Why Is Cameron Carpenter Leaving the Pipe Organ Behind?

Cameron Carpenter has been playing the organ since age 4. Over the years, he has developed a reputation as a virtuoso and an iconoclast, taking the instrument in new -- and for some, uncomfortable -- directions with undeniable musicality.

Now on a world tour promoting his debut album for Sony Classical, (If You Could Read My Mind), Carpenter recently talked with Camp about his work and his instrument’s future.

“Loyalty and a certain piety to the concept of the pipe organ is holding back organists and always has,” Cameron said. “… There’s a sort of moronic -- and I think extremely woefully unfounded-- position in certain sections in the classical music world, and widely held in the organ world, that musical culture is in decline and that the organ is a victim of that, and it is the fault of outside forces.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. That fault, if it can be laid anywhere, should first be delivered squarely to the people who have been responsible for the acts of limitation, the institutionalization, the religionization of this instrument away from its early burgeoning cross-cultural life.”

No one could accuse Carpenter of any of the above. An apatheist, he brings a skepticism to his approach with what has become known as “the instrument of church and death.” Over the course of his career, he has worked to take the organ out of the church and recognize it as a commercially viable instrument. But standing in the way has always been one problem: the instrument itself.

Enter the International Touring Organ.

“Something as basic as owning an instrument is taken for granted by most musicians,” he said. “Most professional organists spend their lives playing instruments that can be taken away from them at a moment’s notice. There’s a sort of built-in endemic insecurity there.”

Even when an organ is available, he said, it’s not necessarily a good one: Installation and instrument quality vary from venue to venue, and the touring organist finds himself having to learn the individual quirks of each organ anew.

To remedy this, Carpenter had his own touring organ built. This five-keyboard, custom-built digital instrument made its debut earlier this year. The maker sampled sounds from many different traditional pipe organs, combining the best features of the various organs Carpenter has played, plus a few touches of his own.

Carpenter’s new organ is a showcase of technology, taking up a tenth of the space of a standard organ and using a massively parallel processing system to deliver the state of the art in musical fidelity. The processing system and speaker array allow the user to adjust to nearly any sort of venue. The touring organ is the first of its kind, and Carpenter’s the first person who could have brought such a thing into being.

In Carpenter’s current tour, he will play pipe organs in some locations and the International Touring Organ in others. Later this year, he said, the solo pipe organ chapter of his life will close for good.

If there is anything that draws attention to Carpenter besides his musicality, it’s his personality. His dress and manner are every bit as flamboyant as his arrangements and musical choices.

Describing his sexuality as “radically inclusive,” he explains the importance of identity and self-determination: “I think it’s pretty shocking that the gay community still fails to recognize bisexuality as the sexuality that it is. … To say I’m gay is exactly as inaccurate as to say that a lesbian is bisexual because she also sleeps with men, or something like that. No. If she identifies as lesbian, it doesn’t matter what she does.”

Still, he doesn’t feel it affects his musical output. At most, “If there is an artistic result, I think it might be this: What we’ve come to call ‘alternative sexualities’ are called such because they are a threat. And they are rejected or resisted by society, and anybody who’s on the receiving end of rejection or resistance for their self has to confront in one way or another that they’re having to fight for themselves.”

As for Carpenter, he is certainly moving forward. The International Touring Organ makes its American debut in New York City on Oct. 23, before coming to the Kauffman Center on Oct. 26. He is looking forward to playing Kansas City again and notes that it is an “encouraging sign” that the Kauffman, which of course has its own in-house pipe organ, is nonetheless hosting a concert of the Touring Organ.

“That’s a step that is being made more and more,” he observes.
“But it’s a brave one still.”
In the meantime, there are tour dates on the West Coast and in Europe, a new concerto written especially for him by veteran minimalist composer Terry Riley to debut at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and soon the announcement of his first concerto commission with a major symphony orchestra.

And as far as Carpenter is concerned, there are no limits to where the new directions -- and his new instrument -- can take him.

“I’ve got decades ahead of me,” he said.

Tickets for the Oct. 26 concert in Kansas City are available at Kauffman Center."

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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