Reporting from New York — The pipe organ's massive physical dimensions and its potential for earthshaking sonorities make it an instrument like no other. But those who play its multiple keyboards, pump its many pedals and pull its multifarious stops are another matter. Popularly regarded as repressed or freakish (think Simon Stimson in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town"), organists may be the music world's least glamorous artists. Unlike pianists or violinists, who can show off on stage, organists generally have their backs to audiences and often sit high up in lofts.
Enter Cameron Carpenter, a 29-year-old Pennsylvanian now living on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Part Liberace, part Liszt, he is determined to alter prevailing attitudes toward the organ — and if that means annoying his peers, so much the better.
Carpenter, who is scheduled to appear Sunday at First Congregational Church in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and make his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut next season, is widely listed among the most gifted organists of his generation.
"The technical virtuosity is beyond imagining," said Scott Cantrell, classical music critic of the Dallas Morning News and himself an organist. "He can do things with his fingers and feet that nobody else can do. It's a very kaleidoscopic approach to sound."
Paul Jacobs, chairman of the organ department at New York's Juilliard School and briefly Carpenter's teacher, contends that those who regard his former student as more adept at showmanship than musicianship are missing the point. "There are those who are frustrated by the spectacle of Cameron," Jacobs acknowledged. "But ultimately one needs to get beyond those things to the heart of what he is doing and judge him on his artistry."
Less savvy music lovers are likely to focus on other things first — like the crystal-encrusted T-shirts and tight-fighting jeans Carpenter wears in performance. Video screens are often erected at his concerts to help audiences see him more easily, yet seeing him is never a problem thanks to the Internet. YouTube carries more than a hundred clips of him, including those in which he plays Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," Chopin's "Revolutionary" Etude and themes from Bizet's "Carmen" — familiar works rarely associated with the organ. All more than make the case that Carpenter is not your grandmother's organist.
"None of the YouTube videos were put there by me," said Carpenter while puttering about his cozy studio apartment on Houston Street. "But they represent me very well. And it's incredibly important because the organ is a tremendously visual instrument. Some cynical people ask why I have to be so seen, but it's a question of where an audience focuses aesthetically. For me, the medium should receive the lowest level of attention, because it is inherently the least interesting and least accessible aspect of performance."
This brings us to one of Carpenter's favorite refrains — the story of how organs, rather than organists, came to dominate the organ-performance narrative. It boils down to this: "The one endemic problem with the organ is that people pay attention to the instrument, and performers hide behind that," Carpenter said. "No organ is great or small. They are all a means to an end, never an end in themselves. And when you forget this, the medium becomes the draw. Yet you would never go to hear Yo-Yo Ma's cello or Joshua Bell's violin; you go to hear Yo-Yo Ma and Josh Bell."
Jacobs finds Carpenter's rising profile a good thing for organists generally. "Cameron's ascent shows the vitality of the profession," Jacobs said. "The world is big enough for flashy virtuosos and more subtle artists. But Cameron is no less of an artist for dressing outrageously —just as others are no less for not doing so."
Carpenter is doing more than just dressing funny and acting out, however. He is in the process of challenging a pillar of his profession, arguing against the notion that performing on a pipe organ is the apogee of his art. The agent of this potentially tectonic shift in performance practice is the virtual pipe organ, which he is developing in conjunction with various contractors. The details are complicated, but essentially the latest in computer sampling and sound reproduction will be employed to reproduce pipe organ sensations anywhere — even outdoors. He promises something beyond a prototype by summer's end.
"As far as the tradition of the organ is concerned, this is a really radical thing," he said. "I want to take everything good about the organ — its power, expressive abilities, color — and set it aside, and then I want to completely discard everything in the pipe organ that would provide that. We're just beginning to be at a time when technology can assist artists in articulating their vision more clearly.
"And in the case of the virtual pipe organ, technology does that by eliminating moving parts, which are susceptible to gravity and friction and prone to break down."
For Carpenter, the main issue remains bringing organ music — however its sounds are achieved — to the greatest number of people. In what manner and where he accomplishes that is less important, he insists. "Who cares why they come," he said, referring to audiences. "Are they not hearing the great works? I don't expect people to come for the rhinestones, but if they do, I'm perfectly happy. Because they will have heard the music."