Anyone who follows classical organ music — especially gays — know virtuoso Cameron Carpenter is the most iconoclastic and controversial organist to come along in decades. He’s also arguably the most famous.
Granted, it’s a field in which it takes little to be iconoclastic. Even with all the gay organists out there — some anecdotally guess church players are 70 percent gay in the U.S. — it’s a highly staid playing field. Churches that think musically outside the box are chucking the organ altogether in many cases, not thinking of ways to bring it into the 21st century.
Carpenter — though often of serious facial expression — is clearly having a field day. Sadly, his international tour hopping of the last several years has eluded Washington. Local fans will get their best chance to see him next week when his fall tour makes a Richmond, Va., stop. It’s a little more than two hours from D.C. During a lengthy phone interview this week from his Berlin home, the 30-year-old bi Juilliard-trained prodigy-turned-phenom who grew up home schooled in tiny Meadville, Pa., covered a broad swath of topics about his life, work, goals and musical philosophies. Comments have been edited for length.
BLADE: Why Berlin and how long have you lived there?
CARPENTER: I’ve been here a little over a year though my total time here, because of touring, has been probably half that. Initially I felt it was a good time to live in Europe. I didn’t want to live in the U.S. my entire life and I didn’t want to turn 30 there.
CARPENTER: The U.S. is a very confused place right now. I don’t wish to renounce it, but I never really had any nationalistic sense at all. … Europe is more artist-friendly and its sense of history is much longer.
BLADE: How much do you vary your set list from night to night? What can we expect in Richmond?
CARPENTER: It’s hard to say. I understand it’s some kind of historic organ there, so that will be a big factor. I’ve gotten a lot of messages about the terrible shape it’s in which, of course, exacerbates the usual question marks of what I’ll be playing.
BLADE: But even if every organ you play had infinite capabilities, you’d still vary your program nightly?
CARPENTER: Oh yes, most definitely. When we get the touring organ on the road (a project Carpenter has been working on that will allow him to play anything anywhere anytime), I’m intent to keep doing that. … I think it’s just part of the ethos of being a classical musician. I know some who do the same thing every (night) within a tour and it would be difficult for me to get excited about that.
BLADE: But what about fans who read about something really great you did in another city but will likely only get one chance to hear you per year if they’re lucky?
CARPENTER: That does occasionally happen. I’ve been doing something interesting with the Mahler Fifth Symphony and I have recently been pairing it with a new transcription of Busoni’s piano transcription of Bach’s “Chaconne,” which was originally written for violin and putting them together as a massive prelude and fugue of sorts but it’s like 35 minutes or most of the second half of the program. I pretty much despair of playing in anywhere in the U.S., though, because you cannot do it unless it’s a massively well-equipped organ in perfect condition.
BLADE: So you’re obviously concerned, as one would expect, about sound quality and instrument quality in the various venues you play — does it bother you to think of people watching YouTube clips of your playing with the sound coming out of crappy computer speakers?
CARPENTER: It’s two different subjects. In a live experience, the acoustics are more alchemy than science so there are things we’re doing for the touring organ that will have the ability to make that organ sound great in any room, but that is a world of difference from watching something on YouTube. At this point, we just have a cultural literacy that understands YouTube and the very YouTube-ness of it. It’s a staggering cultural phenomenon and the price you pay for it is loss of fidelity … but the organ has certain remarkable traits that make it possible for much of its impact to be retained.
BLADE: What are your thoughts — even preliminarily — on your next album?
CARPENTER: I can’t really say much. I’m pursuing some options with a few different labels but it’s still in negotiation.
BLADE: But regardless of how it’s distributed, what would you like to record?
CARPENTER: My number one goal in life right now is seeing the touring organ to fruition so every discussion and question regards that as a priority. Having said that, launching it with the next album would really be a personal milestone and a cultural milestone. I think I’d like to record more of my own material. I’ve been composing a lot.
BLADE: Are your shoes custom?
CARPENTER: Yes. We’ve thought about marketing them but it’s such a small market.
BLADE: You have them in several colors — silver, red — how many pairs do you have?
CARPENTER: I really only have one truly functional pair. They can become worn out if you wear them on concrete and such. I get them from a company in Europe.
BLADE: Are they expensive?
CARPENTER: A few hundred Euros a pair. Certainly not expensive compared to having couture shoes custom made. They’re really more like dance shoes.
BLADE: And you’re dating someone these days I hear. How do you make that work with so much touring?
CARPENTER: It’s very good. I live with a 22-year-old philosophy prodigy and I guess the two of us have an essentially queer relationship … It lets me have the security of a home and a partner but obviously we both enjoy sleeping with other people from time to time. Travel actually excites that side of my life and I’m more social. I can be in the house for a very long time and have this hard-fought territory. It can be healthy to get out because I have a tendency to cocoon and overwork.
BLADE: Why are so many organists gay?
CARPENTER: Any answer I could give would be speculative but I can trod out whatever threadbare theory I have. I, of course, know no more than anyone else and less than some. But statistically or anecdotally, yes, it seems most American organists are gay or at least questionable if not questioning. It’s an unfair assumption because I also know a number of straight American organists. I also have some difficulty with the accuracy of the term gay as applied to myself … but I think the organ is a kind of voice in some ways and it’s kind of a mythical or mythological voice of empowerment and command so somehow down the channels of interpretation and tradition perhaps a sort of rivulet opened and appealed to a certain aesthetic branch of personality that was sort of gay. Theaters and churches are traditionally camp. You have myriad controls and buttons that can bring things from the softest whisper to an obnoxious roar. … Church, let’s face it, is a pretty innately camp environment where you have men wearing dresses acting out all this ceremony. In some ways, it’s the same as the theater. So where organst exist perhaps somehow appeals to the camp nature of where gay men express themselves. I wouldn’t really know though, because the organ never seemed any more gay or religious to me than the accordion.
BLADE: You didn’t grow up going to church or hearing the organ in a church?
BLADE: Your family isn’t religious?
CARPENTER: No, I grew up in a religion-free house.
BLADE: What do you think of Virgil Fox? Are you flattered when people compare you to him?
CARPENTER: I don’t think about him a lot. Some of what he achieved was pretty remarkable for the time but I have a few reservations about him artistically. It’s a dangerous subject because the people who are really nostalgic and positive about him are kind of substituting experiences very vividly or positively and skipping over other things in a kind of substitution for the experience itself. I think what is born out of really studying a lot of the footage is a lot of it is simply not very sophisticated. When I hear people say I remind them of him or getting very nostalgic about it, I think they’re probably not really listening to me.