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This musician is taking the sounds of the pipe organ on the road


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Judy Woodruff: The pipe organ has long been called the king of instruments. And because of its size and complexity, it has, for hundreds of years been associated with churches and cathedrals.

But one young organist is out to shatter that mold.

Special correspondent Cat Wise recently went to an organ concert in Los Angeles to learn more.

It's part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Cat Wise: He has been described as a rock star, flamboyant, provocative, and a revolutionary.

Cameron Carpenter is unlike any organist you have seen or heard.

Are you essentially trying to rewrite the rules of organ playing?

Cameron Carpenter: Well, no, because I'm not invested in the rules of organ playing.

I have never really been an organ music fan. I have been a fan of the instrument and of playing it.

Cat Wise: For fans of organ music who came to listen to Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor at a recent concert in Los Angeles, and expected a traditional interpretation, they were likely disappointed.

But for 38-year-old Carpenter, bucking tradition is often the goal.

Cameron Carpenter: I'm not sure that, when I play, that I'm necessarily playing in the way the composer intended. And that has never really bothered me.

For me, it's always been totally clear that the only place any authority can possibly lie is with the individual listener.

Cat Wise: We caught up with Carpenter as he was practicing for that night's performance on a stunning 6,000-pipe organ that also bucks tradition, designed in part by architect Frank Gehry, which looms over the stage of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Cameron Carpenter: And when I play the organ, I don't much think about critics, purists, other organists. I mostly think about people like my father, who couldn't have told the difference between music by Leonard Bernstein or J.S. Bach.

But I try to play in a way which is understandable.

Cat Wise: Is it physically challenging to play this instrument?

Cameron Carpenter: Yes. The organ is a complicated instrument which contains the entire spectrum of hearing, from the threshold of audibility, like that, to extreme, extreme power, and everything in between, which is really much more important, since the extremes aren't all that oft frequently used.

Cat Wise: Carpenter grew up near Meadville, Pennsylvania. He was homeschooled, studied dance, and earned a master's degree at the Juilliard School in New York.

He tends to elicit strong reactions from fans and critics. Some reviewers have praised his superhuman talents. Others have called his interpretations grotesque. He became known for his glittery wardrobe and punkish looks. And he has earned a reputation as a brash, bold breaker of organ stereotypes.

Cameron Carpenter: It's absolutely required that you promote everything that you're doing, because to have a career as a classical musician, you essentially have to beg for attention.

Cat Wise: But Carpenter says he has recently matured.

Cameron Carpenter: My personal style now is far more reserved than it used to be even a few years ago.

Cat Wise: Really? Why?

Cameron Carpenter: Because my expression of how I wanted to be seen changed. It changed after my father died, and it also changed after my organ was completed.

Cat Wise: The organ he's talking about is a one-of-a-kind instrument that was more than 10 years in the making.

The International Touring Organ was custom made by Marshall & Ogletree in Massachusetts, and cost $2 million to build. He's taken digital samples of notes and tones from more than 30 traditional pipe organs, and incorporates them into his instrument.

What inspired the International Touring Organ project?

Cameron Carpenter: Technology and my love of music, my wish to perform.

Cat Wise: Hauled around in a large truck, the system consists of about 30 cases of equipment that take more than four hours to set up.

Carpenter explains that, in today's competitive arena of commercial music playing, the Touring Organ is what allows him to pursue a career as a musician.

Cameron Carpenter: It allows me to play in a great many places that I would never work and that one would never associate with organ playing or music of any kind. So, in that sense, it's absolutely groundbreaking.

Cat Wise: Beyond pulling the organ out of churches or concert halls, Carpenter says traditions of classical music as a whole must be dispelled.

Cameron Carpenter: Just now, in the early 21st century, classical music is finally trying to make some kind of effort at expanding its audience.

This is a field that is fraught with difficulty in terms of expectation, tradition and historicity and authenticity. So, eyebrows get raised when a classical performer suggests that, in fact, people come to hear performance, but, of course, they do.

You don't buy a ticket to here an organ. And you don't really buy a ticket to hear J.S. Bach. You buy a ticket to hear the person playing J.S. Bach on the organ. Those are different things.

Cat Wise: Love him or not, a review of the Los Angeles concert called Carpenter a "transformative and convincingly individual musician."

He has a new album out and is currently on a worldwide tour.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Los Angeles.

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