Organist Cameron Carpenter is a tangle of apparent contradictions.
On one hand, he’s made a slightly daring fashion sensibility a central component of his stage persona, yet in stage speech (banter is way too light a term for it) and conversation, he comes off as deadly earnest. But perhaps this says more about us — why do we tend to think that mohawks and sequins might indicate a less-than-intellectual musical mind?
Perhaps because he takes — in some ways — a rock star approach to being a serious (Juilliard-trained) classical musician and seems to delight in unorthodox and even iconoclastic approaches (his transcriptions of piano and orchestral works to the organ have elicited everything from critical awe to “is-this-a-joke?” reactions), Carpenter is a polarizing figure.
But get to know the queer, Berlin-based organist, follow his career over several years and play devil’s advocate with him — as we’ve done here — and you realize the creativity and talent he brings to it all far supercedes the reductions of dozens of articles and TV profiles around the world that have reduced him to little more than a “bad boy” or “modern-day Liberace.” Yes, there’s grumbling in more staid organ-world circles (one often notices a trend of rather bemused expressions when his name is uttered), but try to think of young organists who are sparking the kind of raves and career he has managed, and the list gets really, really short. He makes his Washington-area debut April 12 at the Strathmore.
Carpenter, in Georgia with a friend who’s having him give a private recital at a pipe organ this person has installed in his house, says he feels little pressure generally speaking. We chatted for about an hour in mid-March by phone.
“I am conscious of it at times and I sometimes have the sudden realization of deadlines coming up but though this may sound supremely arrogant, when I later manage to pull it off, I realize I should never have had any self doubt. I think this theory is sound … I try to stay away from getting too caught up in pressure and luckily I don’t get stage fright.”
Carpenter remains — a recurring theme — frustrated by constantly having to adapt to the organs in various concert halls around the world. Purists are skeptical, but Carpenter expects a touring organ he’s been working on for several years will be “built and launched” next year.
Of the grand tradition of grand organ building, Carpenter says what he’s trying to do doesn’t diminish those achievements.
“It’s not how many rooms full of wooden pipes there are or how many degrees someone has or how many works one has written for the organ,” he says. “It’s only interesting in terms of human emotion and how it makes us feel to be alive.”
He says constantly having to get accustomed to new organs has become maddening.
“The closest analogy I can come up with is if you made a film and every time you screened it, you had to recut the edit. There’s a staggering amount of work that goes into each minute of film. It would be almost unsustainable. That’s why touring for me is so very hard.”
Although it’s highly likely to change — Carpenter has been known to have programs printed, then play nothing listed on them — he says his Strathmore performance may contain an organ adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture, perhaps some Marcel Dupre variations, a reimagining of a scherzo by Tchaikovsky and “maybe” some Liszt Transcendental Etudes.
“It all depends on the organ, which is as yet unknown,” he says.
Carpenter says he can’t relay details just yet, but an announcement about a new recording deal is imminent. His last album was 2010’s “Cameron Live!” release (a CD/DVD double album). A feature-length documentary on his life and work is also “very much in the planning stages,” he says.
“I don’t really see myself as someday having a recorded legacy of 70 CDs, but I do think it would be great if each of them … is something really personal and strong. … I’ve also wanted to wait until the right recording instrument would be available so I’ve been focusing most of my energy on that for now. I don’t have any particular compulsion to record just for its own sake.”
He says he appreciates media coverage immensely so objecting to superficial comparisons of performers from bygone eras isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“It is kind of knee-jerk and wildly reductive, but they can’t be blamed for trying to sell tickets,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind if I never hear the phrase ‘bad boy of the organ’ ever again but it’s a sad truism I guess.”
And of the Mohawk he’s been sporting of late, Carpenter says it’s here to stay at least for now.
“I think I’ve settled on something that hits a visual balance of elegance and style. It’s also the haircut of a warrior which is not inappropriate.”