Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Since I consider this a family site, and since I don't like to resort to strong curse words on the internet, I suggest that any sensitive pipe organists who may be reading skip the next sentence in which I will use the "C' word--twice.

Cameron. Carpenter.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way I shall explain my choice of topic. You must have gathered by now that Mr. --uh, you know, is himself an organist, and in fact is a pretty hot topic in the organ world--that is, all five of us discuss him regularly. He is not, shall we say, loved by his colleagues.

On the other hand, he appears to have made quite a noise in the wider world, at least for someone who plays the organ. Now since only about 1 in 200 or so people in the United States regularly listen to classical music, and I would have to guess that only about 1 in 200 of those people regularly listen to organ music, those of us who happen to like classical organ music can feel pretty lonely. We are a pretty small group. Some of us would not mind it at all if more of you found what we find interesting interesting; a number of us feel like we are an endangered species. In this world of stereotypes the organ is often thought of as yesterday's instrument; irrelevant, stodgy, and no fun at all.

Enter Mr. C-word to try to change all that. Kind of.

Actually, Mr. Carpenter doesn't seem to be much of an ambassador for the organ at all. For one thing, he is short on the diplomatic language. He thinks the world of organs and organists is pretty dreary. He doesn't mind saying so. In an interview in our local paper he said that he finds the very idea that the organ is a religious instrument is "comical" so you know he doesn't mind offending large numbers of people. In fact, I think he thrives on it. He wears a Mohawk and earrings and plays his own custom built electronic [can you hear organists shrieking in horror?] instrument everywhere he goes. He doesn't try to mend fences between audiences and the establishment; his line is that the reality is "even worse" than the stereotypes, and, presumably, he is the cure. He is the bad boy of the organ. This week, trying to sum him up for people I knew I compared him to Lady Gaga.

He's playing in Champaign tomorrow and we're going to hear him. I was a little surprised, actually, that  the handful of people I told had never heard of him. He's got to be the most easily recognized organist in the world at the moment--but then, again, we are still talking about an organist.

What's interesting about Mr. Carpenter's approach is that it isn't really that interesting. At least, it's not new. He is seeking mass appeal, and as far as I can tell, he's getting it. And the way to do that has never been to sit behind your instrument and play great music. The way to do that is to be a big personality; to stir up controversy, and to convince regular folks that you don't like musical stuffiness any more than they do and that you, and you alone, are going to show them a really good time. Every generation has had a few of these showmen whom the public thinks are the greatest ever, while the other musicians gnash their teeth and complain of the gimmickry and silliness that is their nemeses stock-in-trade, certain that they could play these frauds under the table.

But as far as I know, Mr. Carpenter really has the chops. I guess I'll find out tomorrow night, but I know that he studied with Paul Jacobs at Julliard, and it certainly sounds as if he has quite a technical capability. There have been some who haven't. Liberace, for instance, really wasn't nearly as able a player as he could get the average person to believe. Paderewski, with his shock of red hair, could spray the air with a few false notes. Those are pianists. I don't know much about Virgil Fox, though I heard him once on Youtube. He missed a few notes, playing the Gigue fugue extremely fast, and much of the time you couldn't hear what he was playing at all for the pandemonium in the audience (he was trying to get them to clap along with the music). These folks could communicate with their audience and get them to like them, and not come off as pretentious or ask too much of them as listeners. Since speed and derring doo is a big plus for a lot of us, that technical virtuosity is always a big part of a showman's equipment. But there have always been a lot of people who could play things very, very fast. It doesn't make you a phenom.

As for poetry, musical interpretation--well, that tends to take a back seat, usually. So, of course, does any choice of repertoire that might tax the audience's patience. As Liberace said "I have to know just what my audiences will stand for." Then he elaborated on how he abridged everything and didn't bother with the profounder parts of the music, no matter what the composer had written. I haven't seen much of him yet, but I would imagine our dear Mr. C indulges this tendency to some degree.

He has the pedigree, however, and it appears he does play at least a bit of Bach on his concerts. Also, Chopin, and others whose works he transcribes for the organ (Virgil Fox and E. Power Biggs were also big on transcriptions), probably in a way that makes them look fiendishly difficult. He clearly has one foot in the classical world.

His publicity described him as a "boundary breaker" which is just how I remember Yanni being described and is code for "unlike all those boring old classical fellas, you'll like this guy." I didn't think Yanni did anything boundary breaking myself, but I can at least think of a few boundaries that Cameron Carpenter is breaking.

Sure, he likes to play Bach and rock on the same program. Big deal. So do other young organists. What seems to have made more waves is that he brings his own organ with him because he thinks that the organ's biggest problem is that it isn't mobile. Which is interesting, because it is also what makes the organ unique. Alone among instruments, the instrument itself and the building it is placed in together determine the character of the unique experience of playing that particular organ. Sometimes the two are designed together. Some organists like the challenge of a unique experience with each instrument. Not Cameron.

That seriously honks off a lot of organ builders, and disagrees with every organist I know, which is why I introduced Mr. Carpenter as if he were a swear word. He is to a lot of organists. They think he is going about things all wrong, and worse, he is grabbing a lot of attention doing it.

He gets a lot of attention precisely because he is doing something against the grain, and because he is quite vocal about it. You might say he's a bit of a drama queen. Only he wouldn't qualify any statements the way I just did, which is why he's famous. He may have the chops, and the talent, but that isn't the way to get mass appeal, and he knows it. Lady Gaga apparently has quite a bit of talent too, but until she started wearing that meat suit or going naked in her videos (I'm not getting her mixed up with someone else, am I? I honestly don't try really hard to keep track of all these important people) she was just another singer.

If there are any professional musicians in the audience tomorrow night, I imagine they'll be scowling, or nodding at each other knowingly. There is a part of me that thinks we need guys like Cameron just because the community that he is poking at really needs to lighten up. But I also know that he's making a bargain. You can't get around it. If you want to be famous, it has to be on the public's terms. Sure, you can get away with a little Bach, but not much. You have to do what the public wants you to do. Tempers, controversy, extra-musical intrigue, all of that. And you have to turn your back on what classical musicians regard as a steady diet of the best music. Classical musicians call this "selling out." Liberace, when confronted by this age-old criticism, responded that it made him cry "all the way to the bank." He gave the audience what it wanted--entertainment, which, given what some of us go through in life, isn't all bad, even if it isn't everything. In return, they gave him sold out houses. I hope he thought that was a good bargain.

Mr. Cameron is young; he'll have plenty of time to ponder the choices he makes now. Maybe he'll look back on them with regret, maybe with pride. I don't think right now even he knows. There's room for him at the table even if the establishment doesn't like it. There always have been a few. There are others on their way to Parnassus, trying to scale a musical Everest, who have their own reward, even if it doesn't make news.

Then again, maybe you've heard what's happening to Everest...

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