Meadville Tribune

October 11, 2013

Cameras document young organist's career

By Mary Spicer
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — To paraphrase the title of a classic Leonard Cohen tune, “First he takes Manhattan, then he takes Berlin.”

“That’s really how it seems to be going,” Cameron Carpenter agreed, flashing a subtle smile.

With a five-member German documentary film team in tow, the Townville native who received his master’s degree from The Juilliard School in Manhattan in 2006 and made the transatlantic move to Berlin four years later, has spent the past two weeks revisiting pivotal people and places from his first 32 years.

Today, it’s time to head back to Berlin, not a moment too soon for award-winning director Thomas Grube, who can’t wait to start editing what he refers to as “lots and lots of hours of exciting material” into a feature-length film — complete with a version for television.

The massive effort is all centered around the upcoming launch of a groundbreaking organ that’s now being built to Carpenter’s exact specifications.

The launch of the instrument known as the International Touring Organ has been set for March 9, 2014, during a day-long festival at Alice Tully Hall in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. Recently signed to a long term multi-album contract with Sony Classical, Carpenter’s debut album with the label will be recorded on the new organ. In addition to the audio album, the Sony release scheduled for early 2014 will include a DVD that examines his work, his dream of creating a touring organ and the instrument’s path from vision to reality.

“The organ has always been an analog instrument,” Carpenter said. “That’s rumored to be the way life should be — but I believe that the digital organ is potentially a greater instrument.”

Greater not only because it sounds greater, but greater because it brings more out of the person playing it, he said.

Breaking with what he describes as another widely-held opinion, “An organ is simply a machine, like every other instrument,” Carpenter said. “It’s an instrument — a tool. It’s designed to serve a human purpose. To get caught up on the idea that it’s somehow holy or somehow an end in itself is a mistake that’s made, and is made almost unanimously, worldwide.”

Severing the tie that binds

As a virtuoso performer described in The Los Angeles Times as “one of the rare musicians who changes the game of his instrument,” Carpenter has performed on legendary pipe organs in venues around the world. His next move, however, is to break out of a tradition he regards as an artistic straightjacket.

“I have no relation to church to begin with so my relationship to the organ is not as a sacred instrument,” Carpenter said. “It’s just an instrument that happens to be trapped in one place. The fact that it’s trapped in a church is not as important as the fact that it is trapped. It’s immobile.

“When you make an instrument immobile, it means that every musician who has to travel has to play different instruments,” he continued. “You never have a relationship with any one instrument, which means you have no relationship to your instrument — which is not the way music should be made, artistically.

“When you play violin, you walk on the stage playing the same instrument you play in your bedroom at home — that you study by day,” he added. “What I want is to be able to perform on the same organ on which I practice.”

Meadville was the final stop on what has been a whirlwind tour back to Carpenter’s roots.

Cameras running, the team landed in Boston on its way to Marshall & Ogletree in Needham, Mass., where the touring organ is now under construction. In Richmond, Va., they paid a visit to a fantastic old music theater with an amazing organ before driving four hours south to Winston-Salem, N.C., where Carpenter attended high school at The North Carolina School of the Arts and where his mother, Lynn, now resides.

From there, it was off to New York City, where they met with a mentor from his Juilliard days, paid a visit to the wardrobe designer for his upcoming tour and stopped at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, where Carpenter established his connection with Marshall & Ogletree in 2003 during the installation of the firm’s first digital organ in Trinity Church on Wall Street, replacing the massive pipe organ damaged during the collapse of the World Trade Center two years earlier.

From there, they journeyed to Meadville to visit with Carpenter’s father, Greg, and with Vernon Township resident Beth Etter, who gave the 4-year-old aspiring young musician his first piano lesson on the Steinway still at home in her family farm and introduced him to the pipe organ at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Diamond Park when he reached the age of 6.

Putting it on the record

It wasn’t long after Carpenter made his move to Berlin that he came to the attention Grube, a director and producer of documentary films who was a member of the Berlin techno-generation of the early 1990s and founded his first production company in 1993. After accumulating a collection of international awards, Grube and his partner, Uwe Dierks, launched Boomtown Media International in 2004.

According to Grube, Carpenter popped up on his radar just in time.

After more than 15 years of making award-winning films in the classical music genre, “I was at a point where I thought it was good to have done it — but I maybe need to go to other places and other topics,” Grube, 42, recalled. “I love music, but I was tired of classical music and the classical music industry, which tends to work in very limited stretches of roads trying to invent again and again what has been done before in a great and beautiful way.”

When a friend suggested that he have a look at Carpenter, “I started to research about him,” Grube recalled. “I met him over coffee and I went to his concert at the Berlin Philharmonic. I was amazed because I realized there was something completely different there which has to do with the audience he attracts, mainly through the radicalism that I felt not only in his personality but also in his musicmaking.”

Grube, he confessed, had never really thought about organ music.

“Suddenly I found an artist who has no fears about breaking through boundaries and limits that the music world has created for itself,” he continued. “I would find it very sad if classical music would be limited to things we have heard. There are hundreds of great Beethoven symphonies — and every month the record companies try to bring a new young artist into the market who is trying to play a better Beethoven symphony. I got bored by that.”

These days, however, Grube is seeing his own art with a fresh enthusiasm. “I am totally excited and totally perked up and totally interested again because of Cameron — who enables me to discover music in a new way, music that I had heard before and suddenly hear it in a way that I had not heard before,” he said.

As for the trip, “we are almost at the end now,” Grube said. “It was more than I expected — it will become a very fine film. I’ve made many films and I’ve seen many films and I think this will be absolutely unique in the same way Cameron is unique.”

With a subject possessing both strong personality and what he describes as “incredible musical quality,” Grube was delighted to have a chance to meet his father, his mother and his piano teacher to get the full picture of where his personality has grown from. “I don’t believe that geniuses fall from the sky,” Grube said. “I believe in human beings — and therefore I always try to find out where the source of creativity lies. I have to go into the lives of these people.”

Filming complete, the director is already looking forward to yet another trip to America, this time to present his completed film in Meadville. “It will be exciting to get the reactions,” he said.

Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at