Kierkegaard Is My Focal Point: An Interview With Carsten Dahl

If it were up to him, improvisation would be a subject taught at the academies of classical music.

Erickae Cécile Sommerhill has met professor, composer and pianist Carsten Dahl for a talk about anxiety, philosophy and radiant sounds – and about audience who choose to leave his concerts because the music touches them physically.

I meet Carsten Dahl in the morning, in the almost deserted hall of mirrors at Nimb, a Copenhagen restaurant. We sit down in the dark leather sofas, and Carsten manages to persuade the friendly waitress to turn off the throbbing background music. ”You see, for me it’s similar to a dentist who has to be in a room full of white coats and drills.” He appears to be genuinely grateful when the music is turned off and we take the first sip of our coffee and enjoy the calm.


”I would love to be a Mourning cloak. It is a brown-bordeaux-coloured butterfly with a yellow line along the edge. It is rare, and I can identify myself with it…and with the name too,” he says with a smile, adding that he has a poetic vein and an inclination for melancholy. Overall, Carsten Dahl is very fond of butterflies as a symbol of the potential all humans hold. They are the very essence of change, and they shine during their short life on Earth. He falls silent for a moment, then adds: “They remind us of everything that connects us with all things universal. They open up a room in us humans. And that is probably also what my concert is doing…I hope?”

Carsten Dahl radiates calm. He listens intensely, and often, he gives his answers to my questions quickly, quietly and articulately. And although many of the subjects are serious in nature, his points are full of humour and warmth. A life characterised by anxiety attacks and depressions has forced him to reflect on things more than most people, and he states that he finds it difficult to be on Earth. He often feels like a spectator to real life, and years ago, this caused him great problems, suffering panic attacks on stage. Today, however, his relationship with the audience is much more relaxed.

”I think about the audience as a huge, warm and loving energy. I feel the same way no matter whether the concert hall I am playing for is full or empty. Today, I don’t mind if people leave my concert. Before my depressions, recognition was so much more important to me. Today, it doesn’t mean a thing. When you are suffering badly from depression, lots of things need to be changed, and you stop observing how other people are observing you – because that is the toast anxiety feeds on.”

Yet, all the darkness has had a positive side effect: It has made Carsten Dahl come into contact with his innermost core, and that has been beneficial for his music. ”When I press a key, the sound radiates, and often, people get really moved. It takes an inner cathedral to make one note radiate like that. What you want to say – your art – can never be bigger than your own inner sounding board,” he explains.

He also says that he has always felt that he was a spectator to life. Even as a young person, he was standing out from his friends who went to parties and drank. Instead, he immersed himself in reading the Danish author and priest Kaj Munk, Voltaire and Kierkegaard. His interest in philosophy, however, was also a sign of loneliness, because he got anxious when being together with many friends at the same time. But in the company of his philosophers, he felt understood, and he has dedicated the concert in Tivoli to Søren Kierkegaard.

”Actually, I am always playing for him. He is my focal point, and he has been my spiritual role model since I was 17 years old. Back then, the crypt below Christian Church in Copenhagen was open at night. There, in the darkness, I would sit with two candles, surrounded by 16th century coffins, read Kierkegaard and feel happy, safe and close to life! I read ”Either/or” and probably only understood half of it, but I understood the tone, the poetry and the dilemmas in being a human.”
He sits still for a while, looking thoughtful, before he continues:

”It is actually a paradox to honour Kierkegaard, because he would hate it. But I am drawn by his timelessness. Geniusses like Kierkegaard and Bach make it much easier to be here, as I can ponder the big questions in life in relation to their thoughts. Man is divided between his desire and his search for God, and I find that interesting. I would like to describe the loneliness in music, which Kierkegaard is describing in words.” He smiles and, raising his index finger, he stresses that “it is not, however, programme music!”

Today, you don’t often come across improvisation concerts within the world of classical music. I ask for Carsten Dahl’s opinion on that, and it is evident that I am getting him started on one of his educational hobbyhorses: “These days, many classical musicians have never had a relation to music. They have had a relation to a teacher, to their instrument and to schooling. We subject ourselves to all kinds of systems that remove us from being who we really are. In Aramaic, there is a word for that, and that is ”sin”, which has a completely different meaning today. But in reality, sin means that we are moving away from ourselves. So when I ask classical musicians to improvise, they get anxious because they are not used to using themselves as works of art. Improvisation should be a subject taught at the academies of art. If you are to master improvisation, you must dare to fall and hurt yourself. You must be suffering from both megalomania and self-contempt!”

Carsten Dahl often experiences that members of the audience become touched at his concerts. Sometimes they find it embassasing, and they may choose to walk out in the middle of the concert. ”If there is no one to vibrate, you cannot get access to heaven at all!” he says provocatively and explains that when improvising, he reaches out for the music that is accessible here and now – he hits the chord that is present in the room. That makes for a different concert experience, and the music he is playing and the pauses he is making often touch the audience both emotionally and physically, and that may trigger anxiety.

”Anxiety comes from within. Kierkegaard says that that is when spirit makes itself felt. That means that you meet yourself as the person you are. If you are wise, you will listen to your core, even if it is completely unpredictable and scary.” The serious expression on Carsten Dahl’s face loosens up and turns into a big smile that unveils the humour of his simple conclusion: “That is what the concert is all about!”

– by Erickae Cécile Sommerhill, Tivol