‘Breathe’ Revisited

About three years ago, I wrote here about a new piece called Breathe, written by Canadian composer James Rolfe for the new music presenter Soundstreams, and performed for them in 2011 by the Norwegian Trio Medieval and the Toronto Consort. The period of preparation and performance for that concert was a very bright few days, evocative, inspiring, and challenging. You can read the previous post and hear a concert version of the piece here: http://wp.me/s2XU04-breathe

In the world of new music, the premiere of a new work often turns out to be the only performance the piece receives, or one of only a very few. This is particularly true if the piece is written for an unusual grouping of performers: works for string quartets, for example, stand a much better chance for repeat performance than pieces for a non-standard instrumentation. Breathe, scored for three female voices, recorders, vielle/violin, lute, chamber organ and percussion, is certainly in that latter category. It was a beautiful piece, but its orchestration was pretty specific to its commissioner’s plans and didn’t fit any standard instrumentation. So last year, it was excellent to hear that James had received support from the Canada Council for the Arts to make a recording of Breathe and two other works. Great news! A rare chance to revisit the music, and an opportunity to make it accessible to a lot more people!

And last weekend, after a few very focused days of rehearsal, a crew of us headed down to Toronto’s Revolution Recording studios to commit Breathe to digital format. Also on the recording slate was Europa, a chamber cantata for soprano, baritone, Baroque flute, two violins, bass viol, theorbo and chamber organ, and originally written for Toronto Masque Theatre. With each piece being pretty complex and demanding, and about twenty minutes long, and with only three hours of recording time allotted to each, it was an intense day – but judging by the looks on the faces below, I think you can tell we had some fun! Energy very well spent.

Thanks to James for the music, to David F., David J. and Dennis for their efficiency and great ears, to Revolution for the beautiful space and friendly assistants, and to my fellow musicians for their talent, focus and teamwork. It was a real pleasure.

The CD is projected for release in the spring of 2017 on the Centrediscs label.


The Europa crew, Revolution Recording, September 17/16. From left to right: James Rolfe, Aisslinn Nosky, Patricia Ahern, Felix Deak, Alexander Dobson, Suzie LeBlanc, David Jaeger, Paul Jenkins, David Fallis, Lucas Harris, Alison Melville and Dennis Patterson. Thanks to Dennis for the photo!

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 early-music.com, 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


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?

Arthur the Kunstkopf

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.