Archive for December, 2009

Dogleg Left, Willsboro, NY

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7th Heaven Improv

On one of the last days of my road trip through New England and to Tanglewood for the first time back in the summer, I seized an opportunity to get in a little golf, something I like to do a couple of times a year. This beautiful course, nestled on the shores of Lake Champlain in upstate New York, was simply fabulous, a real treat for the wayfarer!

The first thing to catch my attention as I approached the tricky dogleg 7th was the sound of a steady wind gusting through some dry leaves of a stand of trees that encircled the tee-off area. The combination of sight and sound together with the history of the almost century-old Willsboro Golf Course was a heady one, and inspired me to play on my vintage single-keyed flute – after all, I had tucked a couple of flutes into my golf bag (see picture below) for that very reason!

As I threw my flute sounds out onto the breeze for apparently an audience of none, a dog began to howl in response from a nearby house, hidden from view. I hoped that he was on a leash of some kind! This spontaneous duo was amusing and enjoyable, even though I hadn’t meant to create such a disturbance in this pastoral setting! It reminded me of my crazy duos with Benny, the singing dog.

And of course it was only afterward with the lingering summer light slowly ebbing and as I was about to putt out on the 9th green, that the connection suddenly dawned on me: ‘duo for flute and dog’ at the tee-off area for the only dogleg on the back nine: what were the chances?!

PS: I played the hole brilliantly but messed up my play on the green: note to self, work on my short game!

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Rotman’s Hat Shop & Haberdashery

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Hamburger Sonata, CPE Bach

The hats were largely picked over on the last weekend that this historic hat shop was open for business back in the summer, but I finally managed to find one in my size. A classic haberdashery on Spadina, I was saddened to learn that Rotman’s Hat Shop – family owned and operated for decades – was slated to close its doors for business.

On a lovely Saturday afternoon as I was headed home after playing at an Argo’s games (as a member of the Argonotes, not as a linebacker for the football team!) I suddenly remembered the news that I’d heard about this shop clearing off the remainder of its merchandise. So I locked up my bike to one of the trees lining Spadina and ventured in.

The place was abuzz with a steady flow of customers, flocking in to find a great deal and gawking at the ambiance of the historic space. The combination of soft conversation together with the comforting creaks of the aged wooden floors afforded me a heady glimpse into a bygone era. Fortunately for me, the guy overseeing the sale was a die-hard CFL fan, so the fact that I was wearing my FLUTIE jersey established some credibility and won me favor when I asked if I might play a little flute music to pay homage to the old place.

I didn’t have much sheet music on me, but the first movement of CPE Bach’s Hamburger Sonata seemed appropriate: classy and full of style to match the merchandise and aesthetic of this classic haberdashery.

More images from my visit to Rotman’s Hat Shop can be seen on Phanfare where I have assembled a montage of pictures that bear tribute to this evocative piece of Toronto’s vibrant history.

Urban Tableau Vivant

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Away in a Manger

From the abandoned barn of the previous post to this dynamic community event that took place on Christmas Eve. I received a casual invitation a few weeks ago to drop by and check out an annual local happening featuring residents in traditional garb – there was even mention of a baby being on loan to play the role of Jesus as part of the theatrical proceedings, so I really didn’t know what to expect!

This was the scene in one of the barns, and it took a while to remember what the actual name is for this kind of living, human-statue type of installation. Tableau certainly came to mind, but the actual term is Tableau Vivant, loosely translated as ‘living picture’. This group of individuals were installed in one of the barn’s stalls – effectively in a manger – as the culmination of an evening of carols, readings and pantomime. Although I was focused on offering a few seasonal tunes of my own as over 150 local residents of all ages filed through, I have to admit that the effect of this Urban Tableau Vivant was immediately striking, and even rather eery as they struck their silent pose.

Toronto is remarkable in how it has historic and active farms within city limits, which are invaluable for greenspace and educational purposes. Black Creek Pioneer Village, Riverdale Farm and Todmorden Mills are but a few of such locations. Given the incredible value of the land alone, it is not unusual for these unique community treasures to face political pressure to be developed or have their grounds encroached upon. The old addage springs to mind “use it or lose it”, and I encourage you to get involved in local organizations like these!

It was an honour to have an invitation extended my way for this special event, and despite my rather humble contribution – I felt a little like the drummer boy who only had his music to offer the newborn King – there was a lot of warm, positive feedback!

And as a photographer, the whole history and ongoing practice of Tableaux Vivants is of particular interest. Current artists who employ this technique include Kate Matthews, Canadian photographers Evergon, Jeff Wall and Paris-based artist Ulla von Brandenburg.

My thanks to Elizabeth and Steve for including me in this special evening and for their warm welcome!

Post-punk Flute in a Barn

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Variations on The Fall

Although this bit of rural urban exploration was over a week ago, I’m still back in this barn up on Gore Road – not sure if I inhabit the place or if in fact it inhabits me. I guess being stuck in a barn over Christmas is kind of appropriate, wouldn’t you say? Wandering around with my friend Rob and puzzling over various deserted buildings on the forlorn site definitely got under my skin even more than the chilling temperatures.

I had suggested to Rob that he bring along his guitar despite the cold, since he plays in a band that does all The Fall covers (talk about your niche market!) and we’d never had a chance to jam together. So he laid out this acoustic version of one of The Fall’s tunes, and I gamely jumped in the fray, frozen fingers and all, to overlay a flute line – all under the eerily back lit and knowing gaze of characters from one of Mike Myers’ Austin Powers movies!

We might have played a little longer, but something very odd occurred. If you listen carefully towards the end of this recording, one of Rob’s guitar strings suddenly re-tuned itself, totally throwing him as it sent the harmonic progression in a new direction – it was actually pretty sick and caught us both off-guard! He couldn’t account for this strange occurrence, as nothing like this had ever happened with his guitar before.

I suggested it was possibly the cold that had wreaked havoc on his instrument, you know, once we were safely back in the car and heading down the country road for the warmth and safety of the nearest Timmy H outlet. But in the end we both agreed it was a playful ghost inhabiting the barn and having its way with us, re-tuning Rob’s guitar and teaching me how to play the blues, or, in this case, a little post-punk flute!

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The Frozen Barn Blues

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The Frozen Barn Blues

While exploring the haunted and sadly abandoned farmhouse just outside Toronto’s city limits, Rob and I wandered into this adjacent barn space that had clearly been used as a crazy clubhouse, replete with a massive Austin Powers billboard on one wall.

This was the first time we had found a chance to jam together, and man was it freezing in there, one of those penetrating, damp colds that marks the beginning of a good ol’ Canadian winter. I was carting along my old wooden 1920’s flute, an instrument appropriate for the vintage of the farmhouse, which is a piece of work to play in tune at the best of times, so, given the sub-zero temperatures I appreciate you cutting me a little slack in the tuning department…in fact I was kinda pleased with myself that I managed to rock out spontaneously with this Blues riff!

After a couple of hasty takes I could barely feel my fingers anymore, so we hustled out of there and headed for the nearest Tim Horton’s. For more pictures of this desolate country site, check out my slideshow on Phanfare.

Xmas @ Mission Dolores

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Mission Dolores Improv

Nestled in the heart of San Francisco, one can only imagine how the historic Dolores Mission might celebrate the season at this time of year. Merry Christmas from Urban Flute Poject!

Haunted Farmhouse on the Gore Road

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Haunted Farmhouse Elegy

Development northwest of the city is rampant at the moment, and returning from the country I noticed an abandoned farmhouse. It used to be one of those classic, tree-lined driveway type places – you know the type I mean – so emblematic and a signature of rural Southern Ontario.

The fact that these century-old maple trees had been numbered with orange spray-paint and callously uprooted and tossed aside like so many left over Christmas toy is what initially caught my eye. The wanton disregard by developers to raze an otherwise precious arbor commodity was offensive and an assault to the senses.

So I decided to venture up the muddy track that once was a bucolic, sheltered drive to investigate further. I parked the car discreetly behind an out-shed only to discover that, in the fading daylight, the doors of the farmhouse were securely barred and windows boarded up despite there being signs of recent occupants having resided here. Exploring around the perimeter of the old place, I discovered that – to my surprise – the front door yielded and was unsecured.

I stepped across the threshold into another world.

Household items of all descriptions lay about the place, strewn plates and a smashed yellow teapot littered the kitchen floor, keeping the books and CDs that I found in the dining room and living area a moribund kind of camaraderie, as if the most recent family to have lived there had just up and left with less than a week’s notice.

Upstairs was no different: kids’ toys including a marble collection in a plastic container, overturned bed frames and a mattress leaned precariously against a bedroom wall, a baby’s crib…even this mysterious pair of gumboots standing neatly together beside the bathtub in the second floor bathroom.

The place gave me a chill, but I recorded some flute playing nonetheless – an impromptu freestyle solo on my vintage wooden flute – I discovered sounds on my flute that I had never heard before, or even thought imaginable, a violent rhapsodic elegy for a family home with so much history in evidence, yet slated for demolition and relegated to the proverbial suburban junk heap. All in the name of ‘progress’ – sure, the place clearly had fallen on hard times, and wasn’t in the least well maintained, but it all just struck me as unjust and totally regrettable.

Of course my camera batteries were dead, so therefore no pics upon that first visit. And then, as if that wasn’t enough and just to top things off, half-way home I suddenly realized – with a certain sense of urgency – that I had managed to have left my Edirol recorder on the kitchen table, sitting in plain view amidst all the dicarded debris in the unheated place.

A return visit to get some snaps was not only desirable, it was now imperative…kind of like a bucolic Canadian version of that war flic, Black Hawk Down!

So I returned early the next morning with my friend Rob – intrepid Urban Explorer that he is – and we braved the early morning chill cold to wander in and snoop around the place. More than ever it gave me the creeps and left me feeling physically ill. It seriously took me all day to warm up and actually feel somewhat better, sensitive musician-type that I am!

And I haven’t even begun to describe the narrow staircase that led up to the gloom of the shadowy attic space. One can only imagine what might be lurking up there…

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The Dog Doth Bark, Part 2

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Trio for Flute, Dog & Fire, Part 2

As I explore the distinctive voice and incredible timbral range of the Native American Flute, one of my more recent discoveries is the sound of intense multi-phonics that result when certain fingerings are combined with overblowing – as I increase the airspeed, the instrument takes on a strident, insistent character that is particularly compelling. So, to try to coax Benny the musical black lab out of retirement and back into singing along with me, I used these overtones…and it worked!

To get a sense of how this kind of primal, musical instinct might even play out on the streets of New York City, check out this incredible duo for two saxophonists who, as they walk along spontaneously jamming for a random couple they happened to have met on the street, practically hop yellow fire hydrants to keep pace with their bemused audience of two.

Under different circumstances I guess this might have been considered some kind of bizarre musical stalking, but in this case the result is absolutely charming and delightful on so many levels. These two gifted musicians blast away as they walk along, the sound of their instruments echoing down the city streets, and what happens at the end – not to give it away – is absolutely extraordinary!

The Dog Doth Bark, Part 1

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Trio for Flute, Dog & Fire, Part 1

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While dog-sitting in the country early last summer, my intention one afternoon had been simply to capture the sounds of my Native Flute with the crackling of an outdoor fire, and I was blown away by the way that Benny, pictured above, jumped in to provide a spontaneous chorus of nuanced howls. It actually kind of startled me, yet you might imagine how delighted I was at the same time!

So here is some more Native American Flute, this time in concert with Benny, who turned out to be one of the most gifted and musical dogs that I’ve ever encountered! Gradually the novelty seemed to wear off for him, and he chose to just listen – something all good musicians need to be able to do! Despite my trying to cajole him back into our little spontaneous jam session there was no budging him, and the recording gradually ebbs away until all that remains is the sound of the fire and songbirds at the conclusion.

One has to wonder what this sounded like to him – what it meant to him – and what primal instinct the sound of the flute was sparking in his canine mind. At this time of year with the Winter Solstice just passed, I feel that our primal instincts are left rather exposed, and this trio for flute, dog and fire really captures some of these fundamental, archetypal elements.

Indeed, this experience and this recording has left me grappling for a more complete understanding of what musical communication actually means for us as humans and for society: is the urge to make music together so very deep-rooted that it is as essential for our well-being and survival as food, shelter and the warmth of a communal fire to gather around?

An Ode to Night

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An Ode to Night

How’re you enjoying these long nights, especially for those of you in the Northern Hemisphere? Personally I love them, so full of intrigue and mystery as they tend to be, and rue the day when daylight incrementally begins its slow swing back into dominance.

Snow came early to Ontario’s Near North this winter, and here is an improv which seems perfectly suited to mark this Winter Solstice that I performed outdoors recently on my Native North American Flute, inspired in part by the dark and cold – listen for the crunch of snow underfoot on the deck towards the beginning of this recording as I step out into the solitude of the empty night.

More subtle still is the echo and quick report of the shorter notes bouncing off of the adjacent outbuildings in the crisp air, or perhaps the rumble of a lone plane passing far overhead* midway through. And then of course there’s the sound of the door at the end as I head back in to the warmth of the fire!

For me this truly represents a Canadian Winter Solstice, offered up as an Ode to Night on my traditional Native American Love Flute, hopefully sending forth as many answers as musical questions – a healing energy projected out over the frozen river and forlorn cornfields barely discernible with their shroud of inky darkness and under a fresh blanket of snow, the eery glow of a distant Toronto serving as backdrop slung low on southern horizon.

* Headphones, as always, highly recommended, and this time for the full, lonely effect…Happy Listening!

Lilacopse Farm, Summer ’09

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Scottish Traditional

Some dear family friends of mine live north of Toronto, up in King City and just off Bathurst Street. Definitely a world apart, Lilacopse Farm, with its expansive gardens, is an incredible, magical haven – immediately full of good grace, country charm and lots of wonderful memories for me from my intermittent visits over the years.

Certainly the northern reaches of Bathurst are a far cry from what we here in the city might generally associate with the street name, which is generally thought of like this as described in an earlier post!

This past summer, family and friends gathered to mark – yikes – an 80th birthday, and the day was filled with laughter, sunshine, balloons and fine music. A family with strong Scottish roots, I brought along several of my prized, century-old collections of Scottish traditional songs for the occasion, and as well I toted (and tooted!) my old wooden Boehm flute for more of a rustic flavour…with the party in full swing around me, I recorded while sitting on this comfortable, open front porch.

With today being the shortest day of the year, I figure some of you might be in need of a little light therapy – approx. 36 million Americans who suffer from S.A.D. can’t be wrong – so you are invited to bask in the sunshine as seen in more pictures from that fine summer’s day, as assembled on Phanfare – happy Winter Solstice from Urban Flute!

All of this talk of the changing seasons gets a song going through my head, Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love, one of my favourites – in this classic video, lead singer and bassist Jack Bruce sports a fashionable hat that is perfect for this dark, wintry day!

Heavenly Music on Bloor Street

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Michael playing Zither-Harp

Yesterday, on the fly running various errands, some heavenly music on Bloor Street near St. George caught my ear and stopped me in my tracks. Rather than be held captive to my tight schedule and relentless, pressing deadlines, I stopped to listen to the wonderful sounds of this Zither-Harp and, once again, succumb to its magical charm.

It’s not the first time I’ve taken a few minutes to chat with Michael, although any of those first recordings are buried deep somewhere on one of my urban flute hard-drives. A fresh take, I thought to myself, and I’m sure you will understand immediately why I seized the opportunity to chill out on Bloor.

Michael is as soft-spoken as the music that issues forth from his most ancient of instruments, and perhaps in part due to his charming British accent, I find his manner and words rife with wisdom. Certainly he is one of the most affable and thoughtful musicians I have ever met – and to hear the stories he has to tell!

I didn’t pull the audio-journalist trick and request soundfiles of our conversation – that can seem so invasive, if not downright rude – but he and I spoke for a while about busking experiences in England. One scene he described was playing at dusk on an old street on the outskirts of Bath. In the mist and fading light, the sounds of his Zither-playing completed the image. A lone figure stopped by, mesmerized, to listen and by one of his CD’s…turns out it was none other than Van Morrison!

Michael and I talked about trying some flute and zither duos at some point. With early December rains and winter closing in, I guess busking together might have to be placed on hold until the spring – will keep you posted!

In the meantime, if you want to get your hands on a unique, heaven-sent Christmas gift, his CD’s are not to be missed! Michael can be contacted directly at 416-503-9384.

Dup & Dav Underpass

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Bach, Sarabande

After scouring the city for a good spot to hold another impromtu full moon concert last night proved fruitless, I took a minutes to play under this fantastic bridge near Dup and Dav.

Streets in Toronto get all sorts of cute abbreviations, a common one being Av & Dav, which is short for Avenue Road and Davenport Road. So, by extension, I feel it only fair to call Dupont Street and Davenport Road (now there’s a mouthful) Dup and Dav, don’t you think?

Arterial nomenclature aside, I have often wondered what the acoustics might be like under this iconic bridge, but usually have been in too much of a hurry or navigating the insane intersection at the bottom of Russell Hill Road to take the time. I believe at one point this was actually a level crossing for the railway that passes overhead. It is likely that some sage city council members from a bygone era successfully lobbied to dig a modernistic underpass here to facilitate transit about the city, all in the name of progress – sometimes I wish there were more of these around town, considering the gridlock! When it comes to getting around TO, I feel I’m master of the backstreets so a little traffic snarl usually doesn’t phase me, but still, traffic is a joke at times!

A violinist friend of mine, Max, and I had set our sights on the Laird warehouses up in the east end of town for an impromptu, after-hours concert Рyou know, to read some Bach duos by flashlight, whatever Рbut were stymied when we discovered both warehouses up in Leaside are now securely boarded up :(  After trekking in the dark across muddy tracts of overgrown industrial landfill in the rain, this sign kinda sealed the deal:

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Not so sure about the grammar here, but the bit about the dog cinched it for us. And to think I used to roam about and play freely around here! So we headed for a beer – what else to do – to talk about upcoming gigs, go over ideas about the nature of music, as well as to figure out an order for the program for our upcoming St. Anne’s concert!

Returning home, streets largely deserted, and in need of a hot bath, the bridge beckoned…

The Maple Leaf (Gardens) Forever

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Alexander Muir, Maple Leaf Forever

After being moth-balled for years, it came as a pleasant surprise to learn that Toronto’s storied Maple Leaf Gardens has a new lease on life. I happened to have had CP24’s Breakfast Television on as wallpaper yesterday, and they cut to a press conference at the Gardens announcing a $60 million overhaul of the place, a collaborative venture involving Loblaws, Ryerson University as well as various levels of government.

Great good news! Thankfully, gone are the days when an historic edifice such as this might succumb to the wrecking ball – truly, here is a success story in the making, where a unique architectural landmark is at long last on the threshold of being transformed into a vibrant community hub.

Like so many Torontonians, I have my fair share of fuzzy, feel-good, nostalgic memories from frequenting the Gardens, not so much the occasional hockey game as rock events featuring the likes of The Who, Yes, Queen and Bob Dylan. I guess there were others, but it’s all a little hazy, if you know what I mean!

Slipping past the media check-in table set up in the lobby, Alexander Muir’s iconic The Maple Leaf Forever seemed an appropriate piece to play in this evocative corridor leading to ice level of the capacious, dormant building. Sure, I’m more of a Habs fan, but those hapless Maple Leafs need all the encouragement they can get these days with such a sad season so far!

And of course Muir’s patriotic song was held up as a Canadian national anthem for past generations, and was even played in movie theaters before the film would roll! I like to think that my playing of this song in this location might serve as emblematic of those earlier days at the Gardens, and evoke the spirit of the grand, old building.

To learn more about The Maple Leaf Forever from when I paid Muir’s cottage in Leslieville a visit, out in Toronto’s east end, click here. And of course there is a monument to Alexander Muir up near Lawrence and Yonge: if you’ve never taken the opportunity to visit these delightful public gardens – speaking of gardens – you owe it to yourself to take a stroll through this wonderful Toronto green-space!