Ask organist Cameron Carpenter about his influences, and the subject of filmmaker Werner Herzog (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Grizzly Man”) comes up — in a big way.
Herzog, a master director in both the documentary genre and works of fiction, has spent decades telling tales of people wrapped up in grand passions, defined by big ideas that cross over into obsession.
That’s something Carpenter, 32, hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “the most gifted organist in many a generation,” appreciates.
“Herzog helped me understand that art is not rational,” says Carpenter, who will play the Seattle Symphony’s grand Watjen Concert Organ in recital on April 25.
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“The role of the artist and the risk one has to take personally to create is extremely high. I say that in part because of my recent experience building a monumental instrument which is, in a sense, my ‘Fitzcarraldo.’ ”
Indeed, even before the subject of Herzog’s 1982 “Fitzcarraldo” — the story of a man determined to transport a steamship over near-impossible terrain and treacherous waters — comes up, it’s hard not to think of that film while listening to Carpenter.
If all goes well, Carpenter’s date with the beautiful organ in Benaroya Hall will be the last time he performs for an audience on a site-specific instrument.
Carpenter, a Pennsylvania native who has a master’s degree from the Juilliard School, recently hired pipeless organ-makers Marshall & Ogletree to build his dream organ, which he gloriously, perhaps irrationally, plans to lug, like that steamship, from city to city on international concert tours.
“It has a massive stage presence and Art Deco appearance that vaguely references the 1920s cinema organ,” Carpenter says.
That commissioned, state-of-the-art, partially digital organ is unquestionably beautiful — and big. But why bother with it when every concert hall in which he performs already has a traditional pipe organ?
“Unlike most organists, I’m not in love with the pipe organ,” he says.
“My life is not devoted to the instrument. My life is devoted to accomplishing something with a tool. The organ is not an end in itself. Would we ever dream of going to hear the piano that Yuja Wang plays, instead of Yuja Wang? Or the violin that Itzhak Perlman uses?
“It’s constantly misunderstood that the organ, with its perceived authority, is somehow the point, instead of the means to an end, musically.
“My priority is to create an emotional and personal, interpretive experience. There’s no way to know in advance whether a given concept will work with the resources of a site-specific organ. That’s why I’ve spent years developing my own.”
Yet Carpenter’s performance on Benaroya’s organ will almost certainly be worth watching. While he is sometimes criticized for his unorthodox interpretations of Baroque and Classical repertoire, the drama and passion he brings is enormously compelling.
“While I’m certainly a classical musician, I somehow don’t think of myself that way,” he says. “I do think that stripping away the patriarchal image of the organ is very important to arrive at music and art.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org