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Interview with Cameron Carpenter
Cameron Carpenter © Marco Borggreve

The 2017/18 season at the Konzerthaus Berlin will be opened on 8th September by the American organist Cameron Carpenter, the concert hall’s new artist in residence. With his extraordinary level of musicality, his mastery bordering on perfection, his pioneering work – not least in planning performances by his digital International Touring Organ – and his feel for the dramatic, the American has been dispelling preconceived notions about his instrument of choice and building a worldwide following. What piece of music would an artist of that ilk recommend?

„Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon, in its entirety.“

At least, that was the song that had currently lodged itself in his brain. The composition by the British artist, originally conceived as a video soundtrack stretching over 80 minutes, was released in 1984. Previous to that, Eno had brought out Music For Airports, his first album of what he called ‘ambient music’, which was designed to alter people’s perception of the space in which it was played. And they are not even required to be consciously aware of it. Brian Eno called it “as missable as it is interesting”. So how does Thursday Afternoon transform a Thursday afternoon? It’s certainly worth trying to alter it in some way!
But what stuff does Cameron Carpenter listen to when he’s not working? Classical music? And if so, by whom?


„I do not listen to classical music outside of work. Music has not held leisure value for me in many years. It is something to be worked on, processed, and produced on a deadline, which is the life reality of professional classical musicians. Otherwise I “listen” (without listening) to whatever happens to be playing at the clubs where I go to dance, or to a white noise generator at home or on the plane.“

What was your first contact with an organ?

„I was taken to an organ recital in a church in Erie, Pennsylvania when I was about four years old. I asked to leave at the interval. We did.“

Today it’s fair to say that Cameron Carpenter is a fan of the organ. Asked at the annual Konzerthaus press conference if he could say a few words on the “International Touring Organ”, which he spent the decade prior to 2014 setting up and has been playing almost single-handed since, his response was as follows: “Certainly I can! Just stop me if I go on too long.” And it’s not only Carpenter who has a soft spot for the Marshall & Ogletree organ that he uses to help him conjure his myriad of traditional strains and special effects. His audiences love this new kind of ‘queen of musical instruments’ and also adores Cameron Carpenter’s extraordinary stage presence, which is conveyed not just by his quirky attire but also by the way he connects with the audience. That said, Carpenter has no truck with the idea that the organ is an eccentric instrument.

„It is organists, not the organ, that are "eccentric”. As I keep trying to explain, the organ is the only instrument to operate completely within the binary domain. It’s a mistake to view the digital organ as a revolution. It is, of course, a terribly important evolution, but not one discontinuous from the tradition of the pipe organ. It is a logical extension of the instrument into the digital domain which was foretold centuries ago – the operation of the pipe organ is an early example of digital encoding. Therefore, as forerunner of much of digital life, it is the most logical and least eccentric. If anything, my eccentricity has rubbed off on it, through my work as an organ designer.“

Were you ever wavering between the organ and another instrument, or was it always going to be the organ?

„An unanswerable (not to mention irrelevant) question, since on our present timeline, I would never have been interested in any other instrument, just as I remain uninterested by them now.“

At the opening Cameron Carpenter and the International Touring Organ will be alone on stage playing works by Bach and his own arrangement of the famous “Adagietto” from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, which will be performed afterwards by the Konzerthausorchester Berlin under the baton of Principal Conductor Iván Fischer. In the course of the season Cameron Carpenter will naturally perform in various constellations. These will include collaborations with pianists Lucas & Arthur Jussen, singer Olivia Trummer and members of the Konzerthaus orchestra.

Interview: Renske Steen
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