Are the Proms ready for Cameron Carpenter?

The "violent, sensual, ecstatic" organist is set to wow listeners at the Albert Hall


Cameron Carpenter is looking for a new flat. And – characteristically for the flamboyant American organist who will play two solo Proms this weekend – his requirements are anything but conventional. Unlike other concert organists, Carpenter insists that this new home must be able to accommodate his instrument. Carpenter’s self-designed “touring organ” of console, computer and speakers will be able to replicate the traditional pipes of even, say, the Royal Albert Hall.


“This is not just a stack of speakers, it’s a kind of stage set,” says Carpenter. “We have to have monumentality, we have to have height and verticality. For me, this is the most ecstatic vision of the organ, where the organ actually becomes a kind of hanging garden.” Carpenter hopes that his iconoclastic digital organ, which has already taken seven years to design and build, will finally be ready this winter.

And Carpenter is adamant that it must live with him, in his home. “I will have a deep, on-going relationship with the same instrument,” he says. “I get up out of bed, I reach out, there’s an organ. If you break up with your girlfriend, you might pick up your guitar – that’s the relationship I’ve got to have with the organ. And you can’t have it when there’s a commute involved.”

Though he hails originally from western Pennsylvania and studied at New York’s Juilliard School, Carpenter wants this all-purpose flat to nestle in his adopted home city of Berlin. “We’re not there for architecture – and we’re certainly not there for food – we’re there for music and we’re there for art. It’s a very free, very creative place to live,” says Carpenter. His Berlin flat will, however, be just a base for a dizzying concert and recording schedule across Europe, America and Asia – as befits a man described by the Los Angeles Times as “the most gifted organist in many a generation”.

Finally, Carpenter’s new apartment will need room for his boyfriend. At 21, he is ten years Carpenter’s junior. And yet, says Carpenter, “actually I’m the one who always feels less mature and less prepared and less organised. And less well informed. He’s reading philosophy – and to study philosophy in Germany, this is the real stuff.”

Yet despite Carpenter’s evident devotion to his partner, it seems that if he ever does find a flat to meet all his requirements he might also venture out from it once in a while. “I have an extremely open relationship. I have other lovers,” he says simply. “I live a pretty gay life, but I never liked the term ‘gay’. It’s inaccurate, since I also sleep with women… I mean, this is all so tired for me. Not that I don’t like talking about it, but it’s not just tired for me, it’s tired for humanity. We surely should know by now that one should not deny oneself the pleasure, and that that’s just part of existence and sexuality.”

In person, his looks are compelling: like the most androgynous, most pallid member of the Addams Family you could hope to meet. His hair is currently shaved at the sides, with a shock of bleached blond on top. “What? It’s totally natural – how dare you?”

OK, then, natural blond that’s been dyed dark at the roots. “Exactly. It’s very hard to do that, you know.”

The furry black coat with gold studs is from Chanel. The skintight black trousers are slightly glossy. “Slightly, yes, in the way that Broadway is slightly dramatic. And slightly zippered,” says Carpenter.

This is the kind of ensemble (complete with square black bangle and gold necklace) that Carpenter throws together just to meet journalists. His stage outfits – often encrusted with Swarovski crystals that he has painstakingly glued on himself – are even more remarkable in the stuffy world of classical organ music. Yet Carpenter says that it is his “great good fortune” to be performing two Proms at the very traditional Royal Albert Hall and based around some very traditional music.


“Yeah, they wanted me to observe the theme of Bach, but to respond to that and expand on that,” says Carpenter. “I’m always rediscovering, and listening to new things, and that’s what I want my Proms to be like for listeners. And, of course, the organ is such an outsider, and such a misunderstood thing in general, with its big façade. But the truth of the organ is that it’s not merely wholly inglorious and boring, but in fact violent and sensual and banal and ecstatic and dynamic,” says Carpenter. “And that’s what I like to be like.”