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The art of ecstasy: Organ rebel Cameron Carpenter plays Mesa

Cameron Carpenter
Michael Hart/photo courtesy of Mesa Arts Center

It's hard to talk about what makes Cameron Carpenter a radical organist. We have few comparisons and limited vocabulary for the ancient, churchy giant he's mastered. But, before he arrives at Mesa Art Center next week, we can and should admire his altruistic intention to spread ecstasy through music. His own serious words, shared with Examiner, are as alluring as his almost-released Sony album due out next month in Europe, and in October in the States.

"The organ for me was first attractive for its theatricality," began Carpenter by phone from Germany, separating himself from the organ's traditionally sacred music stereotype. "I bring a perspective to organ music from the outside."

Often sporting a mohawk, leather and sequins, or punk bling, Carpenter receives constant international acclaim and descriptions like “A fallen angel who gives the organ back its sin” (—DIE ZEIT). His flamboyance is tempered by Julliard degrees and routinely sold out concerts at venues that read disarmingly like a tour itinerary of the planet's most holy cathedrals. Because that's where the glorious instruments live.

"It's the most mechanical instrument in existence; the organ is a machine," Carpenter offered to articulate how it differs from other traditional instruments. "It can make louder 'louds' or sustain indefinitely. It's not limited by the stamina of the player. That's also part of why it's considered mystical."

Those features make the organ "ripe for abuse," according to Carpenter, "...hence, the stereotype of the droning, disconnected, eccentric player. It requires no particular skill to blast notes or hold down a chord forever," he said. Maybe that's the source of the organ's sad and wrongful association with gratuitous cacophony.

Certainly Carpenter shatters preconceived notions across the (key)boards, and his spectacle garners tons of attention. The sheer marvelous complexity, too, of his feet providing alternate melodies, rhythms or harmonies while each hand caresses a separate keyboard is a fascinating draw. But it seems his earnest depth and seriousness is what cradles and keeps us. His talent rises above technical mastery.

"With that enlarged intensity comes the potential for an enlarged emotional spectrum," he said. Since intellect and emotion can rule, rather than stamina, he suggested that "to make that instrument sing and dance requires greater mastery."

He's all about "rewiring the idea of what the organ is meant to do." Carpenter explained, "One overriding, overarching point, the reason I play, is ecstasy. I pursue music not because it's pseudo-academic or has the label of 'Great Art,' but because it has an ecstatic bent to it."

The wonderfully nontraditional guy will likely pull out all the stops in Mesa, and then some. Kaleidoscope images of himself on his website suggest the many fractal views we might glimpse. And he invites us to listen by assuring that no human should feel beneath any certain genre of music or unprepared to appreciate art.

"I don't accept the idea that classical music is inherently great. It's simply a human offering," said Carpenter, who has transcribed hundreds of symphonic pieces for the organ, and also writes prolifically his own highly praised compositions. "I wouldn't consider myself a classical music subscriber, I'm just a person who speaks the language passionately."

Even with the high profile accolades his music brings, Carpenter feels his dream career is really only about to begin. After laboring for years over his self-designed, newly-unveiled "International Touring Organ" at Lincoln Center last month, next month's European tour followed by the U.S. fall concerts are the first steps to realizing a potential he's only imagined thus far. His Sony Classical album release, scheduled to coincide with the tours, will put his record 'If You Could Read My Mind' (available to hear on SoundCloud) into the hands of the masses.

It's a deep, complex mind to read, and maybe all of our minds are. But Cameron provides an avenue for us when ESP and clairvoyance fail. He's instead communicating ecstasy through music, extravagant organ music no less. By that radical means Mesa, and the rest of the world, might truly know him.

-Jennifer Haaland

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