If you grew up going to church, your image of an organist probably doesn't involve punk-rock muscle shirts, a modified mohawk hairstyle or glittery high-heeled boots.
But that's what Cameron Carpenter presented to the world when he burst upon the classical music scene 16 years ago. Fresh out of New York's Juilliard School, he astounded the organ-savvy with his skills and imagination, and his iconoclastic persona made him a pop culture phenomenon as he toured the great concert halls.
At 40, his rebellious streak remains. But he's far more focused upon the music he performs than the crafting of his image. And right now, that music is almost exclusively by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Emerging from two years of pandemic-induced sequestration, Carpenter will launch a six-week American tour at Minneapolis' Northrop auditorium Tuesday. Rather than traveling with the digital organ he designed a decade ago, he'll take to Northrop's restored Aeolian-Skinner organ, an instrument with pipes built into the venue's proscenium arch for maximum audience immersion.
We talked with Carpenter last week from his home in Berlin, and the conversation centered upon the organ as a means of self-expression. One with enough keys, foot pedals, pipes and levers to create a seemingly infinite variety of sounds.
"To me, the organ is more like something you would see at Yellowstone," Carpenter said. "By that I mean the beautiful geometry of it, the fractal mathematics of it. I see the organ as being more a part of nature. In the way that organisms and plants branch repeatedly, so does the organ.
"It now seems more like some lost wonder from the past. There was a Roman aqueduct outside of Cologne that had been lost for 500 years and then rediscovered. When I was a child, that was kind of how I felt about the organ. I couldn't believe that other people weren't also staggered just by the instrument itself. And, in some ways, I still feel that way. But it is fundamentally a very, very complicated and severe machine."
So what is it like to express oneself musically with this massive machine?
"Sometimes I dispute with myself whether I'm a musician," Carpenter said. "Of course I'm a musician, but sometimes it's hard for me to feel that operating the organ is in any way actually related to what my friends who are musicians are doing. It's really interesting and weird.
"I don't want to just be up there running the typewriter because, with the organ, it's very possible to do that. ... You can run the machine and not join it emotionally. And this can be oddly tempting once you reach a certain level, because it allows you an emotional escape from the world.
"It's an instrument behind which no one would criticize your reticence of expression in the same way that they would if a violinist were to do the same thing emotionally."
After eight years of performing on his digital touring organ, Carpenter said Northrop's "machine" won't be too radical of a change.
His own organ is modeled to a degree on similar instruments, he said, "although the Northrop organ is a much more grandiose and undoubtedly better example. It's a family member of the sort of organs with which I grew up and was influenced by. And then wanted to have."
Carpenter has long been drawn to creating his own arrangements and improvisations from a wildly disparate collection of musicians. His 2014 album "If You Could Read My Mind" adapted that Gordon Lightfoot song, as well as Leonard Cohen and Burt Bacharach — along with Bach, Sergei Rachmaninoff and French composer Marcel Dupre. But Carpenter says that he's reached a different phase.
"I'm playing almost exclusively Bach now," he said. "I don't know whether I would call it a crisis necessarily, but my life and outlook about career and the organ has somewhat changed. It's not that I chose this to happen exactly, but I just found myself gravitating only to playing Bach and to playing the Goldberg Variations and the major works."
Indeed, the expansive Goldberg Variations will comprise the second half of Tuesday's all-Bach concert. The work is also the centerpiece of Carpenter's latest album, "Bach & Hanson" (partnered with a work by 20th-century American composer Howard Hanson).
"When it's time to make your first recording of 'Goldberg,' as an artistic experience, it's great fun," he said. "Because it's a total rite of passage, and you have to be ready. And you have to have definite ideas. So that was fun to do.
"People seem to want to hear it, so if anyone shows up, I'll play it."
What: Works by J.S. Bach.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.
Where: Northrop, 84 SE. Church St., Mpls.
Tickets: $20-$25, available at 612-624-2345 or Northrop.umn.edu.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. firstname.lastname@example.org