Flamboyant. It is almost impossible to read a review of a Cameron Carpenter performance where the word is not utilized as a critical summation to a concert sound that is wholly revolutionary.
It’s also a tag Carpenter can’t get his head around. A pioneer of the classical organ, he has literally uprooted the instrument from its cathedral roots, modernized it into a creation of his own portable design and built a repertoire around it that runs from Bach to Bernstein to Bacharach. Depending on your viewpoint, that makes Carpenter a renaissance man or a renegade.
But flamboyant? That’s a tag he neither understands nor appreciates.
“There is a continuing suspicion that the music and the personality are different, and I’ve never understood why this should seem so,” said Carpenter, via email this week from his home in Berlin. “ ‘Flamboyance’ is, at this point, a word that has more meaning as a euphemism for queer – a state which can still ill afford to allow any euphemisms.”
The current thrust of the Julliard trained, Grammy nominated Carpenter’s career is an instrument of his own design called the International Touring Organ. A digital creation utilizing samples of traditional pipe organs (as well as such offspring as the Wurlitzer), it is a modernization of instruments housed in cathedrals around the world. In Cameron’s hands, though, the most epic of organ sounds have become portable.
“The instrument behaves exactly as we – meaning, not only me, but its visionary builders, (the Massachusetts team of) Marshall & Ogletree – envisioned, and is almost anticlimatically consistent and well-behaved in this wonderful way. With a few correctible exceptions, I seem to have not totally embarrassed myself in its design, which proposes a hybridization of the mid-century prim and poetic American classical organ with its less respectable, ruder, decadent, not-too-well preserved, off-color half-sister, the much more eccentric theater organ. Their reunion has been difficult to negotiate but I think we’ve broken ground there.
“Understanding this, I am constantly revising it, usually to add more wildness, violence, vulgarity, and randomness, which any great organ must have in spades. Glorious, holy, and majestic are illusions and, as such, squarely easy to manufacture musically and acoustically. Any old electronic organ with light-up thingummies, any old racks of pipes in whatever church balcony can imply that in a ‘good enough for anyone’ sort of way. The richness and personality of real imperfection, though, is a more challenging task.”
Last year, Carpenter put the new International Touring Organ to work in the recording studio. The result was If You Could Read My Mind, a record with a repertoire as distinctive as its sound. Alongside an adaptation of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and his own Music for an Imaginary Film are organ revisions of Leonard Bernstein’ Overture to Candide, Burt Bacharach’s Alfie, the Patsy Cline hit Back in My Baby’s Arms and the Gordon Lightfoot classic that serves as the record’s title composition.
“The International Touring Organ is, actually, totally remarkable in several regards, but it’s still just an organ. It’s a conduit to a live emotional experience. It’s not actually the organ at all that I’m interested in promoting, but, of course, the music I’m making. Here you find one of the organ’s perilous paradoxes. It’s the most impressive instrument technically and physically, but miles of pipe and wire are meaningless on their own. The scale of the machine, in league with its weighty history, is observably a stumbling block to any organist who pays the usual unskeptical obeisance to it in demeanor, repertoire, and style.”
How then, does the viewpoint of many classical enthusiasts that see modifications of performance, repertoire and instrumentation deemed traditional as a form of musical heresy enter into Carpenter’s new world order of the International Touring Organ?
“I don’t care for anyone’s opinions, good or ill, other than my own,” he said. “A funny thing: there’s a lot of lip service in the collective consciousness about how great it is not to care about other’s opinions, but in practice it’s usually received as arrogance, or antisociality. Therein comes the real test of whether you care or not, of course.”
Cameron Carpenter performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at Newlin Hall, Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $25-$46. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or got to www.nortoncenter.com.
Carpenter will also participate in a pre-concert Gallery Talk with Centre College art professor Sheldon Tapley entitled “Reinterpreting Traditional Art Forms in Contemporary Society.” The 7 p.m. discussion will be held at the Grand Foyer of the Norton Center in conjunction with Beyond the Window, an exhibition of paintings by Zeuxis artists.