Cameron Carpenter

On JS Bach, improvising and the Albert Hall organ

Cameron Carpenter has torn up the rule book when it comes to playing the organ. Ahead of his two all-Bach performances at the Proms on 1&2 September, we spoke to him about transcribing works originally written for violin and why he doesn’t believe in preparing for improvisations.

Cameron CarpenterYou’re performing two concerts of work by JS Bach including his Fantasia and Fugue in G minor and his Toccata and Fugue in F major. How did you put the programme together?
I was asked to play something that included Bach improvisation and these are works that are interesting to play and to listen to – they are works that I can infuse myself into. The two concerts work back-to-back and one speeds into the other. If you’re only able to catch on of the days, then programme stands alone, but for me it would be interesting to hear both days which culminate in my Syncretic Prelude and Fugue in D major, a transcription of the fugue from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Bach’s Chaconne. I think of myself as a musical consumer in a different way to most musicians. I adore my work because I only play music I love that entertains and moves me in some way.

Both concerts include transcriptions of works for other instruments – why have you chosen to transcribe works like Bach’s Partita No. 3 for violin?
I wanted to play them and to make a version that was possible for me to play. I wanted to have a hand in experiencing what Bach experienced. I spent a year transcribing Mahler’s First Symphony – you don’t do it because you thought of the idea, you have to be obsessed with the work.

You’ll be improvising for sections of both Proms and you’ve said that you don’t believe in preparing for improvisation. Doesn’t that make it terrifying?
I wouldn’t use the word terrifying; it’s a shocking experience mainly. I have a double-edged gift: I don’t experience any stage fright or anxiety. It’s lucky in a sense, but I often have a feeling that there’s something psychologically not connected in my head. I don’t really feel any anxiety when I walk on the stage, and most people do. To prepare improvisation is one more way of making sure that I would be working within a comfort zone within the keyboard – what comes naturally to the hands on the keyboard, what I recently played, what harmonies are in my head. This is a kind of safety net which I think is very very unattractive.

You’ll be performing on the famous Royal Albert Hall organ – how do you feel about that?
It’s a marvelous old pipe organ, but for me the pipe organ is a done deal, it’s a way of looking forward to the past. I’m different from every other organist in that sense, since they tend to worship the big instrument and I tend to find them distracting. Its certainly one of the great organs of the world but that doesn’t mean that I have any more personal connection with it. The typical concert in a concert hall involves a sort of one-night-stand for me, but what I’m longing for is a 25-year marriage with an instrument. That’s why I'm designing a touring organ, which will be built this winter. But given that it is the Proms, and broadcast live, I’m going to enjoy the situation. I’m going to make the most of the fact that I have no relationship with the instrument and try to make sure that these works are heard in a way that they could never have been heard before and, if I get my way, won’t be again.