The brilliant organist Cameron Carpenter improvises to a live screening of Buster Keaton’s 1926 silent comedy The General next month with the San Francisco Symphony.
Cameron Carpenter is a composer-performer unique among keyboardists, challenging the stereotypes of organ music.
His repertory spans from the complete works of Bach and Franck, to his hundreds of transcriptions of non-organ works, his original compositions, and his collaborations with jazz and pop artists.
He is the first organist ever nominated for a Grammy award for a solo album. He received the Leonard Bernstein Award in 2012, and in spring 2014 he launched his international touring organ, a digital instrument of his own design.
Mr. Carpenter performed Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier at age eleven before joining the American Boychoir School in 1992 as a boy soprano. While a high school student at the North Carolina School of the Arts, he made his first studies in orchestration and orchestral composition, and transcribed more than 100 major works for the organ.
He continued composing after moving to New York City in 2000 to attend the Juilliard School; he received a master’s degree from Juilliard in 2006. The same year, he began his worldwide organ concert tours, giving numerous debut performances at venues including Royal Albert Hall, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Melbourne Town Hall, and Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow.
A regular guest at Davies Symphony Hall, he last appeared under San Francisco Symphony auspices in summer 2013 accompanying the film The Battleship Potemkin with his own improvised score.
Mr. Carpenter signed with the Sony Classical label in 2013 and recently released his first recording for the label titled If You Could Read My Mind. For the Telarc label, he recorded the Grammy-nominated album Revolutionary and the full length DVD and CD Cameron Live!. Edition Peters began publishing his compositions in 2010.
His first major work for organ and orchestra, The Scandal, Opus 3, was commissioned by the Cologne Philharmonie and premiered on New Year’s Day 2011 by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie under the direction of Alexander Shelley.
Finally, it should be noted that Mr. Carpenter is featured on the first-ever recording of Henry Brant’s “Ice Fields,” which is still available on the SFS Media Label.
The recording was written specifically for Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony, and Davies Symphony Hall
Digital-only release available for streaming and download in one-of-a-kind binaural headphones experience produced using Dolby Atmos system
In this exclusive interview, Mr. Carpenter shares his views.
Cultural Currents: We recall with fondness when SFS screened the film The Battleship Potemkin with your own improvised score seven years ago. With a different mode of transport (rail) now being the focus, what may listeners expect to hear?
Cameron Carpenter: There are a few moments in The General that lend themselves to a kind of literal depiction of mechanical effects and rhythms, but for the most part I keep things melodic, light and incidental. I find that silent films, being now so far distant from what we think of as movies and the moving image, are a tremendous novelty in themselves to most viewers, and the musical treatment should for the most part actually recede into the background of awareness. The General is, also, not a profound or artistic film like Potemkin. Rather it has several virtuoso scenes that look forward to the action movies of our own time.
CC: The General contains a great deal of suspense. How do you make the music mirror that tension?
Carpenter: Good old-fashioned withholding of harmonic resolution, tonal ambiguity, long pedal-points. Music-theory class stuff.
CC: There’s also humor. Any dramatic shifts in how you manipulate the musical narrative?
Carpenter: I pretty much let the film do the work. With the probable exception of Keaton himself, most acting in silent films is of course totally overstated to our eyes, so it’s rare that extra emphasis is still needed.
CC: Our readers rely on the ferry for transport, any thoughts on what kinds of music might fit in with their commute?
Carpenter: None at all – anyone who takes the ferry regularly will have noticed that ferries are perhaps the most musical of transportation. The sounds of a ferry are all the music a ferry commute requires.
CC: As a global performer, how does San Francisco impress you? Have we become more cosmopolitan or more insular?
Carpenter: I’ve loved having a relationship with this city and orchestra over many years. I wouldn’t describe it as either cosmopolitan or insular. I suppose every city has insular communities, but it’s the down-to-earthness of San Francisco that makes it a friendly, easy place. I prefer that to the “cosmopolitan”.
CC: How do you spend time here when not practicing or rehearsing?
Carpenter: If there is time available I try not to fill it, and will simply enjoy being in The City.
CC: What are the unique demands of a solo performance like this in a venue like Davies?
Carpenter: Pleasurably, accompanying a silent film is one of the least demanding musical assignments that one could ever expect to have on the Davies stage – a good thing too, as I’ll be arriving that morning from concerts in New Zealand. This isn’t Messiaen, Henry Brant, Lou Harrison or Bach – it’s a good time at the movies, with rather too much going on at the organ!