Cameron Carpenter brings it on

The American Grammy-nominated classical organist with the heart of a rock star returns to perform at Zichron Ya’acov this week

Organist Cameron Carpenter (photo credit: THOMAS GRUBE)
Organist Cameron Carpenter
(photo credit: THOMAS GRUBE)
Just chatting with Cameron Carpenter is a thrilling experience. Think classical organist, and there is a strong likelihood that your average music lover will conjure up an image of a thoroughly respectable looking man or woman – tending towards middle age, if not way past it – doing Bach, or some Psalm-based melody, justice on a towering piped church instrument.
The celebrated 35-year-old American is anything but. For starters he sports a hairdo more reminiscent of the Sex Pistols than a venerated Baroque composer. And then there’s his unbridled effervescence. Every word he utters exudes a sense of relentless dynamism and an unquenchable desire to get the job done, and to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of excellence. The man also has the kudos to back up his enthusiasm, and is the only classical organist to date to be nominated for a Grammy.
Carpenter was here last year to wow audiences at the Elma Arts Complex near Zichron Ya’akov, and he’s back there now, where he will perform tonight and tomorrow (both 9 p.m.). The repertoire for the two concerts takes in a wide range of works from across an expansive time frame, including something from the ubiquitous and ever-popular Johann Sebastian Bach oeuvre, in the form of his Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. Elsewhere in the variegated Elma lineup you can find the stirring God Among Us by 20th century French composer-organist Olivier Messiaen, which should allow Carpenter plenty of room for individual expression.
There is more Gallic content in the program, provided by Romantic composer and organist Louis Vierne, with his Suite No.
2 from 24 Fantasy Pieces, while Carpenter will beef up the proceedings with some musical extemporizing of his own, and a bunch of works yet to be announced.
I started out by noting that Carpenter’s playing exudes an overriding sense of passion, both for the music and for the instrument itself. Typically, the American proffers both edges of the emotional sword.
“I suppose I would go along with that but, you know, the word ‘passion’ comes from the Latin word ‘passio,’ which means to suffer. The organ requires passion from the person who plays it, certainly for his life.”
Catching Carpenter in keyboard action is a captivating affair, not least because of the aesthetics involved. He is a very physical performer, and his attire, while not quite reminiscent of flamboyant pianist Liberace, adds panache to his onstage activity, right down to his self-designed footwear.
Given that organists also employ plenty of pedal power to get the sounds out there, the latter is a matter of practicality as well as ensuring he is suitably presentable.
“The organ is a contradiction in a lot of ways,” notes Carpenter. “It does, at first, seem to be the most physical instrument there is but, at the same time, I am not producing any sound myself. I am operating a machine which is doing it.”
For Carpenter, playing the organ is an all-consuming occupation.
“It is an instrument that is intensely related to both physics and psychology,” he posits, adding that his approach to playing music does not differ between playing a traditional mechanically-powered organ, or a digital creature.
You quickly get the feeling that Carpenter does not suffer fools gladly, and that all that matters to him is performing musical works to the absolute limit of his talents and skills. He scoffs at the notion of the conventional model involving more human and emotional input than the electronic version.
“The idea of a soul in an instrument is a total vanity, it is eye rolling worthy,” he exclaims. “This sort of thing is rampant in the organ. It is a sort of misdirected failure to identify the real role of the musical persona, the ego.”
Carpenter is keenly aware of the peripheral problems that can spark.
“Ego is still a dirty word, particularly in classical music, and the idea that an instrument has a soul is a lazy one.”
The latter, says Carpenter, can lead one into very dangerous territory.
“Once you entertain the idea of something inanimate having a soul you are also introducing the idea that a soul could be evil. I find that leads to a taking a lazy view of one’s own relationship with the instrument, and I just don’t accept that.
That’s a failure to understand what an organ really is.”
The American certainly knows his way around the keyboards, pedals and stops of the instrument, and says, basically, what goes around comes around in artistic terms too.
“It’s garbage in garbage out,” he states.
“In other words, the organ is set up to accept variables on several planes, and it will combine those variables to produce a musical quotient, if you like. When those variables are misdirected, the quotient will be inaccurate.”
That sounds pretty academic but, surely, when Carpenter plays the organ the sonic result is different from, say, a performance by Carpenter’s contemporary compatriot Chelsea Chen or stellar British organist Clive Driskill-Smith, who is only three years older than Carpenter. Where does the personal and cultural baggage come into the equation, if at all? “The organ is the only instrument that is combinatorial. That is a mathematical reality,” says the American. “So, while it is true that there are aspects of personality and other things that come into it, and while it is true that those things play a large role, they would have to play a secondary role to the organ’s combinatoriality. There so many exponential variables because of the way the organ operates.”
And, while Carpenter regularly plays works written long before he was born, he has no time for those who prefer familiarity over innovation.
“Classical music, for me, is not a consumer product. It is something that I do.
Someone who doesn’t like what I do does not have the ability to affect me personally.
I have zero invested in the concept of purity in general. In fact, it is something that is ugly to me as an idea and, again, a little lazy. You can’t be a purist without orthodoxy and, as an atheist, I have an intense distrust of orthodoxy. If people want to keep the organ as something conservative let them keep it so, if they wish. If they can do more to keep the organ an orthodox instrument than I can to break it down, bring it on.”
One thing’s for sure: it will be anything but dull at the Elma Arts Complex over the next couple of days.
For tickets and more information: (04) 630- 0123 and