Pianist James Carson on Creating a New Form of Music
The pianist and filmmaker launched his project "Cabin Music," in which he aims to blend the lines between composition and improvisation
James Carson's soon-to-be-released debut album The Story of Birds includes eleven tracks that were recorded consecutively, with no edits or alterations. The album grew out of Carson's months of isolation and practice in a remote strawbale cabin that he built in the Canadian wilderness.
The new release is part of a larger project that Carson calls Cabin Music, in which he aims "to transform the way in which music is created by placing it in a space between composition and improvisation, and uniting musician and audience as one."
Audiences can discover this new sound in a new music video below:
James Carson gave The Violin Channel an in-depth look into his creative process and how he found his unique musical voice:
Pianist James Carson on Creating a New Form of Music
When I began the project of remaking the piano, nearly twenty years ago, I had no idea where it would lead. I was pursuing a more traditional path as a composer and improviser at the New England Conservatory, with only a distant sound in my head and a faint vision of what might be possible if I could remove myself fully from the process of creating music. I did not know if it would be possible, but I knew my body and mind could not execute it without change. A plan emerged: to walk away from music, to travel and farm around the world, then build a cabin and practice in it. After that it was not clear what would happen.
I did not know where I would go other than that I wanted to arrive in Asia, slowly. I contemplated my backpack. Could it be smaller? Then I bought a plane ticket to Malaga, Spain for $73. I baked bread in Auvergne, France, and pruned grape vines in Florence, dug ditches with Roma in Transylvania, and delivered baby cows in Northeast Poland. I was arrested (for playing piano no less!) in Rome and swam in the black sea not long after the orange revolution. And I experienced things in Siberia and Hiroshima that changed me permanently. The journey is in my bones: with me always, guiding and informing all that I've done since.
When I made it home, I set out to build the cabin I had originally envisioned at the New England Conservatory. So many things fell into place quickly that it gave the impression that it had always been planned. Still, the work of building was difficult manual labor – I was only working with volunteers, and roofs do not simply build themselves. Finally, when we moved the piano to the cabin and played the first notes, the sound was unlike anything I'd ever encountered. The irregular clay walls and rough-cut lumber in the ceiling let the sound hang right in front of you, with no reverberation, yet somehow it still breathes. If I could sum it up in a word, it would be clarity.
The original idea, of playing the whole piano at once, came to life suddenly, in a flash. My hands, playing ahead of my thinking, ahead of my ears, even, moved “accidentally” across the keys. Nothing was pre-heard, pre-planned, or controlled. At first it was a shock that it could be happening at all, that it could be kept going without collapse. Our bodies are forever in involuntary motion – blinking, readjusting, breathing, glancing, elongating, contracting, shifting, rebalancing – and there is rarely any conscious attention paid to the body being a body as it carries itself forward in the world. To my surprise, wonder, and joy, those processes had fully taken over the piano. The spirits had entered. I only understood it when listening, over and over, to the little recordings I’d made. I would often weep, listening to them, as nothing conscious had occurred while playing, so the recordings meant hearing the music for the first time.
The next challenge was to figure out how to share the cabin with the world. I moved back to the Northeast United States, to New York. Three ideas presented themselves immediately: concerts in equally immersive environments, an album, and a feature film. For a decade, my efforts were channeled into producing and directing Cabin Music, the feature documentary film, which would consolidate and condense the global roots of the project into a single piece, initiating the viewer not only into the cabin but also the places and encounters from which it originates. Creating the film was like building the cabin all over again: we filmed in the cabin and New York in all the seasons and in Spain, France, Moscow, Siberia, and Japan.
And now, with the film complete, all three ideas are coming to life in rapid succession in Manhattan. On October 27, I'm performing through Death of Classical in the Crypt of the Church of the Intercession – an extraordinary space that shapes and melds audience, piano, and music into a single, fused, communion. On October 28, my debut album The Story of Birds will be released on Bright Shiny Things. Its eleven tracks—recorded consecutively, with no edits or alterations—carry a pure channeling of the myriad spiritual traditions and natural forces that have met and merged in the cabin. And, on November 13, Cabin Music will have its world premiere at the Cinépolis in Chelsea, at DOC NYC in a co-presentation with the Canadian Consulate in New York.
The music video I’m sharing with you today features the serene, focused, and timeless dancer Chelsea Hecht. It contains much of what I’ve learned about the craft of filmmaking, the spirits of the cabin, and the light of New York. I hope it is an enjoyable and enriching introduction to my life’s work. But much as I found myself twenty years ago, it’s not clear to me what’s going to come next.
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