Interview with Cameron Carpenter, by Karolina Rugle

Datum objave: 19.09.2018.

Congratulations on the fantastic closing of the 69th Dubrovnik Summer Festival and thank you for joining us! It is always interesting to get a feedback, especially after such a special guest performance with your touring organ. First of all, what everyone would probably be interesting in hearing is: what was the experience like, how do you see and hear the ambience of the City, whose identity has changed and expanded in the recent years especially, but remains our main 'venue'?

I am an outsider because this is my first time in Dubrovnik and I am a guest, but all I can say is: When you want to have a great cultural offering, such as this festival, you have to expect the world to be the path to your door and you're damn lucky if you do! And so, while I understand that for the locals it may seem overwhelming to have the world on your shores, I think we ought to be able to agree that it beats the alternative. And I say that as a classical musician particularly. Of course, classical music as a comparatively abstract and – let's admit it - rather elitist art form, even though we're constantly told it's not elite, that is a matter of political correctness and it is false. Classical music is most certainly elite, that's one of the things that makes it great. That doesn't mean it's not something that every living person can enjoy and might, but to pretend that classical music is not a compendium of human accomplishment that requires deep understanding and time to appreciate is, of course, simply delusional.
So, that's one of the great things as far as I can tell about the Festival, is that you've somehow managed to strike a balance between presenting things in a way which is accessible to everyone and seems to be fairly affordable, and yet is of the highest possible level and that's not easily done. I say that as a person who has played and taken part in the festivals all over the world and who is also a developer of an extremely expensive unusual project myself, this touring organ, so I know a bit about the challenges that can face those of us who are deeply enmeshed in cultural matters, so I think it's definitely something to be proud of!

The organ historically has a specific 'aura', being perhaps even manipulated within the contexts it was mostly tied to. Tonight you've had a wide variety of audiences, with repertoire compiled of much more than merely organ pieces and it might seem that you manage to do much more for organ music, especially in reaching out to audience, than perhaps a top organist at a concert on a superb church instrument – do you see this democratization as an important step perhaps in popularization of organ?

The world needs both, I guess. In general, I agree. I don't want to speak for other organist but I know, perhaps better than anyone else, what is like to be criticized and to a certain degree be criticized by the pseudo academic community. I say 'pseudo' because that's what it is for the most part. But, you have to feel some sympathy for the organists. I think democratization is a far better word than popularization because I don't believe in popularization of organ. First of all, it's not possible and second, it's not desirable. My purpose here is simply to play the organ in the way that I think it should be played for as many people as possible. As a technologist, which I aspire to be, I do feel that this organ and the technology on which it's built does represent– not because of my involvement, but because of its place in history and the application of technology at this late date that it represents, and also the depth with which that's been pursued and achieved in this instrument and others by this builder with which I've been involved – I do feel it's the single most important event in the history of organ building. Not because of me, and I can't stress this enough. Simply, because if you understand the more than 2600 year history of the organ – a history which predates Christ, and therefore has to predate the Church's adoption of the organ, which after all has been propagandist, the organ came from the ancient Greece – so, if you understand the history of the pipe organ, the physics and the mathematical theory that is behind the pipe organ, it's very easy to understand that as soon as you have a pipe organ that is recognizable as such, you have a machine which foretells the eventual appearance not only the digital organ, but of the digital era because the pipe organ itself is the instrument that exists in the binary round and it is the binary round which gives us the computer. It's either 1 or the 0.  Every musical event, no matter how subtle, we can understand as binary because it occurs fully or not at all. There is no in between state. That shares perhaps the most core elements of its operation, the operation of it is in common with the basic theory of information that there is the smallest divisible piece of information, the „yes“ and the „no“. The organ fully observes that. That's true whether you talk about my organ, the organ of the box time, the hydraulic organ etc. If one day we do reach strong artificial intelligence, the organ would have had a role to play in that.

Cameron Carpenter, closing concert of the 69th Dubrovnik Summer Festival 

Will the instrument have potential repercussions to the repertoire; do you see it particularly affecting the contemporary composers and their work?
It's impossible to know. Those trends move in ecclesial speed. The irony of the emergence of the artistic digital organ is that it occurs in a time when we're going through cultural revolutions on a world wide scale. One of which is the inevitable, inexorable disappearance of what we had come to understand as the classical music. I don't mean that the music itself will disappear, in some way it will always exist, but the practice of classical music as a commercial undertaking and as a popular effort will conclude in our lifetimes.

How do you see that happening?
It's not only already happening, but it's irreversible. The classical music we have to understand as more than just a text, of course, it is a social phenomenon and in that sense I regard classical music as a kind of ocean liner which is pulling away from the dock and disappearing into the distance. As we wish the people on the board well and watch them waving as they disappear in the distance, we have to acknowledge that that ship will never return, it is sailing into the horizon and will never return.

Will something take its place?
It's not that something will take its place. You have to remember that, as much as we love classical music, those of us that practice it and devote our lives to it, you have to remember that classical music is merely a by-product of overall culture, mostly western culture. That's what cultures do – they change, and as they change they leave things behind. It used to be the case than an educated person could speak and read Latin. It used to be the case - in some ways ironically, before the discovery of, for instance, quantum mechanics – that anybody who graduated high school, which might be as far as their education went, would be extremely competent in higher geometry. This, of course, is not really the case now. That doesn't mean that higher geometry and Latin have disappeared – they are still as detectable and present in our culture as ever: Latin is still the core language of the Catholic Church, it's still the language of scholarship and Latin and Greek roots still play, of course, a fundamental role in all of Western languages, in English perhaps most of all. But, it would be impossible for us and unthinkable to conduct this interview in Latin. That doesn't really mean that Latin has died, but its position in the culture has changed, and that is exactly analogous to the process that is taking place in classical music. To pretend this is otherwise is foolish. For me, it's simply undeniable that classical music, as we've known it, is in its last days, and that might end up being a good thing in some ways. I don't suggest that anyone should lose their job, but a person who fails to realize that the end of classical music is part of classical music doesn't understand larger cultural questions and perhaps doesn't even understand cultural evolution because that's what it is. And the organ is a very good example of that. One of the reasons why the digital organ is possible is that the organ, unlike say the piano which has not changed substantially since Hornbostel, so about a 150 years, or the violin which is now about 330 years finalized, the organ is defined by a constant change. That is true for the organ of the 18th century, especially true for those of the late 19th and 20th century. That speed of change becomes exponential once electricity is involved, as with so many things, but the continuous change of these cultural forces seems to those of us who live and die by them and who love them, to be a matter of love and death, when in reality they're anything but. Actual matters of life and death are what tend to dictate cultural systems that set in motion the pentilums that swing and tend to dictate our access to those matters. And that would have to be true anywhere you drop the needle on the record of history.

Are you annoyed by this sort of exoticizing of phenomena in music that emerged as a result of thinking outside of the historical box, criticizing of the things that should feel closer to the spirit of our time rather than the historical 'tales'?

I am not only not annoyed by it, it's required. First of all, I don't need to be annoyed by it because I am not only not an academic; I am also not an intellectual, especially when it comes to music. The ability to articualte ones ideas and the ability to think about things in somewhat broader range or at least freewheeling sense, that doen't make one an intellectual. What would have to be a test of musical intellectualism is the processes that occur when you perform, and those, I can assure you, are more intuitive and generally spontaneous by definition. As far as being annoyed by historical and academic processes and things like that, it's the opposite – it's historical and academic processes of the organ that provide a framework and relevance for my work. So, on the contrary, the only degree to which they are annoying is perhaps the required annoyance, but they're no more annoying than any of the other frameworks we come to live with. Of course, I try to live my life in some way at 33000ft. The pleasure of the organist is that the organist sacrifices a lot to do what he or she does, but the organist is divorced or isolated from all other musicians, not only personally (particularly true in my case, of course), but fundamentally informationally. The organ, unlike other instruments, is an informationally complete system. You can think of it as a kind of a music calculator which attempts to provide, at least theoretically, a solution to all musical problems. You can see that, for instance, in the way organists evaluate the quality of a theoretical design of a small organ by the way in which a small organ is able to be adaptable in ways in which one would expect a large instrument to be. That's thought to be a quality of, say, a small 2-keyboard organ, is that it nevertheless can be manipulated or used in a variety of ways which allow it to be more and more musically functional, depending on the creativity of the person playing it. That would also have to apply, therefore, that versatility is desirable in organ design. It naturally follows from that, then, that once the organ is technically divorced from the limitations which physical geography, space and engineering have placed on the outer limits, on the size of the organ in the past. It would have to follow that the organs of the future will all be all large instruments. And so, things like that are a good example of that how informational systems that work in music change and require different things, depending on not only the pers of the person playing, but the medium in which they've chosen to express themselves in.
I have become an organist for many reasons, chief of which is that I am attracted to have complete control of the system in a way it would be irrelevant for a flutist to desire. That kind of isolationism can't really be comparable to one of the organist.

How do you see your interaction or compatibility of your interpretation, given that you've always been doing things by yourself and were, in that sense, self-sufficient?

Self-centred, depending on how you view it. The organ is an incredibly narcissistic instrument.

...and then you come to this setting, meeting with the whole instrumental body of an orchestra, conductor's role in the story etc.

It doesn't really work that way because the collaboration is not there. I am a non-collaborative musician. You can see that in the music and the pieces that I choose to play. The 'invasion' of the Rachmaninoff Paganini is an excellent example of that. In my viewing the organ is not a collaborative instrument and should never be a collaborator and should never try to be.

Do you have the need to occasionally collaborate or to do music in that sense all?

I don't. I don't like working with other musicians. First of all, I am not good at it and you can tell that because I don't do it. Working with an orchestra is slightly different. When you play the organ, you are and equal to the orchestra, you are in fact commanding far greater resources that the orchestra. The organ stands outside of time because the stamina and the energy which produces the sound the orchestra player is generating comes from the human body. I myself as an organist produce no sound; I am only operating a system which is after all a series of gateways. In fact, you can understand organ design as being a complete system of an exponentially large number of musical possibilities which can be engaged. In fact, there is a very simple, but very long mathematical multiplication problem which can be undertaken to demonstrate how many possible combinations there are 1,1x10282. So, it's an extraordinarily large number, one which would require an encyclopaedia of text to describe in terms of notation. There is nothing that I can ask that, by dint of the system that the organ presents to me, there's nothing that I can ask it to do that it doesn't already know about because all I can do with an organ is to list it musical possibilities that it already contains. This is fundamentally different from the experience of any other instrumentalist who is enmeshed in a sort of 3dimensional way in the creation of not only the emotional meaning of the music, but also of the actual tone and the tone quality and, of course, the intonation and its volume...all of those edges. There's a great degree of, what Benoit Mandelbrot would refer to as roughness. There is roughness in the organ in fractal sense, but it exists in a different plain. On a case by case basis, or to describe it in electronics' terms, the discreet components of what makes an organ an organ are a kind of a Fibonacci, it's a recursive situation.

One of my fundamental ideas about the organ is that it is a musical fractal, and you can see that in many ways, and it's not for nothing that in so much of Bach's work you can see that the assembly of meaning in the organ is undertaken in a poentilistic way, and this is not the case in other instruments. Informationally, that's the fundamental reason why the organ operates in a different form and a different way, than any other instrument other than a human voice. Because this source of the energy that is producing the sound, to approach it from a different way, is not produced by the human body means that I am not limited by time in the creation of meaning and I am therefore free to manipulate and, if you like, free to choose the combination of time, of volume, of pitch and of tone colour, at absolute discretion and with no personal investment of energy and that means that essentially the organ is a completely intellectual instrument in that it requires little or no physical involvement from the body of the person playing which makes it inherently surreal.

Still, there's no 'artistic abolition' here, so where do you implement the intuitive self, when does the artistic side of you as an interpret come in place? What's your approach there?

I wouldn't go so far as to call it an approach, I wouldn't say it's a method. One could easily find lots of people who don't feel that I am a good musician, or musician at all, and I agree with that – though, not with their negativity. I suppose it's pretentious to say it, but although I enjoy music, and I certainly enjoy playing music, my view of what I do with the organ is not that of a musician. I guess in the fundamental sense I absolutely don't consider myself an artist. I might be a theoretician in a sort of emotional way. I think you could go so far as to say I am an artisan. Understand that I don't say that to elicit sympathy or to deprecate I don't actually consider myself being a musician, at the end of the day.

Do you see being a 'musician' as something that's inferior to what you aim for?

It's a really legitimate question and a good one. In that I take people's money in exchange for playing music, of course functionally I'm a musician, and I try to be the best that I can. I try to do whatever that I do the best I can. When I look at those people that we consider great musicians in the history and also in the practices of today, I absolutely do not see myself in their league. I would never consider that inappropriate comparison, but that doesn't give me any sadness to say. It's simply apples and oranges. I can give you a simple reason why that is: the fundamental reason why I play organ is because I love music, it's because love organ design.

Regardless, it's not always the same motivation or initial impulse that drives great music making...

Motivation is essentially irrelevant because of the reception of the person listening.

How do you view the fact that you're often chosen among those who are considered great musicians or how do you then deal with being cherry picked within the musicians' sphere?

It's not really required that I deal with it. It doesn't cause me any anxiety or negativity. Again, when I am part of the system, I have a recording contract, which I'm very fortunate to have and of which many opera singers would be jealous, I have the chance to build an instrument that actually ends up existing and getting to play around the world and I am paid reasonably well (although the organ burns up most of my income). Let's not kid, I live a privileged life as a musician and I understand that. It just so happens that I'm more interested in organ design than in music in general. That's always been the case.

Cameron Carpenter and Dora Ruždjak Podolski, Dubrovnik Summer Festival Artistic Director 

What music do you listen to? What's your stance on that?

I don't really listen to much music. Music for me is not a matter for leisure, certainly not classical music. It' not that I'm slandering classical music or anything like that – people get so sensitive about those things and it's something of a taboo as a classical musician to admit that you don't listen to classical music, but most of us don't. It's absolutely true. It's also typical for an end of an era, as resources become rarer, and opportunities become rarer, that politics become more important and one must appear in the right way, and I understand that. I don't judge anybody at that. I am pretty outspoken. Of course, I exist in a very bizarre, tiny little obscure corner of the world where, although there are many other organists, and many great organists, at the same time because of what am I doing technologically and commercially, I am essentially on my own. I can do what I do to the degree that I have the balls to and the ability to show up and do it and that I don't get too depressed. But I don't have to face the competition that even a rather mediocre pianist would face. So, I'm in a lucky and in somewhat self-created position and I admit that. But, for that reason the negativity of others doesn't really affect me, because it doesn't end up really playing a functional role of the operating systems of how my career is structured, to the degree that there is a career. I am both lucky and cursed in that situation, as I am by the organ. And don't think, by the way, that I automatically love the organ or music; I have a bad relationship with it a lot of the time. I really do. I would never be the first person, as a lot of musicians do, as my much admired friend Gustavo Dudamel, who falls all over himself in rather weak namby-pamby language to describe, in a completely non-intellectual and not even specific way, why music should be important and how he loves this and he loves that. It's just not convincing to me. And it's also not necessary. It is not required to love every note of every piece. There are pieces that I play, and some pieces that I am required to play from time to time, that I have absolutely no use for and never need to hear again, and would never myself listen to. But, as a practicing musician, that is sometimes what you do, and I suppose the word I'm looking is professional, because I am a professional musician and a part of being a professional musician is that sometimes you have to undertake the realizations of works that you not only don't relate to, but in fact dislike. Sometimes intensly. And that's an important thing. I respect someone who has a little sarcasm, and a little cynicism, and a little scepticism about these matters and maybe more than a little, and is willing to defend them and I think that you'll find that those things are incredibly rare and getting rarer. The presence of an atheist voice in the organ – while mine is certainly not the only one, it's certainly the most outspoken and I try to keep it the best informed – is also a rarity that should be considered. And, if we're constantly told that the organ is the instrument of God, that it's the king of instruments, and all this notorious 19th century purple language that's not even worthy of Honoré de Balzac then it should stand a little criticism.

Cameron Carpenter was interviewed after the closing concert on 25 August 2018 by musicologist and the Festival Assistant Artistic Director for innovative cultural practices Karolina Rugle.