BY Jan Kedves in Influences | 14 AUG 13
Featured in
Issue 11

Striking a Chord

For this regular series in frieze d/e, Berlin-based organist Cameron Carpenter discusses his affinities to glam

BY Jan Kedves in Influences | 14 AUG 13

Prototype of Cameron Carpenter’s digital organ, 2013 (courtesy: © 2013 Cameron Carpenter)

JAN KEDVES What attracts you to glam?

CAMERON CARPENTER Glam is an aesthetic that I can take part in, or steal from, without really caring too much about its history. I don’t consciously associate it with any single person or movement. What attracts me to glam is the aspect of it being something very foreign, very special and possibly fleeting – something that might disappear. It is so precious and shining and magical to us that we want to hang on to it – and yet it’s also a little frightening.

JK So you don’t think of David Bowie when you think about glam?

CC No. I mean, Bowie is great, but before Bowie there were the Cockettes, and there was Liberace, and even way before Liberace there was Christianity! There was the Angel Gabriel who appeared to the Virgin Mary and who for me is sort of the original glam figure. I really like the idea that there’s this angel who’s so hot that he can get you pregnant without even having sex with you! Gabriel is mostly portrayed as this miraculous and androgynous character, covered in pearlescent white and diamonds, very glamorous and beautiful, and he’s just taking it easy. So maybe a lot of Bowie actually came from the Church? I mean, has Bowie done anything that Michelangelo didn’t do in Rome?

Giovanni Odazzi (1663–1731), The Annunciation(courtesy: © Christie’s Images / The Bridgeman Art Library)

JK Ziggy Stardust came from space and angels come from heaven, so there’s a parallel …

CC Yes, it’s the same myth. It’s an apparitional theme. This is probably the only part of the Christian myth that I ever found attractive. You know, I come from a totally God-free background, I never went to church. I’m not at all attracted to the idea that we should be enthralled to a God who forces us to love him and be terrified of him – which is sort of the definition of S&M!

JK Your instrument, the organ, is mostly seen as a church instrument. But actually the very first organs weren’t used for religious services …

CC Right, the organ was originally an instrument of military conquest. 2000 years ago, organs were used on battlegrounds and at sporting events. And that always seemed so fitting to me about my own introduction to the organ, because what attracted me to the organ initially was not the sound. I saw a picture in an encyclopedia of a cinema organ and the control interface, the console, was so alluring to me, with all these buttons and stops, it just looked marvellous and incredibly dramatic, and very tempting! But when I actually heard the sound of the organ for the first time my immediate feeling, instinctively, was that I was in danger – that it was a very violent sound.

JK So the organ prompted a kind of glam reaction? You just defined glam as something incredibly appealing but frightening at the same time …

CC Absolutely. And I wouldn’t leave the violence out of it. For instance, when you think of the Cockettes – not that their act was physically violent, of course, but I’m thinking of a violence of expression. The Cockettes were real activists, there was something very confrontational in the way they presented themselves. Now I wouldn’t find that violence in Liberace …

Cameron Carpenter, 2013 (courtesy: © 2013 Cameron Carpenter; photograph: Heiko Laschitzki)

JK Liberace was never seen without his cheesiest of smiles – which wasn’t confrontational at all.

CC Right. Liberace’s presence was totally passive, saccharine and designed for TV. It lacked the sword. And I think true glam has to have the sword.

JK How do you put ‘the sword’ in your organ playing?

CC Well, the first thing is that I’m not silent about what I don’t like about the classical pipe organ. Generally an organist will play wherever an organ happens to be, and he only has eight to 12 hours to get used to the instrument – which is a hair-raising way to have to perform! That’s why I’m in the process of creating my own digital organ which I can take on tour and will allow me to do what I can do best wherever I play. Its world premiere will be at the Lincoln Center, New York, in March next year. So not being satisfied with the organ as it is and changing it to suit me – that, in the eyes of most classical organists, is an act of rebellion. So that’s the first sword. The second sword would be my insistence on the fact that the organist is the centre of the performance, not the organ. In the traditional church context the organ is an instrument of humility – you see it in the architecture when the console is physically hidden. In almost all of the European churches you can’t see the person playing the organ, and even in some concert halls the organist is hidden. That to me is repulsive, because music is attached to identity, and I very much believe that music is a visual art, too. So my insistence upon being seen also means that the issue of appearance – of not wanting to look like everyone else in classical music – and the issue of fashion for that matter, come into play.

Lendon, a member of the Cockettes, 1969 (courtesy: © Bud Lee / The Serge Group)

JK Does it still happen that people say: oh, you only dress up in order to attract attention?

CC All the time.

JK But wearing a silver mesh tank top on stage instead of standard black tails also has its practical uses: the way you play the organ is so physically demanding that you sweat a lot during your concerts …

CC Well, that’s true, but of course you don’t wear a see-through tank top on stage unless you’re naturally an exhibitionist. It’s not that I want to show the audience my skin exactly, but at the same time I want to wear something that is flattering. And I feel that my body is the best part of me, which is a fairly rare thing to feel. I think when people are irritated by that it speaks to some of the physical shame and fear of sex that is prevalent in the world of classical music. In the end it all comes down to personality, and inherently there is something in classical music that’s very afraid of ego. So whatever it is, whether it’s the organ I’ve designed, whether it’s what I wear or the way I play Bach – it’s all the same question: are you going to give us yourself or are you going to give us some received truth?

Michael Douglas as Liberace in the film Behind the Candelabra, 2013 (courtesy: DCM)

JK Your interpretations of Bach have been criticized as ‘too progressive’ …

CC Well, I don’t think there is one ‘right way’ to play Bach. Bach was a huge renegade in his time, moving the science and the art of music-making outward in quantum directions. So I think Bach should always be played as though it was the music of the future, because in many ways it is! But that is where the fundaments of Christianity come back into classical music, because a typical conservative classical musician will try to preach the gospel, in other words he will tell you that he’s obeying the composer’s wishes. The composer is God, and the musician will give you God’s word. But I feel very strongly that the interpretation is the point, not the text, and that God is dead – as are most composers.

JK And of course there can be no interpretation without ego?

CC Exactly. And to relate it back to glam: Of course one doesn’t undertake the trappings of glam without an ego. Glam can’t exist away from ego, and maybe glam is the most beautiful empowered statement of ego. Afterall, glam is never about subjugation, but about the exact opposite: uplifting oneself in a way that is enjoyable for all.

Cameron Carpenter is an American organist. He studied at Juilliard in New York. His album Revolutionary was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2009. His next concert in Berlin, where he lives, will be on 24 September 2013 at the Philharmonie.

Jan Kedves is a writer, editor and author of Talking Fashion. From Nick Knight to Raf Simons in Their Own Words (Prestel, 2013). He is based in Berlin.