Organ-ic Chemistry

Cameron Carpenter has wholly transformed a churchly instrument — and nothing is sacred


Cameron Carpenter is coming after “The Old Rugged Cross.” He has nothing against old-timey hymns, but he is tired of the church, the concert hall and the castle being the only places where you can hear organ music.

Carpenter, who makes his Strathmore debut Friday, is a liberator of organs. He specializes in digital organs, which aren’t anchored to a wall, don’t depend on a collection plate to be purchased and don’t weigh more than a car.

“The organ is often called ‘the king of instruments,’ but I really think of it as the ‘instrument of kings,’ because for hundreds of years only kings could afford one,” Carpenter says. “Now we have the prospect of making the organ much more accessible. Organists now do not have to go through life not owning their instruments.”

Taking the organ out of the choir loft isn’t about rejecting the instrument’s history. It’s about adapting it. Cameron does that through his song choices (he plays contemporary pieces, like covers of indie-rock songs, in addition to traditional organ works) and by pursuing the very latest in organ tech.

“The physical nature of the pipe organ is a holdover from past forms of musical consumption,” Cameron says. “If you wanted to hear music, you went to hear it played live, or you made it yourself. The organ comes from a period that associated music with place, which is no longer true. Music is mobile, so the organ must be mobile.”

In Carpenter’s case, he’ll play his Strathmore concert on a Rodgers 361, a digital organ with USB drives and an LCD screen. Take that, church organ!

Carpenter says his wild, frenetic style of playing was inspired by the first picture of an organ he ever saw. He was 4 (and started lessons at that age, thanks to a sawed-off bench that allowed him to reach the pedals. The keys were at eye level.)

“The organ depicted was a theater organ from the 1920s, and this guy playing it had a mustache — it was a very glamorous photo,” he says. “I was never able to think about the organ as a sacred instrument.”

Other Acclaimed Organists
Many pop-culture figures of note — both real and fictional — have rocked the organ:

The Phantom of the Opera: Pros: Can really pound those pedals. Cons: Psycho stalker and killer; wears funny mask.

Mrs. Feesh: The organist for the First Church of Springfield (on “The Simpsons”) is best-known for her interpretation of the “hymn” “In the Garden of Eden” by I. Ron Butterfly.

Mr. Quintron: New Orleans sensation Mr. Quintron plays a custom Hammond organ fused to a Fender Rhodes synth for bass.

Mary Ingalls: The big sister of Laura “Little House on the Prairie” Ingalls learned to play the organ after going blind. Because Mary spends most of the books being nauseatingly perfect, we can assume she was good at it.

The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda; Fri., 8 p.m., $20-$40; 301-581-5100. (Grosvenor-Strathmore)
Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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Shauna Miller · April 10, 2013