20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS WITH: Organist Cameron Carpenter

Classic Arts Features   20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS WITH: Organist Cameron Carpenter
Explosive organist and personality Cameron Carpenter, fresh from the June 1 release of his latest CD/DVD, took time to lend his thoughts to our question and answer series.


Carpenter is the only Grammy-nominated solo organist in history. His latest album is entitled CAMERON LIVE! The DVD includes two world premiere recordings of his own works (Three Intermezzi for Cinema Organ and Will o' the Wisp from Fifteen Inventions on Chopin's Etudes), his now-famous arrangement of Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever (the first to faithfully retain each line of counterpoint to the end), and other works by Shostakovich, Schubert, Liszt and others. The CD is a live concert recording from The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, and Carpenter's groundbreaking performances make the recording one of the most intriguing Bach CDs recorded in our time.

He brings his own unique perspective to Bach works like Toccata and Fugue in F Major, (BWV 540), which he chose to play in F#, a notoriously difficult key: for anyone except Carpenter. Five Bach preludes and fugues, continuing the "circle of fifths," follow: B Minor, E Minor, A Minor, D Major, and G Major, the last one with an improvised contemporary cadenza that makes this piece unmistakably his own. For the completion of this live recording, Carpenter composed Serenade and Fugue on B.A.C.H. with a lovely, lyrical, almost popular first movement and a complex fugal second movement: within which the B.A.C.H. theme is stated, in various forms, more than fifty-five times.


1. A few works of classical music that you adore:

It's difficult, as the labeling of music as classical or otherwise is a concept that I don't support (see No. 20). I think of Percy Grainger's English Dance and The Warriors, and Philip Glass' Einstein On The Beach _ all great works, but hardly classical.

2. Classical music recordings that you treasure:

I think of Laura Nyro's great album New York Tendaberry, possibly the most shocking listening experience I've had, wherein the power of the song writing grips, disturbs and elevates _ as in Schubert's Erlk‹nig or Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben. Nyro's work is art song in the rough. When I'm being elevated, do I care what's classical?

3. Favorite non-classical musicians and/or recordings:

Again with the labeling!

4. Music that makes you cry _ any genre:

If this labeling, "any genre" stuff doesn't stop, I will cry.

5. Definitely underrated work(s) or composer (s):

I love Percy Grainger, who's known for his most minor, insignificant trifles; his huge, largely overlooked works (see Richard Hickox' recordings on Chandos) are fonts of experience waiting to be tapped.

6. Possibly overrated work(s) or composer (s):

Beethoven, and not possibly: definitely.

7. Live music performance (s) you attended _ any genre _ that you'll never forget:

The Hobart Shakespeareans' performance of Nirvana's "Rape Me" in the context of Shakespeare, in Monterey, CA last year.

8. A few relatively recent films you love:

All of Hayao Miyazaki's output of the last twenty years _ especially Howl's Moving Castle (2004), Spirited Away (2002), and Castle In The Sky (1987). Unquestionably Christophe Honor_'s Ma Mre (2004) and Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), staggering films and two of only three works so far (Camus' The Plague is the other) to make me vomit.

9. A few films you consider classics:

Ah _ at last, you did it to yourself. "Classics" is a great example of how a label depends for traction on assumptions _ in this case the assumption that the label is a positive one. I'd consider things like Casablanca and Roman Holiday "classics", for their impossible characters; their mugging, penis-waving misogyny, and their plodding predictability.

10. A book (or two) that is important to you (and why):

Lawrence Durrell's Justine is the most sensuous book I have known, and it made me want to compose.

11. Thing(s) about yourself that you're most proud of:

I do not really think about myself this much.

12. Thing(s) about yourself that you're embarrassed by:

...my irascibility with questions that are simply polar opposites of previous questions?

13. Three things you can't live without:

Oxygen. Water... ...The artist's free pass to escape from literality.

14. "When I want to get away from it all I..."


15. "People are surprised to find out that I..."

Escaped from an orphanage in a laundry van.

16. "My favorite cities are..."

Berlin and Los Angeles.

17. "I have a secret crush on..."

H_lne Grimaud, but who doesn't?

18. "My most obvious guilty pleasure is..."

I am never guilty about pleasure. Never.

19. "I'd really love to meet _ or to have met..."

Werner Herzog, but it's only a matter of time.

20. "I never understood why..."

...genres and labels still stand in the artists' way in 2010... Similarly, why printed programs still exist.


21. Question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer to that question):

Q: If presented with unlimited funding, six to ten years, and a team of electronic engineers, which pre-digital electric/electronic musical technologies would you revive for the sake of hearing sounds which have been forever lost by the combination of technological evolution and market demand?

A: Thaddeus Cahill's Telharmonium, the remarkable organ-like electromagnetic musical instrument of 1897 that weighed 200 tons. Also, the Licht-Orgel (Light-Tone-Organ) built by Welte, a forever-lost precursor to soundwave-modeling and sampling as we know it today.

Visit cameroncarpenter.com

Past installments of 20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS:

Choreographer Peter Martins

Soprano Diana Damrau

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein

Pianist David Fray

Violinist Sarah Chang

Pianist Ingrid Fliter

Mezzo-Soprano Joyce DiDonato

Pianist Yefim "Fima" Bronfman

Soprano Sandrine Piau

Soprano Natalie Dessay

Harpsichordist and Conductor Christophe Rousset

Guitarist Xuefei Yang

Tenor Giuseppe Filianoti

Soprano Nicole Cabell

Pianist Jonathan Biss

Tenor Ian Bostridge

Soprano Danielle de Niese

New-Music Sextet eighth blackbird 

Composer and Violinist Mark O'Connor 

Composer Jake Heggie

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon

Pianist David Greilsammer


Albert Imperato, a music promoter who co-founded 21C Media Group in January 2000, writes frequently about the arts for various publications and blogs. 

His new series, 20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS, is his take on (and nod to) Vanity Fair's "Proust Questionnaire."

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