James Carson

A genial genius.” Robert Creeley, Major American Poet and Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient
Creates a spiritual wonder.” Joe Maneri, Saxophonist, ECM Records, HatHUT Records
Contemplative, deep, controlled and thoughtful… A place of daring and personal expression.” Joe Morris, Guitarist, ECM Records; Founder, Riti Records
Astonished joy in response to your performances… exceptional pianism and quick thinking.” Milton Babbitt, MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer-Prize-Winning Composer
One of the most gifted rising stars.” Edmonton Journal
Delicate music outlined by the aura of silence.” Boston Phoenix


James CarsonCanadian-American pianist James Carson has developed a strikingly new genre of music—a pristine sonority that mirrors the splendor of the natural world—and he is ready to share it with listeners around the globe. His debut recording, Cabin Music, marks both the end of an extraordinary 24-year artistic quest and the beginning of a professional career that is poised to redefine the possibilities of music, performance, and listening in the 21st century.

Similar to a master improviser, Mr. Carson gives concert-length performances of never-before-heard music without any preconceived or precomposed ideas, themes, structures, or notation. At the same time, his performances are so complexly layered and detailed that their beauty, clarity, and technical intricacy rival the infinite complexity of natural phenomena, and are eminently listenable to both layperson and expert alike. Mr. Carson has transcended the paradigm that once divided creative musicians into improvisers or composers by finding a new approach. Just as the sky might rain down on cities and fields, Mr. Carson is able to play unlimited quantities of individually articulated notes that shimmer and glisten as a unified whole, instantaneously familiar yet new at the same time.

James Carson grew up in Edmonton, Alberta and was a childhood piano and composition prodigy. He began his studies at age four, wrote his first complete piece at age five, and by his mid-teens was playing professional jazz gigs, winning local composition contests, and writing for large ensembles. The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra premiered his first orchestra composition when he was seventeen; the same year, Mr. Carson arranged music performed by a 1000-piece ensemble during the city’s millennium celebrations.

His early success led to studies at the New England Conservatory in Boston. Mr. Carson apprenticed with a wide range of innovative masters including microtonal saxophone legend Joe Maneri, guitar pioneer Joe Morris, and famed drummer Bob Moses; he also went on long walks with major American poet Robert Creeley, and MacArthur Fellow and iconoclastic pianist Cecil Taylor. These living giants encouraged him to explore the far reaches of modern music, poetry, and artistic thought, and he became known locally as a skilled player of modern free jazz and the virtuosic works of 20th-century composers. Pulitzer-Prize winner Milton Babbitt expressed “astonished joy” in response to his “extraordinary pianism.” The Boston Phoenix praised his “delicate music outlined by the aura of silence,” Mr. Maneri called him a “spiritual wonder”; Mr. Creeley called him “a genial genius.”

Towards the end of his junior year Mr. Carson experienced a life-altering epiphany. He spent the summer camping in the Canadian Rockies and meditating for hours in parks and cemeteries, and began feverishly reading philosophical and spiritual texts. “People thought I had taken LSD or a similar drug,” recalls Mr. Carson, “but I hadn’t. Simply put, everywhere I looked, I saw a vast array of patterns: residues on windows, wood grains, sidewalk cracks, pieces of garbage in the bin. In every direction, I saw a million colors; at times, rooms would change colors and glow vividly. It was so overwhelming that many days I had difficulty functioning. But I also had a vague notion that I wanted to hear music from that kind of consciousness—one that wasn’t afraid of impermanence or death, that fully embraced life, that spoke using the patterns of the true universe.”

Despite his intimate access to so many artistic giants, Mr. Carson completed his senior year certain that his new vision demanded an education of a magnitude far greater than what any conservatory could provide. Likewise, he knew that his musical ambition would require radically new and near-impossible virtuosic abilities. With this in mind, Mr. Carson abandoned his plans to move to New York City and instead prepared himself for two immense projects of personal development: he would travel around the world, from Europe to Asia, overland; and, upon his return, design, build, and practice in a cabin in a remote natural location.

Mr. Carson arrived in Spain in the fall of 2004 with only a change of clothes, some toiletries, and a small backpack. In 2006, as he flew home from Japan, he carried those same artifacts with him, along with nothing more than a few poetry notebooks, an encyclopedia of memories, and the scars on his body. He had survived a near-fatal car accident in the mountains of Tuva. But he had also baked bread and collected honey in the mountains of France, dug trenches with Gypsies in Romania, visited tea farms across China with a Korean Zen monk, and ridden horses with the Mongols, sleeping under the stars with a saddle beneath his head. In all, he had successfully traveled overland through 21 countries and across two continents.

After resettling into his native North America, Mr. Carson acquired the funds, skills, and knowledge needed to build his cabin. After designing and drafting the blueprints himself, he spent three years building the structure by hand with the assistance of over 50 volunteers. Mr. Carson oversaw every aspect of the building, from the foundation and framing to the 17-foot-high cathedral ceiling and clay-plastered walls made of straw, and completed the vast majority of construction during his many weeks alone at the site, working from dawn to beyond dusk. At the end of 2008, Mr. Carson moved his piano to the still under-construction cabin with his piano technician; both were amazed by the structure’s crystal-clear acoustics. As Mr. Carson remarked at the time, his dream of “letting the whole earth play piano” was finally at hand.

Cabin Music represents an individual’s sincere desire to expand the breadth and depth of consciousness and the human spirit. While many virtuosos come onto the scene in their late teens and early twenties, Mr. Carson chose a path that offered no worldly recognition, no security, and no clear precedent to follow. His quest led him to study with some of the greatest minds of the 20th century, but also to sleep in the lobbies of abandoned buildings, to swing a hammer at the top of a ladder, and to practice for weeks in the dead of winter, alone in the warmth of a wood stove. The result is a music that is achingly beautiful and technically dazzling, but also genuinely new. Mr. Carson currently divides his time between his cabin and New York City.

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