Pipe Dreams

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

Interview by Doug Rule
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on October 10, 2013, 6:13am | Comments

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he criticizes contemporaries for clinging to and commemorating possibly overhyped organists from the past, as well as outdated traditions.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.

Cameron Carpenter

Cameron Carpenter

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: Because you take influence from all aspects of living?

CARPENTER: I guess. And I think also in my case as a performer, you are exhibiting yourself. It doesn't de facto mean that you're an exhibitionist. But it does mean that you have to be comfortable being naked in some way -- in some abstract way. A concept which would be not at all out of place for a dancer. Or certainly for an actor. But in classical music we tend not to think about it in those terms, or talk about it in those terms, even though, as it turns out, a good performance does demand just as much demonstration of yourself. And I think if you're out of sync with your identity, or especially if you're inhibited in any way, it can interfere with good performance.

MW: So just to press the point a little more, you would say that you're comfortable with both genders?

CARPENTER: I would say that I need both genders, even more than being comfortable. I'm certainly comfortable with my identity and my existence as a sexual human being, which is no different than that of any other sexual human being. But as a person who is within a field which is still rather traditionally conservative, that gets some attention. And maybe it should. You know, we've spent so many hundreds or maybe thousands of years to some degree running away from those things. It's not my job to continue that running, you know. I want to run in a different direction.

MW: Are you in a relationship now?

CARPENTER: I'm not. I travel constantly. I can't even have a cat. [Laughs.]

MW: You mentioned Leonard Bernstein, who was clearly an influence though he wasn't an organist. How much have famous organists of the past influenced you? How much are you trying to carry on their legacy? 

CARPENTER: I'm not interested in carrying on any legacy of organists of the past. It wouldn't be for me to say to what degree I've been influenced. But I consider myself not to have been influenced. And lest that seem an arrogant statement, the reason I say that is that for my entire life my instinct has been somewhat, not to isolate myself, but to be apart from the organ community.

There's often thought to be a certain value to have a certain degree of removal from the community within which you're working, so that you are always sure to maintain an artistic independence from what others are doing. In the case of the organ, I think that's incredibly important, partly because so much of what is regarded as ''traditional'' in the organ, just as in classical music, what we really mean is the 1950s. And it really remains the 1950s to some degree that other organists seem to idolize. To me that's a somewhat repellant thing. I really don't need to hear anything more about Virgil Fox's audiences, when you stop to remember that most of Virgil Fox's audiences probably were as racially diverse as a loaf of white bread. Let alone the tales of the great organists like Edwin Lemare from the 1910s and '20s, who played for massive audiences at the World's Fair and so on. Massive audiences that again included remarkably few women -- women who wouldn't have been able to vote. Gay men who wouldn't have been able to express themselves in public. And so on and so on. All the desultory details.

Again, there's so much about the organ and the organ community that really is looking to the past. I find that a kind of love affair with death. The idea of traditions that seem to be conventionally held quite dear have almost nothing to do with the factitive of 200 years ago. They have to do with how music of 200 years ago was interpreted in the 1950s and '60s, and this is completely uninteresting.

There are lots of other figures that I could point to as influences, but we would have to go outside the realm of music. Someone like Susan Sontag has been an enormous, enormous, incalculably important influence to me. As has the music of Kate Bush, Laura Nero, Annie Lennox, but also people like the fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez. Obviously Jean Cocteau. Many other figures, people whose work and whose approach to their fields is something that I've studied carefully.

MW: That raises a question I have about your future. In a 2009 New York Times profile you said you didn't see yourself becoming ''a grand old man of the organ.''

CARPENTER: [Laughs.] I still don't. Even though I am getting older, I'm not getting any grander.

MW: But 20 years from now, do you have any sense of what you might be doing? Or what you would like to be doing?

CARPENTER: No, I don't. I think that part of the phenomenon of being an artist now is that time moves very much faster. I feel like one of the strengths of being an artist in the 21st century is being adaptable.

It'd be really, really great to be able to do something that would actually have a tangible, emotional impact on people much, much younger than me. I suppose that's one of the things that I'm most interested in. I view my own history as instructive there, because I grew up in a situation where it was very hard for me to get to an organ. I lived in rural Pennsylvania, and the organists of the local town were a great object lesson in what awaited with the organ community in general. They were extremely jealous, extremely protective of the mediocre instruments that even existed there. And they were generally not willing to be really helpful to a young talent. That situation probably still exists in most places. Despite life changes maybe in the last 15 years, I'm sure there's still a lot of work to be done to help great, great talent to emerge in the organ in the way it has flourished in the violin and the piano in the last years.

I mean, you look at the violin and the piano, and you immediately see that these are standardized instruments. An instrument in Austria is the same as an instrument in Australia, to a great degree. And it means that there's a standard that can be observed internationally, the world around. And then there's also sort of familial or fraternal unity between the people playing those instruments. That does not exist in the organ, and I think that it could be built. It depends a lot on the instrument itself. And that's something I'd like to do.

MW: Speaking of, you're trying to do that by engineering a new international touring organ. Tell me about that.

CARPENTER: The instrument [will be] a technological and an engineering first in the world. It is a proprietary software-driven digital organ that I will be able to tour with, but which will also allow me to play anywhere in the world, whether there's a pipe organ there or not. Not only is this a digital organ, but unlike many cases where organists would play a digital organ only when a pipe organ isn't available, we've built an instrument which is actually my preferred instrument. I really am so excited about what this organ will make possible, because it will vastly expand not only where I can play, but the music I can play, and the genres I can draw on. So you end up with this instrument that is much more musically diverse than any single pipe organ could be.

MW: So in a few years' time when you come to the Kennedy Center, you might just play this and not the Concert Hall organ?

CARPENTER: This will be my permanent organ, so it is conceivable. The great, sort of elephant under the rug here, of course, is that the pipe organ in the Concert Hall continues to propagate the idea that every organ everywhere in the world should be different. Which of course doesn't address the actual purpose of the instrument, which is to be an instrument, not to be a political statement or an expensive backdrop for an orchestra. So I will still play pipe organs from time to time, but they will never be my preferred instruments, they will never be the instruments I record on. And, ultimately, they'll never be the instruments that really make me feel as though I'm giving my artistic best.

MW: Is this something that other organists will be able to use or purchase?

CARPENTER: No, for the simple fact that I'm not an organ company. I have designed three other organs that are built by the company building this, a company called Marshall & Ogletree in Needham [Mass.]. And I certainly will do everything that I can to propagate the technology.

Because when we talk about the organ, we really need to be talking about the organists. Every time a large pipe organ is installed, the last thing you hear talked about is what the implications are for young organists and musicians, the people who actually play them. I'm obviously enthusiastic at the chance to play at the Kennedy Center. But on the other hand, it doesn't change the fact that the path forward, in terms of music and artistic expression and human freedom, is very seldom served by the conventions of the concert hall. The concert hall, increasingly as classical music has come into question, has become a more conservative, a more carefully guarded and defended place. And in those situations, it's less and less likely to expect revolution to occur.

MW: The organ that you're developing, will it be lightweight?

CARPENTER: I wouldn't describe it as lightweight. It's intended to be transportable, which is not exactly the same thing as portable. It's absolutely not interesting, new or unusual or significant in any way to contrive an electronic organ that plugs in and has a little console that you can hook up to some speakers. This has been possible for 60 years. What has not been possible, and what has not been achieved and shown, is to make transportable an instrument of monumentality. This organ will travel in two 20-foot trucks. It's by no means a small instrument. It's in fact specifically and intentionally designed to be an incredibly large instrument. What my vision was to this is that we need to be able to take one of the world's greatest organs everywhere that I go. And fundamentally that it also be my personal instrument -- just as Joshua Bell plays his own personal violin. It's perfectly fine for me to play the organ at whatever hall, particularly if I'm playing with concertos and orchestras. But if I'm playing on my own, to really get the experience that I can offer, then I need to be playing my own instrument.

MW: This is really a way for you to champion your music and the organ, as well as classical music in general?

CARPENTER: It really is. Championing is a good way of putting it. Again, it's not interesting to take around a small organ that was made on an assembly line. But if you have a unique world first, which is one of the most astoundingly engineered things, and which is one of the most musically rich and diverse resources, especially in the hands of somebody who is intentionally crossing genre boundaries, then you have something that's really worth going to see and hear. So, of course it is good for the organ, and it is good for music in general, not just classical music.

MW: You've expressed dismay at the repression and homophobia you see in the organ world, which seems to have an inordinate amount of gay players. Can you elaborate?

CARPENTER: I haven't done any tangible research, but it is an anecdotally accepted truth in America that generally male organists are thought to be gay. And there is certainly, undeniably, a large community of gay organists. It's observable at an organ convention if you're unfortunate enough to have to go to one. Women, while significantly present, are by no means as equally represented as their male counterparts. And amongst the men of the organist community, one could not help but notice that the overwhelming predilection does seem to be that most of them are gay -- and that a lot of them work in church. This wouldn't be so significant to me except that there have been many well-publicized cases in the last few years of organists losing their [church] jobs because they were gay. Which of course immediately gets my hackles up on end.

I talk about this a little hesitantly and in these carefully couched tones not because I'm worried that some non-gay male organist would be offended, but rather that I'm actually painfully aware of what other great challenges the gay community and we all face, in terms of discrimination. And I don't want anybody to misunderstand that in the age of Syria and Russia that I'm attempting to say that the world's greatest problem is the repression of American gay male organists. [Laughs.] But it is a problem! And it seems to me that as long as we're talking about repression anywhere, we actually have to talk about it everywhere.

Cameron Carpenter performs an organ recital Wednesday, Oct. 16, at 8 p.m., at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets are $15. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

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