Five minutes into talking with concert-hall organist Cameron Carpenter, and one discovers he is like few others.
With Carpenter, a question on practically any subject can launch what amounts to a doctoral discoursesomething this interviewer found fascinating. Talking with him, of course, revealed more than a few things, including the fact that the Juilliard-trained Carpenter shuns ( and defies ) labels.
Windy City Times talked with the thoughtful and thought-provoking musician before a recent area performance about music, sexuality and drinking ( not what one might think ) .
Windy City Times: You've been called the "bad boy of the organ" and a "maverick organist." Do you think you're increasing the accessibility and visibility of classical music because people are intrigued by these labels?
Cameron Capenter: I don't really know that people actually are intrigued by the labels, to answer an unasked prior question. I have always found "bad boy of the organ" to be a pathetic moniker. I try to discourage whenever I can. To be the "bad boy of the organ" would be easy, indeed, in a field in which people toe such a narrow line.
I do think there is one thingand probably one thing, only, aside from actual musical issuesthat I do that is incredibly important: I take great pride and enormous satisfaction in being myself. I don't think there's any great progress in which you call the accessibility of classical music. I don't know you would quantify that, because classical music ranges from Gregorian chants to the relatively unintelligible bulk of most new music [ that ] is composed for things like synthesizers.
"Classical music" is this vast lexicon that includes opera, and a tiny bit of it is organ music. I don't know if it's accessible, or if it makes any great effort to be or not to be, sort of like literature. So I don't consider it my job to make music accessible; I consider it my job to play great works. I think the thing I do is to do it exactly the way I see fit, wearing exactly what I likeand I think that attracts people.
WCT: It's not that I think it's your job, necessarily, to make classical music more accessible. However, you and I both know there are certain marketing terms, whether they're true or notlike "bad boy of classical music"that will draw people in.
CC: Perhaps, although I do find the term "maverick organist" a little more poetic. The only one I appreciated was when the New York Times compared me to Fred Astaire, who was a staggering artist.
I mean, I didn't think you were implying that it was my job. I was just saying that my job is not education. I find it pathetic and sad that those who otherwise would be called classical musicians would have this massive guilt trip about making their music understandablethe idea that everything has to be pointed out with a little Post-It note. You just can't do that to people, and I also find it a little insulting to the audience. I assume that my audience is staggeringly knowledgeable and, even if they're not, that they're celebratorily open to new things.
I also take what I do with the greatest level of seriousness, in terms of delivering value for money and being unbelievably well-prepared, and being unabashed and unafraid about it. Of course, people respect that intuitively, most of the time.
WCT: To me, there's something inherently beautiful about classical music. What is it that intrigues you about it?
CC: There's a great depth of beauty, vulgarity, shallowness, profundity, simplicity and showmanship in almost every kind of human experience. For me, the last thing I would do is identify as a classical musician.
At this point, it's like the whole total banal discussion of bullying. It's sort of a very tired cliche to say you don't want to be labelled; at the end of the day, I don't [ like ] labels because they're woefully inadequate. With your own publication in mind, it's a little like why I object to people calling me "gay." It's not that I don't have sex with men, but it stops short of describing the satisfaction I have from relationships with women, which would render "gay" factually inaccurate.
The music that most intrigues me is from all over the map. To answer your original question, there is beauty in classical music, sometimes. I am attracted to a panoply of experiences, especially in the act of going to a concert. I'm not just interested in beauty; I'm also interested ( but necessariy equally ) in vulgarity and violence.
Also, it's more about the organ than it is about any one type of classical music. The musical instrument is in sync with my mentality, somehow; that's why I play it. There's something satisfactoryalthough that's a weak wordabout playing it, but it's like finding the other half of your personality. It completes me, and that's why I play. It goes way beyond having any attraction to this music or that music.
That's why I'm a little sensitive, I think, to the idea of "classical music." For me, there's an unabashed act of ego about it, and I'm quite proud of that.
WCT: Actually, I want to go back to sexuality. I read in an interview that you consider yourself to be "radically inclusive," sexually.
CC: [ Laughs ] This is one of those experiences where I learned to be careful talking to journalists. Unfortunately, I meant that as a joke, and they were too thick to understand. However, it's only a joke because it's true, like most jokes. I thought "radically inclusive" might be a tongue-in-cheek way of pruning the queer-studies way of talking about sexuality.
WCT: On a different note, there was something I noticed in the CBS Sunday Morning profile of you, among other thingsthat you drank a gallon of whole milk a day to keep on weight. I don't know anyone who comes close to drinking that amount. Do you still do that?
CC: Well, I drink a lot of milk. I don't drink a gallon of milk, although I drink a gallon of fluid. That piece was about two years ago and, at the time, I was struggling intensely with my metabolism. I have a bizarre problemwhich I guess is a problem most of the world should be so lucky to havebut I have a radically fast metabolism. So it's extremely difficult for me to build muscle mass to keep weight on, so I was shocking my system with caloric input. It turned out to be incredibly effective, actually.
However, exercise is my other great passion. I'm kind of a lightweight weightlifter, of sorts, but anything that's regular and imposes discipline is extremely attractive to me. Something about lifting embodies the struggle we all face.
WCT: Is there anything you want your audiences to come away with, or are you fine with them interpreting what they will?
CC: Actually, I'm somewhat agenda-free, in a sense, but the main agenda is to always be myselfand I stand by that pretty strongly because it would be fairly presumptive to have any specific goal in mind. I think it would be like trying to make people laugh; one never hits the target by aiming at it. I let people form their own judgments about [ my performances ] , partly because playing the organ has become such a stratified activity, especially for young organists. It's so deeply loaded with the expectations of other people and I've noticed, at times, that it has such a profound on other people's behaviors and how they relate to society.
I don't play to expectations; I go about do what I'm doing. I think that allows people to have a much better chance at forming opinions of their own.
I also come from a non-musical family and, so, it makes sense for me to not take academic considerations into mind.