James Carson, an Edmonton-born acclaimed pianist and filmmaker, spent five years living in a self-built cabin in the Canadian wilderness. The result was his award-winning feature documentary debut: “Cabin Music.”
Carson was a piano prodigy since childhood. By 16, his work was performed by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. His impressive accomplishments led him to attend the New England Conservatory of Music.
At four-years-old, Carson began playing the piano. At the time, his neighbours moved into an apartment, leaving behind their piano for Carson’s family to look after.
“I had real musical toys … and it was pretty obvious I was very musically inclined,” Carson recalled. “When that piano moved in, I asked my mother for piano lessons. Then it just took off from there.”
At this age, Carson was already composing songs. His melodies came from a constant radio in his head that he couldn’t turn off.
“It was even a problem for me. There was so much music constantly coming into my head, that it was almost impossible to function sometimes.”
“What I wanted to do with music was not possible through musical notation,” Carson recalls
Carson ended up walking away from his life of rigorous piano study and composition. While looking at nature, he realized that an orchestra couldn’t play a symphony that captures all the details of life.
“What I wanted to do with music was not possible through musical notation. Life is full of detail that you can’t fully process. I wanted to have that be in sound, and music,” Carson described. He walked away from music inspired, with the idea of a cabin already formed.
“I had to change myself first to be able to play the music. I could change myself, then I could build the cabin. And if I could build the cabin, I could try to change music and play the music.”
After traveling to various countries, Carson built a cabin in the Canadian wilderness. Living in this cabin allowed Carson to capture the music he yearned for, as continuous realizations dawned upon him.
“In the cabin, there’s nature that you can identify, like robins, sparrows, hawks, owls, and snakes. But also, if you’re sleeping up here alone, you’re going to dream much bigger dreams than you ever would in the city. So many other things can come in and out of [the cabin],” Carson explained.
Carson relayed how someone had told him that the cabin is the finite infinite, and the city is the infinite finite. A city like New York, he explained, is an infinity of objects and people. In the cabin, however, there is one person, but the thoughts are infinite.
“Cabin Music” explores Carson’s journey with music, and his experience in the cabin.
Carson’s work invites us to build our own cabins
Alongside “Cabin Music,” Carson released his debut album, The Story of Birds. The album’s tracks were recorded consecutively, entirely unedited. The album is about all of the world’s spiritual and natural forces merging at one meeting point: the cabin. They come from “every direction at the same time.”
“It’s really just saying, there’s all these things that come in and out. What’s important is when different things come in. Somebody might say those are spirits, somebody might say those are dreams. They might have a more materialistic take on it, but it’s still happening.”
The forces that meet include everything from nature, to Carson’s thoughts, and the aforementioned spirits. Carson hopes that these forces come together through his music and inspire listeners.
“Maybe you want to start a business, maybe you need to call your mom. Maybe you need to get a divorce, move, or quit your job. People know what they need to do, even if they don’t know it consciously,” Carson explained.
“What I would hope is that all the forces that come in and out of the cabin and into the music, go into the people. So they can be nourished.”
People’s needs are their own cabins. “Cabin Music” and The Story of Birds invite us to create our own cabins, metaphorical or not, to satisfy whatever our needs may be.