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LAist Interview: Organist Cameron Carpenter, On Milk, Music, and Hipsters

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Cameron Carpenter is probably one of the best (and most controversial) organists to ever take the stage and he's performing this Sunday at the Disney Hall (a fun Mother's Day activity, if you're still looking for something to do) in a program featuring transcriptions of Bach (well Cameron's transcription of a Busoni transcription), Brahms, and Mahler. You can also follow him on Twitter and facebook to learn more.

You're mostly known as a virtuosic organist but what most people don’t know is that [for you] the rigors of touring and playing on the organ burned so many calories that you started to drink a gallon of milk a day. You must be a milk connoisseur by now. Any faves? 2%? Nonfat? Strauss? Horizon? Does it even matter?

Actually, 2% organic milk of whatever kind is the preferred method. In fact, playing the organ is not typically so physically demanding - it's partly the way I play it, trying to push the thing past its limits - but it's also that I naturally have a very fast metabolism, and can have trouble keeping weight on if I don't get enough caloric intake. What a problem to have!

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You've been advocating a virtual pipe touring organ and you've said in previous interviews that you’d like to take it to the Disney Hall. Will you be performing on it this weekend?

I will be playing the Disney Hall organ, and not my touring organ, this weekend - the touring organ isn't built yet, though we hope to launch it in 2012. Believe me, as soon as I have it, you'll know! And I very much look forward to bringing it to Disney [Hall]. Two organs are better than one...

And you're not concerned at all that that in your travels that the TSA won't --- pull a Krystian Zimerman on your organ?

Putting aside the image of Krystian Zimerman on my organ... actually, that won't be an issue with the touring organ, because it will actually be two separate but identical organs: one living in Boston, and one living in Berlin. So the instruments themselves won't have to travel internationally, which should avoid that problem. I plan to keep it out of Russia, though...

The program as of now lists an all-Brahms program (including a world premiere), though we hear that you might perform a transcription of Mahler's 5th on the organ at the Disney Hall, 10 days before the 100th anniversary of the death of Mahler. You don't like to give out too many details on your programs and you like to switch things up at the last minute but we're dying to know, is Mahler still on the program?

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I can definitely confirm that Mahler is on the program. I will end the program with a kind of "performance piece" pairing of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne followed by the Rondo-Finale (the last, and most ecstatic and exciting movement) of Mahler's Symphony No. 5. So the entire symphony will not be heard, but the best part of it will - and this is actually the premiere of my re-working of that movement, having transcribed the entire symphony 14 years ago, but having previously put it aside as a failure.

Will the fact that you're in Los Angeles affect your program at all? Hollywood, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg, Korngold, lot's of areas to draw inspiration from!

I of all people am open to LA's influences, but in this instance, I'm focusing on trying to give LA something it doesn't already have. I have transcribed much Rachmaninoff, though, as well as John Williams and some Korngold.

Any sights to see while you're in Los Angeles? Any favorites?

LA is at this point almost a third home (besides New York City and Berlin, where I live full-time) and that is just as I want it - it is a place I always love to come and more than any sights or destinations (which sort of thing I anyway tend to eschew), I get most from its attitude, its easy-goingness, its unpretentious cool.

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Are there any works that you can't or won't transcribe to the organ? Not sure how Stockhausenz's Helikopter Streichquartett would sound on the organ.

There are I'm sure a number of works which are medium-specific - that Stockhausen is one for sure, but so are things like hip-hop (which doesn't transcribe, though Leonard Cohen, Burt Bacharach and some of Laura Nyro does). Scriabin is hard, but I'm on it.

Can we expect another album anytime soon? Any ideas on what it might include? Are you working on anything else that you feel strongly about or advocate?

All my efforts at this very moment are focused on launching the two touring organs - but that will drive albums for years to come, I suspect. And given that the whole concept of the touring organs is to free me from the site-specificity and (comparatively) limited tonal palette of most pipe organs, as well as to give me the ability to play in so many more venues, I'm sure that will be reflected musically in an even more dramatic expansion of the repertoire I play. As to charities and affiliations, we're looking at several options, but I definitely want to announce an advocacy around the time that the touring organs are unveiled.

There seems to be a growing interest in Classical music from the young adult segment (read: hipsters) in Los Angeles, especially since the arrival of Dudamel. For listeners that want to get more into Classical music, what do you suggest?

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Hipsters should stay away from classical music (as a hipster myself, I should know). Seriously, living in LA, it's possible to sample a staggeringly rich offering of live music, not just in the major venues but in a lot of thriving "off-broadway" sources - like the excellent Jacaranda series in Santa Monica, for instance. The only word of tangible advice I would give, and it does address a hipster angle, is to be distrusting of new music that seems to court the hipster crowd especially. There is a flaccid, unconvincing trend that has been putting MacBooks on stage next to string quartets, and "turntablists" on stage with ensembles, and this is a waste of resources and a sin against the passionate, and the quality in music and performance. My advice: pass over such posing and popularity-jockeying [ed. note: Video Game's Live, anyone?]. and go for classic content.