds.

“Organists are denied an ongoing relationship with one instrument. It’s not like a guitar or a flute. I crave that intimate relationship. I want to spend hundreds of hours with one instrument, and be able to travel and perform on that one instrument,” explains Carpenter, who was home-schooled in Meadville, Pa., before attending the Juilliard School in New York for his undergraduate and master’s degrees. “Every organ is wildly different. It can take me 20 hours of rehearsal before a concert to set the buttons. It’s gruelling. My plan is to break out of that jail.”

His critics think he’s trying to burn it down. “It’s the purists who think he’s trouble,” explains Mansell of the Organix festival. “They see him as a Liberace-like threat to the integrity of the music and they don’t like his agenda—pushing his own digital organ. Cameron showed up at the IdeaCity event [in Toronto] and played atrociously, as he does sometimes to make his point, then produced a picture of his digital organ, telling everyone that it sounds better. The purists get fed up with him. But I think it’s no time to split hairs. We need him.”

Carpenter doesn’t care. “They aren’t my colleagues,” he states flatly. “Why would I put up with an instrument that’s always out of tune, as pipe organs inevitably are? They break down. There are dead notes and there’s a delay. Pipe organs, as they exist today, utterly fail me. There’s always some kind of cockpit emergency. Digital organs don’t ask you to put up with any of that uncertainty. I want to play my new digital organ in Las Vegas, which is no joke. Playing in Vegas is a great American honour.”

There are some who feel Carpenter is building an audience for himself, not necessarily for the instrument. He snorts at this accusation. “Ha! Nobody would say that about a pianist. And my goal is to play in schools and prisons like Johnny Cash. Isn’t that audience-building?”




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No pipe dream for organists

  1. I would like to mention Gert van Hoef, a talented 18 year old who learned to read music and started playing organ just 4 1/2 years ago. Even though he has not yet gone on a performance tour, he eclipses Cameron Carpenter in Google results 334,000 to 294,000, . He stirs interest in organ music through his many and varied YouTube videos which have had nearly three million views.

    • Also a wonderful artist and a great accomplishment, though of a much more traditional sort than CC and probably less charismatic to a wide audience. LD

    • Also should mention Tristan Mitchard, a young Brit who seems to share much of CC’s philosophy but is IMHO radically more talented both technically and musically.

      • You have it exactly backwards.

        Oh, wait – you’re trolling, aren’t you?

        • Backwards only if fast, loud, technically flawed to a very great extent and wholly unmusical is your thing. I’ve never lasted more than twenty seconds through a CC YouTube and wouldn’t walk across the street to hear him for free. Not to mention that Mitchard has got to be one of the most exquisitely beautiful creatures on the planet.

          • Yep, trolling, I thought so.

    • Gert van Hoef is a fantastic organist, who plays with taste and real spirit. He has my full support and I am a big fan.

  2. Hard to understand Gordon Mansell’s comment about Cameron Carpenter, which seems like irresponsible reporting, or perhaps wishful thinking (although in a backhanded way he is still supportive of Cameron). Whatever you may think about the way Cameron plays, Mansell’s account of CC’s appearance at IdeaCity is not consistent with the video of the actual event, which is available online for all to see. Maybe Mansell was unaware of that.

    Mansell says: “Cameron showed up at the IdeaCity event [in Toronto] and played atrociously, as he does sometimes to make his point, then produced a picture of his digital organ, telling everyone that it sounds better.”

    But as should be obvious:

    - Cameron didn’t “show up” – he was a featured speaker.

    - “Played atrociously” is a matter of opinion, but it’s pretty clear that the audience went wild, and this performance to me seems (if anything) more relaxed and intellectual than much of what CC often does

    - “Produced a picture of his digital organ…” No. Just watch the video. He discusses, wittily and at length, an instrument that doesn’t exist yet, why he wants it to, and defends the concept to the delight of the audience and the presenter. To say otherwise is pretty much to expose an anti-CC agenda.

    It would be interesting to see if Gordon Mansell would care to comment here on this since he will surely see the article.

    Loretta Dobos

      • I am really pleased that a national magazine has considered the pipe organ industry (organ building, performance and repertoire) worthy enough to write a story about. It is an industry that for the most part has suffered greatly due to a lack of new organ performance graduates, places to practice or perform and regrettably, a decline of religion itself. Many among us who do continue to study and perform are often too academic to attract a general population to the instrument, keeping it within a very limited and isolated classical genre. However, there are enough young performers that are realizing the potential of the instrument outside of the typical repertoire. They are exceptionally skilled performers of the standard organ literature but they are also adept at performing and creating transcriptions. We have been in a crisis period for our instrument during which interest for it has been non-existent. These young performers tend to be a little gregarious and theatrical. Nothing wrong with that if it will bring people along to hear both the traditional repertoire performed exceptionally well and the more contemporary and “fun” repertoire that Rachel and Sarah will perform in ORGANIX 13. Rachel Mahon and Sara Svendsen are both amazing young organists and have performed in previous ORGANIX festivals. Their talents are without question. Their passion to teach and to attract young people to the instrument is quantifiable. They are serious about securing the future of the organ and will surely create a lasting impact in every performance. Despite a few misplaced or misinterpreted words in an interview, their actions speak louder. As an international organ festival producer, one of the biggest challenges I face in presenting a yearly month-long series of events is in funding. The typical backers of music festivals (financial institutions) want to know how many eyeballs will see their brand. Jazz festivals attract substantial audiences and as such, substantial funding. However, organ concerts here in Canada and in Toronto specifically do not attract people at these levels. Happily, Sarah, Rachel, Ryan Jackson, Diane Bish and many other performers have established for themselves an audience and do attract new enthusiasts to their performances. I mention Diane Bish because she is world renowned. Cameron Carpenter is not the only organist with top-of-mind awareness. However, what Cameron does have is a wide appeal to those who do not know the organ. His theatrical approach to music-making produces media attention that other more introverted but exceptional talents lack. Nevertheless, this publicity is a great thing for the industry, provided Cameron is at the top of his game at every outing. This is a great responsibility and can be very stressful and difficult for any touring musician. So… what was not printed in this article but stated in the interview is that I believe Cameron Carpenter is indeed a substantive talent on the world stage. His virtuosity is not in question. As we are all trying to attract a new audience, we are essentially on the same team. When Cameron performs, he absolutely must have a robust instrument. He is very physical and demands the best an instrument can deliver and more. Hence, the creation and promotion of a custom designed touring instrument of his own making. At IdeaCity the atrocious part of the performance had to do with the Hauptwerk keyboard he was performing on. As good as Hauptwerk is as a software-based instrument, it was clearly struggling under the demands of the performer. Cameron overpowered it. The speakers were blaring, bass notes were hampered by crakling sounds, clarity was lost to inadequate channeling, high frequencies were shrill and low frequencies just blurted. It is true that the touring organist is the only musician that has to adapt to an instrument. Pianos are pretty much standard, string players bring their own instruments to performances as do woodwind players. Not organists. Instead, we must know the specifications in advance and prepare music that will showcase our talents and the instrument we perform on. This is challenging because even knowing the specifications in advance, we are never sure of the quality of the instrument and how the acoustics of the space may impact our delivery. We often do not have enough practice time to really understand the nuances and what not to do with it. The piece of music that Cameron chose to perform was technically way beyond the ability of the instrument. As a result, I think both the performer and the usually good reputation Hauptwerk system suffered. Yes, the standing ovation was quite enthusiastic. Cameron deserved this. I too stood. But, for the critical ear, there were certainly issues that should not have presented themselves and uniquely and conveniently opened the door to a presentation of a better way and Cameron’s touring organ. As a final thought, controversy is not new to world-stage musicians. Virgil Fox also had a touring organ and created his share of detractors and fans alike. Controversy followed Liberace, Victor Borge and even Elton John around wherever they performed. If controversial performers stir our passions and create discussion in our sleepy industry, then this is a bonus. We absolutely need to show our passions, to talk more about the excellence and depth of music that has been written for the organ and continues to be written by many great Canadian composers including Rachel Laurin, Andrew Ager, Eleanor Daley, Denis Bedard, Gilles LeClerc, Barrie Cabena and many many more. As a population, we need to get out there and learn about the instrument, to attend organ performances, encourage our young pianists to consider this instrument and to provide opportunities for them. The organ is indeed a viable instrument worthy of study and performing. We just need to create a thriving culture to support it in our churches and performance halls. Should Cameron wish to perform in ORGANIX you can be sure he will be performing on a robust instrument that will showcase his prodigious talents and the dynamic range of the mighty organ.

        • All very technical and complicated, but you are quoted as saying “Cameron played atrociously”. That doesn’t reflect the organ’s supposed failure, that reflects Cameron’s failure. Your statement seems to backpedal. I’d think you’d want to address this specifically, especially if as you seem to indicate, you’d want Cameron to perform at Organix (assuming you could afford him). Loretta Dobos

  3. “What better to attract a 12-year-old boy than a 23-year-old girl in a sexy dress?” asks Svendsen. “And Star Wars?”

    They want to attract 12 year old boys? o.O …

    Anybody who thinks playing Star Wars tunes on a pipe organ is going to get roaring crowds of pre-Bieberites… …or anyone… to take them seriously is headed for career reassessment.

    • Exactly.

      • Lighten up people … enjoy the music !!!

        • Since when must I enjoy something because you told me to? Please, this is a free country and I have a right to my opinion. So please, lighten up and allow people their own opinions.

          • Oh la la … did not mean to annoy or antagonize, my apologies. All I meant is the treasure is in the content and not the packaging.

          • Annoy or antagonize who? Hahaha. You really need to lighten up and stop seeing things or responses that aren’t even there. :)

          • CREEP

          • Have a nice day.

    • As opposed to the vast crowds of pre-bieberites which are presently being drawn in by all the Böhm, Buxtehude and Messiaen we seem to be programming at recitals these days?

      • The very fact that we think that the Bieberites are an audience that we even can cultivate shows how out of touch we really are.

  4. The fact that they think organ music is about “religious baggage” is the most bizarre thing in the world. Have they ever noticed that there is an entire genre out there of organ music, independent of the church at all? Bach loved God, and dedicated his whole output to God, he wrote some of the most beautiful music on earth, is this now suddenly making the organ “religious baggage”? It’s about spirituality and BEAUTY, an entirely different concept. I wish people would start to use their brains….Now they want to turn something beautiful into trashy plastic Lady Gaga crap. Well, go ahead. Just don’t ask me to support you.

    • Right you are. The term pertains to the general public who has this perception, largely gained from poorly played hymns at church and funeral homes. Our task is to change that perception. We are all on the same wavelength, just understanding that we need to be dedicated and focused on changing perceptions. If not, the repertoire will die after our generation is gone.

    • The support of people who already recognize that Bach is “some of the most beautiful music on earth” is pretty much a given in the organ world. Unfortunately, most of that audience is aging out. Unless a younger audience can be found, the organ will assume it’s place in the music history museum next to the Lute. But by all means, go ahead and withhold your “support.” – we can certainly get by without your (apparently) irrepressible desire to belittle both the potential audience and the music they currently enjoy. You would only drive people away.

      • And…. where is the organ in all of this, I ask? Beatles, Star Wars, sexy dresses? What does the organ have to do with this AT ALL? How on earth, if young people are not *already* interested in it, will they suddenly become interested after hearing a Beatles song on it? Nope – they are there for the Beatle song, and the Beatle song isn’t going to magically make them Buxtehude lovers! THAT, sir. is my point. My point is – the organ is misunderstood, and now sticking a whole new face on it, will NOT suddenly make things better. It’s going to become a relic ANYWAY, or maybe even faster, because the true art of playing is going to get lost. So really, your points do not hold for me.

        • So, your argument is that an organ is only an organ when it’s playing music written when wigs were popular on men? nothing else counts? Your argument that other music transcribed for the organ being incapable of getting people interested in the instrument would be a big surprise to most of the early 20th century, when transcriptions were the bulk of what was being played in recitals and the popularity of the organ was at it’s height. The “True Art” of playing is doing Just Fine, there are lots of young organists out there playing it straight and sticking to the classics, don’t ask me what they’ll do for a living in twenty years when most of the current audience is dead, and attempts to preserve the “purity” of the Organ have prevented a new audience from developing. In my experience most of the people who have contented themselves with the organ passing into relic status don’t expect to be alive for it. Nice work if you can get it, but some of us are young enough to want the organ to have a future, even if it means we don’t play exclusively music from its past.

        • Thank you

      • This is true only if the goal is chasing mass audiences. There is still a vast audience for classical music on every other instrument, why is the organ at special risk? Also, the decline of classical music has been announced in every decade for the last 150 years. I wish people would stop expecting classical artists to all aim for Pavarotti-level popularity, for that is the wrong goal. Organist in church are there to serve another purpose and this can hardly be compared to those who seek a mass audience. I have nothing against those who seek to be entertainers. More power to them! But putting down every other kind of musical pursuit is only a reflection of American society’s pursuit of money and fame, and its distrust of anything else. As for CC, I would love to have half of his keyboard facility. If I did I would use it for the classical repertoire I love. His playing of classical music is filled with distortions, and it seems he is not interested in performing this music to accepted standards. Yes, Virgil Fox opened up new audiences to the organ, but he was primarily selling himself, not the music. I would tell CC to get himself a touring organ, get a hall in Las Vegas and play his transcription to his heart’s content, but leave the classics alone. It is strange that one so talented, so well-educated, plays in such a way. But no matter, for he is not interested in the music. He, like Fox, is primarily selling himself and he will undoubtedly have a fantastic career.

        I know that since I’ve used terms like “distortions” and “standards” many will call me a snob. Go ahead. If we were discussing the piano, and pitting Horowitz against Liberace, the same views would apply. Confusing one who puts the music first with someone who puts him or her self first is why there is such misunderstanding of CC and Fox.

    • Good music is good music whether it be religious music or not.

      • That’s one of my points, yes.

  5. Oh La la … did not mean to annoy or antagonize, my apologies. Just saying the content and not the packaging is the treasure.

  6. Cameron Carpenter, gifted though he is, can hardly claim to have “invented” the touring electronic organ. Virgil Fox pulled that trick literally before Cameron was born.

    • I was going to write the same thing!

  7. Rick Wakeman for ever!!!

  8. The two young organists of Organized Crime Duo are superb solo players, including music by Buxtehude, Bach, Franck, Dupre, Reger, Laurin, etc, etc on their programs. Bt including transcriptions of Star Wars and Beatles songs, they are following a tradition of centuries, as organists have played opera overtures and other orchestral works. The organ is both a liturgical instrument and an entertaining instrument. At Toronto’s Phantoms of the Organ, some 600 people enjoyed music from Bach to Star Wars – adults, teens, childres in the audience.

  9. All of these things have been done before. Including Cameron Carpenter’s antics. Also, are we really divorcing the organ from its perceived place in horror movies by playing a concert called “phantoms of the organ” heavily featuring the Toccata in d?

  10. Cameron Carpenter did not “invent” the touring organ. Virgil Fox was touring with “Black Beauty” decades before Cameron was born. Fox was a far superior organist who is and shall remain far more famous and did not spend his career denigrating his fellow organists or the magnificent instrument that has survived over 500 years of history. Cameron will be remembered, if he is remembered at all, as a spoiled wannabe who had no respect for the heritage of his instrument or its players.

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