"There was a photo of a person playing the organ at a theater in the 1920s and that was so glamorous to me," he says. "Here was this guy in a tuxedo with a lavishly carved organ and I was just attracted to what I saw."
At the age of 11, Mr. Carpenter was a keyboard prodigy, already performing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and entering (and winning!) piano competitions. Yet, he was constantly drawn back to the organ as his instrument of choice.
It was during his years at the North Carolina School of the Arts and Juilliard that he put all his musical efforts into studying the organ and working on organ orchestral composition.
Today, the 30-year-old Mr. Carpenter is being heralded as one of the most renowned organ players in the world; encompassing the organ in all its iterations – pipe, virtual, classical, and popular. And he will be performing at Princeton University Chapel April 1 in a concert presented by McCarter Theatre.
"The organ is a very glamorous instrument but it has lost its glamour over the years because of its stereotype of being a religious instrument, but it’s really an incredibly dramatic instrument," Mr. Carpenter says. "I think that drama was what really attracted me to it. It spoke to me very deeply when I was young."
In addition to his organ virtuosity, Carpenter is known for his showmanship, wearing flamboyant costumes and sparkly shoes, and adding some theatrics to his performances.
"It’s just who I am," Mr. Carpenter says. "I want to be a complete performer, designing my concert clothes, interacting for the people I am playing for, and it’s a more true way of doing what I do other than just sitting at the organ and separating itself."
Mr. Carpenter spent March playing overseas, completing up a run as a soloist at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. On April 1, he will be starting a U.S. tour, opening up at the Princeton University Chapel, a homecoming of sorts as Princeton played an important role in his musical education.
"I am an alumni of Princeton’s American Boys Choir, so I have a lot of fond memories of this area, because I used to practice at Westminster Choir College when I was 11," Mr. Carpenter says. "Dr. James Litton, the youth director ,was one of my mentors and he will be in the audience, so I’m very nostalgic about the performance."
Expect the unexpected at Mr. Carpenter’s performance. He is known for a repertoire that includes classic organ works from Bach to contemporary composers, and for her arrangements of Duke Ellington, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and music from Raiders of the Lost Ark. But he never announces his program in advance.
"The unknown is more interesting than knowing what I will play. I may unveil some new songs and I am hoping to play some music from Asian film scores, particularly from anime," he says. "The practical reason is that every organ is different and I tend to want to see them before making a decision about what I will play."
For years Mr. Carpenter has dreamed about doing a tour with one unique, purpose-built touring organ that would not have a permanent home, and he has worked feverishly to design the special instrument.
"As a traveling performer, I’m unable to have the relationship with site-specific organs that most musicians have with their personal instrument, and from which they and their audiences benefit night after night," Mr. Carpenter says. "I very much want to change the entire dynamic of everything about the organ and the way it relates to artists."
His digital or virtual pipe organ will be a cross-genre organ designed to present, at any venue, the breadth of Mr. Carpenter’s repertoire and performance styles. He is planning on keeping one in Berlin and one in Boston so he will have one at his disposal wherever he plays.
"I’m incredibly excited. As soon as I develop this touring organ, everything will change," Mr. Carpenter says. "I will be able to play 250 percent more than what I do now because the amount of preparation time will be drastically reduced. What I do with composition and recording will also expand drastically."
This radical idea has been a controversial topic to traditional organists, but Mr. Carpenter believes its time has come.
"One of my beliefs is that organ playing itself needs to be changed to the digital realm with digital organs and I really love being on the cutting edge of this," he says. "Some organists are terrified of digital instruments but I’m really embracing it. Mine will be launching in 2012 and I hope everything I have done so far will be insignificant tto what I am able to achieve."
Since organs are typically found in churches, serious players need to form a relationship with the church to play and that’s something else that Mr. Carpenter is not a fan of.
"The organ is not an instrument for everyone. It’s unbelievably difficult, technically demanding and has more insidious non-artistic concerns. Plus, organs are not easy to get a hold of," he says. "Many people are driven to be church organists because they want the exposure to the instruments but it’s something I certainly don’t want to be part of my professional life."
The acclaimed organist does not want to come across as someone who is fighting for organ injustices and believes that people coming to see him play will be drawn by his skill and not the instrument itself.