An interview with Grammy-nominated organist Cameron Carpenter
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
World renowned organist Cameron Carpenter returns to San Francisco and Davies Symphony Hall on May 2nd, Sunday evening at 6:00 pm. We can count on Mr. Carpenter giving the Ruffatti organ a work-out like it’s never had. The concert will feature the music of J.S. Bach, Chopin, Gershwin, Liszt, Ravel, and John Williams. Nominated for a Grammy Award in 2009, Cameron Carpenter is intent on revolutionizing the experience and the future of organ music in the 21st century. Starting in the 2010/2011 season, he will tour with a dedicated, importable virtual pipe organ. Named Excalibur – for the sword of legendary King Arthur – this monumental cross-genre organ is designed to present, at any venue, the breadth of Cameron’s repertoire and performance styles. This June, Telarc releases his 2nd album – a combination CD and DVD, Cameron Live! Volumes 1 & 2. The CD is the live recording of Cameron’s recent concert in New York, featuring six major works by Bach and the world premiere of his own Serenade and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H. The DVD is a studio concert filmed in HD on a Wurlitzer cinema organ, showing Cameron at his best in music by Vierne, Widor, Schubert, Sousa, Bach, Shostakovich, Liszt, Moskowski, three Carpenter originals specially written for the Wurlitzer, improvisations, interviews, out-takes, and more. Watch this site for details.
Click here for ticket information to Cameron’s May 2nd concert: CAMERON AT DAVIES
In May 2009 Cameron gave a spectacular concert at St. Agnes Church. The buzz then was about his increasing notoriety, his flamboyant style, his unparalleled showmanship, and the huge success of his first album for Telarc, Revolutionary. A Certificate of Honor was issued by Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom declaring Cameron to be “a provocative champion in the parallel worlds of musical tradition, emerging cultural expressions, and advanced digital technology.” It was my assignment to present the honor to him during the concert that evening. My partner Tom, who works in the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, had safeguarded the signed and sealed leather-bound document during its journey from City Hall to the sanctuary of St. Agnes. We were on a crusade. After attending Cameron’s rehearsal at the church the previous day, we were also agog at the man’s fastidious preparation of the organ to bring out the needs of each composition. The concert experience was dazzling. As was Mr. Carpenter’s wardrobe. I spoke to Cameron recently about his forthcoming appearance at Davies Symphony Hall, May 2nd. He had just returned home after a concert at Ithaca College.
Cameron: It’s two albums in one. That’s the most important thing to know about it. It’s an enormous amount of content. The DVD is a feature-length film this time – Cameron Live: The DVD. The other side of the album is Cameron Live: The CD, which is mostly Bach, and the world premiere recording of my piece, Serenade and Fugue on B-A-C-H. It was written in six days leading up to the concert which was recorded on November 21, 2009. That was my New York recital for 2009. So, it’s just an incredibly happening recording. The DVD is an hour and a half of music and there are a number of special features, including four fantastic selections from my Berlin recital in 2009 which includes Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon Of A Faun. It also includes a video performance of my homage to Klaus Kinski which was originally recorded on my first album, Revolutionary. The DVD was all shot in HD. It’s staggering to look at. It was a collaboration between me and a really brilliant filmmaker in New York, Katy Scoggin.
Cameron:It’s also my professional debut as a graphic designer, of sorts. I did everything you see in the album and everything related to the album – the art work, the advertising, all the graphic design, the packaging concept, and all the art direction for the DVD. So, it’s a really personal statement as well as being another really fantastic album. It’s probably more personal than the first one because I had so much to prove. I still stand by it, of course. But this album stands in a class of its own.
Seán: Do you have a favorite piece on it? Is there something you would describe as “the ultimate Me, the most personal touch I can offer”?
Cameron: There actually are. There are so many good things. I mentioned the Serenade and Fugue on B-A-C-H, which is on the CD. That’s just something I’m so proud of, really Sean. It’s based on the tone names – B, A, C, H – but arranged in a different way. It’s a musical construction that’s effectively an homage to Bach in which Bach’s name is stated more than 55 times. But that’s all a kind-of side effect. As always the formulating things come second and the musical expression comes first. On the DVD is a set of three pieces, by me, called Three Intermezzi for Cinema Organ. The middle movement is called Clockwatcher. It takes it’s name from an idea in Shakespeare’s 57th Sonnet ["Being your slave, what should I do but tend Upon the hours and times of your desire?"] It’s incredibly personal, an intimate little piece. No great virtuoso statement or anything, just very concise and heartfelt. Those are two of my favorites.
Seán: Will you be playing selections from the album at your May 2nd concert here at Davies Hall?
Cameron: I’m certain I will play some Bach. That’s the most I can commit to because the organ – despite being a pretty totally great organ – does not have the most technologically advanced control system. So, I’m anticipating some limitations as to what I can do. At the same time, I’m planning to work around those limitations as much as possible.
Seán: What’s it like to have this incredible instrument – Excalibur – which you have helped to construct, and then come to the San Francisco Symphony hall and deal with the characteristics of the Ruffatti Organ? How do you juggle those two balls?
Cameron: The touring organ is still under development. It’s not premiering until September. At the moment, there’s no direct conflict. Without sounding too self-aggrandizing – and we talked about this last year – I want the same relationship with my instrument as a clarinetist or a violinist or a flute player has. Which is to say – one on-going instrument that travels with me. Whether you call it “radical” or “revolutionary” – some would call it neither – it is inarguably not the status quo. It is a different request of the instrument and the entire framework that supports the instrument and what we know of the instrument than exists. So, there is no context for that at the moment. Consequently, it’s not understood yet. What I am both looking forward to and effectively dreading is something of a transition period between the on-going site-specific instruments and the dedicated touring organ. What’s not up for debate with me is, unquestionably, the dedicated instrument will make possible things which will never ever be possible with the pipe organ. They just won’t. By dint of definition, as Werner Herzog might say. For one thing, it will allow me to perform more frequently and give more concerts for more people in less time. As a performer who is also something of an activist – sort-of the unwilling activist – for so many musical causes and for the organ itself, it’s really an important thing. I need to be able to perform a lot more than I can perform with the pipe organ. With the pipe organ, I can only play two concerts a week at most – and that’s a stretch. A pipe organ concert is extremely exhausting to play.
Cameron: I’m talking to you now just having driven back from Ithaca, New York, where last night I played a dreadful organ at Ithaca College. A couple of weeks before I played an almost equally dreadful organ in Cleveland. Having to contend with this is absolutely ridiculous. It is a complete distraction for me artistically. It’s a complete loss for the audience who, despite the fact they seldom know what they’re losing, are still losing. Of course, it’s a charade of sorts, because I have to pretend the organ I’m playing is good, pretend that sounds any good, and pretend I’m enjoying it for the benefit of the sponsor who usually suspects otherwise anyway. And lastly – I have to act like it’s good. Which means, I have to help the audience, of course, feel what I am doing musically. What’s not coming from the organ has to be telegraphed visually from my body language and so on. It’s absolutely exhausting and draining and unsatisfying and – whatever may be said about it – is not artistic. It’s not a really musical experience. It’s a performative experience. It’s all so incredibly fatiguing from the standpoint of longevity. I certainly would not want to be doing this in five years, ten years. So, the touring organ is an absolute life-saver in that sense. While there are undoubtedly a great number of people who would be thrilled to have the chance to play various pipe organs, I’m really more focused on the future, and not what makes the sound, but on the sound itself. What I’m concerned about is getting the notes out there and getting them out there in a way that I am able to make malleable and changeable, living. That’s where the touring organ comes in.
EXCALIBUR — a project of Torrence/Yaeger Virtual Pipe Organs
Watch organist Cameron Carpenter demonstrate the Marshall & Ogletree virtual pipe organ at Middle Collegiate Church:
Seán: Will you have to travel with speakers as well as the instrument itself?
Cameron: Yes. The instrument proper will be housed in a custom modified Ford Econoline Cargo Van which will pull a 14-foot trailer with two axles. The organ is designed to be able to be entirely set up by only two people. I will travel with the organ and a German buddy of mine. As you can see, the console looks that way partly because it comes apart in five pieces. The keyboards are one chunk that sticks together. Then there’s the support infrastructure and, of course, the pedal board. The final two pieces are the stop-jambs, two rhombus-shaped control arrays that attach, one to each side, to the central keyboard stack. There is a rack-mount framework inside the truck which holds all of that in place for travel. The truck holds miles of cables, concert merchandise, luggage, tool kits, fire extinguishers, and some fabric that we use to stage the speakers. All of the speakers – which will be upwards of perhaps 50 of varying sizes and character – travel in the trailer. Basically, the mandate that I put forward for the organ design-wise is that it has to be able to be set up completely by two people and has to have no single part that weighs more than 75 pounds. This makes it possible to really make the instrument personal. Of course, it takes a little time. But I would argue that the fatigue I suffer – such as the event last night – is much greater, longer-lasting, and more damaging than the comparatively easy work of transporting and setting up the touring organ and, obviously, well worth the much greater musical results which will come forth.
Seán: Are there any restrictions?
Cameron: There are some restrictions. There is the possibility of using the console alone with pre-existing audio systems where those systems meet the specifications. That would be for very special things. If the organ were to be played outside – at Red Rocks, for instance – you could use the audio system there. And indeed you’d want to because they have a multi-million dollar sound system which would dwarf whatever we could install, even if we had much more. On the other hand, you want control over the audio system because the demands of the organ are quite specific and exacting. In fact, the multiplicity of speakers is not as much for volume as it is for three-dimensionality and a kind of layered richness. This is not easily obtainable from conventional sound systems, particularly because the organ – as in a pipe organ – divides down into smaller organ subdivisions. Each of these must have audio resources of their own, usually from six to eight speakers and sometimes more. In a complex computer matrixing program – when I play a chord – it decides what speakers are already playing or producing sound at that instant and will do the job that I’m asking to be done. So, it’s quite complex from a software programming standpoint. But all of this is completely doable from the standpoint of technology. All the technology exists. It’s simply a novel and perhaps somewhat radical reutilization of existing technology. It’s not anything that requires any enormous research and development.
Seán: Do you already have the recording project in mind come the day this invention is fully realized?
Cameron: Definitely. Having just achieved a pipe organ recording – there would be no need to record one again. It will be regarded as the definitive statement.
Seán: Last year, the day before your concert at St. Agnes – my partner Tom and I sat in on your rehearsal. We were fascinated watching you work through a number of phrases – so many times – adjusting the sound until it satisfied the needs of the piece and the environment of the building. Was there a similar adventure in Ithaca? Did you have to change your program?
Cameron: I made huge sacrifices and certainly adjusted the repertoire. In Ithaca – it’s the problem one so often finds – the existing resources are so paltry that there is almost nowhere to turn. You have to become this sort-of master of illusion, making the audience think the instrument is some great thing they’re listening to. It’s just stupid. It’s a really stupid, boring, and exhausting thing to have to do. And, of course, it’s put up with because – for the most part – organists haven’t had much choice. It really gives me a great deal of sympathy for organists who have to continually deal with this situation again and again with no hope of change. I’m in a comparatively unique position since, first, I’m now able to do something about it, and secondly and probably more importantly — I’m now commanding enough market share to be able to summon the resources and then book the damn thing and, you know, put it out on the road. Most organists are stuck on these instruments and have nowhere to turn. It’s really pretty terrible. So, there are less self-serving logical extensions that I’d really like to see. Such as, increased instrument ownership by organists and, ultimately, a much greater presence for the non-pipe organ, appearing in a way that will make a difference in people’s lives. Unlike the pipe organ which puts a huge financial toll on its installers and on-going, sometimes significant maintenance costs.
Seán: Well, won’t they be surprised in Ithaca when you come with your van and wow them with your new instrument!
Cameron: I don’t think they’ll be surprised because it was the first thing I talked about when I came out. I said I was not going to play from the list of composers I’d planned. I explained that it was actually impossible and said I would look forward to playing them on the touring organ I was developing and that, hopefully, that could happen some time next year.
Seán: How much preparation time will you have in San Francisco?
Cameron: I think I have three days of rehearsal and, as it happens with concert halls, those rehearsals are at odd hours. Yet another reason for the touring organ, by the way, which can be easily wheeled off stage and rehearsed on at any time. And which, in any case, would already have been rehearsed on, in my apartment, for months before going on the road.
Click here for ticket information to Cameron’s May 2nd concert: CAMERON AT DAVIES
Click on the photo to learn more about Cameron and the release of his DVD and CD: Cameron Live! Volumes 1 & 2
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Tom Crites and Seán Martinfield present Cameron Carpenter a Certificate of Honor
from Mayor Gavin Newsom, May 1st, 2009.
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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: email@example.com.