Does Cameron Carpenter play the gayest of instruments?

It’s an old and kind of silly pastime among musicians of a certain stripe — to sit around and theorize about which instruments attract the most gay men. The topic came up a few years ago while talking with composer Ned Rorem, who had a typically confident deadpan answer: “All choir directors without exception are gay. No brass players, fewer tenors than you might think, 50 percent of baritones…”

I hold that the gayest of instruments is the organ.

The first gay man I remember as a child growing up in Texas was the organist at my Catholic church and elementary school. We misbehaved horribly in choir rehearsals just to see him get in a dander. But my theory is also based on experience working in liturgical music early in my career in music. How ironic that the gayest of instruments is also a pillar of church life.

All this came to mind recently when a new CD arrived in the mail: “Revolutionary” (Telarc), a stunning organ recital from 27-year Cameron Carpenter. But the disc was startling even before I popped it into a player. Where most organ recordings feature a hulking old instrument on the cover, this package looked like glam rock. Pictured on the front and back is the waif-like Carpenter who wears tight little outfits, usually all white.

It was a relief when the publicist at Carpenter’s record label said, “Sure, Cameron will talk about his sexuality.” But also a surprise that he added, “He’s bisexual.”

“I prefer to say that I have a radical sexuality,” said Carpenter when we spoke. “I don’t like the term bisexual, at least in its application to me, because it somehow implies divisiveness or duality. Another word might be versatility, but that’s so vulgar and utilitarian. I’ve never met anyone who has such a broadly diverse sexuality as I do.”

Carpenter said that the majority of his lovers have been men and that his longest relationship, two years in length, was also with a man. Currently he’s seeing a woman. She was the producer of the DVD that accompanies his disc.

Concurring with my assertion about organists, he continued, “the majority of male organists are demonstrably gay and I think there’s a certain gay community in the organ world. To me, there’s no positive or negative to that, it’s just like sometimes it rains. But I’ve known straight male organists and women organists who’ve gotten short shrift.”

Well, I’m not auditioning anybody for a job, just making some observations. And Carpenter, by the way, is surely someone to keep watching. He’s as dynamic a performer as he is an outspoken young man. “Revolutionary” features startling intepretations of classics by Chopin, Bach, and Liszt, plus original compositions and transcriptions of his own.

In the accompanying DVD, Carpenter’s hands jump up, down and across three keyboards as his feet also dance along the pedal board. During our talk I complimented him on the white sequined top he’s wearing in the performance.

“Those aren’t sequins,” he says. “They’re Swarovski crystals. That’s a special shirt. It has about 2,500 of those things on it and cost a fortune.”

Snap. Carpenter may identify as bisexual, but with a Project Runway-worthy comment like that I’ll count him part of the club.



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