My regrets for such a long silence! Many posts have been started over the past weeks, only to be waylaid and left on the desktop…
Last night I was on the website for the Toronto-based new music organization Soundstreams, looking for info on their upcoming season, and I chanced upon a concert recording made back in March of 2011. It was a recording of ‘Breathe,’ a piece composed by James Rolfe and scored for three female voices with medieval instrumental ensemble, which in this case meant organ, recorder, nyckelharpa, lute and percussion. The words included texts from Hildegard of Bingen.
For the premiere, Soundstreams arranged for a collaboration between Norway’s Trio Medieval and the instrumentalists of the Toronto Consort, so lucky me – I was a part of it. Last night, listening, I was vividly reminded of how beautiful the piece was, and of the real fun it had been to rehearse and play it. Yes, there were some moments when we all thought we might come undone – but what a total pleasure it really was. Even if you think you don’t like ‘new’ music, give this a listen:
We rehearsed and performed in St. Anne’s Anglican, one of Toronto’s most historic churches. Built anew in 1907, the architect Wm. Ford Howland styled it after Byzantine models, and it has a beautiful central dome which dazzles with painted stars. Members of Canada’s artist collective the Group of Seven – MacDonald, Carmichael and Varley – were among the artists who decorated the new church in 1923 with spectacular paintings and sculpture. Worth a visit if you haven’t seen it!
I took some shots to remember the experience. Here are three.
Ah, the beautiful days of August are upon us. Avian Flight School is in full throttle and the backyard is a busy place, with fledgling robins, cardinals, sparrows and starlings all testing their wings and their vocal chords. And as they sing and squawk outside, I look forward to a couple of weeks in which my own music making will be also be mostly home-based, made up of practicing, writing music and playing just for the sheer fun of it. Fun will also be included in the ‘wood-shedding’ and writing too if I listen more to the muses than the Id, an ability at which I thankfully seem to be developing more skill.
And as I look forward in the spirit of fun, it’s also worth taking a look back at my most recent gig. It’s important to give a big nod to the happiest gigs!
In late July the Toronto Masque Theatre presented two summer festival performances of Händel’s Acis & Galatea. Already booked elsewhere and unable to participate in their first show at the Elora Festival, I was a part of the orchestra for the second performance at the Stockey Centre in Parry Sound, Ontario – and what a totally enjoyable gig that was. First of all, who would ever say no to a visit to Parry Sound? It’s such a beautiful place, on Georgian Bay and with all those trees that haven’t forgotten how they posed for Group of Seven paintings. The concert venue, the Stockey Centre for the Arts, is a handsome and intimate hall of stone and wood, and an acoustic delight.
Stockey Centre for the Arts, Parry Sound, ON
The Stockey is also right down on the water and features a boardwalk patio with a first-class view of spectacular sunsets, which one can enjoy along with an intermission cocktail.
Georgian Bay, at Parry Sound, ON
And then, there’s the music. Though it could more properly be called a masque or a pastorale, Händel described Acis & Galatea as a ‘little opera,’ which it certainly is; it It’s not like his other four- or five-hour extravaganzas which really ought to require catered meals for the audience and intermissions long enough for a nap. Händel created several versions of the piece, the first in 1718 and the last (and nowadays most familiar) one in 1739. Mozart made an arrangement of it in 1788.
A&G is a bit truncated, a two-act Reader’s Digest rendering of the myth in which a shepherd named Acis falls in love with a water nymph named Galatea. The story, based on the version in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is fairly uncomplicated but worth a short précis. Happily for Acis, his love for Galatea is requited, but the Cyclops Polyphemus loves her too and he fares far worse. Besides the fact that she’s already smitten with Acis, Galatea has a big problem with Polyphemus’s predilection for snacking on human babies and quaffing blood as though it were Beaujolais Nouveau. There’s a fourth character, another shepherd named Damon who occasionally drops in to give advice, like an 18th-century male Dear Abby. But his advice is of no use to Polyphemus who, saddened, furious, and with a big anger management problem, crushes Acis to death with a gigantic boulder. Before he’s reborn as a stream, Acis sings a final aria from underneath the massive rock. Depending on how a director chooses to play it, this ending is utterly tragic, completely ridiculous, or both.
My colleagues in the orchestra were all excellent musicians and lovely people, all of whom I wish I could see much more frequently. We were a very small band, much like what Händel had at his disposal for his earliest performances: two violins, one cello, a harpsichord and an archlute, two oboes and a recorder. As for the singers, not only the four soloists were outstanding, but also the other four singers who sang the choruses, sometimes with the others joining in and sometimes not. It’s not easy for singers trained as soloists to sing well as an ensemble, especially an ensemble that doesn’t regularly work together, but these folks made richly beautiful music. The opening chorus of the opera, ‘O the pleasure of the plains,’ is truly one of the happiest choruses ever, and that evening it was just glorious.
As you may have guessed by now it was a concert production rather than a staged one, but some deft blocking and clever use of audience entrances and aisles, as well as the space onstage, made for some great theatrical effects. A few audience members took it all in stride when Polyphemus selected to ‘harass’ them during his forays into the hall. From the looks on their faces and their standing ovation at the conclusion, the audience had a great time, and so did we. Who could ask for more?
For a brief overview of the piece, here’s a YouTube clip of snippets from the Boston Early Music Festival’s 2010 production:
Now from a recorder player’s standpoint, Acis & Galatea is a particularly fun gig because it includes two arias with energetic, charming obbligato parts for a sopranino recorder. Two alto recorders are also featured as part of the ‘burbling brook’ effect in the final aria of the show, but the sopranino parts are really what most of us love to get a chance at.
Very early on in the piece Galatea sings Hush ye pretty warbling choir, an aria featuring one of Händel’s brilliant bird-imitative obbligatos. Here’s a version from 2011, featuring Evelyn Tubb as Galatea, and a recorder player who sadly doesn’t get a mention. I’m not sure if this is a rehearsal or a casual concert performance; the aria is preceded by its recitative. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sFdkH77bsI
The second sopranino obbligato accompanies Polyphemus as he sings the praises of Galatea in O ruddier than the cherry. The musical lines are deliberately a bit lumpy but still sweet, suitable for an ungainly, bad-tempered character who’s nevertheless been made a little less boorish by love. (Or lust.) Here’s an audio version featuring Huub Claessens, including the preceding recitative: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZwQ31TswVI
And here, to compare how very different productions can be, are two more versions of the same, this time with the video.
First, from 2011, featuring Matthew Rose and some canine taxidermy:
And now for a Spanish production, with the best-dressed Polyphemus I’ve ever seen. He’s very well behaved too, considering that A&G are carrying on in their pyjamas while he’s singing. No wardrobe credit, unfortunately.
And here’s a bonus track: another Händel ‘birdie’ aria, this time from Rinaldo and featuring soprano Laura Whalen, the Aradia Ensemble directed by Kevin Mallon, and recorder players Kathryn Montoya, Colin Savage (altos) and yours truly (sopranino). The whole opera is available on Naxos (8.660165-67).
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra recently launched their own CD label, and is re-releasing a number of their considerable catalogue of titles no longer available on the original labels. Some of those labels no longer exist at all – such is the classical recording industry, but that’s another story.
One recent re-release was their recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, originally recorded at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio. I was involved in the fourth concerto, the one calling for soloists on violin and two alto recorders. As some of you know well, the two recorders are a team, and soloists indeed, but not quite in the same exposed capacity as the violinist, who has many more (and some fiendishly difficult) notes to play. Sometimes the recorders play while the violinist doesn’t, but usually we back up, we echo, we play along – if Brandenburg IV could be likened to a Supremes number, the recorders are Mary and Flo to the violinist’s Diana Ross (but without the cool outfits).
Anyway, having the opportunity to record this wonderful piece of music, which I’ve played many, many times before and since, was a total pleasure and honour; and it was a particular delight that my partner in recorder land was the sunny and exuberant Marion Verbruggen. Also, the producer on the project was a highly celebrated German gentleman who had produced all the early groundbreaking LPs featuring Brüggen, Leonhardt, Bijlsma, the Kuijken brothers, etc. Though he could be tough and sometimes inscrutable, he was one of the best in the business – maybe being tough and inscrutable had something to do with that, along with his golden hearing.
As the recording sessions approached, Mr. Golden Ears began to express some concern that ‘the second flute is very small.’ After hearing this concern mentioned for a third time, the mystified music director finally asked him what he meant. Though our recorders might differ a bit in their appearance – type of wood, decorative turning of the wood at the joints, and other more subtle variances – Marion and I were both using alto recorders, the same size…so what exactly was the problem? Turned out that the producer was referring to myheight. I was significantly shorter than Marion, and since the the plan was to use only one microphone on the pair of us, my shortitude was a source of concern. I would be further away from the microphone than Marion, which would create a real balance problem. What to do?
Let’s hear it for ingenuity, and for people who paid attention in cabinetry class. He might have made me buy and wear some ankle-breaking platform shoes, but no – Mr. Golden Ears had a personal riser built for me, about forty centimeters square and complete with a kickrail so I wouldn’t fall off. After a life spent as the shortest person in every group photo I’ve ever been in, I was instantly almost six feet tall. It was kind of great at first, a new and higher perspective on my surroundings but without nosebleeds or shortness of breath.
As usual, however, there was one little drawback. Marion and I had planned to achieve the required forte and piano ‘echo’ effects in the slow movement mostly by turning away from the microphone and back again; but, standing on my tiny Tower of Tallness, I couldn’t take a real step in any direction, let alone make 45-degree turns back and forth. Somehow or other I managed to move around enough for the desired musical effect, though it was a bit of a challenge. I do remember that when the three hours were up I wondered if a trip to the chiropractor might be in order…
Never mind. It was Bach. It was awesome, I got paid to play it, and I was 5′ 10″ for an afternoon. And the CD’s out again!
For about a decade, four colleagues and I played together in a group called Musick Fyne. That name is an old Scots term for ‘art’ music and, not surprisingly, we chose it as our name because one of our repertoire focuses was seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scottish music. We were a singer, harpsichordist, lutenist and two wind players, so we had lots of programming options. We also designed a concert of music from eighteenth-century Nova Scotia, Upper and Lower Canada and New England, the repertoire for which was drawn from (or suggested by) concert programs and concert descriptions found in 18th-century diaries and newspapers. Years later while in Philadelphia to teach at a workshop, I took a walking tour of the old city on my afternoon off, and ended up in one of the rooms where some of these 18th-century concerts had taken place. That was pretty inspiring! Here it is, if I’m not mistaken, with a fresh coat of paint:
Long Gallery, Independence Hall, Philadelphia
This program also included a piece called The Hector, written for us by Canadian composer John Beckwith,* which fit the program beautifully with its tale of a historic eighteenth-century sea voyage that brought Scottish immigrants to Canada after the Highland Clearances. There were many such voyages, but this one was particularly well documented. Beckwith drew his libretto from the captain’s log, describing the ship’s journey from Ullapool to Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773. It was an arduous and unpleasant journey with a rough ending for the settlers, who arrived to find the land they’d been promised to be completely uncleared of forest, and no other provisions for accommodation and food made for them.
We gave many performances of this program, including several for a Nova Scotia tour which included the town of Pictou on the itinerary. It was very touching that in our audience that night there were descendants of the people whose emigration journey was described in Beckwith’s piece. Some of those people came to speak with us after the show. While we were there we saw the replica of the Hector, which was under construction in Pictou’s harbour; today you can go on board and take a tour of it, at the Hector Museum.
Can you imagine crossing the Atlantic in this?
For information about the trip of the Hector, and a passenger list, look here:
The travellers on the Hector endured some horrific conditions during their journey, on top of the requisite seasickness: lack of sanitation, insufficient food, dysentery, smallpox, and more. Many deaths were recorded on board, as were numerous births. The weather was dreadful at times, including one massive storm which blew them so far off course that their journey was extended by ten days or so.
Musick Fyne’s journeys around Canada were mercifully pale by comparison. The weather was often a total surprise: we had fantastic bright sunshine and NO snow for every day of a February tour in Saskatchewan, we had sunny skies and very little rain in BC, and our Maritime province travels were similarly deluge-free. ‘Lucking out’ with the weather seemed almost the norm. Our only real challenges came with winter concerts in southern Ontario, one of which involved a memorable white-knuckle drive from Gananoque back to Toronto, at night and in a blizzard. Visibility was maybe six feet. On the bright side (if you can call it that), the harpsichord in the back of the rental van provided us with some extra ballast. We would’ve probably made some quite spectacular sounds had we ended up on our side in a ditch, but happily we didn’t have to find out.
Moral of this part of the story: when in a snowstorm, always let the guy from Saskatchewan drive.
One January afternoon during a central Ontario tour we arrived at the elegant, stately old home that was the venue for that evening’s concert. The grounds were gorgeous, with massive evergreens and shrubs blanketed with fresh snow, and the grey stone house looking both regal and melancholy. We loaded the harpsichord and the rest of our gear into the designated performance space – a fabulous big dining room – but after standing there for a few minutes I thought I’d better go and get my coat from the van. It was absolutely %#$&ing freezing in that big dining room. It wasn’t until I was halfway across the parking lot when I realized that something was pretty wrong if I was in greater need of my coat indoors than out.
I came back with all my layers on to find my colleagues in various states of consternation. It turned out that the owners of the stately old home usually left that part of the house unheated. They didn’t normally use it, preferring to live in another wing of the place, and heating the entire house was colossally expensive.They did plan to turn on the heat on about an hour before the concert, but it was far too cold to do any rehearsing in the space, which we’d arrived early to do. And as for acclimatizing the instruments, forget it. The harpsichordist was already looking a bit blue, both from the cold and from thinking about how many times she was probably going to have to re-tune. (This was an instance in which that joke about how harpsichordists or lutenists ‘tune for two-thirds of the time, and play out of tune for the rest of it,’ was not even remotely funny. It’s not really very funny anyway, but in this situation it might have gotten you a tuning hammer in your eye.) The other wind player was wondering if we should take bets on exactly how long it would take before our instruments cracked once we started playing, even if the room warmed up by concert time. Nooooo pre-concert warmup for us.
The heat did get turned on about an hour before the show and the temperature rose from Siberian to semi-toasty over the next couple of hours, as the collective body heat of the audience added to the furnace’s contribution. It was certainly warm enough to play and when all was said and done, everyone seemed to have had some fun. Well, almost everyone. I’ve never seen a harpsichord tuning hammer make so many appearances in a show, before or since.
Second moral of the story: always include a minimum temperature clause in your contract. Seriously.
That said, there are many good reasons to tour Canada in the winter. It might be cold, but it’s beautiful. Here’s a shot taken on tour, on the highway just outside Banff, Alberta.
*For more information on John Beckwith, please see:
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?
I spent the summers following my first two years of university playing concerts in various community settings across southwestern Ontario, with an ensemble called Different Drummers (why does that name sound so lame now?). The group operated under the auspices of the Opportunities for Youth program, a student summer employment initiative of the provincial government.
We were a motley bunch of musicians, drawn from various points on a wide-ranging web, and our core instrumentation was violin, viola, cello, guitar, flute/recorder and piano. Our eclectic programming was an attempt to realize the noble but impossible goal of playing ‘something for everyone.’ We varied our shows but a typical one might include some Bach keyboard music, a movement of a Mozart string trio, a Scott Joplin rag, some Farnaby and Byrd, Monti’s Czardas, a couple of folk or folk-pop songs, and something from the contemporary ‘art music’ world. We did a lot of arranging to suit pieces for our instrumentation, occasionally with hilarious results. (Yes, the audiences thought so too.) Our extraordinary manager/administrator/chief financial officer/roadie was a guy named Greg Dovlet, and our home base between run-outs was a mid-city junior school not in summer use.
For young musicians training in a typical classical music school, the concepts of what audiences are like and how a performer should behave can be very skewed. You expect everyone to sit quietly and politely, for example, and/or you expect that a concert will be played in the order printed in the program; but neither of these expectations carry much weight in the worlds of Other Music Lovers. If you have the opportunity to play shows for audiences very different from the ones that frequent concert halls, you’re given a tremendous chance to remedy that skewing and to learn how to play for the rest of the world. That’s the opportunity we had for those summers, and it was a huge gift.
During the first summer we played at kids’ summer camps, hospitals, hospices, long-term care facilities, mental health centres, senior citizens’ residences and community centres, and a couple of jails. Based on those jail experiences, Greg’s proposal for the following year focused our activity on correctional institutions. Though we still performed for a few audiences of seniors or children who were free to leave when the show was over, we spent that second summer playing at detention centres, halfway houses, and minimum- and medium-security prisons around southern Ontario.
We would usually play two shows in one larger venue, or two or three different places in one day. We played at Toronto’s Don Jail several times, in the chapel in the old section of the building, and at various other places, the names of which we’d only heard of in the news. In Penetanguishene’s facility ‘for the criminally insane’ (as it was called at the time), we played for an eerily dulled bunch of people who clapped and smiled but were completely silent – and then later that day we played at the non-correctional psychiatric hospital where we got exactly the opposite response. There the audience got up and danced, sang along, wandered, or came up and had a chat while we were playing (and playing the flute makes it a bit difficult to respond ). The Orange Blossom Special was particularly special that day, as one audience member leaped to her feet and danced in a frenzy of delight that impressed her caregivers, and that most of us ‘sane’ people would never think of showing.
One day we travelled to a medium-sized city where the jail warden was a total jerk, the kind of guy I thought only existed on TV crime dramas. His staff were only slightly less obnoxious, and the atmosphere in the place was palpably angry. I couldn’t imagine being in that place for months on end without learning to hate the world even more than you did when you arrived. We played in the central area of the jail, next to the huge wrought iron staircase and amongst the cells, but the cell doors faced away from us and so the inmates couldn’t see us while we played. This was the only instance all summer where we couldn’t see our audience, which was very disturbing, and not surprisingly there was lots more heckling than usual in that show. Later that day, we drove half an hour southwest and played in the courtyard of a smaller jail where the warden and the staff treated the inmates as they’d like to be treated themselves. The atmosphere there was diametrically opposed to what we’d experienced in the morning. That was a very educational day.
Yes, there was always heckling; but the hecklers were relatively few, and there were also attentive non-hecklers who listened, watched, clapped, asked for more, asked questions, and sometimes even yelled at a heckler to ‘shut the #$@% up!’ From a performer’s standpoint it was a really important learning situation – we just kept playing despite ridicule, insults and sexist remarks being yelled at us. One of my colleagues was a beautiful Rubenesque blonde and therefore a particular target for the latter kind of attention, and I don’t know how she managed. We’d all be targeted at one time or another. As for the music, some inmates thought Mozart sucked, some people hated songs by Gordon Lighfoot, but the big surprise for me was that very few people in the prison population took offense at Byrd or Farnaby. Definitely not what I’d expected.
When friends heard where we were playing that summer, they’d ask, ‘So, what’s it like to play for a captive audience (har har har)?,’ which is what we got asked at pretty much every institution too… But when they asked what jail was like – as if I really knew at all – my answer was usually, “Best to stay out of it.” In some prisons you got the impression that the people doing time were being encouraged to change their life trajectory, to imagine other possibilities for themselves, and treated with dignity despite having made some extremely bad choices in the past. We’d all want this if any of us found ourselves in their situation. In other places the atmosphere was so thick with the psychological grime of the ‘us vs. them’ game, you’d want to take a shower when you left. I remember wondering what the maximum-security places were like, but it’s probably for the best that I never found out. Of course our experiences were minimal and very restricted, and we only understood a tiny part of the complex whole, but the project was one none of us will forget. It was a disturbing, confusing, eye-opening, fascinating and rewarding summer.
There’s been considerable discussion in the Canadian press lately on the treatment of prisoners in our correctional system. One of these items is a commentary in the Globe and Mail by David Clayton-Thomas, best known as the lead singer of Blood, Sweat and Tears. Here’s the link:
I was in my second year of undergrad university when my teacher Hugh Orr asked me if I’d like to participate in a recording session for CBC Radio. The plan was to record music for recorder trio using the Kunstkopf (artificial head) recording technique, which was cutting-edge technology at the time. Also known as ‘dummy head recording,’ and very simplistically described here, the sound is captured with microphones placed in the ears of a plastic head. The result is a surround-sound effect for the listener – you hear the performance as though you were sitting amongst the performers. Headphones are useful for optimum effect, but not mandatory.
John Reeves, the producer in charge, was a groundbreaker in recording technology at the CBC and was the first to bring the Kunstkopf technique from Germany to North America. The other players were Hugh and Susan Prior (now Carduelis), and we recorded the session in the soundproofed basement studio at Hugh’s home. The dummy head – Arthur, I think he was called – was propped on a mic stand and placed right amongst us, like a mute fourth member of a quartet. It was a bit odd, playing for a plastic human head stuck on a pole two feet away, but strange things happen in the recording world…Here’s a shot from a different session, to give you an idea.
John Reeves had been experimenting with various chamber music groupings and it was pretty great that he wanted to include some pre-Baroque fantasias. I think we played John Jenkins and Orlando Gibbons. It’s wonderful music, especially the Gibbons: cerebral but not overly so, and with supple imitative lines. A bit like a pleasant conversation with friends, about something more than the weather (but not politics or religion). I had such a great time playing that session, and it was fun to hear the intriguing results on the radio broadcast sometime later. As is often the case, I wish now that I’d been more aware of the technology and of John Reeves’s work than I was at the time, but it was a real privilege to have had that experience. Thanks to Hugh Orr for this, and so much else.