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Organic growth: Cameron Carpenter and the future of classical music

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Of the many adjectives that come to mind when describing the organ, “old” and “religious” most easily come to mind. It is, quite simply, a stuffy instrument, long relegated to the dusty corners of traditional churches As a stationary object— both in its physicality and in terms of its development over time— it is inherently tied to the history and tradition of the church. And the same is often assumed of its stereotypical keeper: the aging, church-going organist who drudges through binders full of chorales and hymns.

But when organist Cameron Carpenter sits in front of the rows of keys on his organ, those stereotypes are shattered by his unique take on music, performance, and, most importantly, the organ. Flamboyant, bold, daring and unfazed by critics, Carpenter has established himself as somewhat of a “rebel” within the tradition-dedicated classical world. Known for rocking a mohawk, strutting on stage in richly printed silk suits, bedazzling his performance shoes with Swarovski crystals and adding physical flairs to his performance, the artist is quite simply the antithesis of tradition.

And he certainly brought this flair with him in his visit to Stanford on February 3rd.

Performing on his infamous International Touring Organ (ITO) specifically designed for and by the artist, Carpenter dazzled the audience at Bing Concert Hall with an eclectic program of classic organ repertoire, outlandish personal transcriptions and unbelievable improvisation.

While Carpenter’s wardrobe choices and personality flair certainly stir some amusement and interest from his international audience, his attitude toward classical music causes the most stir — an attitude at once provocative, brash but refreshingly stubborn within the traditionalist classical music world.

While many would argue that Carpenter’s work is breathing life into a stuffy tradition, he still receives a significant amount of backlash for his wardrobe, performance and music choices. Cornell Professor David Yearsley critiqued Carpenter for being “in the flesh the virtual virtuoso, white and glittering… [he] covers himself and his profession in mud.”

And it is this intractable mindset that puts classical music under fire. The classical music realm has remained decidedly unprovocative and unwelcoming of drastic innovation. The tracks dominating the tops of classical music charts are simply “newer” iterations of old music, like a new recording of the Los Angeles Symphony performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or a renovated album of pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s Chopin recordings. They are respectable new takes on the old, but they often don’t venture far outside of convention.

The genre has long been criticized (especially by non-classical musicians and listeners) for its adamant insistence on tradition within a quickly changing musical context. It’s high time that the classical music world recognize that tying its musicians down by the constricting fetters of tradition is inherently hurting the genre.

Indeed, there is merit to preserving classical music’s traditional masterpieces. Works from Tchaikovsky or Bach don’t really need to be “modernized” or drastically changed because they were so artfully crafted centuries ago, and were thus made to transcend the shifting tides of musical taste. Dedicated (read: pretentious) classical musicians thus pride themselves in preserving the absolute integrity of their art as one untouched by the dangers of impure, modern cultural influences, and rather as a form that singularly draws from the idyllic cultural past.

But when artists attempt to break free from the classical mold and revolutionize this music, the classical music community is quick to criticize. Artists like Lang Lang (pianist), Yuja Wang (pianist) and Lindsey Stirling (violinist) have all been met with both criticism and praise for their attempts to modernize classical music. Lang created exciting, albeit technically sloppy, live performances full of panache and showmanship; wearing brightly colored and short mini dresses in famed concert halls, Wang brought sexiness and subsequent controversy to a world insistent upon modesty in both performance and appearance; and Stirling used her violin as a tool to bring classical instrumentation into modern works, covering everything from pop and punk pieces to more traditional classical works.

In all of these situations, the artists attempted to bring aspects of “today” into a music genre that fundamentally celebrates “yesterday.”

So naturally, when Cameron Carpenter used his newly invented electronic organ to both challenge and criticize standard organ tradition, he was met with mixed reviews.

Carpenter brought and assembled his International Traveling Organ to Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall — something once impossible because of the sheer nature of the organ itself. Organs just don’t and can’t move … until Carpenter came along. His ITO is the first electronic organ of its kind, is assembled in just under three hours and is easily transported in a rather large truck. On top of its practicality innovations, Carpenter’s instrument creates a range of sound and tone completely unlike and impossible to replicate in a normal organ. He quite simply created an instrument that can move faster, sound louder, reverberate differently, and do more.

Yet, Cameron Carpenter is branded within the classical music world as often too radical, too much for their strict musical boundaries. He is perceived as a danger to the strict order of classical music, a pollutant to the careful categorization of this genre. The artist himself has perhaps brought some of this ire on himself, partially due to his cold indifference to critiques of his work. He claimed in 2015 that he didn’t “give a rat’s ass if [his organ work] is considered high or low, profane or sacred,” and went on to lambast the organ community for its close-mindedness: “If the organ community as a whole is not in a position — is not tooled — to benefit collectively and commercially from the fact that there’s a news-making organist, then to hell with them.”

But, honestly, why does it even matter?

Cameron Carpenter has single handedly brought the organ out of the shadows of the church and into the spotlight of international stages. He has commissioned new and exciting works accessible to those unfamiliar and unfriendly to traditional classical music and he has transcribed hundreds of classical pieces onto an instrument with traditionally little repertoire. At his Saturday night performance at Stanford, he turned an impossibly complex Scriabin Sonata into a whole new entity on the organ.

In a way, Carpenter is simply doing what dozens of classical musicians have done before, but with just a bit more glitter and a greater inclination for the theatrics. His performances are truly exciting — take his famous, mesmerizing performance of Chopin’s “Revolutionary Étude,” for example — and they provide a window into what classical musicians are capable of. It is important, then, to note that Carpenter is creating a whole new subgenre of classical music that connects the old to the technology of today. Classical purists don’t have to worry about Carpenter defiling the sanctity of classical tradition; we can rather understand Carpenter to be giving a nod of respect to those roots while simultaneously creating his own, unique subset of performance.

Artists like Cameron Carpenter and Yuja Wang should not have to be excommunicated for their unique contributions to this music; we must recognize that the genre can and should expand with the presence of new and innovative artists. Expansion doesn’t equate to replacement of the old in favor of the new — it is instead a celebration of the differing, eccentric perspectives of many rather than the perpetuation of a homogenous, unchanging music genre.

 

You can contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at elindqw ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Elizabeth Lindqwister is a junior from Peoria, Illinois, majoring in history. She was the Vol. 257 Deputy Editor and Vice President. Find her at CoHo or elindqw 'at' stanford.edu.