Cameron Carpenter: courting musical controversy

Cameron Carpenter isn’t your average organist. The 37-year-old American isn’t afraid to put his individual stamp on any piece of music – whether it is Bach or Bacharach. Courting both praise and controversy for his approach and choice of instrument, Carpenter is pushing the organ to its musical limits.

“This season will be a little more manageable,” says Carpenter as he describes his upcoming tour schedule. With a gruelling calendar taking him around Europe, China, Korea, and America, it hardly sounds like a relaxing itinerary. However, on his last tour Carpenter performed over 50 concerts in the US alone, necessitating back-to-back days of playing. Even as he enjoys a rare few days of downtime in Berlin, where he now lives, Carpenter is performing. All of which gives you an idea of how in demand this young organist is.

A theatrical device

Carpenter first played the organ when he was four years old. Growing up in a rural corner of Pennsylvania, his introduction to the organ was rather different to most. “I didn’t come to the organ through the church,” he explains. Instead, for him the instrument was inextricably linked to theatrics. “From the very beginning of my awareness of the organ it was the drama [that attracted me], because as a child I sometimes listened to old radio programmes which had organ music. The idea of the organ actually for me was first a theatrical device.”

This early association with drama has carried through to Carpenter’s performances today. Dressed in Swarovski crystal-encrusted shoes and an array of outfits more commonly associated with performers of quite a different genre of music, watching Carpenter perform is mesmerising. Playing the foot pedals with balletic finesse – he transferred entire runs intended to be played by hand to the feet, demonstrating extraordinary dexterity – he literally sparkles under the stage lights. It would, however, be superficial to judge this Juilliard graduate on the theatricality of his performances alone; he is a remarkable musician pushing the organ – and himself – to its very limits in pursuit of musical perfection.

Perfection, while not necessarily attainable, is desirable.

“As a performer, as an individual, and as an artist, we do spend our lives practising, which is – whether or not it is stated as such verbally – an admission that perfection, while not necessarily attainable, is desirable.” For organists, though, this pursuit of perfection has additional challenges. “Every pipe organ is unique,” Carpenter explains. “Pipe organs are sort of complete universes in themselves and there is very little transference, if any, from one organ to another.” The professional organist is therefore in a unique position: unlike a violinist who can travel with his or her Stradivarius, organists cannot take their monumental instruments along, instead needing to learn the characteristics of a new instrument before every performance.

A digital organ

That was until the International Touring Organ came into play. The ITO is a digital organ created by Marshall & Ogletree, an organ-building company based in Boston, Massachusetts, and while not compact – it needs a large truck to transport the various components – this organ is portable. With the ITO, organists are now able to travel with their instruments and enjoy a consistency that “would formerly have been an impossibility”. For Carpenter, the digital organ is “not only an inevitability, but a necessity” and one that is capable of technical perfection – and “since precision would seem to be a desirable thing, it would also follow that it’s a better instrument.”

Many purists disagree with Carpenter’s advocacy of the digital organ, but then again Carpenter isn’t afraid of courting controversy. He frequently experiments with ‘classic’ scores and transfers pieces written for other instruments to the organ. He views the idea that there is only one way to play a given piece of music as “very vain”, stating that the “pursuit of authority is totally inappropriate in musical matters”. For him, music is inevitably about self-expression and experimentation, and “if that seems self-centred or egotistical or self-absorbed or pretentious, then let it.”

Bringing music to a wider audience

Carpenter performs according to his own rules – from his choice of instrument to the music he plays and the way he chooses to play it. He is electrifying an area of classical music that has long been seen as dusty and sombre, the domain of Sunday mornings or heraldic processions. By liberating the organ of its ecclesiastical associations, he is able to bring his music, and a broader understanding of the organ that is free of “totally bogus culturally trappings”, to a wider audience, but he has “no delusions about making the organ popular”. A musician, he says, simply makes a statement within a medium, in his case the organ, and it either resonates with people or it doesn’t. He does, of course, want to make the organ “as accessible as possible without cheapening it”. Which is why when invited to play at prestigious places and classical music festivals, Carpenter holds workshops to introduce and explain the ITO.

Digital organs represent the future for Carpenter in more ways than one. Not only does he feel like they are key to the organ’s continued relevance in music, to providing a way “for the organ to transcend its economic and cultural limitations”, but their design offers a potential career away from the stage. While Carpenter can imagine himself becoming an organ designer later in life, for now, a tour awaits.

Photograph by Thomas Grube

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