the mention of an organ recit al summons up an almost universal image. It typically takes place in a church, although in some cities it might possibly be slated for an actual concert hall. The instrument itself is a pipe organ designed to reflect the sonic aesthetics and t echnological possibilities of some point in the organ’s evolution from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The soloist, garbed in formal concert attire or something approaching it, is concealed in the organ loft, invisible to the audience until he bows at the end — or, in rare cases, his image might be projected onto a screen up front via closed-circuit TV. Attendees sit quietly, listen respectfully, and inwardly prefer the Bach or the Franck to whatever that modern piece was that the organist included because he felt it was the right thing to do.
Cameron Carpenter will have none of it. Over the past decade, since he graduated with a master’s degree from The Juilliard School in 2006, he has become the most discussed organist of our time because he has discarded all of those stereotypes. He just might show up in concert dress, but he’s more likely to walk onstage wearing a black leather jacket, a revealing tank top, or some imaginatively crafted garment that is sparkly or shiny — not to mention his pedal-ready shoes encrusted with Swarovski crystals. His recital repertoire might include Bach or Franck — he has programmed the complete organ works of both — but it’s every bit as likely to include his own arresting compositions (his Homage to Klaus
Kinski, for example), his dazzling transcriptions of virtuosic works originally for piano (Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude) or for orchestra (Shostakovich’s
Festive Overture), or pop songs by, say, Burt Bacharach or Gordon Lightfoot.
And, as of two years ago, he is no longer limited to venues where organs already reside. In March 2014, he performed the debut concerts on his International Touring Organ, a custom-designed electronic instrument of elaborate possibilities — a console with five manuals plus pedalwork — that he developed in conjunction with the Massachusetts firm of Marshall & Ogletree. Or maybe it’s two organs, one of which is based in the United States, the other in Germany. “In a sense,” he told Pasatiempo in a recent interview, “it’s one organ — one console set and one set of mainframe computers and one set of accoutrements — and that connects to one of two different sound systems which do not fly internationally. There’s those in Europe and one of tho near Boston. That way we d have to fly the whole massi thing when we travel.”
Electronic organs have b around for a long time, to sure. Although they beca essential to the sound gospel music or baseball s diums, for example, th application to the wo of serious concert mus remained practically n the more so when, in t 1970s, t he historica organ movement move widespread preferenc for organ construction ba to what had been the ideal Baroque period. Carpenter had p plenty on traditional pipe organs. “I already playing about 60 concerts p year on pipe organs and with orche tras,” he said. “I was able to build t International Touring Organ by dint having already launched a career some way. In 2014, I gave someth like 20 percent of my concerts
an, and now in this year’s tour I am ing no pipe organs. Occasionally I ht still play one when forced to tractually, perhaps to fulfill a r obligation. I don’t consider e organ to be my work any re.” To be sure, the sounds ipe organs remain part of portfolio, since the elecnic sound samples that incorporated into the ernational Touring gan come f rom a iety of instruments, luding cathedral e organs as well heatre organs, the er being t he t ype rgan that originally ged Carpenter’s interest he was a child. usic l overs are sometimes wn to remark on the difficult of the concert pianist, who has dapt to a new instrument from earance to appearance, unlike iolinist or flutist, for example, o unpacks the same familiar te or fiddle for every concert. They rarely consider how much greater the challenge must be for an organist — probably because the realm of the organ recital is so ghettoized that few concertgoers intersect with it at all. For Carpenter, adapting constantly to organs of widely varying characters and capabilities became a deal-breaker. “If you’re Yuja Wang, a friend of mine, if you’re playing in South Korea one day and Southern California two days later, you’ll be confronted with not only the same model of instrument but with an instrument built by the same company. The instruments are essentially the same. No such security awaits the organist. Before I can play any music on a pipe organ I encounter when on tour, I have to discover its identity, figure out what its strengths are, its weaknesses, its limitations, which usually have to do with the most banal, anti-musical ideas — the taste of the builder, what the donor did or didn’t manage to pay for — things that have absolutely no relationship to the musical demands of the moment. That takes hours, maybe more than a day. And then I’m at zero; only then the musical work begins. Had the International Touring Organ not been built, my playing days would be at an end. I built the touring organ to save myself and — I hate to say it — to save the organ from itself.”
While he acknowledged that a number of concert halls have installed new pipe organs in the past two or three decades, he does not view that as an indicator of robust health for the instrument. “Many of them are not that distinguished as organs to begin with. Most of them, with the exception of Disney Hall in Los Angeles, are basically unused. I really am not to be told that hearing the Saint-Saëns [ Organ Symphony] every six years, and the Halloween concert, and the silent movie once in a while, and maybe a concert by the organist of Notre Dame or some notable person — I don’t accept that as the status quo for the organ. That’s a point of retirement. That’s the organ and the organist living their lives quietly in a midrange rest home. It’s not because I hate pipe organs or believe that pipe organs should be destroyed. The pipe-organ community sometimes tries to portray me as the young Boulez on this, advocating the destruction of the opera house. But that’s not my role here.”
By supplying his own transportable instrument for his concerts, Carpenter has access to a vast number of performing spaces that would not otherwise be able to host an organ performance, venues like the Lensic Performing Arts Center, where Performance Santa Fe will present him on Saturday, Feb. 20. “I’m a secular person,” he said. “The role of the organ in the church is not my department. But I do care that the organ and the organist have a role in modern- day life, and I would rather that they have a role outside the church.” No matter where he is booked, he no longer has to go through the hours-long drill of acclimatizing himself
to an unfamiliar instrument. “The process of ‘tuning it’ to the building takes about 25 minutes,” he said. “The setup requires eight stagehands, plus I have a full-time engineer and truck driver who take the organ with them to the site of the concert. After that short installation process, I can practice the rest of the day, or go to the gym, do outreach programs, education … whatever.” (Audience members are encouraged to check out a time-lapse video of the International Touring Organ being assembled, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFV9bC4BsK0.)
Carpenter stressed that developing the International Touring Organ was in no way an end in itself, but rather a means toward achieving goals in his music-making and in his career. It would matter little if he weren’t such a spectacularly accomplished performer, jaw-dropping at a technical level. His approach has left more than a few classical-music traditionalists wringing their hands, but Carpenter is not really tailoring his career to their expectations. In most cases, he doesn’t even announce in advance the pieces he will be playing — a classical-music no-no. “I don’t think it’s actually relevant,” he insisted. “I come from a family where nobody would probably be able to recognize the difference between the music of Bernstein or Bruckner, and they have lived totally full and rich lives like that. So my sympathies are immediately directed toward the uninitiated listener. I prefer to play for people who are experiencing something new. I’m not interested in rejecting or not accommodating classical-music aficionados, but they tend to come anyway. The kind of listener who will not come to a performance because I haven’t announced a program — I don’t think that person exists anymore; maybe one or two, but I’m not sure I need them in the audience. Most presenters don’t even ask for a program anymore. For most audience members, for most average music-listener ticket buyers, the ticket they’re buying is for the artist, and they’re trusting the artist — be it Loreena McKennitt or Sheryl Crow or the Philadelphia Orchestra or me — they’re trusting that person to give them a good night. I consider all musicians to be entertainers. I feel that there is no conflict between the idea of entertaining and great ideas. If you listen to Richard Feynman’s lectures on semiconductors or Christopher Hitchens defending the idea of atheism, it’s extremely entertaining and at the highest possible intellectual level.”