If Cameron Carpenter played by the rules, he’d probably be leading a hand-bell choir at an established house of worship, performing hymns at recitals and attending to the bewildering aspects of church politics.
Instead, the 30-year-old organist wears his own sequined clothes, plays pop songs and movie music (along with organ classics) all over the world. But there’s much more to this Pennsylvania native than flash and flourish. He’s been called the Vladimir Horowitz of the organ and praised for his “extraordinarily glib fingers and Astaire-like footwork.” He’s also leading a $1.5 million dollar project that promises to bring new technology to an age-old instrument.
Style: What are some of your goals as an artist?
Cameron Carpenter: Obviously, to totally redefine the organ in the popular consciousnesses is my primary goal. But that would be the noble, sort of major obvious goal. But, I’m experiencing something, which I’m sort of inclined to believe is increasingly rare in our world, I’m being successful as a classical musician, which affords me the possibility to travel in comfort, in style, all over the world, playing for thousands of people at major halls, and I regard that as an unbelievable privilege. So one of my ultimate goals is to live up to, and increase and magnify that success, especially for the organ, which has long been … totally a commercial failure, to celebrate that success and ultimately become the most successful and well-known organist ever to live.
I understand you’re building an instrument. How’s that coming along?
It’s coming along. What I’m trying to do is, not just to build an instrument, but to build what I view as something that will be nothing less than a total cultural watershed, both in terms of what I like to call alt classical, meaning the next wave of classical music, and also in terms of the organ’s history. What I’m attempting to do is build the greatest organ in the world. And I say that without the slightest hint of irony or affectation. I really have the ultimate confidence in that technology, that that’s exactly what it will be.
I’m almost attempting to build a situation which will be unprecedented, which is, instead of playing different organs every week or night, I will play the same instrument continually. So, this is a total departure from the norm, in terms of how the organ is approached, because of course, with pipe organs and wind-driven organs, every single instrument is different, which is however appealing that might sound, is actually a nightmare … at least for me it’s a huge nightmare, in the sense that, every single organ must be learned new. It means that I have no single relationship with any instrument. I’m essentially a homeless artist in that way. And that’s not how I want to spend the rest of my life.
What I’m attempting to do is build is two identical organs, one of which will in live in Berlin, one which will live in Boston and eventually a third one will live in Asia. So that wherever I go in the world, I will be able to meet the instrument there. Of course, the organs all talk to each other online, so if I’m primarily practicing on the Berlin organ six months out of the year, then going on tour, all of my work and all of the settings I create in Berlin will propagate to other organs. And this of course is completely revolutionary, because again, it’s impossible find anywhere in the world, two physical organs which are exactly the same.
When you come to Richmond, how long will it take for you to acclimate yourself to the instrument we have here?
It’s a well-known and well-established fact that the organ in the Byrd Theatre is in absolutely terrible mechanical shape. In fact, part of the purpose of my coming is to raise awareness of the Byrd Theatre’s fundraising drive and fundraising push. Of course, that’s a situation I regard with some concern. While I’m honored to perform in the theater and extremely excited to do so, as any artist would want, I look forward to playing an instrument that can respond to me instantly and articulate my musical desires to a very, very clear degree, which organs, being instruments which have hundreds of thousands of moving parts, need to be very well maintained to do. So, I also find that there may be an effect of performance art about this, in the sense that, I not only don’t know the organ in the normal way, but I’ve heard that this organ, has, shall we say, significant technical challenges to be overcome. And I have no way of knowing how I’ll react to that until I’m there.
It sounds like it’s going to be an interesting show for everyone.
Well, let’s hope.
Cameron Carpenter performs at the Byrd Theatre on Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35-$75, with proceeds going to the Byrd Theatre Foundation. For information, go to byrdtheatre.com or call 358-3056.