The Weird Uncle of Instruments

Monday, June 07, 2010 - 03:26 PM

I have a few musical guilty-pleasures--the accordion, the musical saw and certain kinds of close harmony singing among them. But I’m sure the one that most marks me as, shall we say, a bit odd, is--I’m hesitating to say it, actually--the theater pipe organ.

If the pipe organ is the King of Instruments, then the theater pipe organ is the Weird Uncle of Instruments. Designed to accompany silent movies by enabling one person to imitate a whole orchestra, it makes sounds no other instrument--including an orchestra--makes.

So I’m always excited when this obsolete behemoth finds a fierce advocate. The latest is the maverick organist Cameron Carpenter, whose new album contains classical works he’s transcribed specifically for theater organ and which he plays with jaw-dropping virtuosity on a real Mighty Wurlitzer. (See video below.)

Cameron’s holding a release party at Le Poisson Rouge on Tuesday night at 6:30 to celebrate his new recording and he’ll perform, too, using an electronic instrument. (Nothing that makes music is less portable than a pipe organ.) I’m sure that Cameron’s performances on his new DVD will make the theater pipe organ some new friends.

Okay, now that I’ve confessed, what’s your musical guilty-pleasure?

Click below to hear WQXR’s Jeff Spurgeon's talk with Cameron Carpenter about his new double-disc album Cameron LIVE! and Tuesday's album release party or check out a video of Carpenter performing.


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Comments [9]

Phyllis Sharpe

Perhaps pipe organs were used in movie theatres for the music underscoring of tension or romance. And sometimes theatres were used for graduations, etc.
In 1906 my church in NJ almost bought a pipe organ from a NYC theatre, but instead decided to have a new one installed.
Before that they had been using a parlor organ which is only 4 octaves and pumps with foot pedals for power.
My grandmother brought her parlor organ with her when she and her husband moved from Indiana to Kansas in a covered wagon after the Civil War. This organ rode on the back of the backboard from their farm to the church each Sunday.
The first time I really heard Bach's Toccata and Fugue was in Amsterdam in the stone archway between the 2 buildings of the Ryckes(sp?) Museum played on 2 accordians and 1 tuba. It was gorgeos.

Jun. 28 2010 02:38 PM
Michelle from NYC

Musical saw - yes! Will you be going to the 8th annual NYC Musical Saw Festival then? If you don't know about it:
Last year there were 53 musical saw players playing TOGETHER there. Can you imagine?

Jun. 10 2010 01:33 PM
Lisa from Gowanus

I too love the accordian. It's such a wonderful instrument and it's music and sound cuts across a range of musical genres.. or maybe countries - the Polka, French chanteuse music, Mexican folk songs. And of course, the wonderful old fella who sits outside the laundromat at the corner of 7th Avenue and 1st Street in Park Slope.

Jun. 09 2010 05:20 PM
juan from chelsea

I like the harmonica, especially when played by jazzman Toots Thielemanns, and when it appears in Villa-Lobos's Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra -- one of my favorite pieces by that composer.

Jun. 09 2010 04:49 AM
Michael Meltzer

The absolute and overpowering musical genius of Spike Jones.

Jun. 09 2010 02:39 AM
Edward D. Weinberger from Manhattan

My guilty pleasure is the music of Richard Wagner, especially the Ring Cycle. I can forgive Wagner his virulent anti-Semitism (just as I forgive that of my hero, J. P. Morgan, Sr.). What is unforgiveable is the overblown grandiosity of his music. While it is clearly ridiculous to claim that Wagner as an INTELLECTUAL ancestor of National Socialism in Germany, by legitimzing pathological self-importance, Wagner was indeed an EMOTIONAL ancestor of the Nazi's.

Jun. 08 2010 06:06 PM
Mikhayl from Brooklyn

Gottschalk is without a doubt my musical guilty pleasure. His music is about as schmaltzy as it gets, but boy is it ever fun to both play and listen to.

Jun. 08 2010 03:04 PM

Yes, the theater organ is definitely wierd. Cameron somehow manages to make it more than what is usually is, an icky sound attractive only to the very very old and stuck in the past.

Jun. 08 2010 09:44 AM

I don't think liking or listening to theater organs is a 'guilty pleasure' of any kind, Mr. Spurgeon. There are quite a few of us (note: 'us') out here who love the sound of that kind of organ. For that matter, even the 'normal' pipe organ is a great listen. If you or anyone is interested in a truly overwhelming experience, I recommend seeking out recitals on such great theater organs as the one in Radio City Music Hall or the LIU/Brooklyn Paramount instrument. Additionally, there is an organization, The American Theater Organ Society, that sponsors and seeks to advance the appreciation of the theater organ. Perhaps I/we will see you soon at a recital they sponsor?

Jun. 07 2010 06:30 PM

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