Friday, July 30, 2010

Chaos and Eros and Trucks

I never listen to music while I am doing something else. It divides my mind and spirit and makes me really irritable.

With one important exception...

When I get in my big silver, now-beat-up-but-still-fabulous truck,
I turn on my stupid rock station.

And from that, I get the pulse, the timing, the rawness, the seemingly unabashed
candour that I am also searching for in art music, both in my own performance and that of others. And not all of the bands are great but some of them really find something that hits home hard. I like that

Regarding the Braun, it is French baroque music, ergo erotic and humorous at some level.
Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out when I am caught up in our classical training
anxiety about correctness, then I remember that fabulous technique is only attractive when
combined with lightness (humour) and passion (eros). Oh, and reeds and scales. Whatever.

Speaking of trucks, I like to quote my friend Valdy (folk singer Valdy) who says that he drives for a living and plays music for pleasure. I spend more time in my truck than behind a bassoon but the experience has been productive! Now I just have to get my CD player fixed.

Reading and Re-reading

Interpreting a work of music often feels like my process for reading a book.
If the book is very good and inspiring, I often have to tear through it, guiltily leaping ahead,
gulping down paragraphs, skipping sentences, all with the sure knowledge that I will read it again and possibly again. In this way, my imagination etches slowly an understanding that feels lasting even as it is soon silted over by layers of other influences. The first reading is really a sketch, the second is a visit, the third might be a collaboration.

The Braun Solos can be learned quickly despite the ingenuous (and ingenious) complexity of the technical puzzles, yet returning to them over and over reveals an unexpected possibilities. Playing them contiguously (including from the end back to the beginning) also reveals relationships and I begin to look forward with pleasure to the next one. And surprisingly, through repetition, understanding dawns and movements that initially seemed barren, lengthy and dull begin to take on new meaning. Frequent repetition leads to subtle but endless variety...aridity usually follows from genuine repetition without variation.

A novel that is read aloud will always take on the voice of the reader.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Blog or Blow?

Here is a new dilemma --- when a scrap of time presents itself to be used in any way I want (well, almost), the first question is: do I trim a reed or woodshed one of the psycho movements of the Braun Solos... and now a third option.... do I stick with my commitment to blog daily (almost) about the process of recording?

I am going to try to do all three in the remaining 20 minutes before the world starts knocking at my door in the shape of furniture movers and brilliantly talented students.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Braun Solos and Canterbury Tales and Reeds

When I was young, we (the tiny gaggle of bassoon students in my particular orbit) thought it was pitiful to attach a narrative to a piece. Now that I am old,
I see, if not always narrative, then drama, plot and character in every piece that I play. In other words, a story. When I was young, we used the word "objective," thinking that it meant a pure neutrality that faithfully presented the art. Now I run screaming silently from such interpretations. I am utterly subjective, feeling quite certain that the only way to experience the genius of another is through our shared humanity.

It is summer and somehow that always means time for reading.

I have managed to get to some books that I have long wanted to enjoy, the most recent being the Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer identifies stock characters (though it has been a long time since a munciple has been a common fixture of everyday life!), then proceeds to surprise us with their activities. Braun presents a collection of common enough movements along with highly individualistic ones, particularly the two Bizarrias but also the nutty Fantasias, Caprices and the Concerto. All but one under 3 minutes, many under 2 minutes and some less than a minute. The works can be sequential and predictable if approached in a literal way, but become much more interesting when animated with particular & peculiar characters.

OK, reeds --- the process of producing reeds really does take time... today I trimmed 2 reeds, made 3 blanks, wrapped and waxed three blanks, and it felt like a huge indulgence, a spending of time that normally is so difficult to find.

And I think of the different reed-making personnae of my teachers and colleagues--- the sculptor/artist (Roland Small), the artist/analyst Sol Schoenbach), the scientist/motivational guru (Christopher Millard), the healer/scientist (Norman Herzberg). The process is always the interesting thing and reflects the core talents of the maker rather than any absolutely definitive system.

As the Crow Flies (Reed Crow, that is)

The bassoon sometimes seems like the embodiment of a giant prehistoric bird... after all, we have a wing joint (only one though) and the sound that the reed makes is a crow.

Returning to my incessant rant about the necessity (though I know it is also a luxury) to make new reeds every day. The warmth, immediate response and clarity of a new reed is irreplaceable. I trim quickly and with reasonable success, yet always with a measure of honest relief when it works. I test the crow of the reed very near the end of my trim, looking for a fine grained caw with a disposition of medium, high and some low partials in the sound. Then I play, and adjust, play and adjust.

The wheel of time must be broadly understood in order to keep the reed cycle in order. I need a stash of at least 20 blanks to feel comfortable, and if I fall behind in this mandate, I abandon the trimming of reeds until the blank bank is full again. This means playing on old reeds until I can return to a logical daily rhythm that includes making blanks, wrapping blanks, trimming reeds and practising. Regardless of how well I understand this, it is a fragile structure of time that has to be carefully protected, something that is almost impossible given the complexity of our lives. Particularly heading into concert tours or recording, reed-making is never a straight path but rather a cycle of dips and backtracking, catching up and getting ahead then falling behind, all things that resemble the flight of the most insolent, raucous and clever bird, the glossy black crow.

Today, I finally was able to sit down in the bright light of morning to make a fine, responsive reed before heading off to rehearsals for my kids' show with Guy (Buzz and Crow). I just feel more centred when the reed is shiny and new. Now back at the loft, I have time to practise some more though we are heading into the wee hours of the morning.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Green Music Center, Sonoma University

I am really pleased that we will be recording the Braun Solos at the beautiful Green Music Center of Sonoma University in late August.

The Invisible House of Music

Everyday things morph into unexpected challenges if I don't pay attention... yet another cute little dragon grows into a monster as paperwork, address changes, tax returns trail in my wake.

When I was young, I ached for time to practise and study. Nothing has changed save the knowledge that whatever thought I hold in my mind will take root over time and grow into the thing that I imagined. So I must be careful with my thoughts as they are sometimes the only domain that I can command.

There is so much stuff that has to be done every day yet every little aspiration that lives between the chores can build momentum and exist, at first fleetingly and eventually as a tangible reality.

I have a bound book of lists that help me remember my goals. I work to catch my thoughts when I feel trapped by my duties and remember to laugh at myself. I bitch to my friends with no effort to be noble (this is very good). And, as I have mentioned before, my old father calls every day at 7:00 to report on his house building project and to remind me that the world lies before me every day, that vitality and pleasure in our craft is everything in this life. The rare day that can be dedicated entirely to music is always unforgettable. And that is precisely what happens during the recording hours or concert hours.

If I can touch on any part of my work as a bassoonist in the midst of the chores, then this adds some part of the invisible house of music... over time I know that I can add another room and invite people to visit. I practise late at night and make reeds early in the morning. There is always time for everything though sometimes, alas, not for boredom.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Voice and Reeds

Some people, like my trumpeter-best-friend-in-the-world Guy Few, have the skill to modulate their voices to the point that I need to be very attentive in reading the clues. Some, like me, have voices that break the moment that sorrow and doubt strike my heart.

The voice of the bassoon comes from our whole integrated system of body, mind, reed, bocal, bassoon and yet, this can always be affected by the reed.

Even if I am at the apogee of my conditioning, in the best shape possible, I still need a brand new reed to achieve the limberness, warmth and fluidity that I crave. Conversely, if I am in poor condition, or the bassoon is leaking, a good reed can be obscured.

This is where I depart completely from the training of my youth. For me, it is never a question of 'breaking in a reed', but rather, finding 45 minutes to fully trim a reed before my recital, concert, recording, or even private practise session.

The critical point is to fully trim.

I have many memories of doing the rapid trim with Guy either asleep on the floor (before our SUNY Fredonia recital) or bouncing madly up and down with questions (late on the evening before our Hummel recordings). It is another test of skill to manage my easily-bored-yet-always-engaged colleague while I search for the response that I want. Both of those reeds were successful. Others, trimmed in solitude in starkly mirrored, echoing dressing rooms have missed the mark and then I have played a reed that is a couple of days old. Or the time we went on tour in B.C. when I had a terrible cold, and all of my reeds seemed to possess the same congestion. It wasn't until my ears unblocked that I could trim a reed. But I always keep trying because maybe this experience will pay off the next time I have a cold!

Usually I try to head into any concerto or recording event with at least 3 newly trimmed and unplayed reeds. Then I make one as close to the event as humanly possible. Sometimes this becomes challenging when we have to set up the chairs, drive the conductor to the venue, hand out cheques etc etc but really, multi-tasking is the essence of being a versatile musician!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Back to Basics

ALWAYS at some point in a big practise cycle (i.e. heading towards a concerto, recital or recording), I will do a complete technical review.

For the last few years, my warmups for playing always are based on the Braun Solos or Bach passages. Then, when I am moving into high gear for French recitals or concerti, I move up in the tessitura and use the Telemann Fantasias as my warm up.

But when I want to review the fluidity of my tone and playing, I return to the technical routines of my youth. And these are not strictly warmups, but rather lengthy, comprehensive reviews of technical patterns, i.e. chromatic, major and harmonic minor scales in all intervals, all slurred, full range. And these cannot be called 'warm-ups' because sometimes they take hours to complete.

I am searching for improved resonance, fluency, responsiveness.

Then I return to the repertoire and see what has changed in my sound and my maneuverability.

And contemplate the fact that there is some alchemical process that welcomes and defies an logical preparation. The act of following any prescribed process leads beyond logic and in the end, it is imagination and the time spent with the bassoon that creates the voice.

The truly ridiculous thing is that I am not really happy EVER unless I have the freedom of time that allows for scale practise once in awhile. Not sure I should admit that.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Always learning as I go… I am discovering that this blog will become too long and am now going to set up a separate blog page… my next post will announce the link.

Meanwhile, plans for the recordings keep floating along. Presently working on nailing down a recording venue in Berkley for the middle of August. And working on preliminary bookings for the concerto recordings… this project of Canadian concerti involves so many very busy people that I will probably have to record each concerto as a separate session… usually we jam our projects into two days of recording with (sometimes) one rehearsal… this will not work for the new concerti!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Wild imagination...

Difficult to believe, an orderly existence in necessary for a wild imagination. And a wild imagination is necessary for a resonant interpretation. Order may come in the form of a constant love, or a routine. Or having all of the wretched moving boxes emptied and recycled. But there must be order of some kind. Both the Braun Solos and the Telemann Fantasias, I feel my physical self always regrouping, reorganizing and becoming stronger, more focused, centred and limber. Of course, the first stage (before I am in good shape) is a kind of melodious amorphia, very distressing yet recognizable and passing phase.

In Braun's own very true words --- "Written expressly for developing the embouchure and familiarizing the hands to difficulties, as much for this composer as for others."

In other recording news: Today I began the booking for the Canadian Concerto project --- Guy and I will record some of the solo & double concerti that were written for us in the last two years by Mathieu Lussier and Glenn Buhr along with the double concerto by Alain Trudel.

Booking recording sessions is like building a human pyramid --- first you have to decide which are the indispensable participants (foundation) and then you juggle the others until you have a reasonably stable structure. Then someone takes a picture.

We have an Ontario Arts Council grant for this recording (an important part of the foundation) and the music has all been written (another lovely building block). More later... gotta practise before the clock strikes midnight.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Crazy days...

... anchored now and then by playing the music and making the reeds. Reeds start at 6 a.m. and then life clamours, with finally a respite for practising after midnight.

I am grateful to live in houses and with people who allow such strange hours.

Late as it is, my thoughts return to my old house and the marvellous geometry of echos that it produced... I prepared for all of my solo recording in that house and loved the living quality of the reverberations. I prefer to record in vibrant acoustics rather than in muffled studios.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I often pose this question to my students ---

"When time is short, which is more important: making reeds or practising?"

The correct answer, according to me, is "yes," but I have many autonomous thinkers in my coterie, and they suggest that better answers are "both" and "neither."

The plain fact is that you will benefit from either occupation though the true luxury is to have time for both.

Either way, the practical (reeds) and the artistic (practising) can be tackled in small, steady yet constantly interrupted increments, building to a body of work. Points of music that knit a life.

The beauty of these rare baroque pieces for solo winds (Braun & Telemann) is that they are all very short, evocative miniatures... complete with repeats to encourage variation and invention.

The other beauty is that there are no copyright restrictions and I do not have to spend time filling out paperwork for permission to perform and record.

Baroque music treads lightly in the paperwork planet.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Heading into any recording project...

Means the mandate to be in the best shape possible. How do I get there? Mostly by doing it, by always being in motion, being vibrant in actions even when I feel unequal to my ambitions.

A friend of mine told me that he once worked as a longshoreman... after the first day he was aching head to toe, despairing of every having the strength to do the work. He asked one of the much older, grizzled, very strong men if there were any exercises that he could do to make his job easier (my friend is, of course, a health nut). The longshoreman looked down at my skinny, intellectual friend and said "Yeah --- exercise by throwing barrels onto ships".

Having said that, what exactly is a recording project and how do I prepare for it? For me, it is my best playing at the time and that comes from physical connection with the bassoon and the arc of aspiration that has started months and years before the actual recording date. The quality of my reed making depends enormously in the level of physical refinement and connection that I have at my command.

And the best way to that is through playing vital music. Though I am recording music by Jean Daniel Braun, I find other short baroque works, mostly bass lines but sometimes flute solos, to be a fantastic prepa ration, a very active meditation that leads to calmness within a flurry of activity.

"Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen" from the Johannes-Passion holds endless fascination for me. It is an example of a work that allows for serenity through choreography - knowing the position and relaxation necessary each finger combined with the absolutely connected flow of air - these are the goals and the focus of my active meditation. The fact that I fail endlessly while nonetheless creating a proximate version of this beautiful, acrobatic line does nothing to discourage me. Quite the opposite. A terrier-like approach to the devotions of performing.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Little Braun Blog...

I have wanted to record the Braun "Solos" for two years and I finally have a window of time in mid-August that fits with David's window of time.

I am often asked about the recording process, how I get things done and why I do it. Of course, what people really want to know is how much it costs and how I can afford it. We can talk about that too, though later.

Aside from money, some of the major orchestral section bassoonists have told me that they are reluctant to record solo works because they want to be evolved enough to produce a definitive performance. My thought process is entirely different.

No performance is definitive but a deeply considered one is always interesting and is always one more step along the way.

Instead of wondering if it is "right" (as we so often do with Baroque music), I ask instead, what could this music say? How could it be said? And some of that has to be done by trial and error yet the eloquence of the music always emerges though it may take many hours for me to find the voice that transmits this eloquence. It is an alchemical process.

And somehow the act of recording allows for immersion in "third person" listening... this can be very healthy if I am listening with interest, patience and curiosity.

This season, I have recording projects that range from bassoon alone (I pay for these from my loonie jar) to large concertos with orchestra (funding from OAC and from generous sponsors). Instead of trying to make sense of it all afterwards, this will be a running note book and maybe you can send questions to help me address the areas that are of wider interest. Sometimes the only time that I really have answers is when I am in the middle of it all.

My life has been so busy in the last two years with an epic journey from the old to new --- new management, new house, new website, new ID documents, new bank account, new life. Same cat (Diva) and phone numbers. I am feeling ridiculously good at the moment. Stupid as it may sound, throughout the chaos, I kept making reeds (though far fewer than usual, as one of my students pointed out when he read my reed journal) and exercising (sweating is always good). My old Dad always calls me at 7:00 every single night, even if I can't always answer. These are the things that kept me sane, along with the Braun solos.

I find that when I am going through dark times my musical goals stay very strong though it can feel very very hard to get to them. Sometimes these ideas have existed in my mind for so long that I neglect to tell the other participants that we are going to start recording next month, but sometimes luck is on my side and my chosen team is available!

When Guy Few and I first began working together, I wrote up a five year recording plan that ended with a film project. The plan still exists but time has stretched to fit around funding challenges. Anyway, we released two of the recordings, won a big prize for the first one and generated record sales on our recital tours in the 2009/10 recital season. We premiered the new concerti for our third project and got a grant that covered part of the costs, but it has taken me two years to build up enough savings to finish this project.

Since then, other concerti have been written for us and other projects have branched out from our original plans --- Guy and I have recorded a recital CD (Afterhours) that has been awaiting my editing attention... this disc will be ready for Christmas 2011 too. On other fronts, my organizing skills were honed during our two year tenure Grand River Baroque Festival for two years (we resigned after our highly successful 2010 season).

The large scale of our creative projects is so stimulating, but the contrast between these full scale, very expensive productions and the simple, show-up-with-my-bassoon solo projects is a pleasure in itself.

But it all comes back to one thing: I love to play the bassoon. And I love working with hot musicians, even dead ones though that sounds weird and gross. Composers (wanted: dead or alive), soloists, orchestras, engineers --- they are all musicians to me. Even the hot backstage guys, yeah, Chris dragging me around as he pulled my wing swab free at the River Run Centre and Gill holding up my dress's long train so that I could dance on the opening night of the Grand River Baroque Festival... music in an intensely social activity that comes from individual dedication.

Like the Telemann "Fantasias", I play the Braun "Solos" daily as a way of finding my voice, the one that always eludes yet tantalizes me in various degrees, a voice that projects warmth, loft, flexibility, agility, suppleness of thought and expression. Sometimes it is so good to pursue these things in solitude before returning to join the bigger chorus. And sometimes, you just need a room of your own before you can start anything. And when I am out of shape, these works sound so wooden and heavy. Yet by playing them every day, and someti mes stopping at a church in an unknown town, and playing through the whole opus, I become better. At this point, recording the music is my way to live my choices... it really feels necessary and in no way does it feel like I have frozen the interpretation.

If you want to record, here is my equation:

Recording = Music (practise it all the time even if you cannot make the recording for 10 years) + Planning (writing budgets for grant applications will really help you figure it out --- writing concert programmes will really help you figure out a good CD programme) + Filing (create order in your practical materials and you will find the actual production quite straightforward.

Believe it or not, money is not needed until you have done all of the above.