Art & Icon

Cameron Carpenter Plays To The Tune of His Organ

Richard Burnett
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Cameron Carpenter

Concert-hall organist Cameron Carpenter is a feast for the eyes and ears. The celebrated musician has been described as “extravagantly talented” by The New York Times, been called the “bad boy of the organ” and a “maverick organist.”

“He is a smasher of cultural and classical music taboos,” says The Los Angeles Times.
 
“Evil genius or radical evangelist?” the Sydney Morning Herald once asked. “Cameron Carpenter is a bit of both.”
 
Truth is, Carpenter can’t stand labels, something he has long fought, especially as a bisexual man.
 
When I get him on his cellphone, he is speeding through a New York airport to get to his next concert on his current world tour which is officially named – wait for it – “Cameron Carpenter and his International Touring Organ.”
 
“Bisexual is a better word (to describe me) than gay,” says Carpenter. “In a tongue-in-cheek way I just like to say I’m gay and bisexual, because it’s all true. When I’m gay, I’m gay, just like in the general sense I’m not. It is possible to hold conflicting or co-acting views and desires. I’m very much aware of being attracted to women when I am involved with men. My sexuality involves all genders.”
 
This is something he discovered growing up. A keyboard prodigy, Cameron Carpenter trained at the American Boychoir School at the age of 11 before moving on to The University North Carolina School of the Arts. He says “it mattered greatly” that he was attracted to both boys and girls, something, he adds, “I didn’t really start to grapple with on a daily basis until I was about 15.”
 
“I had the mixed blessing of being away at boarding school at 11-years-old, after that I was accepted at the University of North Carolina at the age of 14, then I went directly from there to Juilliard,” says Carpenter. “So I was away from home from the age of 11 and never went back. That’s been wonderful because I have had the support of my family but it also meant I could explore my own sexuality. I didn’t have to come out in the same way that a great many people do. Besides, I came from a home of radical free-thinking people. There was no question in my mind that I would be accepted.”
 
That journey helped establish Carpenter as a virtuoso composer-performer and consummate showman.
 
Today, Carpenter’s repertoire spans the complete works of J. S. Bach and César Franck along with hundreds of transcriptions of non-organ works, his original compositions and collaborations with jazz and pop artists. He has performed on many of the world’s great stages, including Royal Albert Hall in London, Tschaikowsky Hall in Moscow and the Vienna Konzerthaus. Carpenter’s recordings include the Grammy-nominated Revolutionary (he was the first organist ever nominated for a Grammy Award for a solo album), and his latest solo album If You Could Read My Mind combines a variety of Cameron’s famous transcriptions and settings of classical and modern music, with a world premiere recording of his new work for organ, “Music for an Imaginary Film.”
 
Back when he was a keyboard prodigy, though, Carpenter says, “I was not sure that it was what I wanted to do. I’m still not sure. It’s an obsession, and an obsession doesn’t give you a lot of choice.”
 
That said, Carpenter revolutionized classical music with his International Touring Organ, the monumental cross-genre digital organ built by Marshall & Ogletree to his own design. A dream more than a decade in the making, Carpenter’s International Touring Organ was launched in March 2014 at a day-long festival at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, followed by a tour of major European concert halls.
 
“I don’t know that I have revolutionized my musical field,” Carpenter says. “I have revolutionized my musical life and I suppose the listening experience of those who come to hear me. It is my impression that –with some very wonderful exceptions– the organ community in general is one of Luddites, in some cases I’m sorry to say, the most irascible backward-looking kind. You’d think that a community of people who are some of the hardest-working, most poorly-paid musicians, whose musical opportunities are some of the most severely curtailed, would be looking at the end of this era –the decline of the organ and the church– you’d think they’d have reason to look elsewhere… It is those infrastructural limitations that make it impossible for a normal organist to have a career as a pianist would. I am trying to change that.”
 
Carpenter adds, “I’m not really part of the organ world. Ever since I signed with Sony Classical and came under professional management in Asia, America and Europe, I have made it my absolutely undisguised ambition to not have to work within the organ world. Working within the organ world versus the broader musical world makes no business sense whatsoever.” 
 
The charismatic Carpenter also delivers a sensational live show, which he will bring to Théâtre Maisonneuve on March 29 as part of The Montreal Chamber Music Festival.
 
Just days after our interview, Carpenter headlined Centennial Hall in Tucson, Arizona, where he told the rapturous crowd, “I’m fascinated by the organ. It has been called the king of instruments, but I’m not fond of that phrase due to its gender specificity and I don’t believe in favouring one version of human expression over another.”
 
The audience also loved his glorious Mohawk. But fans and critics alike have always swooned over Carpenter’s style and extravagance.
 
“I think we have arrived at a place where we understand that style is substance,” Carpenter says. “I do not see a division in those things. I present myself in the most honest way I possibly can, and that means a contemporary and elegant presentation. It’s not relevant whether everybody likes it or not, it’s much more important that it be there. I have two primary outfits on this tour, I believe in using high-fashion designers. I have really expensive tastes and I make no apologies for that. I think quality lasts.”
 
Carpenter says he is looking forward to performing in Montreal on the Canadian leg of his world tour, but laughs out loud when I ask him if young men and women throw themselves at his feet.
 
“No!” Carpenter laughs. “Being an organist is not like being a rock star. I am what I am.” 
 
Cameron Carpenter’s March 29 concert at Théâtre Maisonneuve at Place des Arts in Montreal is the first of five Canadian tour dates, including Saint Catherines (March 30), Toronto (April 1), Kingston (April 3) and Ottawa (April 4). For more Cameron Carpenter, visit www.cameroncarpenter.com.
 
Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at montrealgazette.com/tag/pop-tart.
 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.