Don’t be fooled by the “Liberace of the organ”: there’s a very serious musician behind the glitzy facade.

LL: The flashy way you present yourself as a showman – right down to the sequined shoes – certainly challenges the perception of the organ as a stuffy, cobweb-covered instrument. Do you encounter a lot of outrage from your older colleagues?

CC: The whole concept of a showman is really passé. In the backward and closeted world of classical music, in which the organ runs about 25 years behind, of course I come up against criticism. But at the same time I’m the best-paid organist in the world and I’m the only organist filling concert halls all over the world.

You shockingly hear people in the organ community talking about young organists having big egos as though this is a terrible thing. But consider how, in fashion or in filmmaking, the idea of a strong personality and individuality is not only highly encouraged; it’s actually a requisite.

You dress like a glam-rock artist, and I’ve seen footage of you doing push-ups in front of your audience! How important are appearances to you as a performer?

I have a strong hand in the design of things. My outward style is very much a part of me, and physical fitness is an absolute passion of mine. I think it’s very important that people understand something from what they see of a person as well as from what they hear.

The organ itself is a sort of illusion. One sees these fanciful pipes and prettily carved things in front, but that is always called a façade. And it’s totally fake, a total lie. Because if you peel those pipes away and look at what’s back in there it’s the dirtiest, darkest, most complicated forest of nightmarish stuff you’ve ever seen. In reality it’s this incredibly lascivious, sensual and highly manipulative instrument! 

You’re involved in designing a new digital touring organ?

Yes. That organ will be so unique and so special for a number of reasons, not least
of which is the intimacy that can be created by cultivating a relationship with my own private instrument, which I can never have anywhere else – you won’t hear it when I play at the Proms this year – because the digital organ will live with me, travel with me, change with me… This is the radical thing that I’m suggesting; that’s exactly what I’m thirsty for.  

But you must have enjoyed playing the organ at the Sydney Opera House in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra concert last year?

It felt like home. This is the kind of event that is all about music-making in the 21st century. If there’s anything I’m less interested in than the typical organ it would be a typical classical music concert: an older woman drags her husband – who’s probably a banker and hates his wife – to hear the thing; he sleeps through it and she pretends to love it. This is a totally dead, unsustainable ritual. 

And you’re also returning to the organ in the Melbourne Town Hall – an old friend? 

Believe it or not, it’s my favourite pipe organ in the world; by far the greatest I’ve ever played. Because of its responsiveness it doesn’t interfere with what you want; it allows you to be the master, and yet it’s a great facilitator and can provide everything. That’s what a great organ is: a facilitator for creation. 

Do you play in a lot of churches as well as concert halls?

Fortunately for me, I do not. I have performed in churches, although I’m from a God-free family. For me the organ is no more religious than the accordion or the bass drum, so it’s always very strange to me that an instrument that violent and dramatic would have anything to do with the church. 

Not coming from a religious background, what inspired you to learn to play organ as a child?

My first attraction to it was entirely visual. I was four years old and homeschooled, and I was given an encyclopedia from the 1950s in which there was a section on music. There was a picture of a person playing an organ – not a dowdy, mousey church organ but an intricately carved cinema organ. He was extremely well dressed and had a moustache and a tuxedo and he was playing in front of the silver screen.

If I was hungry for anything, growing up as a child in Northwestern Pennsylvania, it was glamour! This photo had that in spades.  

Tell me about your transcriptions for the organ.

I get obsessed with these masterworks and I want to be able to have my hands inside them. One of the things I’m hoping to do in Sydney is this vast composite prelude and fugue: the prelude is the Bach Chaconne in D Minor and the fugue is my transcription of the last movement of the Fifth Symphony of Mahler. 

Would you say you have a controversial approach to the organ repertoire?

I consider the score a sort of North. It’s a place that’s on a map and it’s an idea, but I don’t live there, and I don’t want to live there. I take an extremely free hand and half the time I’m not even playing organ music. When we’re talking about playing Scriabin on the organ, we’re already transgressing so many things. 

Stravinsky was suspicious of the organ, famously calling it “the monster that never breathes”.

It’s not the organ we’re hearing; it’s the organist, and I can promise you that most organists in fact never do breathe. It’s often hard to tell if they’re alive at all!  

Cameron Carpenter plays the Poulenc Organ Concerto with the MSO on June 22 & 25. He also gives a recital at the Sydney Opera House on June 30.

Cameron shared his 10 Desert Island Discs with Limelight.