Archive for January, 2009

An Amex Moment

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From the heart of Toronto to the heart of Manhattan…Torontonians are forever comparing ourselves to New York City, so here is material recorded adjacent to the World Trade Center site in NYC.

Having actually been to the vertiginous tippy-top of NYC’s archetypal twin towers as a teenager, and then subsequently having visited the site of the 9/11 events and the hole-in-the-ground that now remains, I had actually anticipated playing flute down at the vistitors’ level of Ground Zero as some kind of offering to an unseen, benevolent God: an understated yet sincere display of collective respect for those who perished lo those many years ago on that dramatic, mind-searing day.

I wanted to make my peace with someting otherwise incomprhensible.

Essentially hallowed ground, I was somewhat hesitant to infiltrate Amex’ public space and record here, not to mention that it was crawling with security. The Irish Hunger Memorial was easier picking later that afternoon!

Having just arrived in NYC for a friend’s art opening uptown in Soho, I was rather disappointed to see the 9/11 site abuzz with construction and re-directed pedestrian traffic – so much for a heartfelt tribute that I had wanted to improvise on my shakuhachi. The city was vibrant with an incredible, positive energy, yet nonetheless this site still had a tangible, hushed quality about it. Rather than caving to the temptation of heading off and shopping at Century 21, I ended up skulking around the area, finally retreating to the safe haven of this American Express flagship foyer, which features a prominent memorial for Amex employees who perished in the cataclysm, replete with its dripping pool of tears and a suspended, monolithic crystal.

You can understand my reluctance to play here, to even sound a few humble notes in a kind of reverent tribute to events of a recent past. 9/11 may be somewhat abstract to me, but, to hazard a guess, the events of that day are visceral and all the more real for the individuals pictured here and the families directly involved in that life-changing, tragic day.

…back on that sunny, fresh September morning, as school was just getting started again, when innocence shed yet another skin.

Note: I am in part inspired to delve into this archival material on the heels of having seen a most remarkable film at the Bloor Cinema, Man On Wire, a documentary by James Marsh that is all the more poignant considering that the scene where the world’s ultimate tightrope was rigged up is today a changed place.

A Fall from Grace?

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Busking in Muddy York

Like our good friend Ike and his ill-fated plummet earthwards, we now land in the very heart of Toronto. Sorry to interrupt the fun in the lavatory, as per the previous post! After our little Mile High adventure, let’s just get real here. This is an image and soundfile from Roy Square, in the midst of its being relegated to Toronto’s history as a mere footnote…a blip in Upper Canada’s march to our shared future: A Brave New World for our kids and future generations to come?

Toronto’s version of Winnipeg’s Portage & Main – if I could put it that way – Yonge & Bloor’s SW corner is now a blank, empty space that ghosts our infamous crossroads here in Toronto, home of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Canada’s merchants since 1670 – and hey, ya gotta love that proper little apostrophe!

The whole Bloor Street corridor is in the middle of a major make-over of urban proportions to make itself more ‘user-friendly’. In the meantime it is a hub of controversy as everyone deals with the ongoing noise, dust – or mud, dependant on the weather – diverted sidewalks and unprecedented traffic snarls. And this all to placate the TIFF crowds that are due to roll in on a red carpet next September, in my humble estimation. Hey, some things in this still-provincial town are readily self-evident!

Roy Square was one of those rare urban backwaters that I personally discovered when first exploring Toronto, and until recently it was home to numerous offices, shops and restaurants. It is indeed sad to see it meet its demise. It wasn’t so much a square as a delightful, hidden enclave.

On any warm, summer afternoon – especially on a sunny lunch hour – it was a vibrant hive of pedestrian traffic that I am sure will be missed by many city-folk here in old Muddy York. I might actually have busked here: you know, in an earlier lifetime, but can’t really say for sure just now…so in this soundfile I ‘busk’ my heart out, playing for the passing spirits who have inhabited this storied location in the heart of Toronto in the midst of its demolition.

This quirky space, nestled as it was in the shadow of The Bay, is indelibly etched in my memory. The irony is that Roy Square was also home to the woefully under-funded offices of the Toronto Historical Association as described in my adventures when I recorded at the Tollkeeper’s Cottage, now situated at Bathurst and Davenport. Last time I checked the THA was in need of computers if you have any kicking around the house.

Next time you find yourself dodging traffic in the chaos that is Yonge & Bloor, maybe give a nod to Roy Square, or what used to be Roy Square. History in the making, eh?

Note: If I’m not mistaken, this is ‘French Accordion’ by acclaimed flutist/composer Ron Korb – apologies, but since recording at Roy Square I have been buried in reams of manuscripts as a colleague and I find ourselves in the middle of a three-year overhaul of the RCM Flute Syllabus. The new syllabus will feature all grades, as well as a compilation series of selected Studies and Pieces – along with recordings – scheduled to be launched at the NFA’s Annual Flute Convention in Anaheim, California, Summer, 2010.

Mile High Club

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Mile High Club, Improv

When I, uh, jet-set from city to city, at least when not travelling by bus or Via*, my favourite  mode of travel is with Porter Airlines that flies out of Toronto’s downtown Island Airport. Here is a recording I made on my return flight from my trip to Canada’s East Coast last year. I love to brag about how for my first Porter flight, when I flew Porter to NYC, I actually simply had to ride my bike down the street to catch the ferry over to the island and check in with security: talk about convenience!

When I first spoke with a few guys about the idea of recording a flute ditty when flying Porter, a friend immediately suggested Rocky Raccoon by the Beatles, since it is – for better or worse – a raccoon mascot that informs us Torontonians about new flights to Newark or Chicago in the local papers. I was a little concerned about copyright, so, as I returned from Ottawa last summer, I opted for a brief improv on a wooden primitive flute in the cramped lavatory.

The acoustics really sucked there. Porter’s planes are super quiet, especially for a downtown airport setting, but have you ever noticed how noisy any airplane’s cabin interior can be? I guess that can be handy when you need to make some noise! The oppressive din of the white noise nearly drowned out the sound of the flute – lousy acoustics aside, I’m glad that I summoned the courage to record a little before we began our descent.

Ever the Canadian, I was concerned that despite a lull in traffic to the washroom I might keep people waiting out in the aisle. Sure enough, towards the end of the recording, a stewardess actually briefly barged in – rather apologetically – before I wrapped up my final few notes! Over a mile up, and somehow in my excitement I had forgotten to lock the door! Oops!!

Welcome to the Mile High Club! I guess they don’t call it the Native American Love Flute for nothin’! **

* American readers: Via Rail is Canada’s version of Amtrak, and you really ought to check them out some time, especially for their spectacular lines through the Canadian Rockies! Or, for that matter, actually anywhere north of the 49th Parallel.

** Here is one story of the first North American Flute: A very long time ago there was a young man who was very interested in a beautiful young girl. He was always trying to get her attention, but she never seemed to notice him. Whenever she was present he would ride his horse proudly, but nothing he did seemed to attract her. One day when the girls were all down by the river getting water, the young man went down to the river and began diving off rocks to show her how skilled he was, but again she paid him no mind. Dejected, the young man walked into the nearby old growth forest and sat down at the base of a long dead cedar tree. As he sat there thinking about this girl, a woodpecker landed on a hollowed limb that was over his head, the limb had been hollowed over time from the wind and weather. The woodpecker began to peck holes….tap, tap, tap……… along the length of this hollowed limb…….. tap. tap, tap…….as the woodpecker pecked, the limb broke off and fell next to the young man, and as the wind blew over this hollow limb with the holes in it, he heard musical voices coming from it. He picked it up and found that when he blew into this limb and covered the holes, he could make beautiful, mournful music to match the feelings in his heart. He sat there for a long time making up haunting melodies. The young girl heard this music coming from the old growth forest, and it was such a soulful sound, she followed it into the woods. She saw him sitting there at the base of this cedar tree making his music, and as she listened she fell in love with his music and fell in love with him. They went off hand in hand to live happily ever after. One of the more popular uses for the Native Flute was for courting, to attract a mate. The legend also says that once you got a mate, you were to put the flute away and never play it again, because if you played it again, you might attract someone else?

Phillip Brown Bear

( Phil Lane )

There are many stories as to the true origin of the native flute.

This story was told to me by a Lakota Elder, Mr. Phil Lane (Phillip Brown Bear) just months before he passed on to the spirit world.

Source: The History of the Native American Flute

My thanks to The Beatles Estate and for the YouTube link in this post!

Ottawa Meditations

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Paul Horn, Agra

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North American Flute, Improv

With another exam route fast approaching next week – I’m looking forward to a swing through south-western Ontario – I am reminded of my fine adventures while on the road last summer, performing in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia and conducting Woodwind and Brass exams for the RCME in Ottawa.

On the last day of exam’s in our nation’s capital, and just a few blocks from Parliament Hill, I took a few minutes to record in the hotel’s pool area before suiting up and grabbing a taxi across town. Paul Horn is central to the inspiration behind Urban Flute Project, and his seminal piece, Agra, was originally played and recorded in the Taj Mahal. It was listening to my original vinyl LP of his pioneering ‘Inside’ recording that planted the seed for what has emerged here on Urban Flute.

Although currently out of print, Paul Horn’s printed music can be found at Toronto’s Metro Reference Library, and is definitely worth checking out. Agra is currently included in List B at the Grade 4 level of the current RCME Flute Syllabus; it is at once exotic and improvisatory, with pauses written into the score to allow for the 17-second reverberation of the Taj Mahal.  Despite the electric buzz of the overhead lights in my recording here, the echo in this pool enclosure gives you an idea of meditative spaciousness of the piece. My thanks to the staff at the Holiday Inn, and, of course my heartfelt thanks to Paul for this iconic composition!

Before giving Agra a read-through, I warmed up to the space with an extended improv on my Native American Flute, similar to the one I played in that ancient river gully deep in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. As you may have noticed, I generally keep it to one-recording-per-post, but consider this a bonus track! With its rather chalky tone yet distinctively liquid, timeless voice, this wonderful cedar flute was particularly aromatic that fine summer morning – especially given the humidity of the pool!

Incidentally, a book was published late last year postulating that Canada’s First Nations were fundamental in shaping Canada’s unique sensibility of compassion, tolerance and collaboration both domestically as well as on the world stage: well, no duh-h!! I’ll try to find the name of that well-publicised book and it’s author along with links for your convenience. Even if its general premise doesn’t come as a complete revelation, it certainly offered a fresh perspective on our country’s usual English-French diatribe!

I guess the question that begs to be asked is: way-back-when in Canada’s history as explorers and traders opened the continent – even here in this historic city – who actually ‘civilized’ who?

Prorogue Flute-on-the-Loose!

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Andersen, Etude Barcarolle

I’ve been called worse things than a rogue flutist…I guess my all-time personal favourite was ‘Flute Snoop’, coined by a colleague of mine! With all eyes trained south of the border for Obama’s inauguration today, Canadians are quietly reminded of our current ‘prorogue government’ and the political limbo emanating from Ottawa…hmm-m, what rhymes with ‘limbo’…uh, not ‘Harper’, surely!? With all the political conflab of late, here is a more enjoyable story from my archives, recorded last spring, just steps from Parliament Hill in our nation’s capital.

I was keen to play here, especially when I stumbled upon this building by chance and recognized the institution for what it was. Just weeks earlier I had received a letter requesting a copy of my CD Urban Flute Project [re-defining space with sound] from Archives Canada – these very offices – for their national archives. I guess that’s the trouble that a bar-code will get you into!

After securing my bike out on Wellington Street, I approached the security desk and expressed my interest in playing flute in this magnificent, marble-clad lobby before making myself at home to record, so nothing rogue or renegade about this ad-lib performance. Unfortunately, the word from security was half-hearted at best, delivered in halting English by the guy who was just sitting in for a few minutes for his boss. Believe me, the last thing I want is to get someone into trouble! But how could I resist this wonderful echo-chamber?

And bottom line, if this is indeed a public institution, what really is the problem in playing a little flute?

Travel-weary that afternoon after having driven from Toronto – excuses, excuses – my tone is a little uneven initially. And admittedly I am distracted as I play here, concerned that perhaps mid-phrase I would suddenly feel the clasp of authority’s hand on my shoulder. Nonetheless I gradually warmed up to the space and this favourite Barcarolle-Etude of mine by Andersen, the live acoustics acting as a powerful amplifier for my sound. I was just getting going when I was rather perfunctorily interrupted, a foreshadowing of the experience I had later when I played flute in San Francisco City Hall, not to mention what transpired at The Empire State Building!

C’mon, really, it was the end of a work day, there was no-one around, maybe justement one or two employees passing through the far end of the lobby in the five or ten minutes that I was there. I probably would have gotten busted anyways, but my suspicion as I played was that this piece was too ‘classical’ sounding, and maybe if I was playing a Simon & Garfunkel, or maybe a CSN&Y tune, the reception might have been a little warmer! Next time I’ll have some Jacques Brel on hand, so that my window of opportunity to record might be just that much greater! For those of you fluent in Dutch, did I mention Jacques Brel? Geez, how’d I get onto that??

Welcome to the world of red-tape where playing in public spaces is concerned…this is a story in itself!

Note: This recording is a little ‘hot’ – ie. recorded on the loud side – so it’s not your computer! And that sculpture, what do you think: a Moore, or possibly a Brancusi? I would suspect the former, as far as that goes…check out the marble interior here!

Pottery Road Bridge

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The Miller, Scottish Traditional

Not the first time I’ve explored and recorded under the Pottery Road Bridge, hidden away in the depths of the Don Valley, and I’m sure it won’t be the last – this is one of my favourite ‘secret spaces’ to play in, and not just for the wonderful acoustics. The historical significance of this area might be of particular interest to Toronto readers: peering back in time, Muddy York’s original industry and manifestations of enterprise were once located all around this very spot. At a time when bear and cougar were commonplace through this area – one still sees foxes, coyote and deer in our urban midsts – many early and extremely successful mills lined the banks of the Don River amidst massive stands of pine and thick, original forest.

The Don River has undergone concerted and ongoing efforts for revitalization in recent years and is the living, breathing heart of our bustling metropolis: Toronto is renowned internationally for its stunning network of  protected ravines, the Don being one of the main arteries, which offer a network of well-used bike and hiking trails, not to mention the exceptional Don Valley Parkway, surely one of North America’s finest highway approaches to a major city. All in all, a splendid example of ‘Nature in the City’.

There is a sense of wonderment to be discovered under this bridge – my concern is less to do with any wildlife I might encounter as it is the sense that I might run into graffiti artists with attitude. I like to think that I could hold my own, and figure they’d actually dig the sound of the flute in this echo-chamber. I can even imagine them tagging while I play, adding detail to the colourful mural that can be seen here across the river. This bridge is not so much claustrophobic as isolated - edgy yet oddly restful and tranquil all at once. And I love how the ambient, pervasive sound of the traffic on the wet pavement overhead weaves in and out of the reverberations of the flute.

My first ventures capturing soundscapes for Urban Flute Project were just down the Bayview Extension from this location at the sprawling Brickworks site. A year and a half ago it was an extended Indian Summer, and I was admittedly a little obsessive about getting in as much outdoor recording as possible before winter moved in. The cold doesn’t stop me now, especially for short recording stints like this: hey, it’s Canada after all! ‘The Miller’ featured here is an ancient Scottish melody, apropo given that Toronto’s earliest history can be traced back to the mills of the area. Understandably, most of those original structures are now long-since vanished; however some remarkable buildings are still existent and can be discovered just steps from the Pottery Road Bridge at Todmorden Mills. If you haven’t taken time to explore hidden pockets of the Don Valley you should really check it out – any time of year!

Lynx I mean links to follow – please check back soon!

King Eddy Hotel 2

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Telemann, Air a l’Italien, Suite in a-

It doesn’t get much better than this! While workmen tinkered away unseen in an adjacent room on the top floor of Toronto’s historic King Edward Eddy Hotel, I discovered that I essentially had this abandoned ballroom all to myself – and what a sweet place it was to wander around and record in, undisturbed as the afternoon sun slanted in through these 15-foot windows. I was understandably a little on edge with my clandestine tour, so I kept this little visit to a minimum, efficiently grabbing a few long shots of the room and discreetly recording a few appropriately elegant, classical selections as homage to the forlorn splendour of the place.

I had been tipped off by a close friend about a month ago that he had once wandered through this amazing ballroom years ago, and he and I wondered if it was still accessible. What a terrific, storied and forgotten space, a real treasure tucked away atop this splendid downtown edifice. Seemingly forgotten by time, I was afraid the doorways to this eloquent time-capsule would be barred after an article – by chance – appeared in the National Post a couple of weeks after I had been given my top secret instructions for potential infiltration; I figured King Eddy management would have read the same article and shut down access el pronto. Apparently not!

As much as I love traipsing around with TLR, infiltrating hidden, desolate spaces like GE in the The Junction or the old Firestone factory in Hamilton, I find there is a different magic in the air when the expedition is conducted solo. To paraphrase a respected fellow urban-explorer, you can almost hear the voices and laughter – or in this case, the parties of years gone past – in the very walls!

So is it the King Eddy or the The Royal York that is haunted? All the more reason to go back – the discarded chandelier says it all!

A Coincidence in Rochester

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Koechlin, from 14 Miniatures

Check out this amazing clock, which I discovered oddly abandoned in a deserted concourse, just off Rochester’s main drag. I don’t have the story behind this incredible timepiece or how it wound up here, but its imposing presence – so suggestive of Rochester’s rich, splendid history – juxtaposed with this massive, modern interior, inspired me to snap a couple of photos and capture the ample acoustic with a reading of this short piece by Charles Koechlin. If you check out this embedded link regarding one of my all-time favourite composers – Koechlin was a contemporary of Debussy, studied under Faure – you may be surprised at what I just discovered when I scrolled down through the French text: Koechlin had a fascination with stereo photography…and one of my favorite cameras that I still use on occasion is my Kodak Stereo Camera, circa 1950ish – maybe this in part explains my instinctive affinity Koechlin’s delightful music.

So here’s the weird thing: as I am writing away and, you know, pulling up these links, what are the odds that I should happen upon this quirky interest of a lesser-known and even rather quirky French composer, especially when my stereoscopy camera was made right here in Rochester?!? I mean, think about it, what are the chances? My camera might even have been rolling off the assembly line at the nearby Kodak factory the week that Koechlin died. I guess some might call this a kind of divine grace, an invisible hand overseeing Urban Flute Project: I just call it downright freaky!!

Okay, here is an image of Koechlin’s “Verascope”…

koechlins-verascope…and here is my Kodak Stereo Camera!  kodak

Mostly my pictures for Urban Flute are actually taken on my old Nokia phone – hey it’s convenient, economical, and they’re easy to upload – however these pics in Rochester were taken with my Nikon D-60, which is a brilliant camera. The photo of this crazy clock may only be in 2-D, but I like to think that the recording here is in full 3-D! A kind of ‘technicolour’, surround sound, especially if you use headphones! I still can’t get over this vintage metal camera of Koechlin’s – just look at that thing – or the spooky coincidence that he and I shared the same obsession with stereo images!

A Kodak Moment

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Ch. Koechlin, from 14 Miniatures

Yes, still stuck in Rochester, the home of Kodak, for a few posts as I dig through archived material. Here is a glimpse of the same foyer as described in the previous post. This archival photo is taken from the landing of the grand staircase as seen in the first photo, looking back in the opposite direction. Note the open galleries on either side of the space in this image as contrasted with the drywalled-in offices in the present-day photo. I imagine that the acoustics have been altered somewhat – more spacious and resonant likely back then – however these little pieces by Charles Koechlin allow us to go back in time to the early decades of the 1900’s, back when Rochester was in its heyday and this building was originally constructed and in use.

Liberal and open-minded, this is now the site of Brockton College, a State University of New York…and that is a mannequin on the immediate left as part of an ad display, fyi!

Thanks to staff and security for the opportunity to play and record in such a spontaneous manner!

Friendly Rochester

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Ch. Koechlin, from 14 Miniatures

Upon arrival in Rochester, I had a little time on my hands and wandered the downtown core, speaking occasionally with locals to get directions as I sought out a few historic spaces to wander in and record. There was much to choose from – Rochester is an amazing place – and, not the first time, I felt a bit like a kid in a candy shop. As I approached the neighbourhood where the club was for the Mark Kozolek was playing that evening, I spotted what looked like a wonderful old post office building, and at first only admired it from the outside. But I doubled back and tried the doors, which, to my surprise, were open. Inside I was confronted with the image of a couple of security guards, hanging out and deep in conversation…and in behind them a wonderfully spacious, deserted, historic foyer and grand room.

After explaining myself and my interest in recording a bit, a couple of phone calls were made to some powers-that-be upstairs. I’ve run into red tape before, so as I waited I tried not to get my hopes up too much, expecting to be escorted back out to the street. But then word came through that it was a go! Before playing I assured them that if my short pieces by Koechlin disturbed anyone in the adjacent offices, that I was happy to stop at a moment’s notice.

Indeed there was no problem, as indicated by the applause from my audience of two at the conclusion of this piece! In fact I even got more than I bargained for, as I then got two guided tours of the main floor as well as the story about adjacent buildings once I had wandered back out into the city’s rush hour with one of my security friends. What a wonderful, friendly welcome to Rochester!

Borderline Flute

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Borderline Improv

It doesn’t get more bordeline than this. Here is a recording at the US customs dock in Buffalo en route to see Mark Kozelek for my first seminal visit to Rochester in upstate New York last fall. Waiting for the rest of my motley crew from my bus to clear customs, I took a few steps from the emptied bus, took also a big *gulp* and rang out some flute-sounds on a bamboo flute, yes, within earshot of the driver and wandering border patrol as trucks jockeyed across the rain-soaked tarmac of the the cross-border terminus.

It felt like a no-mans land, despite my having cleared security.

As an avid photographer, I’m sure you’ll appreciate my obsession with Rochester, this much-maligned city, home of Kodak as it is. Oft-times I have looked longingly across Lake Ontario to Rochester’s night-time glow and – when weather conditions permit – its charcoal skyline by day, and wondered what this ‘city-across-the-water’ is actually all about. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction.

Sure, Nada Surf at the Opera House here in Toronto was indeed a highlight of ’08. But checking out San Fran’s brilliant recluse along with his seated accompanist guitarist at the start of their America-wide road-trip last fall, offering up this cover of the classic Modest Mouse tune, was, well, just incredible.

Trucker’s Atlas is heart-rending, visceral and perplexing all in the same instant. It astounds me how the sound of two guitars and voice can transport a listener so. What an opening song selection as the founder of Sun Kil Moon and the Red House Painters embarked on what was originally a North American-wide tour – they were supposed to make it to Toronto, but it turned out that Rochester ended up being the closest port of entry: maybe they had hassles at the border?

Bottom line? It was worth the drive to Rochester!


Reality Check

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Mad River with Double-Flute

Enough California dreaming, it’s time for a bit of a reality check!

It’s very much winter here in Southern Ontario, and this is a glimpse of the Mad River just up the escarpment from Creemore. I’m heading up that way later today after teaching where I’m providing background music for the opening reception of a group show at the Mad & Noisy Gallery. I really must get my Facebook invitation-system up and running, I guess; however most people I know who might be in the area would be off skiing on such a splendid Saturday afternoon! I’ll be there between 2-4ish for anyone who might happen to read this and be in the area or have some wanderlust today.

The show runs until until February 2nd, and if you’ve ever had a chance to get to Creemore I’m sure you’d agree that it’s really very beautiful landscape anywhere north and east of Orangeville, rolling hills, quaint towns…and lots of history. Creemore boasts one of the most intact, quintessential historic downtown strips that I’ve ever seen, and with the the main drag currently under construction, you even get a glimpse of what the original dirt road and potholes of yester-year were like! Hey, all part of the charm, although I guess the locals might beg to differ!

The 10″x10″ giclee photo on canvas that I will be submitting (see below) as part of Creemorecentric 2 offers a tranquil glimpse of the Mad River that flows through Creemore. Close to where the photo was taken, it’s quite a different scene – as pictured above – especially with early snows and mild temperatures creating a mini spring run-off at this dam just before the Mad River plunges down through the rugged Niagara Escarpment. The the sound of the river cascading here is awe-inspiring and almost overwhelms the sound of my eastern-European, wooden double-flute. I guess they don’t call it the Mad & Noisy Gallery for nothing!

mad-river-octoberMad River Medi tation, November 2008


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Solo for Bass Flute, Ron Korb

When you think of California, what’s the first thing you think of?

Upon arrival for a few days helping friends dog-sit in sunny Sunnyvale, a bedroom community south of San Fran, we sat down with maps to figure out my plan of attack for conquering this amazing area in three short days. My second visit to the area – I had once been to Palo Alto conducting music exams for the RCME – this was my first opportunity to actually get to San Francisco proper, and needless to say I was stoked.

It’s odd being a tourist though, and this was a classic case of testing my skills at the Art of Travel: I had just arrived and already I felt that I was out of time! The magic of the area was soon to win me over, however, in part due to the unexpected direction that the conversation took over a glass of wine. I was chomping at the bit to get north and wander the hilly streets of San Fran, guidebook in hand, and my friends were pitching the idea of driving south to the coast, maybe pay a visit to Pebble Beach…uh, whatever!

At a bit of an impasse in the discussions, we were talking about general directions for getting around the local neighbourhood, hours for the outdoor pool, etc, when one of the main streets – El Camino Drive – caught my attention. I mentioned my fascination and respect for the late fiddle-player Oliver Schroer, and how his seminal recording of walking the famous Spanish Camino, violin in hand, recording in historic spaces and capturing the ambient soundscapes of dusty streets and courtyards, well I conveyed how Ollie’s work continues to be a real inspiration for me.

So talk turned to the early Spanish settlement of the area, which established the chain of missions that would, one by one, dot the entire California coastline: a true American Camino. So it was decided, perhaps counter-intuitively, that we would head away from San Francisco the first day, south to Monterey, 17 Mile Drive at Pebble Beach, maybe hit the top of Big Sur…and pay a visit to the second oldest mission located in Carmel-by-the-Sea (yeah gotta love a place with a name like that!).

I think we made the right decision! The next day, after driving through the coastal mountains, between strawberry fields in the lower coastal flat lands that stretched as far as the eye could see on either side of the highway and wandering the piers of Monterey Bay, we then drove inland. Stepped back from the Pacific and the historic harbour at Monterey and tucked in off the main highway, you will find the Carmel Mission nestled in the wooded hills. Here is a meditative solo written by Toronto-based flutist and composer, Ron Korb, recorded from a pew in the sanctuary while a few hushed visitors wandered the dimly lit interior of the building pictured above. Ron had given me a new collection of pieces he had written just a few weeks prior. Although intended as a solo for Bass Flute – imagine what that would have sounded like – I believe this is one of the first recordings of this wonderful, improvisatory composition…hey, a world premiere, and I can’t think of a better setting!

Yes, despite the pull of the ocean and these veritable rip-tides of history, I did eventually make it to San Francisco!

Surf, Chimes & Flute

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Surf, Chimes & Flute Improv

Well I didn’t quite get to that famed Orange County as mentioned in the previous post, however visiting Monterey during a recent trip to California gave me an idea as what The O.C.hysteria is all about! The scene – after having walked the length of the pier and having sampled the best clam chowder I have ever tasted – was awash in late-morning sun, with a cooling on-shore breeze and the sound of the surf washing in under the planking of the historic pier. With some chimes gently sounding from a gift shop just behind me, this was the view as I improvised on my primitive South American wooden flute. This particular flute has a simplicity and beauty of tone to match the magical surroundings.

It turns out that the ‘conversation’ I was having with the ocean breeze sounding in the chimes was not quite as naturalistic as I had imagined as I was playing. It turns out that after I had begun to play, the mischievous friend who was driving three of us down to the Big Sur had stolen up to the chimes and was helping out the wind! Nice job on the chimes there, Sam, you totally had me fooled!!

Nada Surf? Nada Flute!

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Nada Surf

With all of this talk about raves and amphitheaters…

One of the musical highlights of my 2008 was finally having an opportunity to go to a concert at Toronto’s Opera House. What a great venue, especially for a band like Nada Surf! I had always heard about the place but didn’t even know where it was, so now I know what all the fuss is about, and this explains the snaking line-ups that I occasionally crane my neck at as I cut along Queen East in my old ‘Benz. I’ve been wanting to get this killer photo to you for months now, taken from the balcony of the Opera House, not to mention a sampling from the concert.

Sure, nada flute in this particular soundfile, but they did feature live trumpet – something not all rock bands can brag about! The sound might be a little boomy, but I think you’ll get the basic idea. From their full-on, three hour concert, this isn’t necessarily my favourite of a handful of recordings from that evening, but the others are just a little too big and unwieldy to upload, so you’ll just have to wait!

Hey, maybe this is what they were checking out at Stonehenge or Thingvellir (see previous posts)!? After all, can the The O.C. be so wrong, deftly showcasing some of the finest pop acts of the day, including Coldplay and the Beastie Boys? For more Nada Surf’, check out Always Love or Weightless – played towards the end of the show, these songs sent the crowd into heights of ecstasy as I headed from the crush of the main floor up to the balcony. Sure, maybe a little middle of the road for my tastes, but these guys simply blew me away: this was a phenomenal concert, and a wonderful introduction to Toronto’s historic Concert Hall.

And credit where credit’s due: today’s bands wouldn’t sound the way they do without those who have gone before, so check links below.

Iggy & The Stooges, hang in there, what can I say…

Ron Asheton, RIP

Oh, btw, did I mention Iggy Pop? Takes me back to the first Police Picnic in Oakville, circa whatever.

Democratic Flute: an Iceland Thing

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Celtic Rift Riff

Speaking of monolithic Rock outcroppings, Stonehenge wasn’t the only ancient concert hall – check out Iceland’s Thingvellir!

I had an opportunity to visit Iceland for an international hockey tourney last year and naturally I packed along my flute. I even took along my Loaded Skateboard, although, not sure if I had extended travel insurance, I elected not to ride Reykjavik’s hilly, cobbled streets!

One afternoon a bunch of us took an excursion to see some of the geologic and historic wonders in the area, and this led us to spectacular Thingvellir. This massive, above-ground outcropping of the mid-Atlantic rift is, I learned, the hallowed location of some of the earliest democratic activity in the world, where eleven clan chiefs would meet as early as the 10th Century. Learn more here.

For this particular recording, I asked a hockey buddy to walk off with my Edirol while I read through this playful Celtic tune. I had learned that – perhaps surprisingly – Celtic influence plays an integral role in Iceland’s colourful and rich history. The early Irish travelled to Iceland to escape persecution, inadvertently introducing early Christianity and ancient Celtic culture to the island.

This recording is un-edited, and includes a long tag at the end with the ambient sound of the ever-present wind, the crunching of the lava-gravel of the pathway underfoot, as well as the distant sound of muted conversation. I still don’t have a full gasp of the sheer scale of this place, however I learned afterwards that a couple who had wandered up to the top of the ridge heard the sound of my flute from a great distance and reported that it echoed up and down the valley in a most remarkable way. Listen carefully in the first 10 seconds and you will get a glimpse of what they heard – there are a few seconds where the flute echos beautifully against the ancient rock walls.

Here are some earlier posts from my trip to Iceland. Democratic Flute? It’s clearly an Icelandic ‘thing’!


In reading what follows you might get the impression that I’ve been watching just a little too much of Rick Mercer and his fabulous rants!

But, that being said, and speaking of democracy and hockey

2008 was a banner year for democracy – just south of the border the democratic convention alone seemed to get even higher ratings than the OJ trial. And then there was Obama’s euphoric nomination, let alone that singular, stupendous midnight speech of his in front of a sea of people in Chicago: democracy – not to mention television ratings – doesn’t get any better than this!

The US election contained such fanfare, it made Harper’s snap election here in Canada seem like a pathetic sideshow. Yes, in case you blinked, Canada had an election as well, and everyone would still be shaking their heads wondering “What was that?” if there wasn’t a brand new circus that’s rolled into Ottawa: The Circus Prorogue, camped out way passed it’s welcome in our nation’s capital.

While the rest of us head dutifully back to work and stare down our bills, Harper is off at a hockey game with his son, desperate to win some badly needed political points…on a school-night, no less! Sure, it was the Canada-Sweden final, but when I saw our beloved Prime Minister being interviewed before the game, I almost lost my slice of Whole Foods pizza that I was downing for dinner! 

Doesn’t a genuine leader who attends a sporting event sit with some poise, remain in their seat and then perhaps hustle off quietly during second intermission to attend to important business? Not in this case, it would seem. Harper was there being interviewed as the game was about to begin, larger-than-life. With his smug mug thrust into my living room just as I was trying to eat, for god’s sake, he was simpering on about how “Canada will rise victorious in the face of competition on the international stage …” or some equally cliched, insipid claptrap. And besides, who was with his young son while he was chasing down the limelight, pontificating with this thinly-veiled, political grandstanding?

Nice father-son outing: “Excuse me, junior, I have to take off for a while to address the nation – just wait here, I shouldn’t be too long, and, hey, cheer extra loud for me if I’m not back before the game starts!” Needless to say, I quickly changed the channel for a few minutes before finally calming down, finishing my pizza and settling into the hockey game.

Is it just me, or was this a really tacky move on our prime minister’s part? I mean, sure, attend the game – even bring along your son on a weeknight if mom approves – but I’d have thought Harper was on holidays from the national microphone. Unless of course he’s feeling a tad awkward about the whole prorogue con-flab: what a joke!

All I can say is thank god he didn’t jinx the game with his transparent political posturing !


Here is another perspective from on top of the ridge that can be seen in the first image. This is basically view that my friends had when they heard me playing from afar. I was positioned just in the steps that can be viewed in the middle of the image, and would have been a very small figure, although the sound of the flute carried nicely.


The Celtic music might seem a little incongruous, however, like in the previous post about Stonehenge, one can only conjecture what kind of music has sounded in this haunting canyon over the centuries and millenia!

Stonehenge Calling

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Stonehenge, aligned as it is to the solstices, is known to have been a place of pagan worship…and raves, according recent articles in  UK-based The Sun and Telegraph newspapers.

Even though the suggestion that the archetypal grand circle of stones was constructed as much for its acoustic properties as for any kind of visual spectacle should come as no surprise, this news comes as a welcome, um, rave-elation. Why is it that we as a modern society get so caught up in the visual spectacle of certain historical artifacts to the neglect of acoustic aspects?

Perhaps what was performed in this monolithic, ancient and sacred space was a music/dance celebration of fertility and the return of crops…so with this idea in mind, the article’s mention of ‘trance music’ immediately brings to mind the Vienna-based Vegetable Orchestra and their trance-inducing minimalist feasts of sound!

Personally I would hazard a guess, however, that the scene was a little more crazed, like what I bore witness to recently in Montreal.

Those crazy Brits! The lengths that some people might go to for fine acoustics!

A little closer to home – and for some rather obscure yet related Canadian content – you thought those moose antlers were just for show?!?

Photo courtesy of the Telegraph

A Handsome Silhouette

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Hungarian Trio

You have to admit, the newly renovated Royal Conservatory of Music cuts a mean profile.

Just days ago, this was the handsome silhouette of the RCM that I discovered against a morning sky as I did a Tim Horton’s run on Bloor Street at the close of my vacation. Darkened for its first Christmas break after a 3-year renovation*, this slightly doctored image shows off the RCM TELUS Centre’s the grand new central spire, installed in the summer of  2008. The original spire of McMaster Hall was lost over fifty years ago during Hurricane Hazel. One has to admit that this tasteful replacement demonstrates great attention to detail, but where will the poor pigeons roost, I wonder, now that the gaping hole in the roof has been capped off so stylishly?

Here are the sounds of a spontaneous recording made with students during my first teaching day of ’09 – the building was still pretty quiet, and it felt like my students and I practically had the place to ourselves before the new year really kicked into full gear. This is a trio arrangement of a traditional Hungarian folksong that can be found in Abracadabra Flute, a wonderful intro book that I recommend especially to my younger or adult students who are just getting back into playing.

* Faculty, staff and students are settling back in after a three-year relocation, although the renovations continue at 273 Bloor Street – the concert hall is scheduled to open in the Fall of 2009. This is only half the story, rest assured, so check back periodically to see how things are progressing at the Con! And if you haven’t stopped by and are in the area, be sure to wander in and have a look: the RCM’s new digs are a spectacular & tasteful marriage of old and new!