Cameron Carpenter's Organ Revolution The artist-in-residence at New York's Middle Collegiate Church is on a mission to transform the way people think about organists and their instruments. On his new CD Revolutionary, he plays a virtual pipe organ that uses computers, amplifiers and speakers to create a big, bold range of sound.
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Cameron Carpenter's Organ Revolution

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Cameron Carpenter's Organ Revolution

Cameron Carpenter's Organ Revolution

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Revolutionary is the new CD by 28-year-old organist Cameron Carpenter. It was recorded at Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan, blocks from the World Trade Center site. Carpenter didn't play Trinity's original organ. It was destroyed by ash, smoke, and debris from the attacks of 9/11. Instead, he used a new virtual pipe organ, one he and the company Marshall and Ogletree helped retrofit and design for the church. It uses computers, amplifiers, and speakers to create a big, bold, broad range of sound.

As the title of the CD suggests, Carpenter told us he is on a bit of a mission to transform the way people think about organists and their instruments. It was quite clear when we caught up with him in New York's East Village at the Middle Collegiate Church, where the non-religious Juilliard grad is artist in residence.

So, Cameron, if I saw you walking down Second Avenue today, and then somebody said, oh, that young man's a musician. You and your skin-tight graphic jeans, your black stretch satin double-breasted pea coat, I'd say, oh yeah, he must be the lead singer of like the Creeping Willows or something like that. I wouldn't necessarily say, oh, he is a virtuoso organist.

Mr. CAMERON CARPENTER (Organist): I'm so glad to hear that. There's so much about the image of the organist that I just don't quite understand. There's so many articles that have written lately and which I've read, you know, not your grandmother's organist or, you know, not the typical organist. I mean, there is clearly a stereotype to many people of what an organist looks like.

STEWART: Or what an organ has to be. Carpenter spoke to us seated at what appeared to be a typical church organ console, featuring four rows of keyboards and foot pedals under the bench. Stately pipes were behind the altar. However, they were only the facade of an earlier instrument. Behind them now are enormous speakers for the virtual pipe organ.

(Soundbite of organ music)

Mr. CARPENTER: This organ is the first Marshall and Ogletree organ to combine not only pipe sounds but sounds which unabashedly have no origin in wood or metal. And that is, to me, terribly traditional in the sense that it carries on the tradition of organ builders expanding the tonal pallette of the organ, but it embraces and welcomes the technology and the vocabulary of today and not just for classical music but for all music.

STEWART: We're speaking with Cameron Carpenter at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village. And I'd like to bring in Dr. Jacqui Lewis, who's the senior minister here. Nice to see you.

Dr. JACQUI LEWIS (Senior Minister, Middle Collegiate Church, Manhattan): Nice to see you, too. Thanks for asking.

STEWART: So, Cameron is the artist in residence here, but he's also been quite a contributor with helping to develop this particular organ for your congregation. When you were having conversations about what your hopes were for the kind of music that you might be able to have in your church, what did you need? What did you want?

Dr. LEWIS: That's a really great question. We'd met Cameron as he showed us the wonderful organ that he had built down at Trinity, and it was great to see him be able to blend lots of different kinds of sounds. And one of the things that's really exciting about Middle Church, and I think our signature, is with this traditional place - you're sitting in our old traditional building - but in this place, we do all kinds of arts. We dance all over the pews. We have puppets everywhere. We stomp up and down the aisles. We leap into the future. We say, we have one foot anchored in the center and the other dangling over the edge. And so what we needed was an organ that would be able to represent and to celebrate all the great diversity of us.

(Soundbite of organ music)

Dr. LEWIS: We are as classical as we are jazz. We are as hip hop as we are gospel. And all of those different kind of genres need to be celebrated here. People listen to God in different languages here. So we think of this place as a border place, and we knew that Cameron would be able to put together something that would give us this deep and wide musical ability.

STEWART: Cameron, can you give us a couple of examples?

Mr. CARPENTER: Oh, yeah.

STEWART: Of what Dr. Lewis was talking about?

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, you know, again, going from tradition, here, we have a little selection of what would almost sound like a stereotypical organ sound.

(Soundbite of organ sound)

Mr. CARPENTER: To which I'm going to add another octave.

(Soundbite of octave sound)

Mr. CARPENTER: And then another one. And then the mixture, which is a sort of stock where you have multiple pitches, and it creates a very glittering beautiful effect.

(Soundbite of organ)

Mr. CARPENTER: And that is kind of a core classical organ sound. But here is a sound that is reflective both of the Hammond organ and also of the gospel tradition. It derives from the theater organ.

(Soundbite of organ)

Mr. CARPENTER: And with these sounds and many others like them, I can jump right in with the gospel choir. There's a fantastic gospel quite here at Middle. You can go the next second to another side of this organ that I really want to play for you. It pays homage to my roots in the sense of the Hammond organ, which was my first organ, and it's still something that's really dear to me.

(Soundbite of organ)

Mr. CARPENTER: I mean, this is amazing. And this is coming from a classical organ console. And those sounds are staggering not just because of their authenticity for what they are, but because that sound...

(Soundbite of organ)

Mr. CARPENTER: Can instantly join in with something from the 18th century.

(Soundbite of organ)

Mr. CARPENTER And then, I can zoom off into the theater organ with percussions which derived from the theater organ.

(Soundbite of organ)

STEWART: Now, you're just showing off.

(Soundbite of laugher)

Mr. CARPENTER: Exactly. Totally.

STEWART: This brings us to an interesting point. Because you have such a flamboyant performing style - anyone who has seen your DVD, you've got your rhinestones and you wear the tights...

Mr. CARPENTER: Swarovksi.

STEWART: Oh, crystals, excuse me, not rhinestones. Pardon me.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CARPENTER: That you have a very flamboyant presentation, and I was looking at one of your videos on YouTube, and someone commended you on your performance skills. But then another commenter said, there's no place for that in church. That's not the way church music on an organ should be played. How do you balance your performance with the music so that it doesn't overshadow the music?

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, as far as the things I wear, and what in and - you know, a flamboyant performance, style, I mean, flamboyance is relative. For me, wearing crystals is just a natural thing to do. And as far as, you know, an activist's stand point, I'm always amused that people can react negatively to it. I'm doing the most I possibly can to return glamor to the organ.

If you look at some of the people who played the organ in the 1920s and '30s, there was this guy named Korla Pandit who played the Hammond organ, and he had - he was on TV and was totally a matinee idol. And he cultivated this personality as this sort of mystical eastern character. I think he was from Ohio, but he wore a turban and, you know. I mean, he was fabulous. And then, there was, of course, Virgil Fox.

But before there was Virgil Fox, my god, I mean there were - there was Jesse Crawford in the 1920s, and he was one of the great theater organists and had no special skill as a keyboardist has, but he have this debonair thing. He was almost the Rudolph Valentino of the organ. And, you know, it's great to reminisce about those people, just like it's great to reminisce about Virgil Fox and his cape and his rhinestone shoes. Those, like Liberacci and like many other performers, are products of their time, and I'm really no different. So when I walk on stage, and I'm in rhinestones, that's who I am.

STEWART: Crystals.

Mr. CARPENTER: Rhinestone crystals. Of course, Swarovski crystals. That's - you know, that's basically who I am. And in a way, there's a great honesty to that. They really see you before they hear you. And if there's anything the organ lacks, and there is many thing - there are many things that it lacks, it's glamor and style and panache and class.

STEWART: Senior minister Jacqui Lewis agreed whole-heartedly and added this.

Dr. LEWIS: I think one of the things that we miss in church, which is why many mainline churches are dying, is that people need to come to church for a really big show. That God is doing good things in the world, that they're welcomed to partner to God in it, that music should move you and thrill you, that, in fact, the story that we're telling is the greatest story ever told. And it is appropriate to dramatize it, and it is appropriate to accent it with outstanding music and outstanding drama and outstanding feeling.

(Soundbite of "Festive Overture")

STEWART: That was the "Festive Overture" by Dimitri Shostakovich, arranged and performed by Cameron Carpenter at the organ at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. We also heard from Senior Minister Jacqui Lewis. Carpenter's new CD, "Revolutionary," is on Telarc Records. Cameron Carpenter is now on tour, playing at UCLA tonight. And on Halloween, he'll be back in New York playing music for silent films, including "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." And if you'd like to hear the four full pieces he played for us and watch a video, go to our website, They were recorded by NPR's Manya Zuba.

(Soundbite of piano music)

STEWART: Cameron Carpenter left us with one final treat. After hearing Weekend Edition producer Ned Wharton plunk out the theme music on a nearby piano, Carpenter scurried back to the organ console, punched buttons, flipped switches, and within seconds, whipped up his own special arrangement.

(Soundbite of Weekend Edition theme on organ)

STEWART: Speaking of virtual pipe organs and things electronic, next week, we begin a month-long series on music and technology. We'll begin with a visit to the Clive Davis department of recorded music at New York University, and we'll have a discussion about the social impact of recorded music with author Evan Eisenberg. Are you a musician or just a music lover? How has music and technology affected your life? Visit our blog to post your story and learn more about next month's series at This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Alison Stewart.

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