What do organists want? Flamboyant Sony Classical organist/entertainer extraordinaire Cameron Carpenter will bring his trademark theatricality to Sanders Theater on March 5th for the Celebrity Series. We had questions for the world’s organ exponent of the moment.
LE: Having seen such a range of your work on YouTube, I am intrigued at the chance to hear you, but we don’t have any idea what repertoire to expect. Please enlighten us.
CC: Thank you so much for your interest, Lee. I’m likely to play some Bach and Scriabin, and probably some of my own music. I don’t think it’s necessary anymore to announce programs, and I’ve always suspected that doing so allows initiated, biased listeners to think they know what to expect, while simultaneously slightly alienating the uninitiated, who don’t know a BuxWV from a WoO, and shouldn’t need to.
Enlightenment I can’t promise either, but I’ll try, though it requires an open mind.
Have you ever played in a church, and is there any organ repertoire that ought to be played straight?
Organ repertoire ought to be played as gayly as possible, as the unofficial majority of American organists would seem to indicate.
I played for churches here and there during high school, and I was just terrible. I could never take the idea of god seriously, or master those weird little timings and cues that sophisticated churches have. To be a good church organist you have to pretend to be, or somehow actually be, happy to play—almost for free—for people who’d rather have coffee with those they hate than listen to your postlude.
I’ve always thought Sanders ought to have an organ, and one of the scenarios floated after Harvard’s Memorial Church ‘surplused’ its Op. 46 Fisk was to place the neo-Baroque tracker in the Sanders Gallery, though a vintage Father Willis was more to my fantasy. For one-night-only your International Touring Organ by Marshall & Ogletree of Needham, delivered by a burly crew from two custom trailers, will bring ranges of color and volume unimaginable from any other musical instrument. Just how loud, how low, how immersive and how musical will it be? I remember when rock promoters guaranteed SPLs of 120 decibels in every seat.
Musicality and immersivity are—like “salaciousness” and “straightness” in your other questions—personal matters, and impossible to pass anything other than personal judgments on, but I realize as a critic you may see it differently. As to lowness, that’s quantifiable by anyone with a spectrum analyzer; the organ produces at least 12Hz easily, as it should, since that’s found in a few pipe organs, as well.
Isn’t that cute about the 120 decibels. People used to be happy with so little.
Is there anything a pipe organ can do that your touring instrument cannot?
Probably a lot of things, though mostly not in the direction I’m taking the organ—to be more mobile, accessible, affordable, and adaptable.
Is there anything that constitutes a hurdle for you technically?
Playing for hockey games. The timing is incredibly sensitive and it requires a split-second ability to connect a situation to a well-known musical theme. For much of the 20th century, organists like Al Melgard at the Chicago Stadium (or, in the present day, the great theater organist Lew Williams at Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa Arizona) gave the organ a witty and timely omniscience it could never have in a sacred setting.
Do you ever play quietly and reflectively on a clavichord and receive direct transmissions from Bach?
No, but sometimes I fire up a Fender Rhodes poolside and get fingering from Divine.
Is there any venue in Boston where you would like to play on pipes?
There are lots of Boston organs that demand at least a long afternoon, and I wish I had time for all of them. The organ at Trinity Copley Square, for instance, was one of my “childhood” organs that I occasionally played as a student at the American Boychoir School in the early 1990s, and many of its sounds are used in the International Touring Organ, along with several other great Boston organs. But if by “play on pipes” you mean perform publicly, then no, I’d prefer to perform on my organ.
Your M&O goes way beyond the Rodgers Touring Organ that Virgil Fox brought to rock venues in the ’70s. Does it allow you to prerecord various lines so that you can “play with yourself?”
Well, I’ve been accused of musical mastication, but, of course, it’s still frowned upon.
The ecstasy you induce in the willing is more akin to Lisztomania than Foxomania. And like the earlier master, you compose and transcribe. Both you and Liszt have been deemed transgressive by self-styled purists. Do you feel comfortable with this comparison?
As long as any comparisons made are done so loudly and at length, I’m on board. I’m having so much fun so fast that I can’t really spare the time for purists, and anyway you can see what orthodoxy does to classical music and obviously the world around us.
Your Sony Classical music-video / promo [here] begins with some salaciousness. Will you be keeping your shirt on at Harvard?
I so hate to disappoint you, but it’s been a little cold.
Cameron Carpenter organ
Thursday, March 5, 2015
Sanders Theater, 8pm