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EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Cameron Carpenter on 'If You Could Read My Mind', His International Touring Organ and Working With Terry Riley

By Maria Jean Sullivan m.sullivan@classicalite.com on Oct 22, 2014 01:09 PM EDT

We caught up with celebrated organ virtuoso Cameron Carpenter last week in Berlin, where he is touring in support of his Sony Classical disc If You Could Read My Mind (a record that quickly became the top-selling classical album in the United States). Having completed his custom-built, $1,000,000 International Touring Organ (ITO), Carpenter finally has the mobility he needs.

It's no wonder, then, Carpenter was the 2012 winner of the prestigious Leonard Bernstein Award. Since then, he's polished his keyboard skills via numerous transcriptions and collaborations with leading jazz and pop musicians--including the forefather of American minimalism, Terry Riley. We wanted to know how that experience was, how he picks his repertoire and just how he tours with his ITO.

Classicalite: Congratulations on If You Could Read My Mind, which recently hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. You feature a slew of work by great artists. How did you go from Bach to Gordon Lightfoot?

Cameron Carpenter: By recognizing that someone has to actually do something about the problems facing the organ and organists; which I submit are an actual danger to the future of one of man's most fascinating and refined arts. If the organ is really undergoing as much of a renaissance as we're often told, I don't find the field's average poorly-attended, poorly-paid and poorly-marketed pipe organ recitals and the occasional chord-holding of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony as compelling evidence.

Most organists are unwilling to reconcile commercialism with quality, with the perverse result that most organ concerts--even after decades of discussion and awareness of this problem--are still programmed according to scholarly rather than performative principles. Academically-grounded classical organ performance is a deeply encoded, self-referential discipline which while fascinating, has almost eliminated major performance opportunities for young organists outside of church and the organ scene. Without the benefit of competing in a larger musical market, it is difficult for young organists to develop really compelling, marketable identities. To do that you can't only play traditional repertoire.

CL: What was the significance of Gordon Lightfoot for you? Personal?

As in any repertoire choice I make, the essence is in the work, not in a consideration of the composer as an idea. Something about that song grabbed me, exactly as when whole swathes of Mozart or Medtner can go by without my really noticing, then one particular work will be magic.

CL: What other contemporary artists' work would you like to perform and/or record?

CC: I'd greatly like to have the chance to do more interdisciplinary work, for instance in the sort of collaboration I did with the great director Peter Sellars and the Metropolitan Opera star baritone Eric Owens last year. That was Shostakovich, though. With a few exceptions, I haven't had a great affection for "new music," and I think there are other organists whose work in it is more fruitful. My own compositions generally speak a pre-1914 language.

CL: What was the experience of working with Terry Riley like?

CC: It was astoundingly relaxing and also a bit humbling to work with Terry; he's so unconcerned about the career issues of music and seems to exist in a world literally his own, which is fantastically rare among composers. His music, like his mind and his gentle, kind persona, sometimes seems to wander here and there, with flowerings of ideas and experimentations that (at least in this work) frequently turn into ear-worms. At the same time, much of his organ writing was almost stringently rigorous, with some of the inward-turning mechanistic figurations that remind me a bit of the campy old organ symphonies by Widor and others. Not what you'd expect from the composer of In C.

CL: "Music For An imaginary Film" is one of your own compositions. Tell me what that process was like.

CC: This music is intended to be an accompaniment to the drama of the listener's interior life. If the life in question has no drama, it is intended to provide and provoke it. The "process," probably like most composing of traditional tonal music, involves undramatic and certainly unglamourous long hours of working out harmonies and ideas with a pencil.

CL: So now that you are taking the material on the road, how is your International Touring Organ working out?

CC: The International Touring Organ expands our idea of what an organ is because it brings together many types of organ building in a single instrument in a way which a pipe organ could never do. Important for me as a secular artist, it gives me an instrument truly capable of film scoring, jazz and new music, as well as the complete organ repertoire and my own improvisations and compositions. The organ has been an instrument of stereotype, eccentricity and obscurity: What I have wanted is a brilliant and revolutionary vehicle which leaves that image in the dust by being more emotionally satisfying than the pipe organ.

I have a vision of this instrument as a cultural gateway for listeners of every age and nationality into a new world of music. I have a vision that I will be able to play at my best, on an organ I have known intimately for years, every time I play for an audience. And I have a vision of introducing this technology, as well as the musical universe of the American organ, to European listeners.

CL: I see on your Facebook a new sound system was created for your ITO via Best Beans, LLC in Michigan to debut here in New York City at Town Hall?

CC: The organ has two sound systems, one in Europe and one in America. And these are transported there by truck. The console and supercomputers are flown between these systems by air cargo, and the organ (as is already planned) will go to Asia and Australia by air as well.

CL: It's a shame that the Berlin Philharmonic Schuke Organ broke during your performance. But you were able to save face on the piano. How was that evening for you?

CC: The evening was hair-raising, but mostly in a good way. I simply tried to make the best of it and play some of the music that I love, at least those pieces which I gambled I could manage without any preparation. As Bukowski said, "I lucked it."

Carpenter will perform at New York City's Town Hall this Thursday, October 23 at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $45–$100 depending on seating and are available here.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Classicalite Q&A, Cameron Carpenter, If You Could Read My Mind, International Touring Organ, Terry Riley