Hearing 29-year-old Cameron Carpenter play will change your mind about the organ. He delivers power, rather than piety; boisterousness, rather than bombast; playfulness, not pomp. Seeing him will also change your ideas about musical performance. Flamboyance and athleticism inform his playing. His fleet fingers dart about on the multiple keyboards he uses; his feet dance with breathtaking gymnastics.
Audiences can hear and see Carpenter in action at on Friday, April 1, in the Princeton University Chapel. The performance is a McCarter Theater offering. Carpenter’s programs consist only partly of works written originally for organ. He transcribes works for other music-making entities: Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever March,” along with a beefed-up version of Frederic Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude,” originally for piano, are among his staples. Carpenter includes his original compositions, as well as improvisations. He does not announce programs in advance.
“Improvising is a vital part of what I do,” Carpenter says, “partly because it was the musical language I knew, before I played notated music. Improvising is critical to the live experience. The creation of an improvised work for an audience, such as the one at Princeton, gives us the chance to experience something shared between artist and audience, and maybe even between the audience members themselves — something which did not previously exist, will not be repeated, and is unique to that moment. At its best this is an electrifying, hard-to-define, and almost frightening moment of high joyousness. It’s one of the intangibles that makes the live concert compelling.”
Two large video screens will show what Carpenter is up to as he confronts the instrument in its hidden loft high above the seats of the Chapel. Following his usual practice, Carpenter will meet listeners before making his ascent to the organ loft below the chandelier. He relishes the human interactions.
“Meeting the audience before a concert is to me one of the great pleasures of live performance and one of the things that the live event can offer,” he says. “I enjoy the idea that I’m able to see, meet, and sense my audience as a collection of individual listeners and individual recipients of the musical experience, rather than a vast faceless room. It makes stage fright an impossibility. It also counteracts any expectation that the performer is distant from and above his audience. The pipe organ and centuries of organ-building have done their best to maintain both of these impressions physically and energetically.
“I attract a wide range of ages,” Carpenter says, “not only young people but also core music lovers, people unaware of classical music, and people from diverse backgrounds. That delights me, and from a commercial standpoint, it’s obviously good. In all genres of music the principle is the same: the identity of the performer is the main draw; if the identity is strong, genuine, and sincere, it will attract.”
One thing audience members may notice about Carpenter even before he ascends to the organ is what he’s wearing. Carpenter’s concert dress separates him from other organists. He is just emerging from a period of wearing clothes studded with Swarovski crystals and is experimenting with new looks. “One of the important parts of style is continual evolution,” he says. “Organ playing and study takes place within a mostly style-less arena, compared to opera, dance, even chamber music, let alone popular music. This has to change. I’m attracted to Dior, and to Preen, the British designer whom every fashionista knows.” A fan of what he calls a “hands-on” approach, Carpenter himself inserted the Swarovski crystals in the white T-shirts that he has been wearing for performance.
Shoes are a special concern for Carpenter. Fashionwise, he leans toward glitter. However, all organists must consider what they wear on their feet because nimbleness on the organ’s pedal keyboard is essential. Carpenter designs his own shoes, which are hand-made by a company in upstate New York. “Organ shoes are similar to men’s dress shoes, and not very flexible,” he says. “Spending time as a dancer has made me sensitive to movement in shoes. My organ shoes are engineered to allow the foot to be precise in playing the organ’s pedal keyboard and to help the musculature clearly sense a division between the heel and toe areas. That division is almost analogous to two separate hands.”
Carpenter would actually like to go into the business of selling organ shoes. “A few companies make organ shoes,” he says. “It’s a niche market. There are only 40,000 to 50,000 likely customers.”
Carpenter was born in rural Pennsylvania, where his father is an engineer who builds industrial furnaces. The family had an organ, and he began playing it at age four. Home schooled until the fifth grade, he attended Princeton’s American Boychoir School.
“My motivation to compose was largely due to the American Boychoir,” Carpenter says, “and specifically its then-director, James Litton. He gave me the boy soprano solo in Arthur Honegger’s monumental oratorio ‘Joan of Arc at the Stake’ with the American Boychoir, the Westminster Symphonic Choir, and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Lincoln Center. The drama and romanticism of this first taste of orchestral power was directly responsible for my becoming a composer; I remember that bus ride back to 19 Lambert Drive [Princeton] from New York City, and staring out the window feeling a deep and previously unknown sense of purpose.”
Carpenter attended high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. During his high school years he transcribed for organ more than 100 orchestral works. In 2000 he came to New York to study at the Juilliard School. While at Juilliard, he composed and continued adding to his trove of organ transcriptions. His touring career as a performer began in 2006, after he earned a master’s degree from Juilliard.
University organist Eric Plutz confirms Carpenter’s awareness of loneliness. In an April 29, 2010, interview with Princeton Alumni Weekly, April 28, 2010, he calls playing the organ a “very solitary” experience. “People don’t know I’m up there. I feel a little bit like the Wizard of Oz, behind the curtain,” Plutz says. Carpenter strives to free organists from such facelessness.
Though he is an organist, Carpenter is not an advocate for the instrument. The organ just happens to be Carpenter’s preferred key to the universe of music. “The organ is a means to an end and never an end in itself,” he says. “It is merely a means for expression. I have no agenda to popularize the organ itself.
“The piano is the gateway to my work at the organ,” Carpenter says, “but it is a much less interesting instrument. The piano’s tonal spectrum is better known to listeners, but the organ’s palette of colors is much richer and its contrasts are more easily distinguishable, particularly to the uninitiated. The organ is a kind of undiscovered frontier in many ways. Just as old buildings are sometimes overlooked, and thereby accidentally preserved, the organ and organists have so long been non-players in mainstream music-making that they can be reintroduced as new in the 21st century. And that makes them rare and valued.”
For his performing career Carpenter has used pipe organs, the world’s largest wind instruments. The anatomy of the pipe organ consists of three parts. With hands, the organist plays on keyboards (manuals) stacked stepwise behind each other; two to five manuals are common. With feet, the organist plays a pedal keyboard. In modern organs an electrically operated wind system responds to choices made by the player, forcing air through varying combinations of pipes. The performer selects sonorities by activating stops (knobs) that engage particular combinations of pipes. Many of the visible pipes are decorative. “The pipes you see are known as a facade,” Carpenter says. “Behind that facade is a singularly disorganized torture chamber of [working] pipes.”
The Princeton University Chapel organ has 8,000 pipes made of wood or metal. They range in size from 32 feet high and about two feet wide to tubes the size of a pencil. The organ has four manuals. Installed in 1928, the instrument has undergone two major renovations, the most recent of which was completed in 2002 and put the instrument out of commission for two years.
Each pipe organ is uniquely designed for the particular space in which it is located. The performer must get to know an instrument individually in order to take advantage of its capabilities and avoid its quirks. I ask Carpenter if making the transition from one organ to another is like switching tennis racquets or shifting from violin to viola.
“If only it were so easy,” he says. “Indeed in many cases, it’s wrenchingly painful and frustrating. Every pipe organ is different because of the amount of space it occupies and its tendency to relate architecturally to a building. A great deal of rehearsal time is needed to adapt to each organ, and to choreograph the performance to its site-specificity. Many organists seem to find that effort one of the appeals of the instrument. But all that work is lost when one then moves on to the next organ. I’ve never understood the nostalgia for the days when music and commerce had a local relationship. In the 21st century, of course, a performing career is itinerant and global, and the pipe organ is one of the great obstacles. In more than one way, it’s not going anywhere.
“Getting to know each organ is not an artistic pursuit. For every 15 hours I spend on a pipe organ that I’m going to play once, I could be spending time learning new music. I want to play the 21st century counterpart of an organ, not a traditional pipe organ.”
To free himself from the burden of adapting to existing installations, Carpenter has designed a portable digital touring organ. “While I value the pipe organ and always try to give my best on it, its deepest value to me is the inspiration it has provided for my dream of a touring organ. It would mean that, like a violinist, I would always be able to perform on the same instrument no matter where I was playing, and that I could play anywhere, not only in venues with pipe organs. It would mean that I could play much more frequently and with proportionately less effort.
“We hope to see identical digital touring organs on two continents in 2012,” says Carpenter says in a 15-minute phone conversation in the moments before he boarded a plane at the airport in Munich, Germany, where he is raising funds for the digital touring organ. Other remarks arrived by E-mail. “The project will cost about $1.5 million. It includes a webcasting and broadcasting studio in Berlin. When I’m not on tour with the digital organ, we’ll hold special events there.”
In 2008 and 2009, he was the artist-in-residence at New York City’s Middle Collegiate Church, where he played a new $500,000 digital organ that he designed. Recently, he relocated from New York to Berlin, Germany.
When I ask him why he moved to Germany, he says, “The better question might be, why stay in the U.S? Germany, particularly Berlin, is the center of serious music-making and of artistic and intellectual inquiry. In Berlin, unlike New York City, the artists who are performing and contributing to the fabric of society are also able to live and work within the city. They are not driven out by absurd real estate values. I love performing in the U.S, but I can do it better, and what I can bring to the States will be fresher if I live elsewhere. Also, I don’t think anyone would disagree that the political climate in the U.S. is very distracting, especially for artists who try to create work that is in some way unifying.”
Cameron Carpenter, Princeton University Chapel, Friday, April 1, 8 p.m. Organ concert includes adaptations of works not for the organ including music of Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, John Williams, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Annie Lennox. Carpenter’s artistry will be projected on two screens to give audiences an up-close view of his fingers and dancing feet. He attended American Boychoir from 1993 to 1995 and graduated Juilliard. $25 and up. Presented by McCarter Theater. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.