An ancient instrument goes mobile

Cameron Carpenter and Robert C. Tall before organ performance on Venice Beach.

By Heather M. Higgins, CNN

Los Angeles (CNN) – Perched high above Glendale, Calif., in the dry heat of the Verdugo Mountains sits an octagonal room that houses a musical instrument with a storied past and an uncertain future.

“There's no question about it that the pipe organ will always be the most revered of the organs, but it doesn't reach the masses now like the digital organ will,” said Robert C. Tall, PhD., 74, an organist who has played many of the great organs around the world.

If you've never stepped inside a church like the magnificent Milan Cathedral, or if you've never attended a concert at a hall like the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, chances are you haven't heard live organ music. All of that could change. The fledgling digital organ, which has been relegated to second class, has a new generation of champions.

One of those champions is virtuoso and traveling sensation, Cameron Carpenter.

    “The organ is in a kind of crisis. I think it needs radically outsider approaches to reestablish its connection with the world at large. And that's what I'm doing,” said Carpenter at the TED 2012 conference in Long Beach, Calif. earlier this year.

    Carpenter is embracing new technology to design a digital touring organ invented specifically for the 21st century.

    This organ may scarcely resemble the pipe organ once declared the “King of Instruments” by Wolfgang Mozart, but it will guarantee to bring the organ out of the church and expose it to the masses – something Carpenter hopes will connect audiences and demystify a complicated instrument.

    A pipe organ uses wind moving though metal pipes to produce sounds, while a digital organ relies on loud speakers and computer processing to play sounds or model the sounds of the former.

    There are two schools of thought – those who believe the craftsmanship and artistic integrity of the pipe organ can’t be falsely duplicated and those who say the digital organ, with its mobility and flexibility is the organ of the future.

    “Cameron is really trying to reach mainstream public to potentially create a wider audience which is a good thing,” said Alan Morrison, chairman of the organ department at The Curtis Institute of Music in Phila., Pa.

    Morrison admits that Carpenter is a controversial character in the industry but he attributes that to people who compare him to those who practice more historically informed approaches. “I believe there is room for everyone and we should not be forced into a mold.”

    Carpenter is breaking that mold.

    When asked if he’d like to be the next Liberace, he said, “I’m simply the first Cameron Carpenter, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

    Some in academia say it is ultimately about the glorious instrument, not the performer. But an organ is an inanimate object that needs an artist to give it life. If the artist is provocative, people want to watch and listen.

    Carpenter's skintight black leather pants, bleached-blond mohawk and porcelain doll-like complexion give him the appearance of a rock star rather than a Juilliard-trained professional.

    However, glitz and flair aside, there is a sense that Carpenter is intimately involved with the music he plays, whether it's Leonard Cohen, Rufus Wainwright or Schubert.

    As his fingers glide across the organ's keys and his feet work their magic below, the soundproof eight-sided Glendale studio filled with transporting melodies and the vibrations from a powerful instrument.

    Robert Tall, who was one of nine organists invited to perform at the October 2000 Virgil Fox Memorial in the famed Riverside Church, stood in the corner and listened intently as Carpenter played.

    The music room, with its honey-colored wood beam ceiling and crimson velvet covered church pew, bleeds music.

    It is rife with memorabilia and a Yamaha concert grand piano, but the digital organ with its awe-inspiring silver pipe facade is the star. The walls are blanketed with awards from the California legislature honoring the property's current owner, Ruth Charles. Charles, 87, a prominent musician, and her late husband are known as Mr. and Mrs. Glendale. They bought the home from Tall and his partner David, in what he describes as a very meaningful and friendly transaction.

    Tall, who pursued an education and career in music initially to his father's dismay, credits the organ for shaping his life. His mentor, the late Richard Purvis once told him, “The organ is like a disease, once it's in your system, it will never come out.”

    While social media has created attention about all things organ, and the number of organ videos on YouTube has skyrocketed, it is challenging to change the perception of a centuries old instrument that many people don't ever think about.

    The overall size of the organ market has shrunk and it's been on a long decline over the last 10 years, according to the 2012 census report from Music Trades magazine.

    “Fewer people can play and fewer can purchase, but we hope Cameron will spark a rebirth,” said Jennifer Brandlon, marketing manager for Rodgers Instruments Corporation, which is part of the Roland Corporation, the largest builder of digital music instruments in the world.

    In the same way sports transcend borders and bring people together, music has a similar power.

    “Music feeds our souls and is proven to play a crucial role in the positive development of human behavior,” said Morrison who teaches an elite group of organ students.

    Tall envisions a world where people trade guns for musical instruments.

    “If we were to offer all of those young people in the world who are being taught to hate and kill and strap bombs to their bodies and create mayhem, if we were to give each one a violin, or a flute, or a guitar, their lives would be totally different,” he said.

    At an average price of around $50,000 it's naïve to think that everyone who wants to play the digital organ will have the opportunity. However, prodigies like Carpenter can generate awareness which is key to securing its future.

    To demonstrate the digital organ's accessibility, Tall helped orchestrate a Venice Beach concert on the two-and-a-half mile stretch of white sand notorious for its circus-like ocean front and edgy characters.

    “A lot of people came up and said, ‘we’ve been walking this beach for years and this is the most incredible thing we’ve ever seen.' It’s important to know that that really had an impact out there the other day,” said Tall.

    “I mean, who’s going to take that very expensive piece of equipment, put it on a boardwalk and play it outdoors? It’s unheard of.”

    You can watch Cameron Carpenter’s extraordinary Venice Beach performance on The Next List this Sunday June 17th at 2 p.m. ET on CNN.