"The idea that a digital organ is somehow nontraditional amounts to nothing more than basically a rather ignorant, arms-folded, 1960s Fulbright Scholar/Eastman School of Music, sort of stiff-upper-lip approach to thinking that the organ has to be only wood and metal."
Organist Cameron Carpenter, who performs this weekend with the Minnesota Orchestra, has a lot of opinions on organs, especially digital ones, and particularly the digital one that he conceived.
"Anybody who's going to take me to task for playing a digital organ is welcome to do so," he says with more than a hint of defiance, "but they'd better jolly come fully prepared with a working knowledge of the mathematical texts on these matters, particularly The Fractal Geometry of Nature, by Benoit Mandelbrot."
He argues, persuasively, that the pipe organ is not just a musical or aesthetic triumph, but a technological one: "If, for instance, computers eventually take over the world in some way as a lot of very smart people think that they will the organ will have played a role in that. The organ plays and has played a role in the fact that we are communicating via satellite right now!"
Carpenter's background isn't one you'd assume an organist would have. Born in 1981 into a nonmusical family ("my father lived his entire life without being able to tell the difference between Bach and Leonard Bernstein"), as a boy, he saw a picture of an organ in a Childcraft Encyclopedia and immediately took a fancy to the idea of controlling a console. He earned a bachelor's and a master's degree at Juilliard before embarking on a career as a solo organist.
His obsession with organ mechanics, combined with a desire to perform on a single instrument, led him to build the groundbreaking International Touring Organ. According to his website, the ITO's goal is no less than to establish "the digital organ as an instrument of artistic significance."
The ITO's voice was created by recording samples from various beloved pipe organs, Wurlitzers and more. The end result is a digital instrument that combines traditional sounds with revolutionary potential and portability. The organ made its debut in 2014. Now Carpenter travels the world with the ITO, along with its truck and truck driver. Carpenter works as head engineer.
"I can scale it to the venue," he says. "I can revoice it with a keystroke. I can substitute voices in the organ, for others or for new voices that we sample along the way. I can and do continually change, develop and experiment with the organ. So it's essentially a kind of mobile conceptual laboratory."
In Minnesota, he will be taking to the ITO to perform his transcription of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, originally written in 1934 for piano and orchestra.
Why, of all pieces, adapt this particular one? Carpenter rattles off the reasons and expounds on each in detail.
"There isn't one single thing that has to be changed in the orchestra part." Therefore orchestras even regional ones know the score right out of the gate.
"All the conductors know it; all the young conductors know it."
"Audiences love it."
"You just can't go wrong with Rachmaninoff from a sales standpoint."
"It's episodic, and episodic music is highly suited to the organ, because the organ's ability to change color in a nonabstract way makes it in some ways an instrument with which it's easier to telegraph musical ideas."
And, lastly, bluntly, he just happens to "love" the piece.
"I certainly could have commissioned a work or transcribed a newer work," he acknowledges. "But the reality is, I have very little patience for new music. I have yet to hear a single piece of new music that can tell me to want to play it, actually. And that's no disrespect to my many composer friends. But I simply don't find much new music to be of comparable quality."
Carpenter is hopeful that his nontraditional approach to the king of instruments will help draw new audiences.
"The idea that the organ in its incredible algebraic sequentiality should be hidden in the church behind the faux painted pipes and gilded cherubs designed by gay men of the 17th and 18th centuries is one of the cultural ironies of all time," he muses.
He envisions a broader future for the instrument in which "musically uninitiated" listeners (his "priority" as a performer, he says) separate the organ from its cultural baggage and fall in love with it as deeply as he has.
His parting shot: "Does its history essentially end with a whisper and with the ignominy of being kicked out of churches for guitar-strumming morons bleating about God? Or, in fact, is it something else?"
Spoiler alert: Carpenter believes the organ's future is something else.
Concert infoCameron Carpenter performs Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Minnesota Orchestra at 8 p.m. Friday, April 20, and Saturday, April 21. Also on the program with guest conductor Klaus Mäkelä is Mussorgsky's Prelude to Khovanshchina and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5.
Hear the entire concert live Friday night on Classical MPR.