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Cameron Carpenter

April 28, 2009

Cameron Carpenter is a rarity in the rarified world of classical organists. Flamboyant and virtuosic in performance, he has earned not only recognition among musicians, but also popularity as a soloist that overshadows all other exponents of the instrument. (Several of his YouTube videos have garnered over 100,000 plays.) Along the way he has purposefully trampled, questioned, or disregarded most of the received wisdom and shibboleths of the organ world.

No wonder his first album is titled Revolutionary (Telarc, 2008.) As organists go, he might as well be Che Guevara. He comes to San Francisco’s St. Agnes Church on Friday May 1, an event sponsored by the San Francisco chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Earnest and well-spoken in conversation, he discussed with SFCV his musicmaking, his motivations, his unorthodox opinions, and his work promoting the digital organ.

You have been successful making presentations in front of schoolchildren. How do you interest them in the organ and what you do?

Well, I certainly don’t interest them in the organ. That’s kind of a pointless pursuit, just as interesting anybody in cabinetmaking or architecture or English literature is a pointless pursuit. People will come to those conclusions on their own. I use my own experience to make it terribly clear, and yet really uncomplicated, that what they should pay attention to, whether they’re artistic or not, is developing a strong identity, that in the case of an artist, has to do with bold performance and dynamic, fearless presentation. Because it is those things that attract and motivate adherents, followers, antagonists, and it’s therefore those things which help one to make a career and an artistic impact.

Why did you start playing the organ? Why do you like it?

I wouldn’t say that I like it — I have a love-hate relationship with it. I started playing the organ because, when I was homeschooled, I discovered in an encyclopedia a picture of someone playing an organ that had three keyboards, and they were playing the bottom keyboard with their left hand but using the right hand to bridge the two [upper] keyboards, the thumb playing the lower and the remaining four fingers the top. And this sort of polyphonic playing is something that I’ve taken to a detailed extreme.

But it was also fascinating to me because my father, as an engineer, built highly customized industrial furnaces for heat-treating applications, and these had enormous, very complicated control interfaces that I used to play with as a child. And the combination of such an interface with a keyboard, in the organ, was intriguing and probably remains the closest I come to the mystical — the idea that there’s an electrical switch, which can, effectively, be connected to an emotional impact.

I read in your bio that you’re a fan of anime. Did you get into that the normal way? What other kinds of things do you do in your spare time?

The highest levels of anime, which is really represented by Hayao Miyazaki, of course. I am a major devotee of film. I would also describe cryptography and typography as two of my mainline interests. But a continuing theory of virtuosity is one of my main obsessions with the organ and also one of my main works — that and composing. I’m just now composing my first concerto for organ and orchestra, which has been commissioned by an orchestra in the Midwest.

You’re not unusual in having all kinds of contemporary interests — we all live in the modern world. But it seems you’re alone among organists in following those interests in performance. Why?

Well you can look, for instance, at my embracing of Laura Nyro’s work, and particularly quotation of it in some of mine (for example, the New York City Sessions), or my interest in film as reflected in my symphonic poem Homage to Klaus Kinski Thrills and Chills, which is on the album. These are far outside the normal focus of the organ.

But of course, the normal focus of the organ is something with which I have no real relation. I’m from a totally God-free background, so the idea that the organ is inextricably linked to church, worship, piety — the organ never had that traction for me. So it’s natural for me to say, as a saxophonist would: “I play the saxophone. What do I want to play?” And that’s what I do on the organ. But this is wildly unusual for organists.

And then, my correlated interests in various aspects of performativity and performance art, from Joan Jonas to Laurie Anderson and many others, plus my understanding that music is, as [composer/ pianist Ferruccio] Busoni said, essentially a oneness that includes everything from Ton Koopman to Liberace. You have to understand that the zeitgeist of the organ is totally stuck in an antiquated place, that is 30 or 40 years behind everything else. Where, in the rest of classical music, [composer Pierre] Boulez is already a grand old man of the establishment, and people like [the opera director] Peter Sellars are no longer controversial – that is a place to which the organ world has not progressed. So that somebody playing anime or movie scores, or attempting to reexamine aspects of atonality from [Anton von] Webern to new music for video games, comes under a lot of fire from the traditionalists.

What do you think about when you’re creating a concert program, then? What do you want the audience to come away with?

I view it as a kind of productive paradox. On the one hand I am an overt populist. I design my own clothes, which are embedded with thousands of 4-OPD crystals, I have this outwardly flamboyant nature, which seeks to please and entertain. Balance that with a complete disregard for the stupidities or shallow pleasure of entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

I want to play to please people, but [I have] a basic disregard for whether they are “entertained” or not, as long as it’s at the expense of making good music and making a good event, which is not necessarily signified by everybody being happy. I think a good event is signified by whether it has teeth — whether it can cause people to think, provoke strong reactions, and whether it gives rise to challenging arguments or interesting discussions.

I don’t announce the program in advance. To say to [today’s] man on the street, “I’m going to play Rachmaninov’s transcription of Bach’s Third Violin Sonata” — you might as well be talking to yourself. This has no popular conversance whatsoever. So I announce my programs in person so that I can actually talk about the music. This creates a draw: The event around which there is any kind of uncertainty is extremely rare today. And it’s something that I, as an event-goer, actually hunger for. Also, it’s simply folly, when you’re playing instruments that are completely different, night after night, one from another, to announce a program — you’ve never seen the organ, how can you presume to know what might work?

So that’s what I think about — how can I communicate with people, how can I dispense with the conventions of classical music that don’t work, while retaining those that do?

What is a good performance, then? Is it all about the music? Are there things that we customarily think of as “extra-musical” that you feel are essential?

I don’t feel the question is answerable, because the answer is in the obvious sum of the parts. There are some performers who claim that it’s “all about the music,” although that is a vague statement, that is seldom really explained. If it’s all about the music, wouldn’t it make sense to surround the piano with a four-sided, black, sound-permeable screen, so that we don’t have to see or have any other stimuli except the actual music? But then what would this be but a recording? So, obviously, people want to see. I would argue that that “extra-musical” experience, whatever it is — even if it’s just watching someone do something live and perhaps hearing them speak a bit — must be pretty crucial.

There are people who are quick to damn me for being too flamboyant, or for using the music as a vehicle for my own performance. But those judgments are always based on a person’s own expectations. If there are people out there who think that when performing music I am a nonentity, I would be surprised, but that person has their right to that [opinion]. The public is the judge — until the moment, drawing ever nearer I might add, when I withdraw from public performance. People laugh when I say it, but I have every intention of retiring from public performance, and hopefully sooner rather than later.

One place where organists have a specialized virtuosity not commonly found in classical music is in improvisation. Organists still improvise where, in the rest of the classical music world, this ability has largely been suppressed. Did you consciously go about expanding your virtuosity or is that something you came to because you were studying organ?

Well I certainly found it a satisfying pursuit, but I have never studied improvisation and I do not intend to. I feel that each artist has to cultivate their own path to a harmonic language and also, importantly, to a lack of inhibition. Although I feel there’s much to be learned from the traditional improvisers in the organ world, one of the most crippling things that is religiously maintained by a number of organists, is that the instrument is one of inhibition. Despite its being the most physically flamboyant, physically demanding instrument, it is still an instrument that is approached with a tangible sense of restraint, of retreat and inhibition. Because of my dance background [as a serious dance student], as well as my continuous pursuit of physical health, weight training with a dedicated physical trainer in New York, I have been successful, for myself, in breaking down those walls of inhibition. And that is one of the things that has freed me as an improviser.

If you could wave a magic wand and change something about modern organ performance, what would it be?

Well, I’m waving my wand as hard as I can and it’s starting to have a real effect. I’ve always admired the young Pierre Boulez: He felt that the opera house should be destroyed — he wasn’t speaking literally. I have a similar feeling about the pipe organ (not literally). I do believe that, in my own work and demonstrably in the work of many other organists, the pipe organ is increasingly a hindrance rather than a help. And technologically, we have certainly passed the point when the pipe organ is the only means of expression for somebody who is attracted to the interface of the organ to express themselves musically.

I have played, by now, thousands of pipe organs around the world, and I would say that I’ve played hundreds of them in concert. And I’ve almost always experienced, at some point in the performance, a let-down of some catastrophic kind. A stop, on which I’m depending breaks or slides out of tune. Or perhaps it’s more an insidious thing, where no one mechanical feature of the organ is corrupted but the organ as a whole lacks, either tonally, or even just the key action is too slow, and the high virtuosity moments are lost. So I suppose my one wish, toward which I’m devoting a great deal of my nonmusical work is, promoting the virtual [digital] pipe organ. (See demonstration.)

The digital organ is the evolution of the pipe organ with the application of digital technology. For the past 60 years or so, the electronic organ was the only viable alternative to the pipe organ. But the electronic organ has never been tonally satisfactory and has always suffered from the fact that it is a market-driven machine, built on assembly lines and intended to be sold in the greatest possible numbers.

The digital pipe organ is not an instrument that is contrived to be particularly affordable, although it is orders of magnitude more affordable than an equivalent pipe organ. It uses massively parallel processing, like the deep computing that you see in codebreaking, for the capturing, sampling, and recreation of pipe organs and other musical means and forces. The idea is to make an instrument which liberates the organist from all of the mechanical fetters of the pipe organ. I like to say that the virtual organ will do everything that the pipe organ will do and everything that it will not.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.