Cameron Carpenter is an organist—and amazing organist at that. However, his approach to the instrument is unusual: He plays what’s called the “digital organ.”
While he’s received praise from many, he’s also gotten criticism from organ purists. Decide where you stand when “the bad boy of the organ” performs at the McCallum Theatre on Wednesday, Feb. 3.
During a recent phone interview, Carpenter explained that what he plays is a touring organ, and that the “digital” part doesn’t change the sound. There are no synths or modern effects (beyond the digital part) involved.
“It’s musical performance. It occupies a certain presence in our lives, I suppose,” Carpenter said. “Part of the ethos of what I do is to expand upon what organ music is. My tastes run on a further field. I’m not a traditionalist, and I don’t take a traditional path to the instrument. The instrument occupies a third space between instrumental music and vocal music. It has aspects of both, but is neither, and has a thing of its own. Because of that, it lends itself very well to a great variety of things.”
Carpenter explained what he usually plays during a performance.
“I’ll be playing the works of Bach—most importantly, because I’m able to play them way differently than Bach would have been able to hear them or think of them. I’m also playing Tchaikovsky, an overture from a Wagner opera, some of my own music and some improvisations. On one hand, it’s quite traditional, because I do stay within the classical genre, but I have a reputation of bending that somewhat, even though I’m a classical musician. But in many ways, my tastes are quite conservative.”
Even though Carpenter is a graduate of the Juilliard School and has been playing since he was 4, he said his success is based on obsession, not discipline.
“It’s hard for me to discipline myself now. I had a great musical upbringing growing up, and had very accommodating parents who gave me every possible opportunity and had an enormous amount of patience with it. But I’ve always had a work obsession,” he explained. “I don’t particularly enjoy practicing, but I don’t seem to be able to stop. I wouldn’t be a person who would say music is my life; music is very much like a job at times if you do it seriously. Or it’s like a lover: Sometimes it’s great, and other times you just want to be away. In terms of discipline, I had a bad relationship with it. I wouldn’t say I’d be a great one for practice, and many of my colleagues put in many more hours than I did, even though I did my share. But I wouldn’t say I have a traditional view there at all.”
Carpenter said he doesn’t pay much attention to those who criticize his methods.
“I haven’t gotten to be able to design the world’s most innovative organ or play it all around the world in the way that I want by listening to how people think,” he said. “My impression is that it’s well-received, but the phenomenon of live music at the end of the era of classical, which I think we’re at, it’s very hard to quantify.”
Carpenter said the ceiling of a modern classical musician is limited, and while there are many things he’d like to do musically and non-musically, he’s accepted the fact that he might not be able to do all of them.
“There are many things I would love to do and won’t ever do, because a life in classical music is just that way. That’s one of the paradoxes of classical music,” he said. “As much as I believe children should have classical music in their lives, it’s something that people have to be realistic about. Matt Haimovitz, the famous cellist, told The New York Times that no one tells you when you’re 12 and playing the cello that 10 years from now, you’ll be carting that thing on the train across the East River to play a gig for $75. When you go there fully in classical music, there’s very seldom time for anything else. I’m interested in writing; I’m interested in studying to become a pilot. It might be doable at some point, but music consumes everything right now.”
Cameron Carpenter will perform at 8 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 3 at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $27 to $77. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.