Organist Cameron Carpenter has never followed the rules when it comes to live performances. His goal is to smash the stereotypes that have kept organists and organ music locked in churches, cinemas and concert halls for ages.
So it might seem odd that he will be stepping into the nostalgic world of an old-time silent-film accompanist when he makes his Symphony Center debut Oct. 31 performing his improvised score for the German classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920).
“One of the purposes of my work is to divorce the organ from its long-suffering stereotypes,” Carpenter says. “And playing organ music on Halloween probably doesn’t do that. Plus, I’m of the conviction that a lot of silent films aren’t worth watching but there are some that are important, and ‘Dr. Caligari’ is in that category. The visual style and mood of this film are quite special.”
Directed by Robert Wiene, “Dr. Caligari” is considered the first true horror film. Screenwriters Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer used the powerful new medium to create a German Expressionist masterpiece about a mentally unstable sideshow performer, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), and Cesare, the sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) he sends to commit gruesome murders in the night. The film revolutionized set design, introduced the twist ending and paved the way for other silent classics such as F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” as well as influencing generations of modern filmmakers from Stanley Kubrick to Tim Burton.
Carpenter’s improvised score for “Dr. Caligari” was born out of a project with the Edmonton Symphony; he also has performed it with the San Francisco Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic. Carpenter, who has been described as having the “dazzling technique and wild passion of Vladimir Horowitz, the footwork of Fred Astaire and the glam sensibility of David Bowie,” will be performing on Symphony Center’s thundering Moeller organ.
A child prodigy, Carpenter began playing piano and organ at age 4. He attended high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts and later the Juilliard School, where he received a master’s degree in 2006. Now 32 and based in Berlin, he dazzles audiences around the world with his blazing technique and enthusiasm for his instrument; he also been known to play a Wagner overture on the same bill as a Japanese film score.
Raised in northwestern Pennsylvania in a “very liberal, kind of hippie family,” Carpenter was home-schooled, given an “insane amount of freedom” and did not attend church. His interest in the organ grew out of his noticing a picture in a Childcraft encyclopedia. “I was impressed by the physical theater of it, its grandiosity,” he says. “It never existed as a religious instrument for me at all.”
So it came as kind of a blow when he discovered how closely organ music was attached to religious ceremony. “There was a loss of innocence moment around the age of 11 when I realized my life would have to take a very different path if I wanted to make it my instrument.”
A revolution started with that realization. Carpenter has made it his task to bring the organ into the 21st century. With his tuft of a mohawk, sequined outfits and sparkly Cuban-heeled shoes, he certainly does look the picture of a punkish renegade. Fittingly, his playing is splashy and expressive. Trained as a ballet dancer until age 20, he lets his feet fly over the pedals in a dance of another kind. “I really believe strongly that the organ has suffered from the problem of inhibition on the part of people who play it,” he says. “I have a background of using my body as an expressive thing and that has served me very well. I’ve tried to raise the level of pedal playing to the level of what is capable with the hands.”
A big step for Carpenter was the creation of what he calls the International Touring Organ. Instead of relying on organs housed in concert halls, he wanted his own portable instrument to bring on tour. He’s devoted to the “incredible and moment by moment emerging of the importance of the digital organ to the future of organists.”
Though Carpenter has ruffled feathers among traditionalists, he also has many fans who praise him for pushing the boundaries of the organ and organ music. He experiments and takes risks with the music, which includes his own compositions, classical standards or collaborations with jazz and pop artists. His style is technically impressive, and full of joy and daring. And that’s just the way he wants it to be.
“Unquestionably there’s so much about the organ that seems to want to not be understood,” Cameron says bluntly. “I think the organ community likes it that way and very much wants to keep the organ an elite instrument, to make it an extremely expensive instrument with a small coterie of enthusiasts and donors and to keep it away from the hoi polloi. My goal is to liberate the organ from all this, to break the barriers.”
Mary Houlihan is a Chicago-based arts writer.