CAMERON CARPENTER – Up Close and Very Personal, this Friday Night At St. Agnes Church

Virtuoso organist to present selections from Grammy nominated CD, Revolutionary

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Cameron Carpenter is the hottest ticket in the world of organ music. As the only organist ever to receive a Grammy nomination for a solo album, Cameron is turning this particularly grand and rarified circle of music making on its ear. His recording, Revolutionary, produced by TelArc, received the 2009 nomination for “Best Solo Instrumental Performance (Without Orchestra)”. The CD comes with a companion DVD depicting three of the eleven pieces captured in New York’s Trinity Episcopal Church – located at the cross section of Wall Street.

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The project celebrates Trinity’s installation of the acoustically mind-boggling and likewise revolutionary Marshall & Ogletree Virtual Pipe Organ which Cameron has helped to design. Replacing the church’s beloved Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ – damaged by debris resulting from the attacks of 911 – was bound to be spiritually and emotionally troublesome to its community, and for some musical purists particularly vexing. Nevertheless, glowing encouragement from J. Owen Burdick, Trinity’s resident organist and Music Director [see: My Advocacy of the “Virtual Pipe Organ” For Trinity Church Wall Street] not only softened the sting of lost Tradition, but paved the way for yet another of the instruments to be installed at St. Paul’s Chapel.

The Marshall & Ogletree Virtual Pipe Organ at Trinity Church Wall Street. Photo, Ray Harris.

The Marshall & Ogletree Virtual Pipe Organ at Trinity Church Wall Street. Photo, Ray Harris.

Enter charismatic virtuoso Cameron Carpenter. Nothing quite surpasses an endorsement by an electrifying and amazingly gifted musician whose hot and stunning appearance can melt into shape a lasting seal of approval. Come his unprecedented Grammy Nomination and subsequent Internet accessibility, Cameron Carpenter ignites a sudden furor of across-the-board (even to the stubbornly bored) enthusiasm toward the hallowed piles of organ repertoire, causing rubber-necking among a way-younger techno-savvy musical generation, while fending off fiery spitballs from the covetous green-eyed jealousy squad. “All the better to see you, my dear.” Cameron Carpenter appears in solo recital this coming Friday at St. Agnes Church, located in the picturesque and always primed for action area of San Francisco’s Haight Asbury District. Click here for ticket information: CAMERON CARPENTER

During a recent interview, I tuned-in to Cameron’s penchant for form and function. As with any organ composition offering solid structure and simple motifs along with great opportunities for variations and colorful ornamentation, a simple question sparked a completely linear response gilded by bare-boned truths and luminous strands of association. We talked about fashion, physical fitness, musical history and theatrical expression. We veered slightly toward personal relationships and the healing benefits that come when artists surrender their work and let the chips fall where they may. The San Francisco Chapter of the American Guild of Organists is co-sponsoring Friday night’s concert at St. Agnes Church. Some of the repertoire will include selections from the CD, Revolutionary. I wanted to know what other gems might be in store.

ST. AGNES CHURCH, San Francisco. Photo, Seán Martinfield

ST. AGNES CHURCH, San Francisco. Photo, Seán Martinfield

SEÁN: What will you play on Friday night?

CAMERON: I don’t know yet; it depends on the organ. One of the things I tend to do much differently from other organists is not announce the program. Invariably, one wants to really personalize it to the organ’s capabilities and, of course, that is one of the banes of playing the organ – each one is different.

SEÁN: Do you have pieces that seem to work on the organ no matter what it is?

CAMERON: I pretty much feel I can play my entire repertoire on almost any organ. The degree to which it makes sense or represents my vision is a different matter. This is one of the reasons I’ve been interested in the development of the virtual pipe organ – of which the instrument at St. Agnes is partially an example. It will allow for a vision of my great dream – for the instrument to adjust to and support the organist, rather than the other way around.

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SEÁN: Let’s start with this – where did you get the shoes and what are they made of?

CAMERON: The shoes are made of calfskin and they are custom made for me in New York. They have a 2 ½” heel and are extremely flexible. They are much more flexible than conventional organ shoes, which allows for more push and for less weight. They are a much thinner, lighter shoe.

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CAMERON: For a long time I’ve felt and said that the organist should be an über-pianist. This doesn’t really happen unless the player’s ability with the organ’s pedals, in terms of activity and technical capability, as that of which manuals are addressed. After all, the pedals of the organ are but another keyboard, as important as those provided for the hands. Therefore having the right shoes is extremely important. Over my life I’ve already been through an enormous variety of shoes and never was too satisfied until I got to these.

SEÁN: How did that come about? Had you seen a model of them before? Was it your idea?

CAMERON: It was my idea. Because I studied ballet seriously through high school and have experience with Latin dance as well, it was sort of a natural place to look. I had often used jazz shoes and even ballet shoes which are moderately effective. There is a certain kind of shoe known as the “Organmaster” which is, shall we say, a deceptive title. Structurally, it’s all too similar to a men’s dress shoe – and these, like street shoes, are meant to protect the foot against the travails of walking out in the world. They also give bodily support, and arch support. These issues are not important when playing the organ. In fact, they interfere because there is little substantial weight that’s placed into the foot; yet it’s necessary to have a shoe that grasps the body of the foot more tightly. That is desirable because – unlike the hand – the foot is filled with tons of tiny bones. The hand is filled with tiny bones, but is less complicated structurally speaking. In diametric opposition to the structure of the hand, the foot is responsible generally for playing in an axis.

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CAMERON: The fulcrum, of course, is the ankle. You really have a playing structure that deals with two notes. You have a two-note field per foot, though it is practically possible to play more notes than that in certain situations; in some of the virtuoso arrangements I play three or rarely four notes with one foot. But this is rare; if you consider that perhaps between three and seven notes is a general numeric range that each hand is expected to address, each foot is, usually, only expected to address around two at maximum. This means that, despite the fact that the foot has many moving parts, it needs a shoe that will unify it into a sort of either/or binary lever. The individual toe movements and all these things are not important. The toe is the more structurally free contact point because it’s furthest away from the fulcrum and therefore has the greatest range of motion. I’ve always felt it was necessary to build up the heel, to assist its range of movement. That’s why I’ve added a substantial heel.
There are fringe benefits. I think that my shoe is very much more stylish. It does everything that a style shoe is built to do. This is aligned with my general way of thinking, in that sense, because – obviously it’s got a long heel, and it makes the foot look good. It makes the same sacrifices that a normal couture shoe makes – functionality, foot support, and body support are sacrificed for looks and glamour. It’s funny, because in this case, those purposes are incredibly aligned. Except for walking to the organ, there is actually no significant bodily support the shoe is actually supposed to provide. So, both the style issue and the functionality issue can be addressed at the same time rather than being sacrificed.

SEÁN: That is fantastic! How thin is the actual sole?

CAMERON: The sole is just as thin as the rest of the shoe – approximately 1/16th of an inch or so. It’s not a proper sole, but a thin piece of leather. In fact, it’s entirely possible to roll the shoe up from the toe right to the heel.

SEÁN: It’s incredible to watch the video and see you playing the pedals with your feet and these shoes. I can see the tension in your feet as you create the sound and texture for whatever you want. It’s amazing to watch this.

CAMERON: Thank you. One of the things I hope to bring to the organ is a heightened sense of physicality. For all the physical drama the pipe organ presents visually, and for all the lip service that is given to the physicality of playing the organ – most organists are decidedly un-physical people. As a community, this is a group of people that is generally – and I fault young organists far more than the older for this – typically, not physically fit.

CAMERON CARPENTER. Photo, Adrian Buckmaster

CAMERON CARPENTER. Photo, Adrian Buckmaster

CAMERON: I feel quite strongly that – however intellectual one may aspire to be – an absolute requirement for becoming a strong organist is to be a good dancer. And by “good dancer”, I don’t necessarily mean a technically-accomplished dancer. I mean “good” in the sense of a person who has no mental inhibitions to physical movement – whether it be modern dance or at the club. Dancing activates something, neurologically, similar to what playing the organ accesses in the mind.
Furthermore, I think if ever there were a stereotypical kind of Western music associated with inhibition and restraint, it would be organ music. There’s substantial evidence that we think of it – in the collective consciousness – as this very somber and, expressionistically, very inhibited type of performance, regardless of the value of the music. And that is just completely antithetical to my approach.

SEÁN: I recently interviewed Ruben Martin, a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet. He’s in his early thirties, but on stage appears to be much younger. He had a serious injury about four years ago, tearing that part of the foot that holds the toe together. He was in therapy for a year. The conversation veered over to ‘how did you handle it psychologically’ and ‘what did you do during your recovery’. He says more or less the same thing as you do, which is about the physical fitness that gives one the ability to dance but, more importantly, the overall balance that it brings to the rest of the body as well.

CAMERON: Exactly.

SEÁN: There you are, hunched over the organ, and yet your portrait shots clearly indicate that you take very, very good care of yourself, which is to say – in centerfold condition. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.

CAMERON: Well, thanks very much indeed! I think it jives very nicely with everything that I feel about what I want to do with playing the organ — to the degree that I want to do something like this. Again, it’s like the foot and the shoe. It serves one very well to be in top shape. I, though, wouldn’t claim to be in top shape. I’m sort of going through a transition phase, partly because I’m getting older. I’ve also started working with a different form of trainer who uses a holistic approach based in intense study of physical anatomy.

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CAMERON: Nevertheless, physical fitness definitely goes hand-in-hand with the commerciality of music-making in the 21st century. It’s nice from a commercial standpoint to look good. But, it’s really good from a functional standpoint to be healthy. It’s a life-style choice; about ten years ago I foreswore alcohol – and at the same time caffeine, and more recently sugar. Basically, it’s about valuing a total approach to the instrument and to what playing the instrument means for the body. And that, in so doing, I think one necessarily becomes more open to different musical and performative possibilities. Such an openness is the greatest and – I would venture to say – least disputed shortcoming in the organ community.
Then there is the matter of playing from memory, which I always do. In order to play from memory, I simply find that any kind of substances at all – including something as innocuous as sugar, not enough water, smoking, drinking, let alone anything else – the slightest indulgence there or un-wiseness, can really create issues with memory. Most people are pretty under-hydrated in this country. I find that to be another problem with playing the organ – it requires very consistent hydration. If you’re used to drinking alcohol, for whatever reason, this the major anti-hydration problem. Not to get on the soapbox too much, but these things are important!

Then there is the matter of playing from memory, which I always do. In order to play from memory, I simply find that any kind of substances at all – including something as innocuous as sugar, not enough water, smoking, drinking, let alone anything else – the slightest indulgence there or un-wiseness, can really create issues with memory. Most people are pretty under-hydrated in this country. I find that to be another problem with playing the organ – it requires very consistent hydration. If you’re used to drinking alcohol, for whatever reason, this the major anti-hydration problem. Not to get on the soapbox too much, but I do think those things are important.

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SEÁN: Yes. Another question fascinating me, about the CD – with the Mephisto, the Carmen, and the Toccata and Fugue. There are so many layers where the theatricality comes in. For example, for those of us who love opera – and the development of a character that we might understand – or from Walt Disney, the imagery of the Toccata and Fugue. How does your sense of technical virtuosity and your development of a sense of “character”, i.e., the “Carmen” aspect – balance each other? Clearly, the drama is there and the musicianship is so perfect. Does one energy top the other? Or is it just a blend of both for you? In other words, here is the Toccata and Fugue which is not about anything. And here is the Carmen, which is technically as difficult, but it’s about everything.

CAMERON: For me technique correlates with the literal. I often say that the literal is the death of art. But technique, of course, goes hand-in-hand with things. It makes it all possible, after all. In the case of these individual works, though, it’s not as though I developed the Carmen so I that I would have good technique. I developed it because I was attracted to the challenge.
In the Toccata and Fugue, the inspiration was primarily a musical one. I was not always – let’s just say, not terribly enthralled – with the organ version of the work. I thought there was an interesting historical twist there, because this piece has become one of if not the best known pieces of Classical music that exists. But, historically, if you look at the time in which this was occurring – and I feel you can read between the lines – there’s evidence to suggest that it was probably not made famous on the organ. This piece was associated with Fantasia in the ’40s, but earlier than that in the 1890s with major piano transcriptions by Busoni and others, which were widely played by many pianists of the day.

Percy Grainger, Sir Henry J. Wood, Leopold Stokowski

Percy Grainger, Sir Henry J. Wood, Leopold Stokowski

CAMERON: Every major pianist played at least the Busoni arrangement and many of them made their own; there was the famous Carl Tausig arrangement, of course. Before Stokowski, there was the Henry Wood arrangement for orchestra – which I think is much more interesting and in which he adds an enormous amount of material. Grainger, later in life, did another re-orchestration of that which adds further material. So, there was this immense outgrowth between 1890 and 1950 of various versions of this piece. Certainly this piece was heard on the organ around the turn of the century, I’m sure. But if you look at what was going on in the organ world between 1890 and 1935 – when this work would have received its real introduction into the public consciousness – organists were not typically playing Bach very much. And I think there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that this piece is as famous as it is, not because of the organ, but because of these other and various non-organ versions. Yet, we think of it as an organ piece.
Peter Williams suggests it may be actually a violin piece and that it wasn’t, in fact, by Bach. For me, that’s not an issue, since in my reading it’s no longer by Bach anyway! I find it interesting to think that there are these other versions of the piece that people have come to know and that have become somewhat ubiquitous with the scary movie kind of thing and then with Fantasia. One way or another, it has some substantial history in the organ, so what I wanted to do was give the organ the last word – at least for the 21st century – by creating a version that incorporated the organ version as we know it, but also answers this great accumulation of other material that was added on in these various versions. All these other editions – the Sir Henry Wood, Busoni, Tausig – were not changed linearly. They have the same amount of measures; they follow exactly the same form as the original. But there was more vertical material happening – more embellishments, extra voices, ornamentation, special coloristic things, crazy illogical dynamic shifts done for dramatic purposes. I wanted to incorporate as much of this as I could. The live version I play now is even much more dramatic than the one I play on the CD. That version was recorded at a time when I was just beginning to develop this – and that’s one of my regrets about the disc. Not that I don’t like the one that’s on there! If I decide to play it at St. Agnes – and if you are there and hear it – you will see the same things happening, but it’s even wilder. And there are much more precipitous and risky precipice-reaching moments where the organ goes all the way up and the drops out to nothing or comes crashing-in from nothing – as well as just a lot more extra material in the fugue, which is what I think is really interesting.

SEÁN: One last question. In Love Song No. 1, you have a little reference to the tune “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”.

CAMERON: Yes! You caught that. I think you’re the first person to catch that.

SEÁN: Is it in relationship to the story you wrote? Is there a ballgame in there?

CAMERON: I don’t think so. At least, not in the literal sense.

SEÁN: OK – so, I went to “what’s the story here” and “did it include some romantic exchange at a ballgame”.

CAMERON: I find that piece most interesting as a sort of dynamic, episodic outpouring. I think I’ve only played it once since that recording was made. I don’t know. I don’t know how much I could analyze. I do really like to play technical tricks with numerology. And in the case of Love Song No. 1, there’s a seven-note motif that resolves into a ten-note resolution. It’s in the last stage of it, in the ultimate, final statement, which occurs in the highest transposition heard. I do view that as a sort of consummation, not to put too fine a point on it. Other than that, I hadn’t really thought too literally about it. Except, of course, it’s not unusual for me to use, you might say, “found objects” in music a lot.

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CAMERON: It’s kind of funny. I’ve always regarded myself as – in a strange way – terribly conservative. I feel that, despite an outward liberality of a fashion, there are things in which I am structurally conservative. And I think my harmonic and musical language is one of them. Sorry to leave you awash there.

SEÁN: It was more of a Fan Magazine-type question. Like, “who are you dating now” and that sort of thing. Gee, is there something autobiographical in the Love Song No. 1 – ? When I first listened to it – wow! – the pictures that were popping into my imagination! I’m a very visual person – so, when I heard “Take me out to the ball game” I thought, “Well, O-KAY!!!” and just ran with whatever was going on in my head about you. But, that’s what music does.

CAMERON: Yes, exactly. I’ll tell you the one thing I always found attractive. As a young composer, one sometimes hopes that listeners will make certain specific connections – but this is a mistake. People will always make whatever connections they make, if any. For one thing, I love deceptive titles. I really love titles that are extremely evocative. By “deceptive”, I mean they appear outwardly deceptive.
When you see the words “Love Song” you think of some very stereotyped thing. When I was very young, I remember hearing on daytime television the statistic that 14,000 songs were written in a year and that 13,000 of them were love songs. And with a typical 8-year-old’s distaste I thought, “That’s disgusting!” All this musical mooning going on. Mind you, until I turned 19 or 20, I was quite conservative. I had extremely conservative musical and personal tastes and choices in almost every aspect of my life – until I grew up. And as you get a bit older and get some experience, you realize that a great deal of the reason for these love songs is the mourning of unrequited love. I thought it would be interesting to write a piece that sets the listener up.
It’s one of my nasty games, after all. Set them up for something, give them something else, and take a particularly voyeuristic pleasure in watching the little carbonated bubbles of awakening bubble out as people have their minds opened, in some cases forcibly. I suppose from an analytical standpoint, this is a very egotistical utterance, in the sense that it, of course, allows me to be in some way intellectually superior to my listeners by the sense that it is I who am opening their minds. But that would be a superficial interpretation, I’d hope. The fact that it is Love Song, No. 1 still raises a lot of questions for me. There are supposed to be two more – which are in sketch form. At the time, the fact that they’re in sketch form and haven’t been finished, is itself interesting; not that they would never be written, but the implication is that this is the first of many.

SEÁN: Exactly!

CAMERON: When the music starts, you have anything but a clear and melodic line. You have this imitative counterpoint stuff which tends to dwell on a lot of really poignant and – in my sphere of understanding – acidic, wistful, and even painful sort-of sad harmonies that are unresolved. My musical language, I think, is sort-of just very 1910. It’s like Delius – or hopefully better. I’m very influenced by Grainger, the English symphonists – Elgar, Gerald Finzi, Malcolm Arnold, the composers of television music for the BBC. It has that kind of thing about it, this mobile tonality, but it’s definitely tonal music and, of course, it has these episodes at the end. To me, that is interesting. See “love song” and you might think it’s going to be Sonny and Cher, or Barry Manilow, or Hoagy Carmichael. Then you’re confronted with this intellectually demanding piece of music that raises questions. It has a poignant ending with this one held note that seems to go on forever. There’s a little piece of symbolism, perhaps – this note that seems to try to disappear into the horizon, implying some sort of enduring entity – whether it’s enduring love, or the loss of love which can never be satisfied or however you might read it.

SEÁN: Longing.

CAMERON: Yes, yes – longing, sure. You can read it in a religious context if you like. I’m certainly atheistic in the sense that – well, not even atheist – more like non-religious. It can certainly be read in that sense, but I don’t think it matters too much.
I love to analyze, because I don’t think it’s important. By the way, I don’t know if people of your generation still revere – that’s meant with respect, not as a judgment to your age – if people, for instance, from your academic era still revere Susan Sontag.

SEÁN: Not me, but I understand what you’re saying. I’m also privileged to be able to cover the events at the City’s museums. So, when Annie Leibowitz was here, I was able to have a grand tour of her exhibition. She is an amazing person. She makes you feel like you are her best friend and that all of the intimacy and exchange during this walk-through of her photographs is all about you. It’s no surprise that her photographs draw out the truth from that person. Along these lines – with Love Song No. 1, and you, and all of the above – your sense of distance and detachment from the viewer, from the listener – is the very thing that just sucks us right towards you. It’s amazing! Whereas, I can get so passionately excited about watching your fingers and toes flying all over the place – there is also that thing, for example, in Love Song No. 1– and because of the way you look, the way you are photographed, and the way you present yourself – it makes us want to know you. That is why I wrote in my review about REVOLUTIONARY, “To know him is to love him.”

CAMERON: I appreciate that very much. I can’t tell you enough. As they say, it’s a hard time to be Me! It’s interesting because, just among other things – it’s almost unprecedented for an organist to have a Grammy nomination. It hasn’t happened in 40 years, and then not for a solo album. So naturally it has generated an enormous amount of jealousy among certain American organists. This is not something that surprises me; as filmmaker Werner Herzog would say, it’s a stupidity. I’ve dealt with enormous jealousy since I was very young, and I’ve become a whiz at detecting it when it’s in my presence. With gay-dar, I’m hopeless. But I have good “jealousy-dar”.
Now I’m trying to think of how to best make myself accessible and welcoming to people even when they, for whatever reason, fight it. Again, I’m not religious, but I do like the parable of turning the other cheek – in the sense of the “killing them with love” type of thing. You have to be brave enough and secure enough – which, of course, is a big challenge. But, one tries to negate that by at least adjusting it – just like you try to negate a personal jealousy and attacks against you by offering your attackers the best. I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately, because there is increasing “chatter”. I think that’s what the CIA calls it, everyday they monitor all these transmissions around the world, on the lookout for terrorists and the like. Similarly if you look for it, online especially, there’s a bit of terrorism out there relating to my work. It’s so strange for me – strange to think that a person who makes music can somehow be threatening to others. The fact is, it does happen.
So, it’s really been great to know that you are so supportive. I am very grateful for what you originally wrote about the album in your first review. And I want to sincerely say ‘thank you’, because it’s so helpful at this time.
Click here for ticket information: CAMERON CARPENTER

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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