Cameron Carpenter: World's most flamboyant organist comes to Hong Kong

Cameron Carpenter: World's most flamboyant organist comes to Hong Kong

See how this musical maverick is revolutionizing classical music with his rock star organ shows

When 29-year-old Cameron Carpenter plays, he becomes a whirling dervish of dexterity, creating a cloud of sound that blankets the audience.

But he's not a manic drummer nor a flamboyant guitarist. He's an organist, and on February 26 he's coming to Hong Kong. 

Carpenter has been called a "virtuoso" (Kommersant), "extraordinary" (NY Times), "the most gifted of his generation" (LA Times).

He is the first organist ever to receive a Grammy nomination (Best Solo Instrumental Performance), he is a winner of the Medal for Interpretation at the World Organ Competition and regularly performs in front of thousands on worldwide tours.

For true proof of his popularity though, we only have to turn to social media, where Carpenter has garnered over a million hits on YouTube and Facebook.

More important than these achievements though, is Carpenter's intention to rip up the book that has been adhered to for so long by classical organists. He wants to bring the organ out of the demure, stoic environment of the church, and into the digital age.

the organ has the capability to produce and reflect the human experience -- drama, violence, and sexuality... all things that the Church tries to suppress. It’s inadvertently subversive. — Cameron Carpenter

Pipe dreams

Born in a rural part of Pennsylvania and home-schooled, Carpenter’s parents were unaware of his potential for musical stardom. There was no pressure to practice.

Carpenter's attraction to the organ began when he was a child encountering a picture of a glamorous 1920s organ in an encyclopedia.

The time he spent playing on his first organ, a Hammond B-3 installed at his father’s foundry business, is a pleasant memory.

“I was playing Bach and around me people were working with metal. I remember that quite fondly,” Carpenter reminisces. “Rather than by myself, I was practicing around people who were making things. There was none of the loneliness you get practicing in the Church.”

Speaking on the phone from Berlin where he was touring a week before he is due to perform in Hong Kong, the latter sentence might seem to jar with conventional conceptions of organ players.

In popular imagination organs are still very much associated with religious music and a church setting. Carpenter himself spent some time playing as an organist at a Baptist church in South Carolina. Yet his interest in the organ is not Christian.

“I have no understanding of the reverence for the Church. It has no over-arching power over me,” he explains. “When I play, it’s ecstatic. That’s the simplest way to describe what’s going on.

"I believe the organ has the capability to produce and reflect the human experience -- drama, violence, and sexuality ... all things that the Church tries to suppress. It’s an inadvertently subversive activity.”

Classic sound, rock 'n' roll attitude

cameron carpenter hong kongNot only at odds with the church, Carpenter has met with conflict from within the organ community, which he describes as “insular” and “small.”

The root of the issue is Carpenter’s rejection of the traditional associations with the pipe organ, known as the “King of Instruments." 

“That title and the undue veneration the organ gets are totally inappropriate,” Carpenter insists. “When I hear that description, I think of Budweiser as 'King of Beers' -- anyone who has ever drunk it will know that it clearly is not -- or Idi Amin as ‘The Last King of Scotland.’"

Even the clothes he wears are a snub towards the accepted. Rather than appear on stage in the usual somber suit of the organist, his signature performance attire consists of tight white pants and figure-hugging white top encrusted with Swarovski crystals, front and back.

“I want to disperse the limiting confines and clichés of classical music before I even start playing."

It’s an outfit that Freddie Mercury would be proud to rock out in. If it hadn’t already been inferred, Carpenter outright declares he has a “love-hate” relationship with the “medium” that has brought him fame and fortune. 

In particular, he rails against the costs involved -- the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia spent US$6 million on their organ -- it’s lack of mobility for touring, and the peculiarities of each individual organ.

He will have to spend about 12 hours practicing on Hong Kong’s concert hall organ, learning its idiosyncrasies, before working out an appropriate play list. “It’s tiresome and a waste of time."

Organ 2.0

cameron carpenter hong kongTo deal with the foibles of the “commercially obsolete” organ and drag it into the 21st century, Carpenter is involved in the production of a new digital virtual organ that can be dismantled for travel. 

This new instrument will let him play where and what he wants, using digital samples instead of pipes and a 3D system of sound reproduction. Carpenter estimates that in a year’s time this dream will become a reality.

“There are musicians who’ve played their own instrument for years and years. I want that relationship too.” 

An ambition that further antagonizes the organ traditionalists who cling to the old ways, he believes he is the only person with the guts, or the stupidity, to believe in the future of going digital.

In the meantime, while his set list typically includes a range of interpretations of Bach, Liszt, and Chopin to John Williams and even dipping into playful riffs on Bob Dylan’s "Mr Tambourine Man," Carpenter's most important pieces remain his own compositions.

The ones where he can personally interact with the audience.

“One of the things lacking in 21st century music is the personal voice of the performer. You find very few others who are comfortable improvising,” Carpenter asserts.

“Most of these 'child prodigies' are not very interesting. This isn’t a statement about school. I really do think that's a lot to do with how the kid is brought up.”

With ambitious parents increasingly aware of the benefits a music career can bring, he believes more children will be under concerted pressure to excel. But without an opportunity for individuality to flourish, very few will have meaningful success.

“It’s not just a matter of practice. It’s the talent that counts,” he says.

Rather than breaking young fingers and spirits over three-hour sessions tinkling the ivories, rushing to become the next Lang Lang, would-be prodigies could try another way, like Carpenter, and embrace their own unique path.

“It’s insulting when people call me the Liberace of the organ, or the coming of the second Virgil Fox,” he says. “I want to be the first Cameron Carpenter.”

Cameron Carpenter plays the Concert Hall, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Tsim Sha Tsui at 8 p.m., February 26.