Transforming energy into music: Cameron Carpenter at TED2012

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Opening Session 6 of TED2012: Cameron Carpenter, one of the world’s top organists — he’s brought the “king of instruments” out of the church and into concert halls.

He starts with “Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” by Richard Rodgers. The organ sounds are first out of place, then mesmerizing. He then moves into Chopin’s Etude in C# Minor, and the extraordinary variety of his travel organ brings a wonderful perspective to the piece. The experience is simultaneously novel — when was the last time you heard an organ at a conference? — and old.

Watch a gorgeous video of Cameron Carpenter performing Naïades.


Carpenter explains the one simple thing about the organ: energy. “The organ is literally a machine that transforms energy into music, and therefore into emotion.”

He wondered why a machine of such “violence, vulgarity, obscentiy, high drama, subtlety, and understatement” would have a sinecure in, of all places, church. He wonders if the power of the early organ comes from its energy — because, before electricity, the wind-powered pipe organ was the most sustained experience of sound energy many people ever heard.

Today, there are two types of instrument: the traditional pipe organ, and the digital organ. It’s actually unusual for a professional organist to prefer a digital one to a pipe organ. But one great thing about digital organs: they can be moved. And Cameron wants a deep relationship with his instrument — something very difficult to achieve when you can’t move it.

So, his dream is to make the greatest organ in the world: a digital touring organ that can be transported, both around the world and into the 21st century.