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Organist Cameron Carpenter Makes his Kennedy Center Debut

October 3, 2013
Cameron Carpenter photo by Heiko Laschitzki

Contemporary organist Cameron Carpenter will take the stage at the Kennedy Center on October 16 for his first solo recital at the District’s premier performing arts center. The 32-year-old musician will focus on his new solo work, Music For An Imaginary Film, during his upcoming performance. Carpenter’s work, which is still being completed, will premiere at the Kennedy Center in advance of being recorded for his first Sony album out next spring.

“It’s an epic work and it’s extremely difficult,” he said. “But the difficulties are in service of creating, or at least setting the listener free to create for themselves, a mental film.”

Carpenter is well known for not planning his programs in advance. The spontaneous performer said he operates within a tradition of classical music that has become “exceedingly rare, even though it used to be – in the 19th century – a traveling artist’s modus operandi.”

His repertoire runs the gamut from classical to original compositions, to unique takes on today’s popular music. His 2014 album will combine some of his transcriptions and settings of classical and modern music in a cycle of “song treatments” ranging from the American Songbook to present day, in addition to Music For An Imaginary Film.

The organist said his process relies heavily on pulling together emotional and artistically motivational source material from all around him, especially film, 20th-century writers and artists and niches in popular culture including Asian art and fashion.

“This, somewhat like the non-organ works I arrange, has to be somehow filtered down through the organ I have before me, which, as in this case, I’ve usually never seen before,” he explained. “So spontaneity and adaptability are vital actually, and as it turns out, they make one a better, more interesting musician.”

Carpenter is currently designing a touring organ that will be launched in both the U.S. and Europe next spring. He said that his invention will “redefine what the relationship between organist and organ can be.”

Cameron Carpenter photo by Heiko Laschitzki

“Part of the historic practice of organ playing is that all organists should adapt to whatever organ they’re playing, all of which – in a stunning contrast to all other instruments – are completely different,” he said. “If there’s any single thing that defines me as an artist, it’s that I’ve never accepted that this should be so.”

Carpenter has never seen the Kennedy Center organ, and said he’s looking forward to what it has to teach him about what his “dream organ” should and possibly shouldn’t be.

When asked what drew him to the organ, the musician explained that the organ was first an overwhelming force for him visually when he saw “a highly evocative encyclopedia entry showing an organist playing in a movie palace” as a small child.

“My first contact with an organ at age four was almost sinister in its power and I was forever ruined to serious dedication to anything else,” he said. “Conveniently though, my first attraction was to performance rather than music, and the later convergence of this awareness with the organ was fantastically motivating. So it would be hard to say that I chose it, as I saw no other remotely possible option.”

As Carpenter prepares for the launch of his international touring organ and the release of his new album, he keeps a realistic view of what the future has in store for him.

“The next three years, let alone five, will be rife with firsts and undoubtedly some triumphs as well as struggles. But like a company developing a much-watched product, I will keep that under wraps until the time is right.”

Catch Carpenter’s one-of-a-kind performance on Wednesday, October 16 at 8:00 p.m.

Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-416-8000;