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Influences: Unorthodox organist Cameron Carpenter

April 27, 2011 | 10:00 am

Cameron Carpenter

Cameron Carpenter is a kind of wild man of the classical organ. Born in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, he joined the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J., and later went to high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. 

“When I moved to New York in 2000,” he says of his years at Juilliard, “I became an advocate for doing things differently –- and fighting on every front.”

Carpenter, who often performs in skin-tight white jeans and shirt, may be the only organist in the world who can be called controversial. He’s known for his virtuosity in the instrument, his favoring of unusual repertoire –- ranging from excursions on Chopin to his own demonic “Homage to Klaus Kinski” -- and his emphasis on the physicality the instrument makes possible. 

Carpenter, who performs Brahms at Walt Disney Concert Hall on May 8, said he was happy to discuss his inspirations, especially those beyond his chosen instrument, which he thinks is in the grip of a new kind of orthodoxy and conservatism. “I’m all about taking things out of the organ,” he says, “and the organ out of things.”

Here are five of his key influences: 

Silent movie organists: “From the beginning, my concept of the organ had nothing to do with the retiring figure in the organ loft. But rather, someone playing an ornate organ with Mary Pickford on the screen, looking very much like Clark Gable. I had no idea of the organ as a religious instrument.”

Percy Grainger (Australian composer and pianist): "The strongest influence on me musically. I discovered him about 10 years ago, after I had started on a musical path: I found this character who was very misunderstood. The thing that made him unique for his time was the degree to which he remained an individual.”

Kate Bush and Laura Nyro (pop musicians): “They’re both female singer-songwriters of a proto-feminist leaning. What interests me is the degree to which they embody that with a naturalness and sincerity that’s so uncontrived. It’s simple conviction. Their work activates in me some of the same response as Bach and Fauré -– music of deep integrity and immediacy, without virtuosity.”

J.S. Bach (composer): “Bach was a major character for me from Day One. I learned 'The Well-Tempered Clavier' when I was very young; at 11 I was playing it. Now I’m returning to it with deeper understanding. You’re looking at something that evolved, over time, but it’s very difficult looking at the unity of form to see it as anything but fully formed. It’s like something from Greek myth, a symbol of perfection. And it’s the rebellious and punk side of Bach I find so amazing. He had jobs where he pissed off the powers that be.”

Martha Graham (dancer/choreographer): “I’d never want to take credit for any of my core concepts, because they’re shared by Martha Graham and the world of dance. This is a legacy of teaching and artistic encouragement; I wish we had anything like one-tenth of that in my community. She said, ‘There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.’”

Organ Recital: Cameron Carpenter, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000. Sunday, May 8, 7:30 p.m.


Video of Cameron Carpenter playing the organ

A conversation with Cameron Carpenter

-- Scott Timberg