Controversial Musician Cameron Carpenter: Don't Call Me The 'Flamboyant Organist'

Chris Azzopardi

The abs are not the point.
Although Cameron Carpenter briefly went all "Magic Mike" for a promotional video for "Revolutionary," his 2008 debut, the organ virtuoso is more than the sum of his literal parts. In support of his recently released Sony album, "If You Could Read My Mind," Carpenter is on the road with his newly minted, custom-built International Touring Organ.
Ahead of his Feb. 23 performance at Detroit's Orchestra Hall, the 33-year-old, Grammy-nominated Juilliard alum phoned to chat about why that chest-baring bit was a "mistake," his problem with the word "flamboyant" and how, despite what critics think, he's not trying to take the organ mainstream.

With the International Touring Organ, essentially you have a symphony orchestra at your fingertips. How has your approach to composing on the organ changed since the ITO came into your life?
It's changed dynamically, and entirely for the better. My work is much more focused and much more consistent than it's ever been. In other fields of music, and the same could be said for a person's voice, for that matter, a sense of a psychological home is a requisite for good music-making if only for the security of the person who's making it. We would want, after all, as an audience, that the person onstage have the ability to express themselves without inhibition, and that's what I try to give – basically an immersive, personal, entertaining, emotionally meaningful, thought-provoking couple of hours. That's increasingly rare, I find, in classical music. There is more and more talent and less and less willingness to take risks.

People attach many adjectives to you personally and also to your style of performance. When you read your own press, which adjectives do you like least?
Well, first of all, I don't give a damn about what anyone thinks of me, good or ill. I slightly hate to quote (Rudyard) Kipling, who gave us the concept of the white man's burden, but I somewhat like to invoke that wonderful poem "If-" – probably one of his best – where the basic exhortation is to pay attention not only to the damnation but to the praise, realizing that neither is true. That's kind of my take. And I'll be the first to tell you that one of the great struggles has been for consistency. I feel that I am enormously lucky to have the audience that I have because I have not been a very consistent performer. I haven't had the ability to give consistent offerings.
The point is, I use journalistic criticism for exactly what it's worth, which is pretty much promotion. Since it's slightly divine here that I'm talking to a GBLT publication, I would put it this way: You asked me what adjectives I care for the least, and on behalf of all of us, I would have to say the word "flamboyant." First of all, unlike a lot of more easily discernible criticisms or even observations that one could make which could be irrefutable, flamboyance is, of course, totally subjective. It would be too simple to point out only that one man's "flamboyance" is another man's "regular." It's also, I think, necessary to go slightly onto a limb and say that I've come to understand that sometimes when you're called flamboyant this is, to me, unbelievably still a code word for saying this person is queer. If I am assailed as flamboyant, I would really prefer to see some evidence. It's one thing to say "the flamboyant Cameron Carpenter" appeared in Alexander McQueen, as I did at the Kennedy Center, and there was some delight and stir about it – that would be one good defense of that. If, on the other hand, I'm billed as the "flamboyant organist," or people are slightly warned off by me because I'm flamboyant, even if it's only slightly implied, then that is actually offensive and I think all of us should be offended by that. It's time that we not have that kind of language masquerading as a way of apologizing or warning against the perceived threats of someone's sexuality.

How would you describe your aesthetic and how it plays into your performance?
In a sense, I'm very traditional as a person and as a musician. My compositions speak a language, for the most part, that is extremely fashionable among intellectual composers right now – that is the language of high-tonality circa 1890-1925. My regime of performing is lifted directly from the pages of late-19th century not by intention but simply by conviction and ability. Classical musicians are still kind of the ghettoized immigrants amongst the otherwise multi-cultural musical scene.

How has your progressive approach to the instrument allowed you to connect with the audience in a way that a more traditional route might not allow?
The people who actually have to make a living with the organ have a very hard road to hoe, and while it won't seem like it from scratching the surface, I'm immensely empathetic toward them. I consider them to be my brothers and sisters in a sense. Their offerings are totally commercially incompatible; many of them are very, very great musicians – there are more organists playing now than there ever have been probably in history in proportion to the population, and most of them are playing at an extremely high level technically. It seems to be a micro culture that does everything it can to discourage manifestations of personal tastes and personality. I've studied the complete works of Bach, Franck and a number of the core organ composers, and I had to play most of those works and still do play some of them, but it's never been the music that really motivates me the most. My big attraction to the organ is partly that it plays so much music so well and so convincingly. I just find the organ in general to be a very rich resource – one that is not only rich in its own repertoire but in a much broader repertoire. The bottom line is I am much more interested in what I want to play than what is commercially viable. (Sharing) that honesty with one's audience is a genuineness which people appreciate.

So far, you have made immense headway in the classical community. What's next? How far do you plan on taking the sound of the organ?
It makes it a convenient lede sometimes for journalists to say that that's my mission. When, in her otherwise basically accurate review of my concert at the Kennedy Center a few days ago, Anne Midgette (of The Washington Post) – a brilliant critic who should know better – stabbed me from the outset with the idea that I'm trying to make the organ mainstream. This tells us a lot about Anne, I'm sorry to say, and about the state of classical music that her conclusion was that I'm succeeding. As anyone who writes about classical music should know, the entirety of classical music exists out of the mainstream, so the idea that I have a mission to make the organ mainstream or popular always really disconcerts me for two reasons. First of all, I worry that that makes me look horrendously naive, which I think (also has to do slightly) with the miss-application of a ridiculous promotional video of me stripping off my clothes. Secondly, it concerns me a lot because it makes it seem as though my concentration is on the organ – it's not. It's only on music. It happens to be that I play the world's most hidebound, stereotyped musical instrument that, until very recently, literally wasn't going anywhere, meaning physically as well as metaphorically. Now that that's changed, I have a great deal of opportunity, but it's not actually about the organ – it's about playing for as many people as possible and in the most joyful way that I can. So, if I'm able to rephrase the question in those terms, I would say that I plan to take (the organ) as far as I possibly can – to Asia and to China, and this year to Japan.

Because of the reputation it gave you, do you regret having stripped in that Sony Classical video?
No, to be honest, I don't. I think it would be sad if I had to say that I regret it. The thing about that video is that it was directed by a German director and it had a completely opposite effect in Europe, where it's been very, very successful. In a sense, I suppose, what I regret about it, if anything, is that more attention was paid to me than to the vision of the music. I think, given the ambition of the director, it couldn't have been otherwise and I would defend the fact that, for the almost four weeks that we were shooting it, I ran myself ragged turning myself over to him.
In other words, I don't see the point of undertaking something if you do it in a half-assed way, and I tried my best to give him what he wanted, and you have to. Most people in the world don't ever have to be in front of the camera under those circumstances, so in a sense I can't expect him to understand this. In a way, really, the only responsible thing you can do is trust the director and that's what I did – that may have been somewhat of a mistake.
On the other hand, I'm a vain person and I have a very physical look to me, which, of course, is part of my material and one would have to use it. Part of expressing yourself as a performer is to access accurately what you bring to the table and find out how best to capitalize on it. The other thing is, again, how would one have done it differently, really? I'm sure there are ways, but if you actually want to tell the world that you're an intelligent person – and you risk demonstrating that you have, possibly, eccentricities and, to you at least, very, very seriously held views on what to the world must seem like pointless minutia – then of course people are going to think you're a pretentious asshole. In the media, negativity has longer legs across all platforms. At the end of the day all I want is to be able to walk on stage and play the instrument that I love and give it my fullest, but one does also have to address becoming a known name.


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