Organist Cameron Carpenter -- "He is doing things that people never thought the organ was capable of."
By Andrew Druckenbrod Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The rock-star outfit, the mind-boggling virtuosity and the unusual repertoire of young organist Cameron Carpenter already have shocked many in the world's pipe organ community. But that's just the beginning of the revolutionary changes the firebrand has in store for it.
At Mr. Carpenter's recital today at St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon, you are likely to hear Bach. But you also might hear John Williams' "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or transcriptions of Chopin piano pieces. His spectacular version of Chopin's difficult "Revolutionary" Etude gives the work's lightning quick runs entirely to his feet, causing Mr. Carpenter to hold on to the bench for dear life while his extra-long heeled organist boots fly across the pedals.
He takes virtuosic playing of the organ to a new level and the music industry has taken notice. Telarc released his debut album, also called "Revolutionary," last year.
"He is a marvelous player and person," says Michael Barone, host of the radio show "Pipedreams," produced by American Public Media. "He is doing things that people never thought the organ was capable of."
"I definitely push things, but I argue that they are pushed artistically," Mr. Carpenter says. "I want to re-evaluate what can be played on the organ, everything from Bach to Liszt to Leonard Cohen. If my playing of Liszt's 'Mephisto Waltz' on the organ damages it in your mind, you must not think so much of Liszt to think he wrote something so fragile."
But the 28-year-old -- a mix of brash confidence and well-argued activism -- is a man with more ambitions for himself and for the pipe organ than repertoire issues or speedy playing. He articulates those ambitions with over-the-top, combustible statements such as, "Everything we know about the organ is wrong," or "the biggest symbol of what is wrong for me about the pipe organ is the pipe organ."
But he has a serious desire to make the ancient instrument more popular and technologically improved.
"He sees himself as the savior of the instrument," says Elizabeth Etter, Mr. Carpenter's first piano teacher when he lived near Meadville, Crawford County. "The fact that he brings to it the rock vibe is his personality, but he [also] wants the instrument to be accessible to more people. He wants to stretch the capabilities of the organ."
Mr. Barone agrees.
"The big challenge of the pipe organ these days is that people don't think about it, and if they do, they do so in a limited way. Cameron is trying to break through that."
Virtual pipe organs
And the solution for Mr. Carpenter is to change the very nature of the pipe organ.
It starts with changing the instrument itself. Until the 1900s, the organ was for centuries the most technologically advanced music instrument around. But organs have always been hindered by their own sprawling physical nature and by the acoustics of the churches or halls they are placed in -- "faults that organists have been succumbing to for centuries," Mr. Carpenter says. "I can outplay the organ; I can play faster than it can play."
Developments in computer processing, sampling and speaker technologies now allow organs to escape their physical problems and even their surroundings, he says.
Unlike most musicians who can travel with their instruments, visiting organists have to adapt to whatever pipe organ they are performing on. While some enjoy the idiosyncrasies of these instruments, Mr. Carpenter says they hinder his abilities to perform at a high level. He takes hours -- sometimes days -- preparing an instrument and adding extra digital effects for what he considers essential prep work for recitals.
"If I don't even know this instrument, how [am I] to bare my soul?"
But Mr. Carpenter's more permanent solution lies with an emerging wing of the organ building community: virtual pipe organs. These are consoles and speaker sets that use sampled sound of real pipes but apply more sophisticated processing than the typical digital organ.
"It doesn't slavishly imitate the pipe organ," says Mr. Carpenter, who has designed two such organs for builders Marshall & Ogletree, based near Boston. "There is a trend of digital organs to imitate the faults of pipe organs, which for me is really asinine since the great pipe organ builders would go to their graves trying to fix these issues."
Delights in limitations
While Mr. Barone agrees with Mr. Carpenter that a more sophisticated electronic instrument is key to the future, he disagrees somewhat about the "faults" of pipe organs.
"To me the delight of the organ is its limitations, its individuality," Mr. Barone says. "We do go to hear the organ, since they are all so different. Part of the challenge of being an organist is to being able to use those instruments to the maximum."
Mr. Carpenter's position is unwavering on this, however: "Freeing the pipe organ from its physical fetters is what I am for." That includes plans for him to create a touring version of a virtual pipe organ, aka VPO, the only thing that might keep him from making good on a threat to stop playing publicly because of the "wrestling" he must do with organs.
"I was in London when he played in Royal Albert Hall and that experience was very frustrating to him," says Ms. Etter. "He only had a limited rehearsal time since he had to work to get the organ's registration in line."
For now, the problems of being an itinerant soloist will remain because Mr. Carpenter also is not shy about admitting his atheism, an issue that is often in the "don't ask don't tell" category for many organist positions at churches.
"I would be a big hypocrite if I took a church job because I don't believe in God," he says.
And so, Mr. Carpenter's outspokenness puts another major issue of the organ world out in the open for healthy debate: Should pipe organs be considered religious instruments today?
"There are some churches that continue to require that the musician hired by them be one of the community," Mr. Barone says. "There are other churches less concerned with the beliefs of their organist and are looking for someone who can provide their needs."
But secular music is played at recitals in churches everywhere, and Mr. Barone recounts that, "the organ was not invented as an instrument of the church. It had its first real flowering there, but later was thrown out by conservatives in some areas."
In the end, since the best organs today are found in churches, Mr. Carpenter "needs to know what the limitations of each situation is for his recitals," Mr. Barone says. "One can push the envelope of the pipe organ and audience engagement without being offensive to the particular church."
'Mozart on your hands'
Mr. Carpenter was born in Titusville as Taylor Carpenter. His mother, Lynn Carpenter, is an artist and his father, Greg Carpenter, designs industrial furnaces. They home-schooled their son in rural Townville, near Meadville. Neither was a professional musician, and it wasn't until they took 4-year-old Cameron to Ms. Etter's studio that his musical talents were groomed.
"His mom said [they] put on Scott Joplin at night when they think he is asleep and he comes down in the morning and plays it," says Ms. Etter, who made room for him in her schedule right away. "I thought he was something else. He could technically play anything, so I would give him works like Mendelssohn's "Songs Without Words" that needed deeper musicality."
But even then the boy's personality was peeking through.
"In our recital he would take the place by storm, not only with accuracy but with pizzazz," she said. "He would wear vests with sequins, and bow to the floor; he was a personality."
In fifth grade, Mr. Carpenter heard a performance of the Princeton, N.J.-based American Boychoir and begged his mother to join its boarding school. By that time he had already become intrigued by the pipe organ after seeing a photo of an instrument that looked a bit like his dad's furnaces. A few years later, he played on one in a church in Cleveland, and the organist there, Karel Paukert, told Ms. Etter: "You have a Mozart on your hands."
Mr. Carpenter began organ lessons with William Witherup in Meadville and frequently traveled to Pittsburgh and Erie to play church organs. He enrolled in the North Carolina School of the Arts and then the Juilliard School in New York for undergraduate and master's study. Mr. Carpenter is now artist-in-residence at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City's East Village.
Over that time, Mr. Carpenter developed his unique take on the organ's future, as well as his astounding abilities on its keyboards.
"I set out to change the paradigm of what is accepted by organists, but it is not something that can be accomplished by the current technology," he said. "It is not that I don't like the instrument. I play on [older] tracker organs, but they are not the key to unlocking the future."