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Pipe dreams: bedazzled in Swarovski crystals and playing an instrument of his own design, 27-year-old organ virtuoso Cameron Carpenter could very well be the brightest star since Liberace.

THE MIDDLE COLLEGIATE CHURCH, across the street from a Jewish bakery on Second Avenue in New York City's East Village, was built in 1872 and features stunning Tiffany stained-glass windows that depict both abstract images and Christian scenes. While many stop by the church for its design or its all-faith-inclusive celebrations, even more go to see 27-year-old artist-in-residence Cameron Carpenter, who today is wearing a radically mismatched ensemble--multicolored striped shirt, polka-dotted shorts, pink socks, and black boots--as he furiously plays a piece from his debut album, Revolutionary, on tile church's pipe organ.


That's right, the organ. But it's not what you might think. Carpenter isn't a shrinking violet churning out mushy Bach in some damp ecclesiastical corner. He's an ambitious radical in the organ world who plays with unrelenting vigor, scope, and imagination--while dressed in Swarovski-spangled regalia (of his own design) and white shoes with special heels that enable him to hit two pedals at once. He's been called one of the "greatest organ technicians of all time" and a "bona fide genius"--and he wants to make sure you know it.

"The organist should be an uberpianist," Carpenter says. "My dream is to raise the bar." And to that end, he does things few organists ever think to do. He tackles difficult virtuoso pieces originally written for the piano by composers like Chopin and Liszt and restages them for the organ, while also investing old warhorses--like Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Vladimir Horowitz's Variations on a Theme From Bizet's "Carmen"--with fresh fire. Taking inspiration from diverse influences like Rudolf Nureyev, David Bowie, Laura Nyro, Liberace, and Karl Lagerfeld--"people who have been able to pay tribute to the past while moving on to the future"--Carpenter doesn't want to play solely for classical music aficionados. "My ambition is to become a cult figure," Carpenter says, "like Elvis Costello."

And he's well on his way, transforming organ playing into something like performance art in his concerts. "I've had a lot of dance training, and I consider dance absolutely vital to organ playing," he explains. "I've noticed physical inhibition in many organists, which is partially responsible for the plodding nature of organ playing. Playing the organ, though esoteric, is outwardly very flamboyant."

Though he is proudly and profoundly queer, Carpenter finds the term gay too parochial for him. "While my first love was a boy and I've had numerous male lovers, I also love women," he says. "I've shown extreme equitability in the genders, and also had gender confusion of my own." He prefers to describe his sexuality as "radically inclusive," an expression that echoes Middle Collegiate's philosophy. "It's the most diverse [congregation] you'll ever see--straight, gay, and transgendered, from all financial walks of life, of every ethnic and age group," Carpenter says.

But religion is a "nonissue" for this prodigy from rural Pennsylvania, who was playing Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier at 11 and transcribing Mahler's Fifth Symphony for the organ at 15.


"When he was little, he was dramatic," recalls his mother, Lynn, who home-schooled her son before sending him to the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J., when he hit sixth grade. "At age 5 he'd tap-dance with hat and cane to the music of Scott Joplin. He'd watch Masterpiece Theatre and sing the theme with trills and everything. He used to draw orchestras of mice playing instruments in great detail." Witnessing such talent inspired his mother to send him to his first piano teacher when he was 6. Carpenter became interested ill organ while at the Bovchoir school and started accompanying the choir, eventually landing a job as organist at a local Lutheran church at 13. After high school he attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and subsequently received both his bachelor's and master's degrees from the Juilliard School.

While Carpenter loved the organ, he was turned off by the notion that organists are often treated as second-class citizens, shoved in the background, underpaid, and underappreciated. "Everything we know about the organ is wrong," he says. "The organ is approached on bended knee via the hallowed halls of methodology. This tends to stymie the creativity of young organists, readying them for the grindstone of church work. I have nothing against church, and this church has been incredibly exciting for me and very welcoming. But the first role of any organist should be that of artist, not to be subservient."

Carpenter's videos can be seen on YouTube, and his most recent concerts at Middle Collegiate were streamed on the Web. He's also launched a 30-date concert tour to promote his album, including stops at London's Royal Albert Hall and the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, Germany. To perform these concerts just as he wants, Carpenter has designed his own organ, equipped with more than the usual four-octave range as well as more varied timbres, and a greater choice of woodwind, brass, string, and percussive tones. That organ lives at Middle Collegiate--worth a pilgrimage if only to hear the digital cymbal crash alone--but it has a removable console that can be installed in pipe organs wherever he plays.

"This organ is the most advanced and groundbreaking in the world, the very forefront in technology," Carpenter says. "It will do everything that other organs do and everything they will not." A fitting description for the organist as well.
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Title Annotation:MUSIC
Author:Hilferty, Robert
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 2, 2008
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