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Organist Cameron Carpenter – Sequin Clad and Shaking Up a Staid Tradition

Photo of Cameron Carpenter playing the organ

Showman of the organ: the boundary-pushing Cameron Carpenter.

In Concert: Talent, Style and Sequins

November 11, 2009 | The New York Times

BEFORE an October recital at the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, a run-down Philadelphia neighborhood, the organist Cameron Carpenter wandered through the audience, shaking hands and signing programs. Then he changed from black jeans and boots into tight trousers and a shirt covered in Swarovski crystals, which glistened under the lights as he played works of Bach and his own transcriptions, including a remarkable version of Schubert’s song “Der Erlkönig.”

Mr. Carpenter, 28, likes to greet audience members at the door and rarely announces repertory in advance, preferring to present what he calls “spontaneous happenings.” He has, however, publicized the program for his recital on Saturday afternoon at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin near Times Square, in which he will play Bach preludes and fugues and his own “Serenade and Fugue on B-A-C-H.” The recital will be recorded for release by the Telarc label.

Music of Bach, unlike much of what Mr. Carpenter plays on the organ, is, of course, a staple of the instrument, which he calls a “glittering emotion machine.” But his performance will no doubt be typically unconventional, featuring another original cadenza like the brilliant one he inserted into Bach’s G major Prelude and Fugue (BWV 541) during the Germantown recital.

Even more than Virgil Fox, the flamboyant American organist who died in 1980, Mr. Carpenter defies tradition with his interpretations and personality. He has pushed the boundaries of organ technique to breathtaking heights, meshing virtuosity with musical intelligence. In his dazzling transcription of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Étude he transfers the left-hand runs in the piano to the pedals, and his feet (clad in specially made shoes) tap-dance over them with astounding speed.

Mr. Carpenter designs and creates his glittery outfits himself, using a mannequin to apply thousands of sequins to his shirts. He said the process is an outlet for his obsessive-compulsive tendencies. “Each jewel that I’m putting on equates to another blow struck for artistic freedom with the organ,” he said, rising to the same élan with which he describes his favorite artists, who include the designer Karl Lagerfeld, the filmmaker Werner Herzogand the singer Laurie Anderson.

Like Fox’s, Mr. Carpenter’s flamboyance has elicited disparate responses from organ fans. Comments on Web sites have called him a showman, accused him of posturing among “hard-working classical organists” and raved about his originality.

Paul Jacobs, chairman of the organ department at the Juilliard School, described Mr. Carpenter, his former student, as “a significant talent” and praised his “fertile imagination,” his “extraordinary technical facility” and his “ability to draw from standard music the most unusual results.”

“Unfortunately,” Mr. Jacobs added, “there are some organists who dismiss him. He is flamboyant to the extreme, and naturally that turns some people off. However, it entices others to learn more about the instrument.”

During a recent lunch in a trendy SoHo cafe Mr. Carpenter spoke of attempts to promote the organ, then dismissed them. “It is totally backward,” he said, “as you don’t promote an instrument. You promote a person, and you promote music.”

Mr. Carpenter’s maverick personality was allowed to bloom during what he calls a bohemian childhood in a highly cultured household in a rural farming area near Meadville, Pa. Born Taylor Cameron Carpenter, he became fascinated with the organ when he saw a picture of one in an encyclopedia. His father, Gregory Carpenter, is an inventor and engineer; his mother, Lynn Carpenter, an artist. They schooled their son at home until he entered the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J., at 11. He attended the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where he served as organist in a church.

Mr. Carpenter’s mother decided on home schooling, he said, because she was dissatisfied with the local school system and because “she sensed that I was very sensitive and possibly queer.” Mr. Carpenter, who describes his sexuality as “radically inclusive,” began using his middle name while studying at Juilliard, where he received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“Cameron was a little less gender-specific even than Taylor, and more fitting for me,” he explained.

He feels it is vital to be open about his sexuality, he said, because in the organ world “there is a huge gay community that is really repressed.”

“Sometimes people in church jobs are working under the radar,” he added. “If you think you’re going to lose your job, you have a reason to stay in the closet.”

Mr. Carpenter describes himself as “God free.” “I’m showing that it’s possible to be completely unabashed about yourself and play the organ,” he said, “this instrument totally in the shadow of oppression and repression.”

Having had some training as a ballet and tap dancer, Mr. Cameron owes his slender, toned physique to regular Pilates, yoga, running and weight lifting, and he puts a premium on physical appearance. Most organists, he said, “don’t look like what people want to look at for an hour.”

“When you’re taking people’s money,” he added, “it doesn’t matter how great an artist you are. You are in business.”

The debate in the opera world about whether singers should slim down, he argued, should also apply to organists. “It’s an out-of-shape field,” he said. But he wants musicians to shape up not just to appeal more to audiences but also to improve their technique. He would like to develop a fitness program geared to organists that focuses on muscles like the abdominals, he said, so that performers could all tackle his “Revolutionary” Étude transcription.

Mr. Carpenter’s emphasis on the visual also extends to the printed score. In his cluttered studio apartment on the Lower East Side, where he lives with a cat called Kittyball, a digital piano and a digital organ, he showed off his own beautifully notated compositions, including his transcription of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which he completed at 16. He has also effectively transcribed a wide range of other material for the organ, includingShostakovich’s “Festive Overture” and Duke Ellington’s “Solitude.”

Although he has been writing music since childhood, and his works include a dark-hued, multitextured “Homage to Klaus Kinski,” he has only recently begun to take himself seriously as a composer, he said. He wants performers to take as many liberties with his compositions as he takes with others’. He is writing a preface for his scores that he said will state, “The ultimate authority lies with the performer.”

He enjoys composing by hand rather than on a computer, but when it comes to instruments, he has little patience for the traditional pipe organ. He feverishly preaches the merits of the virtual pipe organ, a digital instrument that others refer to less flatteringly as a synthesizer, if not a toaster. Among other faults, said Mr. Carpenter, who described himself as a “big green nut,” the pipe organ is environmentally unsound, requiring large amounts of raw materials to create and power to operate. Perhaps most important for him, the digital organ, being portable, allows him to play in less traditional spaces than churches and concert halls.

The virtual organ can certainly withstand Mr. Carpenter’s rock-star approach better than many traditional instruments. He admitted that he often makes unusual demands on pipe organs and sometimes pushes them, literally, to the breaking point. As if to prove his point, the organ at the Germantown concert had technical problems throughout the recital; a visibly frustrated Mr. Carpenter told the audience he wished he could perform “without the filter of obnoxious malfunction.”

He has helped design organs for Marshall & Ogletree, including one for the Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village, where he was artist in residence from Easter 2008 until June. His dismissal of the pipe organ meets with strong dissent from other experts. “The dimension of tone offered by a fine pipe organ, in my opinion, is unrivaled by any synthesized sound,” Mr. Jacobs, of Juilliard, said. “It’s impressive what can be accomplished on an electronic organ, but anyone who sits down at a great pipe organ becomes convinced of the nobleness and importance and beauty in the tradition.”

Michael Barone, the host of American Public Media’s “Pipedreams,” said, “Although the virtual organ continues to make improvements and inroads, I have not yet heard a synthetic instrument which is equal to the very best of the real thing.” But he agreed that the digital instrument may indeed be better suited to Mr. Carpenter, whom he described as “phenomenally gifted,” comparing him to the “marvelous virtuosos of the early 20th century, who were composers and improvisers and complete musicians in a way that many performers today are not.”

Fans should enjoy Mr. Carpenter’s wizardry while they can, because he considers his career finite. “I don’t see myself being a grand old man of the organ,” he said, adding with a dollop of melodrama, “I think it’s a live-fast, die-young type of thing.”

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