A Musical Revolution, Telarc Style
Cameron Carpenter's Revolutionary Turns The Organ World (And Maybe Yours, Too) Upside Down
“If I had to play the organ like they teach you to play it, like they want you to play it in the conservatory and the church, I’d go mad. I’d take up the electric guitar. Or maybe law,” said Cameron Carpenter last March during a break in recording sessions for Revolutionary, his debut CD/DVD release for Telarc. “The organ is the darkest remnant of classical music’s most arch tradition… you don’t see organists creating, really questioning boundaries like you see in dance, hip-hop, film.”
Until now, that is. Cameron Carpenter – lauded as “the Maverick organist” (The New York Times), “madly original” (Alex Ross / TheRestIsNoise.com), and “a superstar of the 21st-century organ” (Departures magazine) – has already been compared to Fred Astaire and the Kronos Quartet, and for good reason. “I’m madly in love with performing, but not with the organ, or even most organ music,” he admits. “I was never interested in Virgil Fox or E. Power Biggs. But Nureyev, Liberace, David Bowie, Karl Lagerfeld, those guys are my heroes. The uninhibited, the unabashed, the creators, the personalities… the people who are their message, not their medium.”
That describes Carpenter perfectly, though he’s no mere showman. Among organists it is generally accepted that he’s unmatched technically, and Revolutionary’s enclosed DVD shows what many audiences have already noticed: that his feet are as accurate, fast and musical on the organ’s foot pedals (as in Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, wherein the left-hand part is played solely by the feet) as his hands are on the keys.
“I could never really get into the organist image,” he says quietly, but there’s quite a backstory. Carpenter is one of New York City’s most notorious club kids, and a neon glam rock wardrobe and patent leather boots was de rigeur even during his six years of classes at The Juilliard School. “When my mother asked me what I wanted to wear for my first piano recital at age six,” he says, “I apparently responded, ‘A white sequined tuxedo.’ To her great good credit, she didn’t bat an eye.” Now Carpenter designs his concert outfits and organ shoes with Swarovski™ rhinestones. Indeed, he attributes much of his creativity to his homeschooling, and the artistic environment provided by his family in rural Pennsylvania. The result of all this was abundantly clear to Telarc President Robert Woods, who signed Carpenter in early 2008 after hearing him only once.
“When I first witnessed Cameron’s playing, it was totally engaging,” says Woods. “He was, to me, an amazing combination of a first rate musician, a superb entertainer, and an unbelievable technical whiz. We certainly know and accept that some of what Cameron does is on the edge and will be controversial for some. But he will never be boring.”
In short, Revolutionary not only showcases an artist who is breaking ground, but runs a musical gamut that any musician would be hard pressed to match. Classically speaking, there are only four organ works included. Three are major pinnacles of the organ repertoire: the blistering, nearly unplayable Etude in Octaves by the French modernist Jeanne Demessieux, Prelude and Fugue in B major by Marcel Dupré, and Bach’s deeply moving chorale-prelude Now Come, Savior of the Gentiles. The fourth is the world premiere recording of Cameron’s suggestive Love Song No. 1.
The album’s major departures, though, are found in Duke Ellington’s Solitude (wittily combined with Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze); Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, and Vladimir Horowitz’ Carmen Variations. Two of Chopin’s Études are presented so convincingly that they might have been organ music. Finally, Carpenter’s Evolutionary Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is an outrageous survey of the various instrumental arrangements that made Bach’s piece famous.
All this is recorded not on a pipe organ, but on the equally revolutionary Marshall & Ogletree Virtual Pipe Organ at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City – an organ that, rising out of the destruction of Trinity’s traditional pipe organ on September 11, 2001, continues to challenge the status quo of the pipe organ and the artistic possibilities of organ playing in general.
Revolutionary is a fearless album, and it takes major chances. But as Woods notes: “Classical music – and especially the organ – needs to take chances to reach new audiences. I have no doubt Cameron will succeed in accomplishing this.”