Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Scandalous organist

Cameron Carpenter resists cliché and debuts his show at the NAC

Organist Cameron Carpenter brings his work about our modern, social world to the NAC. Credit: Cameron Carpenter

Don’t call him the bad boy of the organ.

That moniker is convenient for journalists and even more so for headline writers but doesn’t come close to adequately describing the talent, fire and virtuosity of composer and organist Cameron Carpenter. The artist himself is not a fan of the label — to put it mildly.

“I strongly resist the idea that I should be called the bad boy of the organ,” says Carpenter, taking a break from his international tour for a phone interview with Xtra. “I find that a cutesy and limiting term. I think that there’s a tendency in society in general to take somebody who is an outsider — and this would be no news to your readers I’m sure — and by giving them a kind of fatuous title you keep them in a safe space.”

Born in Pennsylvania, Carpenter graduated from the Juilliard School in 2006. He chooses his words as carefully as his notes, so it’s not surprising he’s offended by lazy clichés. To be an artist is at once to be free and yet be constantly aware of limitations — those we place on ourselves, those others place on us and those we place on others.

“There are things that we do in terms of the way that we view people that are almost knee-jerk reactions, and in some ways those things have to be resisted because they keep a person in a spot where we can control what we think about them rather than allowing them to tell us what they have to say,” he says.

Although he says being queer can be seen as another label, that doesn’t mean he isn’t comfortable discussing his sexual orientation, nor does he think sexuality should be ignored in the context of an artist’s work.

“I do believe that a person’s sexuality, particularly in the arts and in the case of artists, is totally relevant to their work and is worthy of consideration,” Carpenter says. “There’s a kind of trend recently that we should ignore everyone’s sexuality and a person’s sexuality is no one’s business but their own, and actually I think that’s a somewhat baseless or almost hypocritical view in the sense that it’s a view that tends to come from people who are just as interested in reporting on any other angle of a person’s life.”

Carpenter makes his Ottawa debut at the National Arts Centre, performing The Scandal with the NAC Orchestra. Being the composer of The Scandal as well as the soloist is challenging, but his collaboration with visiting conductor Alexander Shelley is always rewarding, he says.

“Alexander Shelley is one of the world’s great conductors,” he says. “I’ve worked with Alexander several times now, and he was the person to premiere The Scandal in Germany when it was commissioned and gave it its first performance and several subsequent performances. He’s certainly the person in the world who knows it best.”

In The Scandal, Carpenter wanted to create a work that would resonate with all listeners. In our tabloid, internet and social media age, what could resonate more than a scandal? Using musical allegories, the instruments tell the story of a scandal breaking, spreading and finally coming to a resolution. The xylophone imitates the teletype, audiences hear the whistle of the whistleblower, and the cello represents the sole sympathetic person who is telling the truth, he says.

“The central figure of The Scandal is obviously the organ, which is also fitting because the organ is thought to be the so-called king of all instruments, a term I actually despise,” he says. “The organ is also, to some degree, an outsider, so there are many parallels there that work well. Obviously the orchestra represents the media, the public, the age of anxiety in general.”

It’s fitting Carpenter puts the organ as the central figure in his work, since the organ is clearly the centre of his career, but the relationship is not an easy one.

“I have a sort of love/hate relationship with the organ,” he says. “There are many, many things about the organ and, seemingly, about organ builders that have gone to great lengths to minimize the ego of the person playing it.”

While the organ is the only instrument that can hold a note indefinitely, it’s also the only instrument that requires a commute to practise, Carpenter says. He’d like to see the organ emerge more emphatically from its liturgical roots and have a globally standardized design, like a piano, so an organ would be the same in Hong Kong, Paris or Berlin, where he lives. Still, Carpenter continues to love the power, psychology and texture of the organ and isn’t likely to abandon his “mad love affair” with the instrument.