Cameron Carpenter is used to doing things outside the traditional norms of the classical music world. There’s no program announced, for example, for most of the current tour that sees him swing through Southern Ontario in April 2018. “I’ve never found that announcing programs has any cultural value,” he says.
As to repertoire, he says he will be playing Bach, Bernstein, Schumann, with some improvisation, and other possibilities. There are reasons why the list isn’t entirely set. “The timing of this tour catches me in transition.”
He says a few of the selections will likely come from All You Need Is Bach, his last recording. Released in 2016 on the Sony Music label, it was his second using the ITO or International Touring Organ. “That album itself was a gather up what’s on the factory floor and put it out there effort.” An embarrassing wealth of recorded material that wound up in a release.
Some stops on the tour have seen him performing with a symphony orchestra, while others, like his Toronto area appearances, will be solo on the ITO. He’s playing in colleges and concert halls, and the repertoire is adaptable to the venue. “Some audiences are able to plumb the intricacies of the Passacaglia,” he explains. Some, perhaps not as much. He does mention that, whenever he’s toured Canada, he’s been impressed by the “acute listeners” in the audience.
Hailed by many as breathing new life into an instrument that has inherently been associated with tradition and religious orthodoxy, Carpenter has also seen his share of critics. It’s not his virtuosity that anyone can quibble with; it’s a style of dress and playing that has been called flamboyant — in a world that Cameron himself dubs “notoriously conservative”.
The ITO itself has drawn controversy. Most classical musicians devote themselves to an instrument. In the case of Cameron Carpenter, it’s not an instrument — it’s the instrument, the International Touring Organ that is integral to his music and career. In a digital organ, the sounds are sampled and reproduced rather than produced inside the pipes. That’s what has purists in opposition. Cameron is passionate about digital innovation and what it offers to the world of music, as well as the individual organist. “To the player, there is a much broader range of possibilities,” he says. As with pipe organs, each digital organ is unique. “The fact that it is digital is the least significant aspect.”
A composite machine that consisted of several different parts controlled initially by mechanical means (the keyboard, in other words,) Cameron points out that, up until, say, the invention of the telephone in 1877, the traditional pipe organ was surely among the most complex of all human inventions. It traces its history back to the hydraulis or water organs of 3rd century BC. Perhaps it’s not so unreasonable for its practitioners and enthusiasts to favour its history over a digital version that is still seen as a new upstart.
“It is very radical in some ways,” he acknowledges. “It’s a newcomer. Credulity is natural.” But, he’s enamoured of the potential. “It lets us redefine what the organ is.” He points out that there are fewer than 15 such concert worthy digital organs worldwide. “From the outside, it’s a radical proposition. How it makes sound is irrelevant.”
In the absence of a churchgoing family background, Cameron says he was first drawn to the pipe organ visually. “I was consumed, and remain consumed, by the drama of the organ as a medium.” It is an instrument, he points out, that is defined, more than virtually any other, by the person playing it. “The sounds can only be chosen by the organist. The organist defines the organ.”
Cameron’s ITO was a project that took about a decade to put together, and one that he put a definitive stamp on. “I designed it,” he states. Cameron was involved in every aspect that has to do with playing the instrument and its musical signature, stylistically and aesthetically.
Cameron designed the organ with the Marshall & Ogletree of Massachusetts, one of the few companies globally who specialize in digital organ building. The company has developed sophisticated applications that can faithfully reproduce the sounds of the world’s diverse pipe organs. The instrument saw its debut performing a world premiere at the Lincoln Center in New York City in 2014.
Using a digital organ enables the organist to have the library of sounds literally at their fingertips. It takes the pipe organ, so long and so necessarily a site-specific instrument, and puts it on the road.
Cameron’s organ is only the eighth produced by Marshall & Ogletree. Carpenter’s choices include gorgeous Baroque organ sounds that allow him to play Bach the way it should be heard. Along with his favourite pipe organs, Cameron’s ITO includes samples of the classic Wurlitzers of many early 20th century theatres.
In Marshall & Ogletree, Cameron has found a partner with a similarly maverick style approach to the time honoured business of organ building and playing. Naturally, the ITO requires extensive care and feeding, including an elaborate sound system, but surprisingly, it can be assembled in less than three hours. The organ and its components take up one large truck, and sound systems that are already housed in places like Berlin and the company’s HQ in Needham, MA, streamline the touring process.
To its detractors, Carpenter notes that the digital organ with its sampled sounds is merely the technical extension of the tradition of American organ building of the early 20th century. “Those instruments represent (…) in a sense, an attempt to overcome forces like gravity.” Digital technology finally removes the necessity for mechanical operation all together. Only the sound remains.
“The traditional values of the organ are upheld — it is why I defend it with my life.”
Readers can catch Cameron Carpenter perform on Tuesday, April 17 at Flato Markham Theatre. Details found here.