Cameron Carpenter on the Future of Classical Organ

Forget the pipe organ you know. The world’s most outspoken organist is ready to replace it with a digital touring organ he hopes will usher in a vital future for organists and a new level of enjoyment for audiences.

Without his sparkling outfits, without the custom-designed shoes he wears when tap-dancing across the pedals, without the crowds he dazzles and charms, and even without the organ, Cameron Carpenter still beams like he’s onstage. He talks architecture and aesthetics, connects music history to social analysis, and fantasizes about waves of young organists reimagining the instrument. He speaks in impassioned sentences that he constructs and then edits, as though working out an especially technical phrase on the keyboard during a marathon practice session. It’s that personality that helped him break free from conventions that shroud classical organists in humble anonymity. He fashioned himself into a rock star, all while honing the chops to make that moniker inarguably well deserved.

Man on a Mission

That force of personality is so great, it seems if he had fallen in love with the sousaphone, he would have become the world’s greatest sousaphone player. But listen to him for more than a few minutes, and you may become a convert to the church of the new digital organ. We’re not talking about imitating the Hammond B-3, though Cameron excels on that instrument as well. We’re talking about a transportable console Cameron has been developing that can emulates—but ultimately transcends—the pipe organ. His own success having reinvented the organist, he intends to do the same for the organ.

Image placeholder title

As we sit on a typically chilly day in a café on Berlin’s famed Unter den Linden, Cameron is California dreaming. Yes, Berlin has launched a new wave of his career in Europe, and it’s a city he has grown to love—but while Los Angeles might seem unlikely to inspire an organist, its egalitarian, new-world thinking is exactly what inspires Cameron. Like his digital organ project, it’s about the new. “In L.A., there’s no high culture or low culture, because the whole place is so young,” Cameron explains. “There’s no new money or old money, like in New York. That’s an enormous relief and a great sense of freedom.”
That restlessness with place, with the meeting of new and old, is perfectly in character. With a touring digital organ, Cameron is about to cut the bonds that tie organs to churches, concert halls, and architectural context in general, to make something more personal, more mobile, and perhaps more human.

“Dismay and disappointment” with the sad state of the pipe organ, says Cameron, “is one of the reasons I’m so keen on the touring organ project. It’s a sea change that I have in mind for the organ and what the organist is. For the first time in history, it’s possible for an organist to have a mobile instrument in which they have a sense of ownership. That’s certainly still a commercial wall that only one organist has been able to break,” he continues—that one organist being him, “and that’s something I’d like to change.”

Furthermore, he wants to change it for more than just a superstar or two. He makes a comparison to the accessibility of filmmaking thanks to digital technology, and then adds, “While I certainly don’t expect everyone to be an organist one day, I want to see a culture open up that’s similar to the piano culture. And I think that I’m at the cusp of what will begin to make that possible.”

What’s Wrong with the Pipe Organ?

Cameron doesn’t hesitate to champion the organ as instrument. You can imagine, therefore, that some people are taken aback as he unleashes his critique of the pipe organ. His criticisms cover a number of areas: the pipe organ tends to have technical problems; it fails to allow privacy and independent artistry; it’s non-standard, with each instrument in each venue having different capabilities and idiosyncrasies; and it’s overly tied to preconceptions that a pipe organist must therefore be a church organist. Most of all, the pipe organ is tied to a physical location.

“The organ is the ultimate local instrument,” says Cameron. “In the 18th century, that was perfectly appropriate. Bach traveled probably 500 miles in his whole life.” The conventional pipe organ also doesn’t afford privacy: “[Bach] also never practiced alone,” Cameron observes. “Except for whenever you happened to play the pedal harpsichord, somebody had to be pumping the organ.” Though most organs in the 21st century don’t need an attendant to pump them, the privacy issue remains: “The guitarist, violinist, God knows a painter, a dancer—all of these other established art forms put such a high value on privacy,” Cameron says, “and it’s hard to have a sense of privacy and ownership if you’re in, say, a church. To have an instrument in your home when you roll out of bed and play—in a moment of stress or a moment of ecstasy—those are incredibly important things.”

Once you do “borrow” an organ for a concert, you run head first into technical flaws from which pipe organs suffer, including tuning problems and non-working keys. “I think it’s shocking and outrageous that a whole culture of instrumentalists should be taught to put up with an instrument that’s out of tune,” says Cameron, his voice rising. “Every other instrumentalist goes crazy over intonation. We’re expected to spend thousands of hours perfecting a technique that will be pointless when you wind up with an organ that has dead notes.” Again, Cameron connects the issue to the lack of consistency and mobility. “It would be banal just to point a finger of failing at things which any instrument can experience,” he concedes. “I would also point a finger at the idea that every pipe organ is different, and therefore denies an itinerant player, which is what all organists want to be. They want to be touring and playing concerts.”

“The piano,” by contrast, says Cameron, “has been there for hundreds of years. You have, in the ’20s, Rachmaninoff writing a concerto and only people like the young Horowitz being able to play it. Now, every 15-year-old pianist who really has their eyes set on a career plays it. That’s because everywhere in the world, the piano is more or less the same. I think that’s a fact of inestimable value to the evolution of pianists—just like there are standards in medicine and in mathematics. It doesn’t mean that all organ building should be the same or that pipe organs should be thrown out, but I think there’s a strong argument for a standardized instrument that would be available to a person in North Dakota and in Nigeria.” Such an instrument, he says, “won’t confound young talents with having to deal with the vagaries of an organ in Switzerland as opposed to the organ in France as opposed to the organ in America and all of these local identities.”

Some traditionalists, of course, balk at Cameron’s dissent about pipe organs and traditional playing. But he argues that it’s his very loyalty to organ tradition that informs his belief in the digital solution. “What I’m not doing is dumping,” he says. “What I’m doing is getting back to tradition. That’s the irony. The things that I’m advocating—particularly the artistic freedoms that I advocate in the way that I play—are right out of the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

A Brave New World

Spend some time with Cameron in his studio, and it seems he has fashioned himself into a kind of machine, a virtuosic organ-playing instrument. Even posing for our photo shoot, he’s practicing, shuttling between a piano and an organ working out notes. His workspace is itself engineered, with meticulously arranged projects and scores in carefully-labeled rows of boxes, categorized journals tracking ideas, and collections of his own compositions. Having remade himself to be a better musician, it’s little wonder he’d turn the same attentions to the instrument.
In his vision of the digital organ, the instrument keeps the best qualities of the pipe organ and expands from there. Cameron calls this quality of the best digital organs “ecstatic.” “They present the interface and capabilities of the pipe organ, but they leave all the mediocre failings of the pipe organ behind,” he says.

Image placeholder title

Whereas pipe organ construction is controlled by a “closed guild,” Cameron wants to re-center the instrument around the musician. “Every organist should have the ability to influence the organ they play, no matter where or what,” he says. “Every organ should adapt to, or even become, the organist who’s playing it. That is really my deep belief. In believing that, I’m essentially advocating that every organ should be a digital organ.”

“It isn’t about the pipe organ or the digital organ,” he hastens to add. “It’s about evolving and growing, about trying to look forward to a generation of players who can be economically self-sufficient from the thing they love to do. That’s what it’s really about. And I don’t see the traditional pipe organ as being part of that.”

The digital organ is not simply about technological freedom or even expressive freedom. It could enable career freedom. The fact that Cameron stands alone among professional solo organists in his reach, accomplishments, and commercial success is partly a testament to his drive, talent, and work ethic, but it’s also a sign that many opportunities are closed to most organists.

“There’s absolutely no framework or infrastructure in place for a person to have a commercial career outside of church if they’re an organist,” laments Cameron. “So when I started promoting myself in 2000, it was with full awareness that if I wasn’t going to do something, I’d be stuck playing in a church.

“I realize that I often seem quite negative about organists. It’s very difficult to be positive about the community of organists when you see people desperately clinging to the past,” he says. But he also says he feels a sense of brotherhood for the men, women, boys, and girls trying to make the organ a vocation. “They have an incredibly hard road to hoe,” he says. “We want a keyboarding culture. It’s got to be commercially self-sustaining for that to exist.” The digital organ is a key to unlocking that culture, he says, but it’s not there yet.

“The fact that many digital organs are horrible is less symptomatic of them being digital than it is simply of the naiveté of the instrument, which is in its childhood,” says Cameron. “The digital organ itself has only existed since 1971. The electronic organ has been around in some form since 1930, but it’s only been good since 1990, and it’s only been world-class since 2003. So this is breaking news. This is, like, now. And that’s shocking—because it’s an incredible opportunity for a musicians to be at the knife’s edge of their instrument.”

“Although it may sound grandiose, the subject for me is really one of civilization in general, and particularly of evolution, in the sense that there are moments in a culture where things can evolve or not,” says Cameron. To witness the evolution of the organ is a singular opportunity, one classical artists haven’t seen in our lifetime. “The piano hasn’t changed substantially in about a hundred years,” he says. “The violins that we value are 300 years old; they haven’t changed. Even a comparable newcomer to the orchestra like the saxophone is now a fully evolved instrument.” The organ can be entirely new as well, he says.

While he can’t yet share all the details of the instrument in question, Cameron has spent the last few years involved in the digital organ’s next evolution, particularly in the form of the touring organ he plans to use. But the vision he has for the organ is as much for the organist as it is the instrument and its technology. Understanding that model, you better understand the trajectory of Cameron’s own career.

The Organist: Musician of the Future

“A violinist has to be an all-around musician,” says Cameron. “That’s what I’m advocating for the future of the organist. The key thing there to understand is that the future of the organ has nothing to do with the instrument. It has to do with the person. And that’s where I come up with my intentionally contentious phrases such as l’orgue n’existe pas. And ‘we don’t listen to organs, we never hear organs, we only hear organists,’ which I think is an absolute truth.”

 “No other instrument relies so heavily on the setting of parameters and the input of an individual to give it its character,” he says. “The degree of individuality that can be drawn out and instantly recognizable—particularly to a non-musically-initiated person—is much higher with the organ than with the piano.”

“To take one example, listen to my recording of Liszt’s ‘Mephisto Waltz’ on [the album] Revolutionary,” instructs Cameron. “The clarity I’m able to achieve is more easily identifiable to a person who’s uninitiated to music in general.” In Cameron’s view, the organ can “illuminate the form of the music” in melody and structure, through its varied timbral capabilities.

Of course, this also evokes the synthesizer, which is similarly malleable. “It’s often said that the organ is the first synthesizer,” Cameron acknowledges. “It’s something that I love to point out when pipe organ defenders brag that organs are the first synthesizer but damn the digital organ as a mere synthesizer.”

For his part, Cameron doesn’t subscribe to this view. “The idea that the pipe organ is a synthesizer is for me . . . misleading. What I would say is that the organ is an incredibly diverse and useful means of synthesizing musical ideas.” He notes that even the digital organ continues to use the pipe organ’s mechanisms as a starting point. And here, Cameron’s underlying affection for pipe organ—despite its limitations as an instrument in 2012—shows.

He describes the pipe organ in poetic terms. “The musical interface of the organ, when well-equipped and able to be harnessed by its player, allows a person to work in a four- or five-dimensional way,” he says. “It’s an instrument that exerts, potentially, a much vaster application of spectrum to music. It can get softer. It can get louder. It can play with, in a sense, greater clarity or greater ambiguity than any other instrument. It has a heightened ability to create illusion and shock and deep feeling. The fact that the organ is popularly thought to be a ‘boring’ instrument is a testament to the scandalous under-utilization of those possibilities.”

“The digital organ in its highest form tends to speak a language which is derived entirely from the pipe organ,” he says. But if the digital organ begins at the point of the pipe organ—something that’s not true of the synthesizer—Cameron nonetheless hopes that it will go further than its source. “The highest and most articulate digital organs that exist use the pipe organ as a starting place. The key element that I can’t over-emphasize enough is that the digital organ not stop there. I’m still struggling to pull the digital organ in a more interesting direction than merely an imitation of the pipe organ. It’s by imitating the pipe organ that you remain a third- or fifth-class impression, ranging from halfway decent to a mere shadow of the original.”

Cameron sees this future in the melding of synthesis and sampling. “It’s now possible to take the sounds of pipe organs that are sampled—and I mean sampled at massive bit depth with eight microphones in usually proprietary and carefully-guarded ways—and then, in the laboratory, before that sound is assigned to a draw-knob on an organ console, to mix those sounds, to interfere with them, to bring out certain aspects of certain notes, and maybe to, for instance, take parts of different samples and mix them together to create a stop that could never exist in pipe form. Now we’re getting somewhere. Now the pipe organ begins to be something that can contribute to the evolution of a much more highly-involved, much more sophisticated instrument that nonetheless could never exist without it.”

Building an Audience

Something special happens when you see Cameron play live, something that makes all this talk of digital organs and touring organs make a lot more sense. Beyond any notion of stardom or ego or even stage presence, he has a unique ability to connect with an audience. From the shadowy, almost-unseen figure dwarfed by an organ’s towering pipes, he becomes a player who draws audiences into the experience. Amidst the fireworks of his fingers rocketing from one timbre to another to the ballet of his footwork, the organ becomes secondary to the living, breathing body of the music. And he connects in literal ways, too, mingling with audiences and working extensively in education with kids, their eyes alight at this instrument that had previously been mysterious, forbidding, and sacred to the point of alienation.

“I absolutely advocate things that are way out of fashion for the organ,” he says. “But there’s one other thing that’s out of fashion for the organ: audiences! I’m already changing that. All serious music making must have audience building as one of its central tasks.” Cameron’s quest to make organ more accessible for everyone began with his family. “Coming from a non-musical family, it’s natural for me to search for those solutions,” he says. “Because I have, for instance, a father who would not only be incapable of carrying a tune, but would have a very difficult time telling the difference between Handel and Haydn.

“That’s not to say I advocate any kind of simplicity or dumbing down—quite the contrary. However, in my playing, learning, studying, and performing music, I always try to view the score as something behind which I’m placing a light. I want, as if such a thing were possible, for people to be able to write down the music as though it’s printed when I play it. I want the rhythm, and I want everything to be as clear as possible. I find that the organ in the ideal form, particularly in the digital form, has the ability to articulate those ideas with increasing clarity—clarity that vastly outpaces the piano if the piano is to be viewed as a competitor.”

Cameron hopes for a world where both the organ and organist become means to shine that light from behind the score onto audiences. “The digital organ of the future has to be able to render all of the existing organ repertoire better than the pipe organ can do,” he says, “and I think we’re already there—people just don’t know it yet.”

When that tipping point arrives—and he does say he expects it soon—it will open doors for more than just him. That’s the point. “In the meantime,” he laughs, “I’m happy to be the world’s leading advocate for the digital organ, a position for which there’s no competition.”
Let’s return to that idea of personality. Where some might see ego, Cameron’s genius is in channeling intensely personal energy into what he believes. It’s the opposite of the humble organist hidden beneath manuals and pipes. It’s, perhaps, distinctly American; it’s certainly modern and individualist. As Cameron explains:

“It basically has to do with a decision to allow one’s personality to be the guiding force in life. To do that, one has to be prepared to look the fool at times. There’s almost no way around that. I have never found it to be a choice; I’ve found since I was a very young child I was always extremely outspoken and headstrong. I’ve desperately attempted to meld that into something that’s good, or at least profitable. Hopefully good! Hopefully it also makes me a good person, and if nothing else, an interesting person—if at least for the duration of a magazine article!”