Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Next Recordings

Home again to Toronto...

Before leaving Berkley, my engineer (David Bowles) played several tracks of the Braun Solos on his incredible surround sound system. This in-depth sound allowed me to hear all of the nuances that I achieved in the music, and really made me ache for the ones that I did not fulfill! But really, it is amazing to hear my ideas reflected back through a state-of-the-art playback system. This is really the gift of our period in history.

Anyway, hearing my interpretation played back to me through a sensitive, detailed sound system left a lingering and surprising revelation... the ideas mattered enormously, and the musical thoughts that I had, each and every one, could have been the exclusive intense focus of my preparation, far above any technical concerns. Musical inventiveness, phrasing, timing, gesture, all of it. Technique automatically comes to the service of these principles, not the other way around. At least, this is true at my advanced age.

Now it is time to rapidly pull together the Canadian Concerti (solo and double concerti written for me and Guy Few in the last 2 years) project for December and to plan the Vivaldi Concerti project with Nic McGegan and my wonderful string band.

This means schedules, emails and phone calls since I am putting these projects together at the last minute... years of planning have gone into them but the money has only materialized now. I really prefer to undertake these recordings when I have the dough... the ROMANZA project was financed by an eleventh hour line-of-credit and I never want to repeat that experience!!!

Monday, August 23, 2010

24 Invitations (to Imagine)

This is my working title for the Braun Solo project... we'll see if it sticks when I go to production in a few months.

We finished the recordings today at 4:00, a much shorter day than yesterday!

This project was a great experience... a return in concept to my first solo project (Telemann Fantasias, 2000) after a really hectic and tumultuous year. Yes, I played many recitals this past season and had some great musical experiences, yet the time to study and learn and consider music was entirely consumed with house renovations, sale, moving along with recovering from burglary, i.d. theft, divorce, festival problems and all that other bowl-of-cherries stuff that hits people every once in awhile. This recording project marks my new life in much the same way that the Telemann project did.

My engineer is a true musician with superb ears and early music experience. This makes him an excellent partner in the recorded performance. He passed on ideas and guided the sessions very efficiently. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have the beautiful new hall all to myself... the Green Music Center is still not finished, yet the hall is very ready for performances of any kind. Natural light floods in through high windows and is tempered with natural muslin coloured blinds... beautiful woods finish all the floors and seating areas, and I could glimpse the sky through various angles. I felt really privileged to be in this space.

Doing this project renews my desire to learn more about baroque music, but more importantly, to learn how far I can take my own ideas. Maybe I will return to my early process of practising daily by recording my work as it is amazing to step back from the printed page and from my own playing to hear the notes translated into sound. Many of the movements of the Braun required considerable invention and I wish that I had notated several versions in advance, rather than doing my usual thing of leaving it up to inspiration. The reason to notate them is to allow for multiple takes of whatever is the best variation... this can still be tinkered with on the spot (we spent a few hours with this tinkering during the last two days!) but there is nothing wrong with nailing down a few options.

A life in music is full of endless possibility... I can never be satisfied or 100% sure of my merits, yet I am always engaged, always intrigued, always looking forward to trying again.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

14 hour recording day

Today went much better.
We left for the hall at 8:30 a.m. and returned 10 10:30 p.m.

David changed the microphone placement slightly... I move back one foot from the mics to let in more room sound and to get some elbow room in my tone... the previous mic placement was so close that I felt like a giantess, which wasn't working for the music.

I felt much freer but this meant we had to re-record the first 3 movements of the Braun Solos. that was fine because I felt I knew them much better after the time we spent working yesterday.

We got to #18 --- six more to go, plus I am going to take another swing at the spikey little Scherzo if there is time.

I made 3 new reeds yesterday morning... I blew out #66 after 6 hours of recording, moved to #68. By 7:00 this evening, David complained that it sounded fuzzy, so we took a break while I finished trimming #67. I trimmed it by the crow and went straight to recording... the new reeds have the best response but they get waterlogged quickly. I will need to trim one or two before tomorrow's sessions.

Anyway, some of the pieces have become sooooo much more musical from the recording process. I have been using them as studies for my students and it is really nice to revisit them as pure music. Some movements beg for extra inventiveness on the part of the player and my producer, David Bowles, is feeding me ideas when I need them.

My big piece of recording advice for today: always bring a pencil.
And don't injure your back right before the sessions... it is a big bother.

OK, good-night little bassoonists!

Saturday, August 21, 2010


First day of recording... the Green Music Centre is an acoustically stunningly sensitive space and also beautiful to look at. We feel like the last humans on earth as the lobby spaces are still raw and under construction and the campus is deserted at the moment.

We managed to record the first 3 movements of the Braun Solos after arriving late in the day and setting up the the equipment and running the sound check... just 21 more to go Stated bluntly, my tone is beautiful (thanks largely to David's microphone placement) but I am struggling to find the flexibility and suppleness of gesture that is essential for this music. My immediate conclusion is that it is easier to prepare for these recording projects when my life is relatively stable. But the learning curve, or in this case, the response curve can kick in quickly. I still have two complete days to craft an inventive interpretation. Wish me luck because it feels like a distant goal from my present perspective.

In other news, on the long drive to the sessions, we noticed a large new sedan entering far too quickly from the on-ramp and fishtailing wildly before it executed two 360 degree pirouettes in front of us. David safely evaded by pulling onto the far left shoulder and all the other cars spread out around the cirque-de-soleil Honda sedan. After finishing a string of blue language, I looked in the rear view mirror to see the Honda sedately joining the orderly stream of slow-lane traffic. An interesting start to our adventure... a spectacular non-accident.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A New Way of Doing This

Today was a free day before the recording sessions start. And even then, the sessions will not start at the Green Music Center until late afternoon, a very civilized schedule.

In terms of preparation for the recording, I did many of the usual things, both practical and artistic that always need to be done yet the pace is much more relaxed than usual.

In the morning, I worked through all of the Braun Solos. I paid for the hall rental and copied and bound the music for David (I normally do this weeks before the sessions). I wrapped blanks just before dinner, ready to trim the recording reed in the morning.

In between, I have been thoroughly spoiled by my sophisticated and cheerful hosts. Engineer David Bowles and conductor Nic McGegan have some rare simultaneous time at home which has resulted in some excellent home-cooked meals for me and some nice rides in the Mercedes. And I must say, this is a new experience. Usually I am juggling many many practical things while getting ready for a recording and have never before had this experience of ease and pleasure prior to sessions. Aches and pains from moving and stressing about day-to-day life are fading away. I am really grateful and I am also wondering if this is something that could be aspired to in the other projects that are coming up.

I continue to aspire to some brisk tempi in the first Giga, the Scherzo and the final Bizaria... they also continue to slip away from me yet I keep imagining the ease in my hands and mind that gradually builds a reliable response... if I have to choose a different (slower) tempo for the recording, that is fine. I will still work towards my goals. Sometimes it all comes together in time... or it will later. Either way, it is useful to me to keep trying.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Right Before the Recording

Right before any recording project --- rarely is there any time for practising.
Usually the logistics have to be taken care of (chairs moved, cheques written, music copied, musicians picked up), or in the case of this project, the opportunity has to be enjoyed. A completely solo project is much easier to organize. Leaving Toronto at dawn and drinking a latte at Peet's in Berkley by noon.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Parallel play

Often when I am preparing a recording or a major recital, I will paint a series of themed works.
This was easier when my life was more settled and I could leave a painting out in the open for days at a time. Now I am both busier and tidier which has curbed the output of paintings.

Anyway, the impulse produce other art while working on music is a way of manifesting the invisible world of music into a parallel and tangible art form.

The Braun Solo recording projected has manifested itself in these small paragraphs rather than art... somehow the words are more agile than the paintings, slipping into cracks of time and not demanding as much space.

In my creating life (I am allergic to the word 'creative' even though it is often the right word), be it making paintings, preparing music or anything else, I always have to be doing something else, looking at the main goal sideways and rarely head-on. This method works well with many things though not, I repeat not, with cooking (smoke alarms figure significantly in my culinary endeavours).

It works simply --- when my mind is preoccupied with a painting, suddenly I will have a harmonic or tempo revelation; likewise, when I am playing music, I will suddenly see that I have painted the dragon's foot on backwards.

And in another way, these very Solos, these small and demanding gems, can be used when I am working hard on other music from other times. Leaving the main goal and cavorting a bit with these little bass-line melodies is a very good way to look sideways at a larger, more menacing sonatas and concerti. It is a way to fracture the despotic goals of mastery/dominion and instead, knit a genuinely playful interpretation.

OK, have to get up at 4:30 a.m. tomorrow to get to my early morning flight to Berkley. Gotta stop playing the bassoon and documenting current tempi (always interesting to see how well these works sound at a variety of speeds) but hard to since I was not able to get to it until evening... a photo shoot for another artist took place in my studio all day. Parallel play of a different sort.

Monday, August 16, 2010

I love my repairman

OK, there, I said it. I love my repairman.

Somehow, the work he did has had the effect of hours and hours of practise.

Until yesterday, I felt that I was pulling phrases out of murky quicksand, begging the voices to separate, feeling like I was pushing a wheelbarrow with my lips, trying to create a sculpture with a cudgel. Now the bassoon responds and allows me to ride my wave of thought (simple as it is), now the journey is beyond labour and in the realm of movement, ebb and flow. My ability to circular breathe has returned.

My repairman, Shane Wieler, wearing two pairs of glasses and talking fluently about the meaning of life, coaxed keys and pads back into alignment on the boot joint, replacing the leather F pad with a synthetic one, and the result is a clarity that I have been aching for. My reeds also sound better, yessir, they surely do.

And I thought I was sick of the Braun Solos, fed up with the thirteen movements in g minor (out of a total of 24 movements), chafing at the limited range combined with small fiendish difficulties. Thought I might want to re-record the Telemann Fantasias because, after all, they are glorious.

Now the sly wit of the Braun is more evident and I am charmed and fascinated anew.

I would claim it as a miracle though Shane has wrought this particular miracle many times before. Always needed, always welcomed, always makes me very very happy. And it somehow helps that I have practised hard even when the leaky bassoon was stolidly unresponsive.

Thank you

My incredible repairman was too busy to see me this week. When I called two days ago, I did not plead or beg, but simply told him that I would drop anything at anytime in the two days left before leaving for Berkley if any time became available. He promised that he would let me know.
Then late yesterday, he called to say that he would come into the workshop on his day off to give me a couple of hours.

This was an incredible gift.

All of the hard practising that I have been doing in terms of clarity is now suddenly audible. The sluggishness in the sound is gone, the is ring and kick back, no more sounding like a truck careening around a curve in the highway.

All I can say is thank you.
And good night.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Slog on, blog on

There is always a point in the preparation for a recital or recording when I feel becalmed (not the same a feeling calm!). The subconscious undercurrents of spontaneous growth and development seem to abandon me. It eventually passes once I put more time into the playing, but always an existential cul-de-sac until then.

At these moments, when clarity eludes me, I remind myself to simply search for patterns that may have previously eluded me in the music. Any phrase that consistently crashes is usually due to a misunderstanding of the patterns and grouping. The patterns illuminate meaning and also give purpose to the very basic boneheaded tasks of trying to produce a clean, musical tone or exotic tempo.

And if time allows, I try to see where my mistakes are leading me... sometimes they are like persistent children, exasperating yet also communicating something important albeit
with the wrong words. I am always open to the ideas that grow from my mistakes.

Tomorrow I visit my repairman and maybe he can give me wings.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Play it for a French guy

Today, a tree crew came to the brace huge cracked branch of the 100 year old willow that overhangs my yard and carport. They will return tomorrow to take down the branch.

I talked with the foreman while we watched the amazing acrobatics of the front guy who shinnied up to the top the tree then tarzaned across the gap to lasso and tether the cracked branch. Another good looking dude with mirrored shades was standing at the base of the tree, holding the end of the rope so that the man swinging above him would not hit the ground if something went awry.

Meanwhile, I talked to the boss. They were all beguilingly handsome tree men. The boss was gruff, bluff, tough, yet he knew what a bassoon was. And he spoke French. And I knew about different makes of chain saws and admitted to speaking a little bit of French. Ok, so I thought a bit about him later when I was practising.

Because, he had first asked, "What do you do?" and I promptly replied, "I'm a musician."

As I practised, I thought wondered what he would hear if I played this French music from 1740... I played it as if he were listening and somehow that made the music new for me again, took away the tiny doubts, and I played it as if hearing it for the first time. Well, not really, but I could somehow imagine the sensation of not having any judgement beyond the initial impression of the sound.

I am bone weary --- my tone feels very heavy today, if I consult my previous notes, there is hope that this too shall pass.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sand in the Oyster

There is simply no replacement for the alchemical compound of dissatisfaction and regular, keep-going-no-matter-what practising. If I keep going, it gets better, though rarely on the same day.

Yesterday, I felt that my playing was going to stay heavy and wooden. This afternoon I felt the same as I was in the midst of my "power hour" (playing through the complete Braun in this case) and pondered a call to my repairman (he is magical). But tonight, suddenly the clouds separated and some lightness came to my playing, revealing some new levels of technical fleetness.

Sometimes I have to be very self-centred to get the time that allows me to keep playing until the transformation takes place. After all these years, I know that my technique will always eventually become buoyant and responsive in the service of my particular lyricism, but it is usually a long gritty road to get there. The irritants eventually produce the nacreous pearl but only if I have the time to stay in contact with the bassoon. And when that happens, I return to all the music that needs that special air-lift, staying up far too late playing music that has nothing to do with the immanent project.

This is one of the many ways that I prepare for recording. Thank goodness for stretches of time and the dissatisfaction that keeps me going.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Today I donated money towards the recording project of one of my friends. I have always loved to hire my friends to play for and with me, and it has long been a fantasy of mine to contribute to other people's recording projects. And this group, the fabulous THREEDS, made it easy for me by setting up a website and sending around a note requesting (sweetly) help in any amount over $1.

Anyway, I felt good all day because of my chance to contribute. But I NEVER would have done it if they had not asked me! So, I will say it again. If you want something, ask for it, describe it, do it. Don't wish that you could do it. Instead, back your own talent and get to work. Tell people about it and eventually they will help you.

And it makes me remember that the opportunity to help others is ALWAYS very close to me... sometimes all we have to offer is encouragement, but anything that makes it possible for others to reach their potential has the power to improve our lives in almost magical ways.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Expect the Unexpected

Sometimes, a whole day (e.g. yesterday) becomes free --- completely mine to organize as I wish.
Then, and only then, do I become so ill that I cannot stand. Certainly not with my bassoon.
I'm fine today.
Just reminding myself to always expect the unexpected.
Leave margins of time everywhere.
Keep moving.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


OK, sometimes I really spend more time behind the wheel than behind the bocal.

We left Ottawa to return to Festival of the Sound (Parry Sound)... a six hour drive. I grabbed an hour to whip through the Braun Solos. Then back to Toronto... 3 hours. Now another day of driving and I will probably play late into the night.

Driving long miles of highway, I play the movements of Braun in my mind.

Any recording is a snapshot in time... it is a glimpse of our lives and what we are able to make of them within the chaos of daily living and human responsibilities.

When I was younger, I bristled at the word "sacrifice" as I felt my life really was astonishingly comfortable despite its unusual aspects. Now, I feel that the word might be accurate to some degree.

Any musician who accomplishes something out of the ordinary has, indeed, sacrificed the pleasures and comfort of an "ordinary" life in exchange for the rare yet certain moments of ecstasy that come from pushing oneself as far as possible to express a solo voice in a huge number of settings.

Any musician who chooses a very stable and reliable existence (tenure track teaching or established symphony) will sacrifice, for the most part, the opportunity to fully present their individual voice. And for some, this is no sacrifice!

Many of my symphonic friends look at my recordings or my large paintings, and say that they "wish they had the time." I have a variety of bitchy responses, but the main one is: no one has time for anything in the mad dash of our lives.

To really play well, we must be self-driven.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival - Guy & Nadina

Today, Guy and I played our last recital of our current programme... we are not sad yet it was an important moment and wonderful to play for a large, enthusiastic crowd.

We have played this programme dozens of times in the last 18 months for audiences across Canada and in the U.S.. We have performed shorter versions of the same programme for almost 1600 young people ranging in ages from five years to 14 years old.

And every time we play the music, we have to revisit the difficulties, acknowledge the dragons that hide in the shadows, sketch out our vision and go through a rapid evolution to aim for our best playing. The joy becomes constant... we know it will be fun and that the audience will hook into our pleasure in playing. But my point is, nothing is ever carved in stone. The technique is never to be taken for granted though it sure helps to meditate on the years of practise that have gone into my repertoire and to have faith that it will pay off.

Likewise for the recordings... preparation is steady, constant and will continue long after I finish the final take. I have continued to practise all of my recorded repertoire and find that the act of making the disc is only one more step in understanding the music.

Buzz and Crow - concerts for children

Always, as I am preparing for a recording, real life is taking place. Of course, real life for musicians involves lots of fantasy and today we got to take some fantasy to the stage at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival with our new children's show, Buzz and Crow. Guy and I presented a wordless act of theatre that reveals both our instruments and archetypal characters... in this case, the eternal child (Buzz/Guy) and the benevolent yet dark magician (Crow/Nadina). We had very vivid responses from both the children and the adults in the audience.

So today, I only played my favourite warmup movement from the Braun Solos that I will be recording in just over two weeks. For the last three years, I have used Capricio (No. 13) as a way to check in, to see if my hands are light and relaxed, if my reed responds quickly and easily.
This piece helps me monitor my technique but it also makes me very happy.
OK, to bed... another recital tomorrow at noon.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Inauguration of the House

There is not always time to practise or make reeds. So the schedules flex to fit the circumstance.

I am on the road, going early to the Ottawa Chamber Festival because of Guy's engagements, bringing my son and getting my mother set up with caregivers (a little flock of bassoon student angels), packing the truck and re-packing the truck and then forgetting all of our CDs that we would have sold at our concerts in Ottawa.
No matter, just keep moving.

Left Toronto in the midst of holiday traffic but arrived to spend the first night in my old Dad's newly built log house. He is still adding the finishing touches, but he had the loft all ready for us, and the next morning, I played the complete Braun Solos before packing the truck again, picking up Guy in Parry Sound, and heading to Ottawa.

I had to drag myself away from the playing in the loft, aware that it really was a special occasion to have this opportunity to be the very first musician to perform in the house (all houses need to be concertized in this way). But more than that, the sound was beautiful, resonant and responsive. This is practising of a different kind and I felt very fortunate.

When I went downstairs, my old Dad was (for once) not working, but sitting on his single piece of upholstered furniture and listening quietly. I am very very fortunate.