"Revolutionary" organist Cameron Carpenter goes global

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday September 18, 2008

To watch him play the organ, one might call Cameron Carpenter the Michael Phelps of the music world: legs, arms, hands and feet in constant, coordinated motion, moving toward the finish line of a completed performance and the thunderous applause that follows.

"I always say if you can't dance, you'd better never play the organ because the organ is the most physical instrument in terms of body movement," Carpenter said in a sit-down interview with EDGE.

Carpenter, an artist-in-residence at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan's East Village, is about to take a big step on the international stage with the September 23 release of his CD "Revolutionary" on the Telarc label. This release coincides with a series of performances at Middle Church and followed by a 30 concert tour that will bring him to the Royal Albert Hall, the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, Germany, Royce Hall at the University of California-Los Angeles and other major venues around the world.

Although he's been called a "maverick" and "rock star organist," Carpenter, 27, is much more than mere showman. His teacher John Weaver described him as "a musical intelligence of Mozartean proportions" and Departures magazine lauded, "Not since George Fredric Handel have we gotten so excited about an organist."

Carpenter was raised and home-schooled by a non-musical family in northwestern Pennsylvania, but it was discovered that at age four he could play keyboard music by dictation. Around the same time, the boy saw a photo of someone playing a pipe organ. And the rest is history.

"My first organ was the Hammond B-3," Carpenter related. "It was in my father's workshop until my brother accidentally-debatably accidentally-backed a forklift into it."

Carpenter made his European debut in front of an audience of 3,000 people in Riga, Latvia, at 13. He won the Medal for Interpretation at the World Organ Competition in Budapest, where he was the youngest and only American competitor.

While being hailed as a genius on the organ might be quite enough for most folks, Carpenter points to other interests.

"The jury is still out on if this is what I want to do," he said.

One of his great missions is to introduce the world to his virtual pipe organ, which he designed for Marshall and Ogletree. And he now plays every week at Middle Church, which purchased the organ.

"This is my Magnus opus organ," he said as he showed EDGE the console, the colorful plastic buttons, the wood and the decorations. "Everything that you see is my design and everything you hear is heard because of my selection, the sounds and my scaling of them."

Although he's played hundreds of pipe organs, he has always been frustrated by their expense, maintenance problems and immobility.

"I believe it is very important to have a tactile relationship with the instrument," Carpenter said. "Whereas a violinist walks on a stage with an instrument he's known all his life, we walk on the stage to an instrument we've known for 36 hours or so and have to pretend that a one night stand is a marriage of 25 years and it's very uncomfortable."

"It was in my father's workshop until my brother accidentally-debatably accidentally-backed a forklift into it."

Noting that his virtual pipe organ is portable, he said, "These organs are infinitely sustainable, infinitely reproducible, and infinitely adaptable."

Audience members may also notice that Carpenter has a keen eye for fashion. In fact, he one day hopes to sell the white shoes he specially designed for his organ-playing.

Carpenter described his fashion sense as having been ingrained from an early age.

"It was the typical velvet goldmine boyhood dressing up in front of the mirror, dresses, shoes, the whole thing," he said. "To this day, drag remains a significant thing for me."

Carpenter related the story of when he was about to give his first piano recital at age six and his mother asked him what he wanted to wear. Without hesitation, he told her "a white sequined tuxedo," perhaps without realizing that would be a tall order in industrial, rural Pennsylvania.

Heavily influenced by New York's visual culture, Carpenter is also a denizen of Manhattan's club scene.

"There are people out there who don't know me as Cameron Carpenter, but they know me on the circuit as Shane Turquoise."

As for being a revolutionary, Carpenter was quick to point out that he didn't choose the name of the CD, but admitted that "it's time for a change in classical music and in the way the organ is played and thought of."

Selections include Chopin, Bach and Liszt, but also Duke Ellington and two of Carpenter's own compositions. A bonus DVD is also included, so fans can see his fancy footwork and edgy fashion choices.

Telarc President Bob Woods signed Carpenter after hearing him only once, saying "He was . . . an amazing combination of a first rate musician, a superb entertainer, and unbelievable technical whiz."

"It's not the organ that's the mode of power for me, it's performing," Carpenter said. "I can imagine a life without the organ, but I cannot imagine a life without performing."

"Revolutionary" (Telarc) is available at all retail and online outlets on September 23.

Cameron Carpenter appears in several events at Middle Collegiate Church (50 E. Seventh St. at Second Avenue) from Sept. 23-28, including live Web cast concerts on Friday, Sept. 26, and Sunday, Sept. 28. Log onto www.organexpose.com for tickets and detailed information on programs. Contact Marcia Welch at (216) 464-2313, ext. 222, or [email protected]' target='new'[email protected]|[email protected]> for tour details.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).