White Light Festival: Song of the Earth

White Light Festival: Mary Chapin Carpenter and Cameron Carpenter

white light festival

"Poetry (or music)...exists partly for the purpose of showing us ourselves, at our worst and at our best." - Sharon Olds

Before Superstorm Sandy blew into town last week and caused all kinds of disruptions to the NYC music calendar, I was able to make it up to Alice Tully Hall for a pair of performances at the White Light Festival. Now in its third year, White Light has established itself as a fixture in the New York musical calendar, thanks largely to the eclectic, thoughtful programming of festival director Jane Moss. Over the course of numerous conversations with Moss, it has become clear to me that White Light is much more than just a music festival: it's a retreat, an escape that offers time and space to stop and reflect on our lives, both our happiness and our misfortunes. With everything New Yorkers have gone through this past week, this year's White Light Festival seems to have arrived just in time.

mary chapin carpenter, white light festival 2012Case in point: singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, who performed a two-hour set with her band a week ago Friday. Carpenter has been through some rough times in the past few years: her father passed away, she divorced her husband, and she almost died from a pulmonary embolism. These experiences all went into her cathartic new album, Ashes and Roses, which traces her slow climb back from the edge of despair. With visionary, pain-drenched songs like "What to Keep and What to Throw Away" and "Chasing What's Already Gone," this show was all about healing, about learning from your experiences and moving on. For those in the room who had ever suffered a broken heart, it was hard not to be inspired—or to keep a dry eye.

mary chapin carpenter, white light festival 2012"We are all human," Carpenter reassured us towards the end of her set. "We all make lists of the things that are important to us, that bring meaning and purpose to our lives. And, what you soon realize is: none of these things are elusive. They're all right there in front of you."

cameron carpenter, white light festival 2012Two days later, just before the subways shut down, I made it back up to Tully to hear Cameron Carpenter (no relation) perfrorm Bach and his own arrangements of other composers on the Alice Tully organ. In Carpenter's case, the emphasis is definitely on the word "perform": wearing skin-tight glitter pants and with his head shaved into a quasi-mohawk, he looked like the unholy spawn of Virgil Fox and The New York Dolls.

It took me all of two minutes to forget about Carpenter's provocative appearance; he played the entire show from memory, dazzling with his blistering finger speed and all-out technique. At one point, he played an entire passage from a Bach Cello Suite with his feet. If anyone ever needs a reminder of the furthest capacity of human intelligence, go see an organist.

cosmic pulses white light festival 2012Remarkably, only one White Light show was canceled due to Sandy without being rescheduled: Stockhausen's Cosmic Pulses, which was to have been performed last Tuesday. I probably felt this loss more keenly than most, as I played a role in making it happen, introducing Jane Moss to sound artist Joe Drew, who performed the NYC premiere at Issue Project Room last year. Ever since I saw Stockhausen perform the world premiere at Sinopoli Hall in Rome in 2007, I've longed to hear this overwhelming music in a major U.S. concert hall. Jane has promised me that it will happen on a future festival; I'm holding her to it.