Not many classical musicians have their own fashion portfolios. But on the website of Cameron Carpenter, the groundbreaking young organist who makes his highly anticipated Boca Raton debut Thursday at the Festival of the Arts, he has an entire gallery of glamour shots: Hair in a pompadour, dressed in a three-piece suit, an ensemble made of black leather, a glittering Liberace getup. We see him straightening a bowtie, posing near a pile of rubbish and sprawled on a divan. He obviously works out, and, indeed, his personal trainer tours with him.
At other times donning a CBGB shirt, and quick to quote William S. Burroughs, Carpenter resembles not a studious graduate of Juilliard who has plied his trade on an instrument most associated with church music so much as a rebellious glam rocker turned male model.
So it’s no surprise he’s been shaking up the classical music establishment, both in his flamboyant performance apparel and his embrace of digital pipe organs, which he believes are democratizing a bulky instrument from its moribund traditions. The controversies he’s engendered have no doubt contributed to his fame, leading to coverage on CNN, the New York Times, The New Yorker and other prestigious publications. But his image and provocative musings belie his wizardry on the pipe organ. He is, in the end, a virtuoso whose mastery of his instrument speaks for itself.
He took a few minutes to speak with Boca Raton prior to his performance tomorrow.
Tell us a little bit about the program, and working with the Boca Symphonia.
The program is a challenge to our perceptions about what the organ, and the organist, can and should be. It’s music by revolutionaries – by which I mean Samuel Barber and Camille Saint-Saens, and some solo works, which I’ll play, but upon which I haven’t decided yet. It’s a challenge to get to work with a band of esteemed musicians that I’ve never met, and to have the chance to come together to produce magic under pressure.
How did you become attracted to the organ? And when did you know that this what you wanted – or needed – to do with your life?
The organ was first an overwhelming force for me visually, when I saw as a tiny child a highly evocative encyclopedia entry showing an organist playing in a movie palace. My later first contact with an organ at age 4 was almost sinister in its power and I was forever ruined to serious dedication to anything else.
With its common association with ecclesiastical and sacred music, do you think the pipe organ is generally not being used to its full sonic potential?
Much more worthy of our attention in and out of church – in my case, particularly out – is the subject of the digital organ, where actual musical revolution is flourishing.
As to sacred music, it’s only possible to answer this if we agree that the pipe organ’s potential is prima facie limited by its physical immobility, and by its inability to become the centerpiece of an ongoing relationship with its user in any meaningful way (since every organ is completely different). One would think such an inflexible entity would be well-suited to assisting in the maintenance of the churchly status quo, though (perhaps ironically) most churches which fancy themselves “contemporary” – i.e., increasingly conscious of the relationship between God and the dollars of the young – are keen to throw out the organ in the attempt to get hip. All of which proves only one thing: that even in the cheap theatre of church, with its hocus-pocus and its ecclesiastical hobgoblinery, even there, the pipe organ still has a hard time justifying itself.
How do you like the label of “the most controversial organist in the world?” Did you expect to garner a label like that?
Music and art, and the doing of them, are unequivocally worth fighting about, and therefore controversy is inevitable and very much to be used and enjoyed if possible.
As is often the case, people easily offended usually have a need to be, and it might be argued that they enjoy it, too. The level of controversy I’ve thus far generated, hard as that level is to quantify, is likely less than that which awaits the launch of my international touring organ project in 2014.
Why are personal presentation, and apparel, so important to your performances?
They are important because persona is important; and onstage, they are important because feeling comfortable in one’s own skin is conducive to good performance. Clothes don’t exactly make the performance; but in the words of the Romans – vestus virum Reddit – they do make the man, and it’s the man (or woman, or etc.) who makes the performance.
I’ve also spoken with Amadeus Leopold, with whom you share a bill at this festival, and with whom you share some similarities in shaking up the classical music establishment. He considers himself a pop artist who plays classical music, not a member of the classical music community, and wants his records to be filed under the pop section. Do you feel the same way?
I should be so lucky as to share a concert, not only a bill, with him. If I had to classify him, I would call him a performance artist of the highest caliber, someone deeply linked to the tradition of Laurie Anderson, perhaps also of the Cockettes, Joan Jonas, etc. But – and on this I can’t be more emphatic – I’d rather revel in his existence as an unclassifiable artist and the brave rebelliousness of that than to agree with his own self-defeating self-classification. It’s both cheap and unsubstantiated to call him a “pop artist who plays classical music”; cheap because it’s glossing-over of the much greater subtlety of his work, and unsubstantiated because by now we know what, in 2013, a pop artist does and doesn’t do. Pop artists by definition don’t play classical music. What they do is to sing – specifically, they sing lyrics conveyed by attached musical information that is secondary in importance to the message of the lyrics. It is this literality of lyrics and the spoken (or sung) word which is the prerequisite to all popular music, and this the violin – like the organ – need not convey. By this I mean no damnation of popular music – the issue here is quantitative, not qualitative.
Of course, my hope to claim Amadeus a fellow soldier in the destruction and rebirth of classical music is selfishly showing.
From some interviews you’ve given, you seem very well read. What are some of your favorite books?
Goodnight Moon was always a favorite. Also, the complete works of Nabokov and Susan Sontag in constant gradual re-reading, nothing by Ayn Rand, and the good old King James (skimmed only as lightly as needed to grasp the literary and mythical context for works of greater worth).
Carpenter and the Boca Raton Symphonia perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 14 at the Mizner Park Amphitheater, 590 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $15 to $75. Call 561/368-8445 or visit festivaloftheartsboca.org.