Pipe Dreams

Flamboyant international organist Cameron Carpenter has garnered as much attention for his skills as for challenging tradition

Go figure. The young celebrity musician behind the biggest and loudest musical instrument is himself relatively brash and audacious. Moreover, Cameron Carpenter, the international concert organist, is incredibly, incredibly blunt.

”His audiences probably were as racially diverse as a loaf of white bread,” Carpenter quips about a famous forebear, the late organist Virgil Fox. Continuing on that theme, the 32-year-old Carpenter pulls out all the stops as he criticizes contemporaries for clinging to and commemorating possibly overhyped organists from the past, as well as outdated traditions. ”There’s so much about the organ and the organ community that really is looking to the past,” he says. ”And, I find, a kind of love affair with death.”

Cameron Carpenter

Cameron Carpenter

(Photo by Todd Franson)

Carpenter also warns of a rising conservatism in classical music. ”The concert hall, increasingly as classical music has come into question, has become a more conservative, a more carefully guarded and defended place,” he says. ”And in those situations, it’s less and less likely to expect revolution to occur.” Yet, in an interesting twist, it’s become ever more likely to find Carpenter regularly performing in the world’s leading concert halls. That includes his recent debut at the Kennedy Center, playing alongside the National Symphony Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma.

Fortunately, the desire for revolution is still a driving force for the provocative and maverick organist. In performance, Carpenter continues to experiment and take risks with music, whether his own compositions, classical standards, or collaborations with jazz and pop artists. He also dazzles with both expressive musicality and shiny, quirky costumes. A Los Angeles Times critic praised Carpenter as ”technically the most accomplished organist I have ever witnessed … and the most musical.”

To a significant degree, you would expect as much. After all, Carpenter is a music prodigy from rural Pennsylvania who started playing the organ at age 4, and spent his teens at the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Later, only two years after graduating with degrees from New York’s Juilliard School, Carpenter released his debut album, notably titled Revolutionary, which earned him a Grammy nomination in 2009.

Now living in Berlin, Carpenter’s latest revolutionary idea is the design of a digital touring organ that is intended to rank as ”one of the world’s greatest organs.” This large instrument will allow Carpenter ”to play anywhere in the world, whether there’s a pipe organ there or not. It will vastly expand not only where I can play, but the music I can play and the genres I can draw on.”

Although this will be his exclusive design, Carpenter suggests the touring organ could serve as impetus for creating a worldwide ”standardized organ design,” such as that which exists with the violin and the piano, allowing for better training, greater adaptability and broader collaboration. One hopeful result of such standardized design: ”To help great, great talent to emerge in the organ [world] in the way it has flourished in the violin and the piano in the last years.”

In the meantime, Carpenter allowed for a short break from the revolution to speak with Metro Weekly.

METRO WEEKLY: I understand you have training as a ballet and tap dancer. Is that something that you would ever do again?

CAMERON CARPENTER: I would have to say no. I don’t really do it in any significant way, partly because it’s so athletic and I have so little time. But I’m still extremely physically active. I train every other day or so. I would say that it is active and observable in my playing — the way in which I treat the organ, particularly the playing that I do with my feet.

MW: But before dance, there was music, which you got involved with at an early age.

CARPENTER: Four – one of the earliest ages. [Laughs.] Yeah, music — you know there was never any doubt that that was it for me.

MW: Did you start out singing?

CARPENTER: No. I started with the piano and the organ at the same time. I didn’t become a singer until rather suddenly at the age of 11. I auditioned for the American Boychoir School – I think because I sensed it was a way out of northwestern Pennsylvania – and got in as a singer, as a boy soprano. It’s not like I was a boy pop singer or something. I was singing Tudor anthems.

MW: Is singing something you do anymore?

CARPENTER: Uh, no. Singing has gone by the wayside. It went the way of my soprano voice. [Laughs.]

MW: Were you groomed by your parents to be in music?

CARPENTER: No, no. I come from a non-musical family. And in addition to that, I come from a highly liberal, what I would think of as almost a post-transcendentalist, New England family – except we lived in northwestern Pennsylvania. My parents gave me, in hindsight, what I would consider almost an insane amount of freedom as a child. I was homeschooled before that was a far-right thing. I mean, it may have been a far-right thing at the time, but it wasn’t for us. It was almost a post-flower-child thing, or something like that. But it was great. And I had consequently tons of time to devote to music, and to lots and lots of other things.

But it also gave me this sense of having a right to tamper with things culturally in whatever way I wanted as long as it was somehow artistically justifiable. Which has lead me exactly to what I’m doing now. To playing, for instance, as a tribute to Yo-Yo Ma, the prelude from the first cello suite of Bach as a pedal etude, and then transliterating it as this etude for organ, and then the entire thing comes back and both of them are playing at the same time. Not something that probably would be a comfort zone for somebody who, for instance, came from an academic tradition. Which I don’t.

MW: Or a religious tradition.

CARPENTER: Oh, yeah, certainly not. Certainly not. Having come from a God-free family did me a great service in the sense that I’m able to regard the organ as a totally secular instrument, which debatably it is, actually, to the degree that any art is sacred or secular. So often, by ”sacred art” what we mean is the art supplied to non-secular propaganda. And that’s true in the visual arts as well as music. And it’s always that double-edged sword, since the church for centuries was the sinecure of every significant thing in the arts. In fact, it was the only force going for the arts. So everybody from Michelangelo to Bach was enthrall to that system, for better or for worse. Generally for better. Anyways, we mustn’t get into religion because I’ll blow up the next 20 minutes on that. [Sighs dramatically.]

MW: So better to just leave it at God-free then? That’s what you were raised with, and that’s what you still are?

CARPENTER: I wouldn’t say I was raised with or without it. There was no atheist agenda, and I wouldn’t consider myself an atheist only because the whole taking of a position at any point is just distasteful. I mean in terms of those matters. But God-free is kind of the best description.

MW: In regard to your sexual orientation, how do you identify?

CARPENTER: I guess you would say bisexual. It’s the usual problem of describing human sexuality, which in my case is highly challenging because I have sex with men, I have sex with women. I strongly don’t relate to one or the other as my primary. My identity so far has been some kind of fairly fifty-fifty blend, which I find is generally skeptically received. And it’s skeptically received both by the gay community and to some degree by women. Both sides are always rather surprised to find out that, in fact, I do actually sleep with people of both genders. [Laughs.]

One has to deal with it a little bit delicately. On the other hand, I don’t buy the idea that one’s sexuality doesn’t matter, and it’s not subject for discussion. It does matter. And I think that it does matter especially in the lives of artists — particularly in the 20th century when these things become verifiable and discussable socially. And here I’m thinking obviously of Leonard Bernstein. I happen to have the Leonard Bernstein Award. I’m a great Leonard Bernstein admirer. He was the great dean of American music in the 20th century in many ways. Particularly in the way that he crossed over the boundaries between pop music and classical, insecure as he was about that. Here was a person who was quite clearly motivated and powered by all kinds of locomotive forces, some of which were sexual. I mean the man had a giant spirit, a giant energy, and he had a giant persona, which led him to be married and have children, and to later in life have a male lover and to live with him. And to have a well-known series of affairs with men and women throughout the artistic community for the better part of 50 years.

That’s just to take one example, of Leonard Bernstein — to say nothing of Vladimir Horowitz, Jean Cocteau, Jean Marais, Diaghilev, Stravinsky…. Obviously Aaron Copland. You would not have a complete view of those people without taking, to some degree, their personal lives into account. By which I don’t just mean who they slept with, I mean the fabric of their interior life. Their friends, their relationships. What situation they were under when they produced the works which they left us. And to do that you’d have to know who they slept with.

So I always find myself defending a little bit against the idea that one’s sexuality doesn’t actually matter in an evaluation of those things. I think it does matter. And in my case I think it matters a lot.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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