Cameron Carpenter and the Feedback Loop of Notoriety
In November 2014, Sony Masterworks released a documentary called “Cameron Carpenter: The Sound of My Life.” Intended to accompany the American organist’s album “If You Could Read My Mind,” released that August, the film included footage of Carpenter ripping off his T-shirt to reveal a sculpted chest; dancing at the once-legendary Berlin gay party Chantal’s House of Shame; and moodily smoking a cigarette while leaning against an electrical pole. And that’s just the two-minute trailer. The footage looks like a cringe-worthy attempt to create the mythology of a rock star—if everything the director knew about rock stars was gleaned, say, from a former groupie’s nephew.
“The Sound of My Life” trailer went viral for all the wrong reasons. (Approximately 164,000 people have now seen it on YouTube: big numbers for the organ world.) Though Carpenter had been insulted online before, the video led to a surge in vitriol. The year it came out, a Reddit commenter wrote that Carpenter “looks like he is whittled from semen.” Another added, “Not even a minute in and I want to punch his face in.” A third described the trailer as “five minutes of a hipster douche jerking his ego off followed by one minute of him having a seizure on a keyboard.” Though the trailer is now five years old, it resurfaces periodically to fresh outrage. A few months ago, someone wrote on Reddit, “I LOVE his passion, I envy it. Definitely the coolest/only professional organ player I’ve ever seen. BUT if I had to have dinner with him or something, I’d probably throw up in my mouth listening to him talk about himself.” Another added, “I’ve never seen such un ironic [sic] levels of pretentious cringe.” An Australian called Carpenter a “living meme.”
Carpenter read the comments. He is now mortified by “The Sound of My Life,” which he feels came out at the worst possible time: just as he was establishing his reputation as an organist with ferocious energy and striking—if not always polished—interpretations. He had also created the first iteration of his ambitious International Touring Organ, a kind of digital synthesis of great instruments from around the world, with the Needham, Massachusetts company Marshall & Ogletree. Carpenter, who told me that he is “technically” on the autism spectrum, began to suspect that the film’s director, Thomas Grube, was purposefully parodying him. (Grube denies this. “I think [the film] shows a lot about his personality: it’s a good, honest profile,” he said, adding that it was an accurate portrait in 2014.) “It came out and then was widely, justifiably lampooned, everywhere from Reddit to late-night television, with me being left in the lurch to try to cope with how to handle that,” Carpenter said. “I felt inclined to withdraw from social media, from online life, and even from just having my face seen in public.”
We were speaking on a grim November afternoon. I had traveled to an industrial park in northern Berlin to visit Carpenter at his studio, where his instrument is kept when he’s not performing. Mechanics went to and from their shifts building streetcars as Carpenter led me to an unmarked door, then down a gray corridor. He showed me a rack of hard drives where the instrument’s sound files are stored, and we slipped under a black canvas tent to the console of the organ. Carpenter’s hair was closely cropped, military style, and he wore a gray tracksuit. He changed carefully from sneakers into his organ shoes, occasionally playing silent chromatic scales with his hands or feet as we talked.
Carpenter said that he works “in monkish isolation,” and his studio had the freezing temperature and quiet focus of a medieval monastery. But this withdrawal is not just a matter of personal preference. Carpenter worries about protecting his intellectual property, and that someone might hack the instrument’s delicate systems. (Balanced on top of the organ console was a laptop labeled “not for internet browsing.”) The International Touring Organ is Carpenter’s life work, a kind of Borgesian library of the organ’s sonic history. If Carpenter occasionally sounded anxious, it felt like a reasonable reaction to the fragility of his project.
Carpenter’s ITO has encountered frequent hostility from other organists, who insist that only an instrument with real wind deserves the name. “It is absurd to claim that this digital organ can capture the presence, texture, and nuance of great organs with real pipes,” wrote David Yearsely in Counterpunch. “Before too long, the ITO will be obsolete while the great monuments of the European organ art extending back five centuries and still cultivated today will continue to enthrall and inspire.” Olivier Latry, the chief organist of Notre-Dame in Paris, has said, “I would say that an organ—when you look at any dictionary—an organ is something with keyboards, wind, and pipes. [Carpenter’s] instrument has keyboards, but no wind and no pipes. So it’s not an organ.” In 2018, the organist David di Fiore told The Verge, “I do not take kindly to individuals who trash some of the very greatest instruments of the world in favor of, shall we say, inferior products.” If the version of Carpenter portrayed in “The Sound of My Life” attracted ridicule, his artistic project led to a more ideological rejection.
Yet Carpenter has gone too far down the path to creating and refining his instrument to turn back now. He took out six-figure loans, which his management helped him secure, to pay for its construction. (Marshall & Ogletree and RA Colby, which made the console, both gave him in-kind donations in the form of below-market rates for their work.) Carpenter now covers the costs of operations and repairs himself. “Ruinous is a fair description,” he said. “I don’t mean that tongue in cheek. It’s literally ruinous, the cost of this organ, and the cost of its maintenance: not just buying it, but operating it, using it, and particularly moving it around.” He paid $45,000 to rewire the instrument’s pistons in advance of his next tour. Carpenter is aware of the quixotic nature of this undertaking, which is at once musical, mechanical, and philosophical. “It would be up to a psychologist to try to determine—and several have unsuccessfully—whether it’s a problem that I’ve created for myself because I need it,” he said of his instrument. Pinned to the tent, above the console, Carpenter displayed photographs of a few of his heroes, pasted onto blue cards: the mathematicians John Von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Benoit Mandelbrot, Gaston Julia, and Georg Cantor; the composer Percy Grainger; and the organist Edwin H. LeMar. “All of these people I admire tend to have suffered in some way for their accomplishments,” he said.
Carpenter signed to Sony from Telarc in 2013. He felt that the window to establish himself in his narrow niche—virtuoso atheist organ soloist—was closing. So he decided to “throw himself into” the video project and “trust that the person who was in charge of that would do a good job.” He had been impressed by Grube’s earlier film “Rhythm Is It,” and enjoyed the process of making the documentary. But he was unhappy with the finished version of “The Sound of My Life.” (Grube told me that he showed the film to Carpenter before it was released.) The organist said that his extensive reflections on artistic matters and the nature of his digital instrument were left on the cutting room floor—“it’s probably not particularly telegenic,” he said—in favor of highly staged fashion montages. At times, the portrait felt both superficial and melodramatic. (In light of Carpenter being on the autism spectrum, a title card in the trailer referring to “the journey of a young maniac” also strikes me as offensive.) Carpenter particularly regretted a shot of his father, who was shown in a wheelchair reading a fake letter from his son. His dad was “at the beginning of his last days” at the time, Carpenter told me. “I wince a little when I think of my father cooperating in this fiction. It seemed incredibly unnecessary.” Gregory Carpenter died, of cancer, in 2017.
Carpenter felt that he was left alone to deal with the backlash from “The Sound of My Life.” Sony was satisfied with the film, and Grube told me that the online hate “was a sign of strength, a confirmation of [Cameron’s] power.” But, Carpenter said, “Let’s face it, I have never been the most socially savvy or comfortable person. I came very late to social media and to online life, and I didn’t anticipate that it would go as badly as it did, and then when it did, I felt that that was what I was essentially stuck with.” He continued, “Even in my own management and the people that I work with, there’s never been any real acknowledgment that the film was as damaging or as bad as it really was or the filmmaker is as culpable for the damage as he is.” But journalists, too, often declined to engage with the content of Carpenter’s ideas. Only occasionally did they air his observations on the similarities between the binary nature of an organ note and computer programming languages, or the ways that mystical beliefs can lead to musical ossification. Instead, they preferred headlines like “This controversial classical musician wants to blow your mind.”
Carpenter’s brush with online notoriety made him cut off some aspects of his personality from the world. In 2008, The New Yorker described his “gold-skinned, dance-mad club kid” alter ego, Shane Turquoise. Carpenter said he’s “killed” Shane Turquoise. Back then, partying was a release from the pressures of Juilliard; today, he wrote in a text, “I have much difficulty with crowds and bright lights & people I don’t know.” The response to “The Sound of My Life,” he said, “has pushed me towards a much more conservative persona in terms of my self-expression and what I let people see and hear of myself. There is, in fact, a great deal more there, but it just doesn’t seem to be compatible with the world.”
Carpenter told me repeatedly that he believes his struggles in the classical music industry are largely of his own making. “I always have several fingers pointing back at myself,” he said. It’s true that Carpenter’s playing is occasionally angular; his digital organ, though improving, still tinny in some registers; his statements blunt. (He has little patience for classical music bromides. “Anybody this year who makes the argument that the music of Beethoven is necessary for a life fully lived is simply full of shit,” he said.) But his career illustrates a paradox that is present in many others, and which is at the heart of mechanism of classical music success. To be discovered, a young musician needs to be more than a great player; he has to distinguish himself from other talents, which frequently means acquiring the label of “rebel,” “renegade,” “revolutionary,” “maverick.” Then, if he runs slightly afoul of the industry’s rules of decorum, he’s dismissed as a fame-hungry media phenomenon with no actual musical ability. Outsiderness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “The way that a person is presented in public can have a great deal of impact on the way that they then present themselves, once they become aware of the precepts,” Carpenter said. “It’s what Shannon would call the feedback loop. It certainly happened in my case.”
Before our interview, Carpenter asked his manager, “What would you like me to say?” The answer was that “there’s a rebrand coming.” Carpenter told me, ruefully, “Well, you would have to say that, wouldn’t you? To look at my stuff—wouldn’t you hope that there’s a rebrand coming?” But “rebrand” is a word for a car or a malfunctioning vape, not a human being. The appropriate term is change. Meanwhile Carpenter, altered by his moments in the blinding spotlight, presses on. His next project is an organ version of Bach’s introspective Goldberg Variations. The interpretation is sure to be bitterly divisive. Carpenter and I shook hands, and he bicycled away into the pitch-black afternoon. ¶