51st Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California, on February 8th, viewers will get a chance to meet a young artist who is transforming the sound and appeal of the organ. Cameron Carpenter, 27, is a master of the virtual pipe organ, an instrument he also has helped design and build.
Inside the polished wood console is a mass of computer chips and circuit boards. Connected to numerous amplifiers and speakers, the organ's "virtual" pipes reproduce sampled sounds loaded into digital memory. The instrument has four keyboards, 32 foot pedals, dozens of buttons and tabs and small screens with scrolling digital options.
Carpenter says it provides an extensive musical pallet that can combine old pipe sounds in new ways or create new sounds that don't originate from pipes. He says among its engineering marvels are Thigpen Rotary Woofers, high-tech loudspeakers that project bass notes of such low frequency that they shake the church and flicker the lights.
"The tonal spectrum is not only increased, but the pitch spectrum, the register, is massively increased because now the organ doesn't have to stop at normal 16 foot pipes, nor 32, but can go to 64 and therefore drop and drop and drop," he says.
Born in 1981, Carpenter began his life with perfect pitch and a photographic memory. He played piano at 4 years old, toured with the American Boychoir at 11, and at 13 performed for an audience of 3,000 at the Cathedral in Riga, Latvia.
On his Grammy-nominated CD Revolutionary, Carpenter includes original works alongside jazz, pop and classical pieces adapted for the virtual pipe organ. The title track is a transcription of Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude" in which Carpenter assigns the grueling chromatic runs to his feet.
"Basically the piece retains its original form, but little lights are shined into new corners," he says.
Carpenter puts his entire body into the music. At times he has to hold tightly on to the organ bench to give his feet free musical range. While he dresses in rhinestone-studded T-shirts, snug pants and flamenco-heeled leather shoes and is dramatic to watch, Carpenter says his artistry is about control and gentle refinement - not unlike ballet.
"You spend more time in the air than in the key! And people don't [know] how much the organ can dance, but it does, and it's not just this earth-bound-clad thing that roars along in heavy, sad cords."
Carpenter has set out to change the tired stuck-in-time-image of the pipe organ as loud and plodding, and he believes he has the instrument to do it.
"What I am trying to go for here and in the organs I design is to deny the organist nothing. The [instrument] becomes a conduit for the music and the performers' identity."
Carpenter says such flexibility allows him to compose, conduct and perform all at once. He notes that while the classic pipe organ is costly to maintain and ultimately unsustainable, its virtual cousin can preserve its sounds and create music not yet imagined.