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Organist Cameron Carpenter Has Some Suggestions For The King

Leaving The Choir Loft Behind

Cameron Carpenter is not a religious guy, but he plays an instrument that most people associate with church. In fact, he's doing everything he can to get the organ out of the choir loft. "I always thought it completely ridiculous," he says, "that an instrument as lascivious and sensual and violent and banal as the organ would be stereotyped as having anything to do with church."

This 29-year-old, Pennsylvania-born, Berlin-based performer and composer has some big ideas for how to change the way the organ world works.

He plays music that encompasses all of music history, from improvisations on movie scores to arrangements of the American Songbook to Western Art Music––and everything in between.

But perhaps his most striking change is that he's working hard to rid himself of his dependency on pipe organs.

Geographical Limitations

Carpenter was drawn to the organ as a boy when he saw a picture of a cinema organ from the 1920s. Cinema organs were designed to take the place of an orchestra in the silent film era. The organ builder Robert Hope-Jones called them 'Unit Orchestras,' because they could cover any genre of tune, from classical to big band, and they often included percussion sounds and various other sound effects.

Cinema organs are restricted to their location, just as large pipe organs are, which frustrates Carpenter. He addresses this problem with an orchestral player's mentality: He wants to have the same relationship with his instrument that any orchestral player has with theirs.

Inspired By The Orchestra

"They walk on stage with the same instrument night after night, they know its limitations and its strengths, and they can speak to their audience through it without having to make any stopping off points," he says.

For these reasons, Carpenter promotes the use of digital organs.

Ideally, as a digital organist, he would travel from performance to performance with his instrument, no longer tied to using various pipe organs, which can be unpredictable.

What happens when, at the last moment, the organ ciphers, a note sticks on, or something breaks? Or the organ is so old and worn out that perhaps it's just not capable of doing what I'm asking it to do? Well, then all of the hundreds of years and prettily painted organs in Europe and the grand tradition aren't worth a damn because there's no music.

Creating Repertoire

In addition to changing the instrument, Carpenter is also changing the music: He's writing his own pieces. One of his ambitions is to create repertoire for the organ that is the equivalent, scale-wise and panache-wise, to Rachmaninoff piano concertos. He began this process with the preëmptive study of his first of three planned concertos, which he calls "The Scandal."

"I'm portraying the organ as the elder statesman of music," he describes. "Like Elliot Spitzer, it falls from grace and then tries to redeem itself. It's somewhat of an American twist on the story."

Carpenter will be premiering "The Scandal" for organ and orchestra on New Year's Day 2011 with The German Chamber Philharmonic in Cologne, Germany.

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