The title, by its very nature, makes a bold claim: Revolutionary is the debut CD on Telarc from organist Cameron Carpenter. However, one certain definition of the term "revolutionary" is to indicate one who is participating in a revolution, and that certainly befits what this young organist is doing. Carpenter is among the first organ virtuosi to specialize on the virtual pipe organ, an instrument that uses samples in lieu of pipes and is amplified by an impressive array of high-voltage amplifiers and high-tech speakers, including a sub-woofer that can crank down to two cycles per second; in person, one can feel the force of wind coming from that sub. While one might think it easier for Telarc to simply plug into the console of the organ and take the recording directly out of the instrument, Telarc had a different idea about this; after all, it has microphones that are sensitive down to 10 cycles. The label decided to record Carpenter live at Trinity Wall Street Church in New York City, which installed one of these organs after battling with difficult acoustics for over 150 years; the debate was finally settled, sadly, when the traditional Aeolian-Skinner organ was destroyed by smoke and debris emanating from the 9/11 attacks.
The battery of speakers required to facilitate the live blend of the virtual pipe organ are already installed in Trinity on a permanent basis, and this provided the Telarc engineers with a stable environment in which to work. The result, from a purely sonic perspective, is astounding: bass notes worm out of the floorboards with a rumbling intensity, and dynamics are exact to the extent that when a passage in Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1 skitters off into the distance you feel that Elvis has left the building. Carpenter's virtuosity on the organ is very well matched to the instrument; in his organ transcription of Chopin's "Revolutionary" Étude, he takes the difficult, constantly rolling left-hand piano part on the pedals, definitively giving the impression that no one will ever beat this guy at a game of hopscotch. Carpenter also takes full advantage of the virtual pipe organ's capability of folding in theater organ stops into the standard pipe organ mix, which proves startlingly effective in his own Homage to Klaus Kinski, his lighthearted transcription of Vladimir Horowitz's Variations on a Theme from Bizet's Carmen, and in the wild voicings he employs in Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Certainly a silent horror film and/or Halloween concert with Carpenter must be a thrilling event.
However, it can be understood that from a traditional perspective the whole project can be seen as completely over the top; the organ is encrusted in an 800-year-long history that deals with constantly evolving technology, yet the audience that has a firm grip on the organ is a conservative sort not quite ready to embrace digitization, bidding farewell to the idea of pipes or to have theater organ stops trundling through Bach. Nevertheless, Carpenter's imagination runs in equal measure to his courage and willingness to court controversy, and as an audiophile experience, Revolution is extraordinary. This Telarc disc will become an indispensable part of the conversation about the pipe organ, and its future, for a long time to come, and from the sheer thrill ride aspect of it, is undeniably invigorating.