I’m delighted to be part of Ensemble Polaris, a motley crew of musicians whose diverse creative histories and broad array of musical interests make for some very entertaining and off-the-beaten-track collaboration. Since 2013 we’ve been playing live soundtracks for various films, starting with short films by Marcel Duchamps, Georges Méliès and Man Ray. Our most recent outing had us creating music for our first full-length movie, the historic documentary The Epic of Everest, which was presented by the Toronto Silent Film Festival. Ben Grossman was back with us for that project, playing vibraphone, and what a wonderfully surreal that whole evening was.

But since 2015 we’ve also been collaborating with faculty and students from Ryerson University’s Image Arts department, and we’ll soon have a DVD out which features work born of that activity. Here’s a sneak preview of the disc – Glissando, by Gerda Cammaer, with music by yours truly. It’s a lovely pocket film of a New Zealand fenicular railway ride, in both directions simultaneously. When I first saw it I had no knowledge of Gerda’s goal of creating a cinematic ‘lento pensivo’ – the music simply arrived in my head because of the way the film felt to me. Take a little look/listen:

Snowflakes, Recorders, and Country Style

While surfing the World-Wide Web of Quasi-Information a few days ago I happened upon an excerpt from Ricercata, a documentary made by Daniel Brüggen, formerly of Loeki Stardust Recorder Quartet fame and now a professor at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Daniel has also been making musical documentaries over the past few years and, judging from the clip I saw, does so in a thoroughly engaging way. Ricercata seems to be a unique tribute to the recorder by someone who knows the territory like the back of his hand, and I look forward to the arrival of the copy I just ordered.

The excerpt I saw featured an interview with Bob Marvin, that celebrated and long-standing maker of medieval, Renaissance and transitional recorders who was born in the USA but has lived and worked in rural Québec for decades now. I met Bob years ago, though I can’t exactly remember what on earth brought him from his secluded and rustic home to visit Toronto. Perhaps it was a workshop presented by the Toronto Early Music Centre, but I’m not sure.

Renaissance consort

It was winter when Bob visited Toronto that particular time. Walking beside him along the street one day, I remember watching snowflakes settle and slowly melt on a couple of his tenor recorders, which were sticking out of their undersized bag into the frigid air. When I expressed some concern about the negative effect this might have on the instruments, Bob pointed out that they had originally been trees, after all, and as such were probably used to all kinds of weather. Fair enough.

I also have a vivid memory of a meal shared with Bob and my partner Colin at Country Style, Toronto’s legendary Hungarian restaurant on Bloor Street West. We watched in astonishment as Bob finished off an entire Transylvanian Platter, a once-around-the-kitchen offering with enough food to feed a small bear. The restaurant had a special deal, too: if you could consume an entire Transylvanian Platter by yourself, you didn’t have to pay for it, so when we left the restaurant the only item on Bob’s bill was his tea. To this day, I’ve got no idea where he put it all. Maybe he was a camel in a former life, returned as a human with the ability to go for days without sustenance after an occasional refuelling. Honestly, that explanation is as plausible to me as any other. It was remarkable.

But there were many more remarkable things about Bob, including his fascination with 15th- and 16th-century music and his mastery of recorder making.  He loved early and mid-Renaissance music and was game to play it for hours, always from the original notation; and he would regale listeners with information from 15th-century writings of all kinds, not just musical ones.  As for the instruments he builds, they are faithful copies, magnificently made, and all imbued with the distinctive and thoughtful character of their maker. Thank you, Bob.

In Ricercata you can see and hear Bob Marvin at work. Check it out:

Remembering Washington

When I began collecting material for this post last week, I had planned to focus on the Tibiades of François Chauvon, a little-known collection of elegant and slightly eccentric suites from early eighteenth-century Paris. Eight of these can be heard on a CD released last fall on Montréal’s, a recording project of which I was delighted to be a part.

But to paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens while you’re making other plans, and earlier this week my writing plans were unexpectedly altered by the sad news that my dear friend and colleague Washington McClain, a baroque oboist whom I knew for close to twenty years and with whom I played countless concerts of chamber and orchestral music, had died. He was one of North America’s busiest and most admired baroque oboists and taught at Indiana University. When he passed away suddenly last Sunday at the age of fifty-two, we all lost a radiant musical light.

So for now, I’ll write about Washington and our last musical collaboration, which by a bittersweet synchronicity was that recording of Chauvon.

Washington was a superlative musician. Elegantly expressive and adroit in technique, he had ‘ears’ so good I’m sure he could hear the grass grow. He was a paragon of integrity and professionalism, and he was also a mensch. Wash was serious and of strong opinion when he felt he needed to be, but he also had a smile that lit up the room and a deep sense of collegiality. I also loved him for his genuine, ongoing exploration of everything and anything that really brought the music off the page, especially with repertoire such as the Chauvon. He never got tired of wondering.

Photo by Colin Savage.

Photo by Colin Savage.

For a few sweltering days during a heat wave in July 2011, Wash and I gathered with bassoonist Michael McCraw, harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger and violinist Julia Wedman to rehearse and record eight of the twelve Tibiades. We were lucky to have found nearly a full week when everyone was available for the project. It’d been quite a while since all five of us had seen each other and we were happy to be reunited, so there was a little bit of magic afoot. The Ontario Arts Council had given the project some funding, and we’d secured the services of an excellent producer (Ivars Taurins) and ears-of-gold sound engineer (Ed Marshall). Our venue was Toronto’s St Thomas’s Anglican Church, an anglo-catholic oasis of calm despite its location half a block south of one of the busiest streets in the city.


That recording was hard work, mostly because of the oppressive heat. St. Thomas’s is a serene place with dark wooden rafters, terracotta tile floor and a paucity of large windows, but it got very hot and humid as the sessions progressed. ( You can’t leave the ceiling fans on, or leave the windows open during recording sessions like this, unless you think the sound of an idling truck or the barking of a Jack Russell terrier adds some extra élan to music from eighteenth-century Paris.) We consumed water by the jug, we toweled off repeatedly, we made ice packs to cool our feet (surprisingly effective!). There were a few more curses than usual about errant tuning, flabby strings and recalcitrant reeds, and some discussion about how much more clothing we could take off without offending anyone. But despite all that and the occasional self-recriminations we took turns having (“I remembered the repeat for the first four takes, why did I forget it now?!?”), we had a lot of fun exploring that music and were all very, very happy to have done so together.

We recorded for three days, creating a French Baroque sonic kaleidoscope by varying the number of players and instrumental colours for many of the suites. A prélude played by us all was followed by an allemande for the flute, violin and harpsichord, then a courante for the oboe with continuo, a gavotte for oboe and bassoon, an arpègement for solo harpsichord, and so on. Three of the suites were given the more standard treatment, one each for oboe, violin and recorder (with continuo). Here’s Wash with Michael and Charlotte, playing the Allemande from the Third Suite:

Allemande, la Dragonne – Suite 3

Still other movements got the tutti treatment with some spelling-off for variety’s sake, as in the Chaconne en rondeau from the Eleventh Suite:

Chaconne en rondeau, Suite 11

Chauvon: Les nouveaux bijoux came out last fall, and kind and favourable reviews have recently begun to appear. I’ve listened to the CD again several times this week just to hear Wash. Knowing I’ll never sit beside him again is heartbreaking, but his beautiful playing is there to enjoy as often as I wish. It was a joy and an inspiration to know and make music with him, and I’m beyond grateful that we made that CD.

Wash was also a good friend, affectionate, honest, thoughtful, funny, wise, and a great storyteller. People had to push pretty hard before he ceased giving them the benefit of the doubt. I can’t believe I will never have another of those long telephone conversations with him, or hear his laugh again. It seems inconceivable that our visits to the Ethiopian restaurant around the corner are over, and that he will never walk through our front door again. What a terrible loss. I miss him greatly and will remember him often, even if I should live to be a very old lady.

Don Giovanni, Japan 2000

Don Giovanni, Japan 2000