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Cameron Carpenter Re-Imagines the Organ

Aired June 17, 2012 - 14:00   ET


SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Cameron Carpenter is an unlikely innovator. He's an organist, a composer, a performer. And he's hell-bent on bringing an ancient instrument into the 21st century.

CAMERON CARPENTER, ORGANIST/COMPOSER: What I'm interested in is bridging the gap between the organ of the past and the organ of the future.

GUPTA: Welcome to "The Next List." I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Now, Cameron's the first to admit, there's nothing cool about the organ. But he's determined to change that with raw talent, rhinestones, theatrical flair and his own innovation -- the touring organ.

Cameron wants to take his touring organ around the world to inspire and to entertain. Dressed like a rock star, he's bringing this renegade spirit to a classical institution. And that's what earns him a spot on "The Next List."

CARPENTER: Organists certainly don't get the respect they deserve. In fact, I have a pretty deep sense of brotherhood for all organists, because they have an extremely hard row to hoe. Remember that most organists who, you know, are pursuing professional careers are church organists.

I live an extremely rarefied life with the organ because not only don't I play in a church as a church musician, I don't even perform in churches. I play -- I play concert hall organs, and that itself is a kind of unusual thing.

OK, my name is Cameron Carpenter, and my work is the playing of the organ in an unprecedented way.

Let me restart that.

I view there as being a secret underworld of organists, and there is also a vast community of amateur organists, people who don't really admit to loving or playing the organ, whether it was the organ that they heard at the skating rink or on the television or the thing that was in their grandmother's basement or the fact that they secretly themselves play.

And, you know, that's -- there's something about the instrument that is very enduring, if not endearing. And it seems to stick with people who have touched it.

I travel around the entire world playing primarily in concert halls. I'm living at the moment in Berlin, Germany, but I'm now on tour in the U.S. I've just been in San Francisco, Chicago, New York. I'll go back in two days to Berlin, and then I play in Poland, and then go to England. All over Germany again. To France, to Austria. Certainly the hardest thing for me is basically being a homeless musician and not having a dedicated instrument that's mine to have an ongoing years' long relationship with. When you stop to think that organists almost never own their own instruments. This is actually a very insecure position for an artist to be in.

I absolutely want more from the organ. I want more from the organ in every possible way. It's not just more from the organ itself. I mean, obviously I want the instrument to travel. I want it to be more adaptable.

Good. You can use that one.

There are two kinds of organs. There are pipe organs which are massive physical entities that are attached to a building. They're architectural because they use typically thousands of pipes and other really intense mechanisms to manipulate air, basically, and then there is the digital equivalent, the digital organ. The pipe organ is seen as sort of the Jesus Christ savior of the organ tradition, and the digital organ is seen as the anathema, the Lucifer, or the thing to be feared and loathed.

The associations I think are strongly, not inextricably but strongly tied to guilt and death and suffering. None of which I have any interest in all. I'm really convinced that the pipe organ is totally finished. I hate its immobility, I hate its inflexibility. I hate the contradictions of the organ.

What we need to do is get behind the digital organ. What I'm interested in is bridging the gap between the organ of the past and the organ of the future. I am now creating a touring organ, which will actually be two touring organs. One will be in the U.S. and one will live in Europe.

The instrument that I want is an organ which will answer my every need and which will give me something for every genre of music that I want, that will hybridize all of the organs that I love, but which will be totally free of all of the room-fulls of wooden metal junk. But, you know, which will really give me this ecstatic sort of free organ. But it will also be designed with a lot of other sort of values in mind, the value of theatricality and the value of visual presentation, obviously.

And then the entire organ is packed up and can be put onto a stage, and its massive infrastructure of loud speakers of course can be deployed anywhere. It can be outdoors, it can be in schools and festivals, and concert halls or in prisons. And this gives me the ability then to take it absolutely everywhere that I can go, and that a person can play a violin. That's where the organ will have a vibrant future that, you know, that will allow it to really speak with a voice to people that have never thought to listen.

PETER SELLARS, THEATER, OPERA DIRECTOR: What's cool is with Cameron, all kinds of people get off on his playing. You just watch the enthusiasm factor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It sounded great.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was absolutely phenomenal. One of the best things I've ever seen.

SELLARS: Classical music itself is in the process of major re- invention, and everybody's looking at him with a lot of excitement, because here comes one of the great inventors.

GUPTA: Cameron lives and breathes music. He's not only an innovator and an entertainer, he's also a composer. Coming up on "The Next List," we take you inside the mind of a virtuoso.


CARPENTER: It's very true that normally, I'm always thinking of music. And I have perfect pitch, so it's very possible for me to be practicing when I'm away from the organ in some way. There's certainly a mental practice that goes on, and therefore, I've always cultivated since I was a tiny kid this idea that there's an organ in my mind that exists somewhere, and that's, of course, the organ that I'm trying to build. That's what I want the touring organ to be. But in the meantime, I can always play it, and I can always hear it when I'm playing.

All organs have one thing in common, which is that they have keyboards for the hands and for the feet. Here we have three or more keyboards on the touring organ, probably four or five, and then a special keyboard for the feet. And one of my challenges of course to myself is to try to be able to play with the feet as rapidly and accurately as with the hands. Not always possible. For the feet, you can play one note. You can play two notes. You can play three notes. Four notes. Five notes, sometimes six, depending on the articulative happenings of the music.

The organ -- the sounds of course are manipulated differently than on the piano. When you play keys on the organ, actually there's no sound until you activate other controls, usually known as stops. And in this case, one -- each stop is roughly analogous to an instrument in the orchestra or a combination of instruments -- roughly. So you can have very soft sounds, high, and very low ones, very loud, and extremely soft. And so you begin to get the idea that this is an instrument that has a much broader spectrum than any other instrument. It's that that makes it so rich potentially for expression, because you can have great sensuousness.

That's one of the things I love about the organ. It's quite capable of bringing out really -- taking a musical idea and making it absolutely clear.

My mind is always thinking about multiple ideas, and to have the ability to bring these ideas out so clearly and with different colors and different sounds is something that I think the piano can never really do.

There's nothing of which I dream more than a standardized instrument, that the organ can some way be totally standardized in the same way that the piano is. It is impossible with the pipe organs, utterly possible with the digital organ.

I write songs all the time, and I improvise constantly. I am in fact creating music with my own two hands from seemingly out of the air -- in other words, from my own brain. That's something that I've done since I was a child, and I'm sure that I always will.

When I improvise, in general I'm thinking about this sort of ball of light that seems to sort of hang around my solar plexus. And I don't mean that in a mystical way. I just mean it that there is this deep sense of energy that's sort of physically here that's going out like a nuclear reaction in all directions, except that it's sustaining and it's controlled, and it's the thing that is always driving me.

Certainly in my best moments, it's this vibrant sort of little contained star that contains all of me inside it, and it goes into the organ and then out through the organ, of course. And hopefully into the heart of the audience.

GUPTA: Coming up -- Cameron Carpenter, the dorky high school student.

CARPENTER: Well, in high school, I was an eccentric, ill-exposed, introverted nerd to the max.


CARPENTER: I'm from northwestern Pennsylvania, about 100 miles north of Pittsburgh. And so I grew up in the countryside, just me and my little brother and our family, being home-schooled. But that's probably one of the things that continues to shape my outlook really influentially, because I was home schooled before the days when that became sort of a far-right thing, back in the early '80s. At least coming from my parents, it was seemingly an ex-hippie thing to do with your kids, and I think it was also a good decision, because it allowed me to have a great deal of time to spend on music.

The keyboard came into play instantly. For me, instantly, at age 4. I really don't remember a time when I didn't play. And my father was an inventor and engineer, built industrial furnaces in a dedicated shop for his business right next to where we lived, and my first organ was the Hammond B3, which we think of as the jazz and rock organ, which my parents acquired for me and the place where I would practice. It was stored in my father's shop. So as we were -- as I was sitting there playing Bach and Buxtehude and learning my methods, all around me was top 40 and country music and people cutting metal and diesel exhaust. And that -- I come now to look back on that as an unbelievably cacophonous time, and unequaled training for a young musical mind.

I was home schooled until I was 11, and then I was sent to the American Boy Choir School, a boarding school for singing boys in Princeton, New Jersey. JAMES LITTON, MUSIC DIRECTOR EMERITUS, AMERICAN BOY CHOIR SCHOOL: Cameron Carpenter came here as a young boy. When he first came to the Boy Choir School, I was up in my office upstairs, and I heard someone playing the Gershwin "Rhapsody in Blue." And it was very good, and I knew there was no one on the faculty here who played that. I thought, well, there must be a parent, a new parent there playing it. So I ran down the steps, and here was this little boy playing "Rhapsody in Blue" on the piano, and just marvelously well. So I knew we had a talented kid coming.

CARPENTER: This was -- my musical life had really already begun by that point, but this was the point at which I came face-to-face with this deep, deep conviction that music was more than just a work or a calling, it was an unavoidable addiction. And if it were illegal, I would end up in jail. Fortunately, I haven't.

LITTON: Several of the kids have become superb musicians. Some are really top singers now, good instrumentalists. Cameron, of course is -- well, we have several who have become top organists, but Cameron beats them all, I think. I probably shouldn't say that.

CARPENTER: In high school, I was an eccentric, ill-exposed, introverted, nerd to the max, a person who would make the current iteration of me look well-rounded.

I was fortunate enough to go to the North Carolina School of the Arts. I was transcribing and arranging almost 200 works that weren't written for the organ -- piano music, chamber music, ballet music, movie music, music from the orchestra. It would go in as orchestral music in this ear and it would come out in my eyes and hands as organ music, or at least as something written for the organ.

And so this cost me any remote social life in high school, of course, but it also gave me an instruction in music that I don't think I ever could have gotten from anyone living.

LITTON: Cameron is determined to be a different kind of organist. Some people have called him perhaps the Liberace of the organ. Liberace dates me, but I think Cameron's far more talented than Liberace ever was.

CARPENTER: My style. Well, it's proto-punk meets washed-up hipster.


GUPTA: Welcome back to "The Next List." I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Cameron Carpenter looks more like a rock star than an organist. And his debut solo album got him rock star accolades when he was nominated for a Grammy -- that's unheard of for an organist. He's re-inventing what it means to play the organ, and to be an organist.

CARPENTER: I'm Cameron. I'm playing the organ tonight. I'm just saying hello.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. CARPENTER: Nice to meet you, too.

Here in San Francisco tonight, I'm playing on a concert, in fact a three-night series of concerts with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony called "Barbary Coast and Beyond."

I'm playing the organ tonight. For better or for worse.


CARPENTER: Well, see if you love it tonight. Smash the crap out of it.

I like meeting the audience before the concert, partly because it's very unusual. I mean, almost no artist -- almost no musician ever does this, but particularly not in classical music.

I love your raw silk!


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And you're in diamonds.

CARPENTER: Well, that's for you to decide. I'm playing the organ tonight.

The people themselves who are coming and paying good money to hear me play are always so surprised to see, oh, you're the performer and you're out here ten minutes before the concert.

I always like to come down and say hello to people.


CARPENTER: That's kind of one of my secret weapons, I think, because I've never had stage fright. I never had anxiety before walking on to play. In fact, I'm eager to get on to the bench and start.

The organ is an unbelievably lonely instrument. For me, it's incredibly important to embrace that I have a visual identity and to cultivate that as strongly as possible.

The organ is not what it's about. It's about the performer.

You have a whole community of American organists sort of saying to each other that we need to do something to promote the organ. And this is a ridiculous and a fruitless idea, which is, of course, doomed to failure, because you don't promote a medium any more than painters promote the paint in the tube. We don't go to hear a cellist's cello or a rock guitarist's guitar. We go to hear them. And so naturally, I want to continually try to reinvent myself, and there is a camp sensibility to that.

My style. Well, it's my style. I mean, it's something that I -- that that -- that's hard to describe. I suppose the style has evolved. Proto-punk meets washed-up hipster. SELLARS: Cameron is bringing some kind of David Bowie energy, you know, to classical music is correct and perfect and on schedule.

CARPENTER: Being a musician in 2012 that we live in today of Nicki Minaj and the opera direction of Peter Sellars and the choreography of Mark Morris, and so a person has to have a really strong visual identity. And I think that classical music is sort of the last frontier that's truly untouched by concerns of fashion and style, and it's simply time to change that.

SELLARS: He's arriving with a super conservative pedigree, and at the same time his decision to blast off into his own fabulous identity. You know, and so, both things are present in him.

CARPENTER: I've often been asked, you know, are you the next Liberace, are you the next -- whatever. And I'm simply the first Cameron Carpenter. I mean, that's pretty obvious, isn't it?

GUPTA: Cameron Carpenter is breathing new life into a dying instrument. He's an innovator, he's an advocate, an artist, an entertainer. And that's what earns him a spot on "The Next List."

Thanks for joining us. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Hope to see you back here next Sunday.