'An Object Of Pure Mathematics': Organist Cameron Carpenter On His Instrument

Dec 5, 2015
Originally published on December 7, 2015 11:32 am

Cameron Carpenter plays the organ in a way you'll rarely hear in church. He travels with his instrument on a huge truck, and it takes a small team to set it up in concert halls around the world. A virtuoso composer and performer who plays everything from Bach to pop, not to mention the first organist ever to be Grammy-nominated for a solo album, Carpenter says his connection to the instrument goes back even further than his interest in music.

"I found the instrument visually compelling. I was home-schooled growing up in Pennsylvania; I was never in church. I rather treasure that aspect of my view on the organ because I've been able to see it for the secular and theatrical instrument that it is," he says.

"The irascibility of the organ is such that, in order to be able to do anything at all with it, you have to have an incredible — I would say it's somehow beyond dedication. It amounts to a kind of obsession, at least for me, with this machine that attracts me as much as an object of pure mathematics as a musical instrument. It is one of the few things that is both."

Carpenter took a moment away from his current tour to speak with Scott Simon at NPR's studios in Washington, D.C. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Cameron Carpenter is on tour, and he doesn't travel with a trombone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CANDIDE OVERTURE")

SIMON: Cameron Carpenter plays the organ in way you'll rarely hear in church. And he travels with his organ on a huge truck that takes a small team to set it up in concert halls around the world. He's both a virtuoso composer and a performer who plays everything from Bach to pop. He's the first organist ever nominated for a Grammy for a solo album. Cameron Carpenter has taken a moment from his tour to join us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

CAMERON CARPENTER: My very great pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What do you want to prove with the organ?

CARPENTER: I actually have nothing really to prove. It just so happens that the - you might say the irascibility of the organ is such that in order to be able to do anything at all with it you have to have an incredible - I would say it's somewhat beyond dedication. It amounts to a kind of obsession, at least for me it does, with grappling with this machine that as I get a bit older attracts me, as much as an object of pure mathematics, as a musical instrument. It is one of the few things that is both.

SIMON: So that's what you don't play the harmonica.

CARPENTER: Well, the harmonica's a great instrument. I have actually a peculiar fascination for free reed instruments - free reed referring to the specific characteristic of how the moving part inside the harmonica actually makes music. And as a matter of fact, we sampled a harmonium for inclusion in the International Touring Organ. So the harmonica is not as far from my organ as you might think.

SIMON: OK, tell us about the International Touring Organ 'cause you designed it, right?

CARPENTER: I did. The International Touring Organ is, in many ways, a very traditional organ. But it's a digital organ that is designed not to be a substitute or an imitation of a pipe organ, but rather is the instrument of choice. In other words, when I record, as I just did, a Bach album for Sony Classical, I'm not turning to a track or pipe organ from the 18th century in North Germany or, you know, the Flentrop organ at Harvard. I'm recording it on my organ. So the mandate there is that I have the same relationship with this organ that any violinist would have with their instruments. And that, of course, is actually a relationship with your audience.

SIMON: How did you first hear the organ? What made you devote so much of your musical career to it?

CARPENTER: Well, the devotion of the musical career was sort of an aftereffect. I was only ever interested in the organ. I found the instrument visually compelling. I was home-schooled. And growing up in Pennsylvania, I was never in church. I rather treasured that aspect of my view on the organ because I have been able to see it for the secular and theatrical instrument that it is. I discovered the instrument in a Childcraft encyclopedia when I was 4 years old. And the idea of the organ being close to technology that had something to do with other than pipe-driven sounds, you know, was very natural to me.

SIMON: You're a well-known figure in music. But there are some people who don't know what you look like just sitting here in this interview.

CARPENTER: Well, it is radio.

SIMON: And you wouldn't necessarily meet their expectations of a classical music organist.

CARPENTER: I'm glad to hear that.

SIMON: Would that be fair to say? Yeah.

CARPENTER: Yeah, I think it would be fair to say. And I think it's not by accident. I think that has to be taken seriously for a reason that might surprise you. I mean, I go strongly with the Oscar Wilde view that the mystery of life is not what is unseen but what is before us. It's the idea that the artist is a personage or an identity or has something to say about themselves that is extra-musical and also can be viewed as part of their overall work.

SIMON: I - not to keep people in - I mean, people are, all over the country, are probably going to Google images at this point. But you have a mohawk, pronouncedly dark. You're wearing shiny jacket, floral shirt, white sateen, it looks like or a silver satin tie.

CARPENTER: Well, I felt that, you know, the auspicious nature of my first visit to the NPR's luxurious quarters in Washington, D.C., rather demanded at least a tie. And in Washington, D.C., it's very unusual to find any male - I'm glad to see you're not - wearing a tie.

SIMON: But I do have a sport coat on.

CARPENTER: You have a sport coat but no tie, I'm relieved to know.

SIMON: I suspect there are people listening to you who say, I got to hear what this guy does.

CARPENTER: I very much hope so.

SIMON: What would you recommend they find?

CARPENTER: I mean, I'm undertaking a 40-concert tour starting in January. So if you can manage to...

SIMON: Yes, see you in person.

CARPENTER: Get to a show, do that. If you have to settle for a recording and you still have a machine that can operate archaic spinning disks, there's a couple of them. But I have to tell you, I don't put much stock in the idea of the CD. I'm most motivated by creating an experience that won't be repeated and sharing that with the people who are there. And that is what does happen every night on tour - (laughter) sometimes for ill, usually for good.

SIMON: You know what I would love to hear?

CARPENTER: Please (laughter).

SIMON: (Laughter) Forgive me this. There are a couple of baseball stadiums left in this country where they still have organs.

CARPENTER: Indeed.

SIMON: I would love to hear you do that once.

CARPENTER: Well, my father, in his earlier days, was an ardent hockey player. So I used to play the organ for my dad's hockey games. And, you know, we think of the organ and the ballpark with this kind of caramel, you know, crackerjack kind of thing.

SIMON: (Humming).

CARPENTER: But that's actually as important a part of the secular organ tradition as anything you'd find. And it survives to a degree you might not think. In fact, in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, they recently installed a five-manual theater organ. So it's one of my ambitions to go there and play the national anthem.

SIMON: Cameron Carpenter on tour around America. Boy, I enjoyed this. Thanks so much for coming in.

CARPENTER: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so grateful for your interest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.