Jacques Paisible

Late 17th-century London was a thriving, cosmopolitan, artistically busy place where much music for the recorder was composed and played. Perhaps the most celebrated exponent of this activity was Jacques Paisible. Born in or near Paris to a family with members in the employ of Louis XIV, he had moved to London by 1675 when he was mentioned as a player of oboe and recorder for a production of the masque Calisto at Whitehall. Also known as James Peasable or Pesible, he played ‘bass violin’ in James II’s Roman Catholic Chapel, served as court composer for Princess/Queen Anne and after her death, played bass in the Drury Lane and Haymarket Theatre bands, played recorder in public concerts and theatre intermission entertainments, and was one of the first recorder teachers of the Royal Academy of Music at its founding in 1695.

A much-admired virtuoso player on the London scene, Paisible’s numerous recorder sonatas and suites remained unpublished during his lifetime. Though he spent most of his working life in England, his music is decidedly French in its style and conceit; that said, several of his fast movements demand far greater fleetness of fingers than your average French suite. Then again, some of his other sonatas aren’t very technically demanding, so there’s also something for players who want less of a challenge. I enjoy Paisible for his changeability and occasional eccentricity, and if like me you appreciate off-the-beaten-track music which makes demands on your interpretive and expressive skills, with a few bat-shit crazy movements in awkward keys thrown in every once in a while, you’ll make a new friend in Jacques/James.

One of Paisible’s non-musical claims to fame was his marriage to Moll Davis, a celebrated actress and a mistress to Charles II before she settled down with Jacques/James. I couldn’t find a picture of Mr. Paisible, so here’s a painting of his  charming wife by Peter Lely. She was apparently a strong and independent-minded woman, not an easy thing to be in seventeenth-century London. Or now, for that matter.


Several of Paisible’s suites and sonatas were edited by Marianne Metzger for Dolce’s series The Delightful Companion (two volumes, DOL 250 and 251).

David Lasocki has also recently released e-editions of previously unpublished duets, sonatas and suites by Paisible, which are available at


There are several recordings out there featuring at least a little of Paisible’s recorder music. His Sonata VI is on the program of The Business of Angels, a CD of English recorder music from the turn of the 18th century which I recorded in 2010. This sonata comes from a MS in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (Solos de Mr Pesible) and is thought to have been composed around 1695. Here’s the fourth movement, a Presto.

Paisible Sonata VI mv4

Business of Angels cover

Hamlet’s Recorders

There are various recorder ‘sightings’ in film, TV and celebrity photography, one of which I posted yesterday, and more of which I’ll post as time passes. A number of these are very entertaining but unfortunately also tend to reinforce negative stereotyping of the instrument, but there are also few times when something goes right. One of the latter happens in Kenneth Branagh’s film production of Hamlet. I first saw this movie on a snowy weekday afternoon in the dead of winter, a very suitable time for the sad story of the mad prince of Elsinore. The cinema was maybe half full, which was impressive for a weekday afternoon in bad weather, but almost everyone there was either a senior citizen or a high school student. There were several classes of the latter, so it must have been English Class Field Trip Day as well as Seniors Tuesday, and I was one of only a handful of people between the ages of 17 and 60. A very interesting and unusual crowd and atmosphere!

There’s a section of Hamlet (in Act 3, scene 2) in which Guildenstern and Rosencrantz attempt to talk some sense into the seriously messed-up prince. It’s a brilliant little bit of double entendre on the art of manipulation, and it begins shortly before Hamlet’s line, ‘The recorders, let me see one!” This is the moment in the play where all recorder nerds and musicological purists wait with bated breath to see exactly what kind of a recorder Hamlet is handed, and it’s here that you find out whether or not the director actually gave any thought to the musical instrument to which Shakespeare refers. Will it look like a recorder from Shakespeare’s era, or will it be a $20 piece-of-crap soprano? Will it be like the purple one with glitter that I got at a Japanese truck stop for $5? (Seriously, if anyone ever does a production of Hamlet in drag, I’ve got the perfect instrument for that scene.)


It’s believed that Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1603, and at that time anyone in London would have expected to see a recorder looking like this:


As you can see from the link, this particular instrument currently lives in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It dates from around 1600 and was made by a member of the Bassano family or one of their colleagues, in either Venice or London. The Bassanos were a celebrated of Italian musicians, some of whom were brought to England by Henry VIII to work in his musical household. Members of the family remained in royal employ until the 1630s.

But back to the movie. Branagh’s vision for Hamlet obviously didn’t include setting it in Shakespeare’s time or anything earlier, and that’s just fine – the costumes and sets are a sumptuous feast for the eyes, and the cinematography is beautiful. But it did make me wonder what was coming in Act III scene 2. A flutophone, or a Bakelite alto for that ‘old’ effect? A serpent, maybe? The moment arrived, Branagh uttered the famous cue, and to my complete surprise, he was handed – a Renaissance  tenor recorder, looking very much like a copy of the one that’s pictured above!  Property master Danny Hunter did his homework and found the appropriate horn, and I was totally impressed. I’m still so impressed that I made sure to look up Danny Hunter’s name before writing this. Granted, a serpent or a clarinet might have been more appropriate in the context of Branagh’s choice of historical setting – and frankly, in the great scheme of things all this doesn’t really matter – but it was exactly the right flute for Shakespeare’s language, and it was so much fun to see that.

If you want to see this segment of Branagh’s film, here’s a YouTube link:


For comparison, and an example of unfortunate recorder typecasting, here’s the link to an excerpt of another made-for-TV production made by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2009. It’s a longer clip: the recorder scene begins around 5:30 and if you stick with it, you’ll hear Three Blind Mice (I kid you not) around 6:58.


There’s one other small tale to tell from that winter afternoon visit to the movies, apart from how much I enjoyed the film in general and that little scene in particular. During the intermission, while standing in line for the loo between two fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girls, I couldn’t help but overhear the following conversation:

“So what do you think of the movie?”

“Oh, I like it, it’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah, I like it too, but Bethany hates it. She thinks it sucks.”

“She hates it? How come?”

“She says it’s not as good as the book.”

“The book? What book?”

“You know – Hamlet.”

Time in the Studio

I spent two evenings earlier this week recording background music for television, so my thoughts have turned to the wonderful and sometimes unpredictable world of the studio. On Monday, several of us from the Toronto Consort spent a couple of hours playing our way through some 16th-century dance tunes to accompany the on-screen political machinations in the next season of The Borgias; the following night I went in to improvise on my Norwegian flutes some music for a wedding party scene in the upcoming series on The Vikings.

Toronto Consort played a substantial amount of the music for The Tudors and some for The Borgias, and it’s always been a great pleasure to be involved in these shows. As you can gather from their quality, these Irish-Canadian co-productions are managed at the highest professional level at every step of the way, so nothing falls between the cracks in the creative, administrative or recording processes. The people involved are great, everything is beautifully organized, there are grapes, vegetables and hummous if you get hungry…and it’s the closest I’m ever going to get to Jeremy Irons.

If you like, check here for a taste of the Tudors:

Not all such recording gigs are so incident-free. One of my most vivid recording session memories concerns the two-foot-square riser I had to stand on during the session for Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto with Tafelmusik. In the months prior to the recording dates the producer Wolf Ericson, a celebrated gentleman with a long and impressive history of early music recording dating back to the Philips-Seon days, had apparently been expressing his concern that ‘the second flute is very small.’

There was some understandable confusion over this in the orchestra offices. Both Marion Verbruggen and I were going to use alto recorders, both of those recorders would be the same size, so what exactly was the problem? Turns out that Mr. Ericson remembered a significant height difference between Marion and I – she’s perhaps 5’10, I’m 5’3 on a tall day – and he wanted to use only a single microphone on the pair of us. Better for the blend, better for the balance. The enterprising solution his team came up with was to build a small riser, which made me as tall as Marion and placed me at the same distance from the mic. It was mostly very entertaining, viewing the world from a dizzying height for a couple of hours! The only drawback was that Marion and I had planned to turn away from the mic for the ‘echo’ sections of the slow movement, and this proved a greater challenge while standing in restricted square footage. Fortunately for me, the riser had a kickrail that warned me of any impending fall.

That Brandenburg recording was originally released on Sony, and is now available again through Tafelmusik Media:


In the case of remote recording sessions made in a location other than a studio, any musician you talk to will likely have a story or two about The Session From Hell. Recording sessions are usually long, stressful, arduous after a while, and they can be expensive; remote recording is often chosen because renting the recording space isn’t as expensive as renting a studio. But because recording dates are usually booked months in advance, you can’t be sure that the weather will cooperate when the day arrives, and if the heavens open in torrential rain or a thunderstorm, that’s noise you can’t avoid. If the power fails, bad weather or not, you’re probably not doing any more recording. If you’re recording in the summer during a heat wave, you know that the sound of air conditioning is not a musical one. In this situation, I can offer only two bits of advice: drink water throughout the session, and dress appropriately or be prepared to take off your clothing. Heat stroke sucks.

Mother Nature sometimes takes a more mischevious approach with the incessant cawing of a crow, sparrows singing on the roof, or a cicada buzzing rapturously but invisibly from the nearest tree. (You’d buzz rapturously too if you were awake and outside for the first time in seventeen years.) In these situations all you can do is ask a friend to come over and run interference by throwing rocks to drive the birds away, over and over again. In the case of the cicada, I’m sorry, there’s no remedy. All is not lost, though, because your engineer probably has a magical program that can isolate and identify a particular sound frequency and then remove it during the editing process. Before they invented that, you had birds on your recording, or you had no recording. I like the sound of faint birdsong in the background, but not everyone shares this feeling.

Human interference is another story. I remember showing up for a Consort recording session at a western Toronto church to see a crew of four City workers and a small backhoe about ten yards away from the church’s front door. That was noisy, and the ground vibrated from the digging. On another occasion, the sewer had backed up and an even larger crew from the City was busily ripping a hole in the pavement with a jackhammer (well, half of them dug, the other half watched). The noise was unbelievable. A colleague at an Ensemble Polaris session once had the unenviable task of calling the City to broker a deal for the tree-pruning/shredding crew to move to a different block. Recording work can also grind to a halt because of leaf- and snow-blowers and lawnmowers, or the unsympathetic neighbours who operate them. But such is life – they want to mow their lawn and very likely have a good reason for why it has to be NOW. And the world shouldn’t have to stop for a recording session. If you want that much control, you rent a studio, where the problems of unwanted sound are easily resolved, most of the time.

On rare occasions in the Glenn Gould Studio, which is a fantastic space for both recording and performing, you can hear a very faint humming in the ambient sound. It’s so faint it’s hardly audible to the ear, but a microphone can certainly pick it up. Among the sound engineers working there, who can find ways to get around the sound, the question prevails: is it Glenn Gould, humming from the other side?

Happy New Year!

The Year of the Snake has arrived – Happy Lunar New Year!

People born in Snake years are said to be artistic, stylish and complex. Here, for your viewing pleasure, are two images of artistic, stylish and possibly complex flute players from China.

chinese tryptich

Chinese flute player