‘No other musician of Cameron Carpenter’s generation has more adeptly fused shrewd showmanship, dazzling technique and profound thinking about his instrument and his place in the musical cosmos,” notes the San Francisco Chronicle.
Regional audiences can either renew that feeling or experience it for the first time when Carpenter brings his artistry and theatricality to McCarter Theater on Friday, February 6.
The 33-year-old Carpenter has been dubbed a “sledgehammer to organ conventions” and gained a reputation “for venturing into uncharted territory when it comes to technique, repertoire, and presentation.”
That uncharted territory now includes his self-designed contemporary organ, called the International Touring Organ (ITO). The million-dollar instrument boasts five keyboards, weighs 2,000 pounds, and has been noted to fill a 90 foot stage. It took a decade to make and, according to one writer, is “a pipeless powerhouse that incorporates digitized sounds collected from instruments around the world.” The musician/composer says it has both the emotional magnitude of the acoustic cathedral organ and the clarity and audacity of a cinema organ.
Presentations are marked as an embrace of various styles and approaches, ranging anywhere from Bach to the Beatles and can include his own compositions.
Also uncharted — or off the chart — is his “rock star” appearance in tank tops, spandex, bejeweled shoes, mohawks, and more. As an NPR commentator noted this “serious musician” is “a modern-day throwback to the flamboyant virtuosos of the 19th century. Like Liszt or Paganini, Carpenter dazzles audiences with blazing technique, igniting enthusiasm for his music and his instrument.”
The reporter added that one of Carpenter’s greatest gifts is “his quirky, kaleidoscopic registration — the technique of pulling combinations of organ stops (levers) to achieve particular colors and sounds. (It’s where the phrase ‘pulling out all the stops’ comes from.)”
Carpenter has previous discussed his decision to create his own instrument (U.S. 1, March 23, 2011). “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.”
Effort, however, is required elsewhere. First, Carpenter’s information notes, “a crew of four house personnel is needed for the first two hours of load-in, and for a two-hour load-out. An engineer, driving the organ truck, will oversee load-in, connection, load-out and general logistics.” Since the console is specialty equipment, it is assembled by the engineer together with Carpenter.
Then there is the transporting. Carpenter’s directions add that the ITO generally arrives at the performance venue at 9 a.m. on the performance date. The performer then arrives to inspect the spaces and supervise the crew in assembling and connecting the instrument to power. By late morning the sound system and organ are tested and adjusted. After a short lunch Carpenter spends the afternoon rehearing until a half-hour prior to the house opening.
While all this has a dramatic flair, Carpenter’s interest is primarily connected to music and self. “I’m at first pains to point out that this instrument is not a theater organ, just because it happens to have colored stops, an extremely dramatic console design, and so many controls. It’s essentially a synthesis of several aspects of the consoles that for me have been the most comfortable to play. It takes its cues primarily from American organs of the 1920s and early ‘30s, like Kilgen from St. Louis and Kimball [from Chicago]. They were fascinating instruments to me, because they have — like me — a sort of combined gender or, maybe to put it more fittingly, a gender non-specificity,” he said recently.
Carpenter describes his sexuality as “radically inclusive” and feels it is vital to be open about his sexuality because in the organ world “there is a huge gay community that is really repressed.”
Carpenter was born in 1981 in a farm region outside Meadville, in northwest Pennsylvania, where he had a “bohemian” childhood. His parents, he says, were “ex-hippies”; his father was an inventor and engineer and his mother an artist. The musician became interested in the organ when he saw one in an encyclopedia.
Then there was an encounter with an organ in Erie, Pennsylvania. “That was one of the most important organs in my life, the first five-manual organ I played. I was six years old, and I couldn’t reach the fifth manual [i.e., the top keyboard]. It gave me the important sound of the fourth manual, the so-called ‘solo division,’ one of the most romantic divisions [ranks of pipes].”
The Camerons home-schooled their son until he entered the American Boychoir School in Princeton at age 11. “My motivation to compose was largely due to the American Boychoir,” Carpenter said, “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.”
Later Cameron attended high school at North Carolina School of the Arts, where he also played in a church and transcribed music for organ (Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which he completed at age 16, Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” and more). After graduating as both an under and graduate student at the Juilliard School, he launched a performing career and toured internationally.
Based at that time in New York City, he became a resident artist at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village and designed an electronic organ to accommodate his own interest as well as those of the congregation. He also began to record on Telarc Label, with his premiere CD, the 2008 “Revolutionary,” receiving a Grammy nomination for solo performer, the first for an organist.
Today Carpenter lives in Europe, noting, “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.”
Carpenter’s maverick spirit also extends beyond the stage and before the performance. He greets audience members at the door and prefers “spontaneous happenings” to announcing a program.
“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. 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,” he says.
About his audience, he says, “I attract a wide range of ages, 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.”
Cameron Carpenter, McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, February 6, 8 p.m. $20 to $45. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.