Music News & Reviews

Cameron Carpenter is taking the organ off its pedestal

Organist Cameron Carpenter stays in shape to play.
Organist Cameron Carpenter stays in shape to play. COURTESY PHOTO

While organist Cameron Carpenter is grateful for the opportunity to perform at Cal Poly, he does take issue with the way the show is billed: Forbes Pipe Organ Recital: Cameron Carpenter.

He has long complained that the organ is too often put on a pedestal, far above the musicians who play the instrument. And in Carpenter’s view that billing—noting the organ before the performer — proves it.

“We don’t go to hear the piano or the violin or the clarinet,” said Carpenter, who performs at the Cohan Center on Tuesday. “We go to hear Lang Lang or Joshua Bell or Richard Stoltzman play their respective instruments. So we don’t go to hear the organ; we go to hear Cameron Carpenter.”

Certainly — looking at the marketing of other organists at the Cohan Center — the Forbes Pipe Organ has been afforded a certain celebrity status. And part of that has to do with its grandiosity, which makes it more impressive than a violin or clarinet. The three-story organ, built by noted organ maker C.B. Fisk, consists of 2,700 parts and weighs up to 20 tons.

But as grand as it may be, Carpenter reminds us, that organ is mere furniture without the hands of a skilled musician. To prove his point, he referred to a story from 1926, in which legendary organist W.T. Best heard someone introduce his performance with the words, “The organ will now play!” and promptly responded — somewhat cheekily — by yelling: “Let it play!”

“The idea of the organ as somehow holy and to be approached with respect and with some fear — these kinds of essentially very religious analogues—has absolutely no value with me whatsoever,” said Carpenter, whose penchant for speaking his mind helped earn him the nickname the Bad Boy of the Organ.

In reality, he’s not as controversial as his nickname suggests. But his approach does represent a new breed of organist.

While attempting to de-mystify the instrument, Carpenter draws attention to himself with handmade outfits made with Swarovski crystals and video screens that allow audience members to see more than just his back. And while the organ has historically been an instrument primarily of the church, Carpenter sees no need for it to continue to be associated with spirituality.

“For me, playing at a church is unattractive because it would be a little more like playing at a train station,” said Carpenter, who has been working on designing a traveling organ for almost a decade. “There’s all this other information going on that has nothing at all to do with what I’m trying to do and what I’m expressing.”

Carpenter was born in rural Pennsylvania in 1981; his mother was an artist and his father was an engineer who invented furnaces. As a toddler, he saw an Associated Press photo of an old silent movie organ and became entranced. That the organ looked a little like the furnaces his father designed added to its appeal.

Noting Carpenter’s affinity for the organ, which began at age 4, his parents decided to homeschool him so he could focus on music. At age 11, the same year he performed Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” he also joined the American Boychoir School as a boy soprano. Eventually, he wound up at the prestigious Julliard, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Diving through the works of Chopin, Sousa and John Williams with blazing speed and dexterity, Carpenter is especially known for his busy pedal work.

“Having had dance training has been incredibly valuable to my use of the pedal keyboard of the organ,” said Carpenter, speaking by phone from his home in Berlin. “I’m quite fond of the idea that in order to play the organ well, one should be able to dance.”

To keep in shape, he frequents the gym regularly and lifts weights under the advice of his Austrian trainer.

“It’s also about building a bone structure that will last,” said Carpenter, who drinks a gallon of milk a day. “Because I put a lot of strain on it.”

Because of his glittery stage clothes, he’s often compared to Liberace, the flamboyant piano player known for outlandish outfits. But Carpenter, who cites glam rock as a bigger influence, is miffed by the comparison.

“I have absolutely nothing in common with Liberace,” he said. “I don’t wear particularly complex or unusual outfits. In fact, I’ve often found it a little bit of a sad commentary on how underexposed the world in general is to actual historical fashion and costuming that if someone sees anything which sparkles, then all they can say is — like a lead-poisoned third-grader recalling something that they’ve learned — ‘Liberace!’ It’s quite asinine.”