Interview: Cameron Carpenter
Cameron Carpenter is known around the world as a charismatic, virtuoso organist who isn't afraid to challenge tradition and convention. He spoke to us about his part in the new San Fransisco Symphony recording of Henry Brant's Ice Field, his recent arrangement and recording of the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and his landmark creation, the International Touring Organ.
Listen to Cameron and the San Francisco Symphony now, on Primephonic. Best experienced on headphones to experience to the special binaural recording.
How you would describe Ice Field as a piece? What are its defining characteristics?
Well, I suppose almost everything is unusual about it, in terms of how it would seem to a listener – it’s more similar to a film score or a big performance piece than anything else. Of course, it’s also a notated work of music just like anything else, but written for unusual forces and with a lot of small, seemingly insignificant details and complicated polyrhythms. But it’s definitely a performance piece – I think the whole point of the music is in the spectacle of it.
Does that present any unique challenges to you as the organist?
Not really, because the big problems are for the conductor. The organ part of it is bizarrely kind of easy in a way. Well, not exactly easy but mostly improvised – you follow these graphic indications, and whenever the organ is played it’s used almost like something in the percussion section, where you have a big flash of sound that comes out all of a sudden, and then transitions or fades off into something else. But much more of the piece happens outside of the organ – in fact I almost felt a little bad to see that I’m credited as the soloist on the album, but there are people in that production that did a lot more work than I did!
The piece was written for Michael Tilson Thomas, and to be performed in Davies Hall, with that organ, as it is in this recording. Did you feel like you got any closer to the piece because of those factors?
Michael Tilson Thomas is a really great person to work with if you’re dealing with anything kind of far out. He’s a great musician, and really well rounded – so he’s perfectly capable of handling Mahler 7 or Henry Brant or whatever, and being totally unfazed by it. He’s a great person to be around because not all conductors are that versatile, and a lot of conductors are really quite out of their depth with new music.
Did the fact that this performance was recorded have any impact on your approach to it?
In terms of the actual recording, it didn’t make any difference because the sum total of my involvement and preparation remained the same, but this performance took place a couple of years ago, and for me particularly that’s a very long time. The touring organ hadn’t even been completed at the time as I remember, and my life has changed drastically since then, so that’s neat to see, because I don’t necessarily recognize myself when I see the interviews from back then. That’s a person that doesn’t exist anymore.
You’re known in the industry as somebody who’s prepared to do things differently and challenge expectations. Is this something that you consciously are aware of or is this just the way that you have to make music?
I definitely do things differently and I do have to choose to do things differently, so in that sense it is a consciously planned thing. But left to my own devices, and I’m the first person to admit this, I have a pretty narrow frame of musical interests, particularly now with the International Touring Organ in existence. I’m a very intuitive, melody-loving, comfort-loving, uplift-seeking, basic listener. And that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been able to have a little bit of success in the areas I have. That’s not to say that I don’t admire music that isn’t ‘pleasing’, whatever that means, but there’s a lot of music out there that I would cast aside in order to save one page of Puccini. So in some ways I don’t push the envelope at all – I don’t think you’re ever going to come to a Cameron Carpenter concert and hear Boulez, that’s just not who I am. And I wouldn’t know what to do with that music anyway – hell, I barely know what to do with Messiaen! And with the music where I do feel like I have something to say, it’s of course going to be different from what other people do, and probably different from established orthodoxies but it might make sense in it’s own right. I like what Christopher Hitchens used to say, whenever people commented that he seemed to know everything. He would dismiss it by saying “actually you can easily tell what I don't know about, because I don’t talk about it.” That works for me, I’ll keep that.
On your latest album, you play the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody on the organ in your own arrangement. Why arrange that piece?
If you’re an organist, and you find yourself in the rare position that I’m in of actually having orchestral career demand, then you quickly realize that within the course of one season you will play practically all of the available works for organ and orchestra – the Poulenc, the Saint-Saëns, the Barber, and maybe a handful of other things. I’m a soloist and I have this unbelievable instrument that has to be showcased to the best of my ability, so of course I need major concerto vehicles for this. Someone who’s going to hire me for a concert, especially to play my own organ, is expecting the world – and they really should.
The Rachmaninov is a fabulous set. It’s basically his last work, it’s highly contrapuntal, it’s constructed basically in miniatures so it’s fairly easy to understand plus you can excerpt it. Then there’s the practical fact that every conductor has played it a million times and knows it perfectly, and of course all the orchestras know it. And in my transcription the orchestra doesn’t have to change anything, a couple of balances but there’s no note changes so we just use the existing score. So really it’s strategic – and ultimately we can afford for it to be a strategic piece because it’s great music. It’s widely loved, and well known. It’s built on an earworm so it’s accessible, it’s understandable, it’s got the 18th variation – there are just a lot of things that make it work, and that make it strategically viable in production. Plus audiences are expecting to hear it on the piano, and everybody knows it’s a virtuoso masterwork so if you suddenly propose you’re going to play it on the touring organ there’s already an interest factor there, like “how’s he going to do that?”
You’ve mentioned the International Touring Organ a few times now, and it’s clearly a huge part of your life. Now that you’ve been working with this instrument for a few years, what is your relationship with it like? Is there anything you would change about it?
The crisis of the touring organ is basically that it consumes an enormous amount of my income. Not just the organ on stage, but what you don’t see is the laboratory in Berlin, the trucks, logistics, insurance, maintenance, the software engineer that has to be kept on retainer and all this other stuff. All of that is almost too much for me.
So what I would change would not be the instrument, but the way that I went about building it, and I don’t mean the builders themselves. I should have tried to make a bigger effort and simply acquire the whole company, and then use that technology to build the instrument. Instead, what I did was basically build the organ as a consumer on loan which was unfortunately not a smart business decision because it leaves me with an instrument which, while it has required constant and massive investment, is basically a study in depreciation.
What I’ve been able to do with the organ ought to be seen not as weird and unusual but as a possibility for further investigation by other talents in the future, it’s just that that requires the setting aside of this worship of the pipe organ. It’s far, far easier to develop a great technique on a sensitively voiced digital organ than it is on a pipe organ, which after all is a very slow machine. To me it’s really as simple as that and it doesn’t require any loss of allegiance to the great organs or to the grand traditions or for that matter religion if that’s your thing. You can still get excited that the organ at Notre Dame wasn’t destroyed. You could have one of my organs installed in every concert hall that has a pipe organ and the two could coexist. You could certainly play Ice Field on my organ, and who’s to say it wouldn’t be better?
I have a peripheral idea, for which the touring organ is a technological proof of concept, which is that the concert hall organ of the future ought to be digital and it ought to be a bit like a Steinway in that while each one has its own personality, they all follow the same design guideline, and they’re all physically the same. That would mean any organist who is prepared to play a recital on any one of those theoretical future organs, would then immediately be prepared to play all of them.
The fact is the touring organ is the ultimate love letter to the pipe organ, because no possibilities of the organ that I have would ever exist, if it weren't for the pipe organs themselves which could then be sampled. We’ve got sounds in my organ that span almost 350 years of organ history!