06/24/2010 12:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cameron Carpenter -- Taking His Organ on the Road


Sometimes the simplest gesture can make an extraordinary impression. I thought of this when I met organist Cameron Carpenter just 15 minutes before the start of his show at [Le] Poisson Rouge a few weeks ago. "Hi, I'm Cameron Carpenter," he said, as he walked around and shook hands with audience members mulling around in the packed house that had come to hear what they believed would be a bunch of his trademark classical transcriptions. I searched my memory and couldn't think of another time I had seen a performer greeting an audience before a show.

Turns out that Cameron had decided that the organ he intended to bring to the club wouldn't been flexible enough for what he had planned to do, so at the last minute he rented a Hammond B3 organ (better known for its use by jazz and rock musicians), brought in a synthesizer with it, and put together a program of mostly Gershwin songs and other jazzy works. He was joined by a drummer, Marion Felder, who accompanied him for many of the songs. It was the first time he had played jazz in public, but the playing was so musical, so full of spontaneity, joy and energy, that it was immediately clear that the musical boundaries that hem in many other classical performers aren't an issue for him.

But don't call him an organist. He's a musician. He's a performer. Categories aren't his thing.

I had two reasons for wanting to interview Cameron. First, his smart, snappy and funny responses to my 20 Questions had made me intrigued to meet him. The other reason is that listening to organ music is something I did virtually every Sunday when I was a kid: my brother was an amateur organist, and he either played for me or played recordings for me. So I was pleased when he accepted an invitation to have lunch and talk about his career, including his new CD/DVD release Cameron Live!

It seemed appropriate for a performer who had already achieved several impressive firsts (did you know that he is the only solo organist to be nominated for a Grammy Award?) that he'd add another first to the list as we sat down for lunch. Turns out the recently opened Hudson Eatery (57th Street and West End Avenue -- one of my favorite new haunts) hadn't made a milkshake yet. Cameron placed their very first order for one, and was clearly enjoying his strawberry shake when we settled into our conversation. And no, he wasn't wearing his trademark crystal-encrusted stretch white shirt and tight white pants -- that's for performing.

AI: That was quite a show last night. And I've really enjoyed your new CD/DVD release. I haven't been following your story for a long while yet, but from I can tell you seem to be trying to recontextualize the experience of playing and listening to the organ.

CC: One thing the media does with me, which I don't resent but it's inaccurate, is that they tend to put the words into my mouth that I'm on a mission. Someone as outspoken as me would be the first person to say, "I'm on a mission," but I've never said those words. They've never come from my mouth.

It's defensible, though, to say there are certain things I'm trying to achieve. The first thing I'm trying to achieve is the funding of these touring organs -- that I can't emphasize enough. I'm trying to raise two million dollars to build two separate organs that are identical. They'll run the same software, sound exactly the same, use the same console -- but one would live in Berlin and one would live in New York. That way I could potentially play anywhere in the world on an instrument that I have an intimate connection with. It's not about eschewing the pipe organ, or hating the pipe organ.

AI: Seems like trying to raise two million dollars for anything requires something of a mission!

CC: Okay, let's get back to that question of mission, since it comes up in many of my interviews. There's an assumption made that I'm trying to "Save the organ." "Save organists." "Popularize the organ." "Put organists on the charts." I'm quoting examples I've accumulated! I wish the best for all organists. I have a sense of brotherhood with them, despite the flak I get from many of them for being "controversial." In fact, being on the receiving end of this flak gives me a unique perspective on organists -- not just a negative one. It just allows me to see how compromised the situation of organists is in this country today -- what a tenuous position they are in, in terms of job security, personal and community identity. Talk about stereotypes! And image problems!

AI: I'm starting to feel real bad for organists!

CC: Most organists have no ability to draw audiences. They are under the thumb of the church most of the time. Many -- not all, certainly, but many -- of the male organists in this country are gay, and many of those are working in situations where there's this uncomfortable relationship between their identity and the agenda -- in many cases -- of their employer. I've worked for several churches, and I know how that is. I was a church organist in a former life (never to be repeated!), and even though I was fortunate to work for rather tolerant churches, I could still tell there were issues at times.

AI: My perspective of the recording industry sure changed when I started my own company.

CC: I have a perspective on organists and am very empathetic. I feel for them in many cases because it's difficult to be an organist -- young or old -- today. It's hard to have a sense of personal freedom and the emotional security that comes from knowing you're going to have a job. Especially if you love playing a pipe organ, as many organists do, because you're worrying about people continuing to have an interest in the instrument, and about having accessibility to this increasingly expensive instrument that churches might not want to continue to maintain, and which you yourself don't own.

I have never made it a priority for myself to save organists or do anything specifically for organists. That's something that I hope will be a benefit of the publicity I have generated from the work that I do. But it's not my primary focus.

AI: And what would that be?

CC: My primary focus is making a commercial career successful with the organ and my music-making. I was thinking about that last night. More than anything else, I believe the organ needs to travel. It needs to be an instrument that isn't fixed. I can't think of a more fitting metaphor for the current state of the organ, including all of its image problems and stereotypes, than fact that the pipe organ is fixed in one place. It's literally an instrument that isn't going anywhere! It's the same technology used for hundreds of years, updated with a smattering of computer involvement, but it doesn't change the fact that the pipe instrument hasn't grown or changed very much since the days that it was the most popular concert-going experience.

AI: So it's time to take the organ on the road!

CC: I really believe that the organ needs to grow and change and travel, but when I say the organ, I mean the organ that I'm playing. I'm not at all interested in addressing the organ as a whole. That would be a Sarah Palin kind of thing to do, and I think people have misinterpreted my statements about the organ, that I'm referring to the organ as it should be for all people. But I'm primarily concerned about how the organ should be for me, because I'm living in an era when, for the first time, I don't need to rely on an organ builder. With the virtual pipe organ, I rely on software. I can make the organ whatever I want it to be. I don't need anyone's permission, or an organbuilder taking months or years to execute the ideas and try the experiments. The virtual pipe organ is so important because for the first time in history, organists can affordably have a real sense of involvement and ownership in the instrument that goes beyond playing.

AI: As a recovering record industry executive, it's been fun to watch the role that a record company has played in your success. Record companies don't get much credit for anything good these days, but I feel that Telarc really did make a big push for your first album.

CC: Talk about image problems! Record companies have a reputation for being evil, inept, greedy, but my experience thus far is that my record company, Telarc -- and its parent company, Concord Music Group -- has given me the biggest boost of my commercial life. It has unquestionably been a force for good.

AI: When did you decide to not wear traditional concert attire when you perform?

CC: It was an evolution. I was home-schooled [in Pennsylvania] until I was eleven. At that time, it was a radical/liberal thing to do, unlike today, when it tends to be associated with bible-toting women with no make up and bonnets. I hardly wore clothes until I was six or seven. I didn't speak until I was four, but I was reading before I was speaking. I had an unusual childhood -- a great childhood, really, because I was able to play and have thoughts about music.

AI: Did you have siblings?

CC: Yes, one - Julian, my younger brother.

AI: Musical parents?

CC: No, but they encouraged me enormously, and in the spirit of themselves and of the times, they made things accessible to me. From the standpoint of removing the boundaries that tend to be between things, being home-schooled was effective. The first music that I played was by Scott Joplin. I didn't have any awareness that the music of Scott Joplin wasn't exactly within the lexicon of what we would call classical music. I didn't have a concept of classical music. Later, I went to the American Boychoir School and was immersed in music-making and lots of classical repertoire. But in the early 1990s they also sang a lot of popular stuff, a lot of Americana and music from the songbook. We did music for commercials. One of my great memories was singing on Joe Jackson's album Night Music. That furthered my sense of mutating the genres. The trouble started in high school, when I became incredibly focused primarily on classical and excluded everything else.

AI: Where did you go to high school?

CC: North Carolina School of the Arts, of the University of North Carolina. When I arrived in New York in 2000 I found myself with an enormous gap in education as to popular music after 1960. So I suddenly delved into that. I also had all kinds of gender/sexuality awakenings that led me to the club scene in New York. A lot of people were into it for drugs, but I was there for music, dance and performance. Instead of drugs, I used the outrageousness of costuming and performing as a kind of high. It laid the groundwork for me for an understanding that costuming and a little bit of "gendering" can be, when responsibly used, a very powerful aspect of performance. Drag queens know this, of course, but drag is the most literal application of this power. In my case, it's the use of thousands of Swarovski crystals, and making the clothes myself, that gives me a sense of taking charge of the performing experience. That's just not on the books in classical music, especially when it comes to the organ.

The organ, to the degree that it can be considered a part of classical music in general, tends to run twenty to thirty years behind the trends. So while the trend now in classical music is for people to wear more freeing clothing -- think of conductors such as Alan Gilbert or Christoph Eschenbach or Simon Rattle, or musicians like Zoe Keating or Nico Muhly -- the standard for the organ is still a physically constraining tuxedo, which of course makes no sense for what I'm doing, being quite acrobatic at times.

AI: How set are you with your physical routine for staying in shape?

CC: I'm basically in the gym every day for cardio and for fairly serious weightlifting three times a week. I go to Ludlow Fitness, a small but well-equipped gym on Ludlow Street. I think just now of the reaction I got from a, shall we say, anti-athletic organist in New York, who reacted incredulously when I mentioned my fitness pursuits. "Winston Churchill didn't exercise", he said, "and if it was good enough for Churchill, it's good enough for me". I asked him, "Have you ever seen a picture of Winston Churchill?"

AI: I watched the DVD from Cameron Live!, and one of my favorite parts of it is the bonus feature where you play the transcription of Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a piece I absolutely love . I think it sounds fabulous on the organ. There is such peace and beauty in that piece, but also such longing and melancholy, and the organ really brought it out. When the world seems crass and ridiculous, this piece makes me believe that beauty is possible!

CC: I'm so glad to hear that! There's such a sensual and sexual expression coming from the organ. That was from a recital in Berlin that was arranged by friends, and it ended up being a big success. I worked so hard on that. Almost everyone remarked on it -- the depth of hearing that piece in such a large acoustic. There were hundreds of stop changes, and to me it's one of the secrets of the album, being secreted away amongst the bonus material on the DVD.

AI: Are you surprised that more than 250,000 people have watched your performance of Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever on YouTube?

CC: Those arrangements are contrived for two things. The first is for the most successful delivery of the music possible. In Vladimir Horowitz's famous version of it for piano, he doesn't actually play everything at the end, but rather implies it. In my version, all of the lines are maintained literally, which makes it something of a historic keyboard arrangement -- or course, only possible on the organ. It's also contrived to be pushing a boundary of what had been played on the organ. And I think it's pretty remarkable. So I'm gratified that people are watching it, and my other videos on YouTube.

AI: I think it's great that people are hearing music that they actually know played on the organ! Most people just don't have much knowledge of the great organ repertoire, so I think that it can make it forbidding even to people who are interested in classical music.

CC: You have to make a distinction between abstract appreciation and commercial presentation of it. If you omit this distinction, you do so at your peril. I attended a recital recently in New York, presented by the New York Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. I went because the organist was a friend of a friend -- significant for me, since I don't go to many organ concerts. I went to the church, walked in. There were perhaps 100 people there. I began to realize that many of them had musical scores, and that many of them looked vaguely familiar. Suddenly it hits me: these people are all organists! Afterwards came the truly upsetting part, when the organizers of the recital could be heard discussing what a good attendance the recital had. My question would have been, "Where's the audience?" This was a wonderful performer who was unfortunate enough to be presented under the auspices of an organization that has, at least where matters of publicity and commerciality are concerned, a completely backward view. Unfortunately, many organists seem to be looking forward to the past, though I am not alone in lamenting this problem.

AI: Well, there was nothing wrong with your turnout at Poisson Rouge. I've been to many shows there this season and that was probably the biggest turnout I've seen. Colorful crowd, too.

CC: Yes, there were hipsters and oldsters -- very diverse and inter-racial. It was an amazing crowd. Last night I talked to a 22-year old video artist who heard me in Melbourne, Australia and wanted to talk about doing a project in Berlin. You said you talked to someone at the show who knew Virgil Fox, but I also met people last night who had never been to an organ concert, or ever been to a jazz event. And then I had a friend from France who is a hard-core jazz fanatic, whom I invited with trepidation because I wasn't sure how well I'd do, and she was thrilled. This was a high point for me.

AI: I assume you've performed with a drummer before.

CC: No. Never. Last night was my first time. The potential is there for something.

AI: More than potential - last night was clearly a huge success. Can I ask you to explain a bit more about why it's so important to build your own organs to take on tour?

CC: The variance of quality from instrument to instrument is so different and it's a source of huge stress to arrive in a place and try to get enough of a feel for the instrument. For a serious concert it can take me 20 hours to get a handle on what kind of instrument I'm playing and preparing it for performance. It would be a lot less stressful to manage the logistics of taking an organ on the road! You are always running a race with the clock. Many of the organs are in the most important, and also the busiest, spaces at the concert hall, so you often have to practice at night, which can be hard on your body and takes away from the time that you can be learning new music.

When I am taking an organ across the country, even though it will take four hours to set up, once it's set up it is ready to play the concert, because all of the settings and sound combinations I've prepared in months of prior rehearsal, in my home, are preserved. I'm not working with a blank slate, as with an organ I've never seen, but with a honed, familiar medium. All of the music that I have in my repertoire is prepared in terms of the combinations and the control of the organ, which is almost directly analogous to the rehearsal of an orchestra. It's like you show up with the orchestra but don't have to coach them on what you want from the music; you simply can get right down to rehearsing. That means I can run through pieces instead of fighting with the organ trying to get it to give me what I want. It also has the enormous benefit that if I'm traveling with the organ over an extended tour, say for weeks at a time, I have my personal instrument with me and don't have to lose opportunities to practice and learn new music on days when I'm not scheduled to perform. Instead of arriving at Royal Albert Hall fatigued from playing on 50 different organs, I am freshly practiced with even new material for a concert. That would be truly revolutionary. It's just the matter of getting it built!

At this point, I turned off my iPhone microphone, because the waiter was asking how Cameron liked his milkshake. When Cameron smiled and said it was great, the waiter laid down a second milkshake -- on the house. Before we parted, Cameron reminded me to come to the Apple Store on Broadway and 68th Street on July 8 to hear his performance there. I bet he'll get a great turnout.