Archive for November, 2010

The road winds even if we think we see the way

A couple of signposts on the road from what I was doing in ’89 to one of the biggest selling projects I worked on.

In ’89 I had been doing sessions with Loreena McKennitt at Grant Avenue Studio in Hamilton. Some very interesting things had developed during those sessions. For example, we made a sort of epic out of the Christy Moore song “Ride On” with the great Bill Dillon on steel guitar and Loreena singing in a somewhat uncharacteristic picaresque style. Unsure what to do with the dark and mysterious “Ride On”, if memory serves Loreena went for a version of Greensleeves (linked below) as a way of clearing the air.

Eventually this was included on her CD “The Visit” – and as it happens I ended up sharing the Juno award that following year with Jeff Wolpert for “Engineer of the Year”. I was hardly deserving of it, but willing to go up to the podium and get the thing, so I was in Toronto in the spring of 1993.

During that visit I got a call from Andy Maize of the great band Skydiggers, asking if I wanted to try a mix or two on their new record, “Just Over This Mountain”. I said “of course!” (needing work) and had a go at the title track.

As I was printing it I thought “Hmm I feel this is a bit straight – maybe I’ll do a messed-up version” and printed that as a kind of joke.

I guess it went over well – I ended up mixing the whole album.

While doing that I guess the guys in Skydiggers were having drinks with the guys in Blue Rodeo and my name may have come up… They had a project they had recorded with Doug McClement’s Comfort Sound Mobile, on location at Greg’s house in the country.

During the final days of the mix we had a visit from Sarah McLachlan.

During that 4 years I had relocated to Los Angeles, started a career mixing film scores, become a father.

Meanwhile, my business in Toronto had meandered from one beautiful celtic-flavored singer to another over same 4 years, connected by happenstance and the soul of the music.

Life is a wandering wagon and we are passengers.


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What is that instrument for?

OK. You’re a drummer. Let’s take stock of the situation.

You’ve got these big wooden cylinders. Across each open end you have polyester “skins” stretched. The biggest cylinder has a little contraption attached to it that allows you to slap the surface of the polyester skin with a sort of hammerhead.

Balanced on steel poles you have big plates made of brass.

You’re sitting on a little stool in front of all these objects and in your hands you are holding sticks made of hardwood.

What’s this all about? What are you trying to do here?

I understand that using the various contraptions and bashing some of the plates and polyester-covered cylinder with these sticks is part of the plan.

You’re going to hit this stuff. But why?

When I am not sure how to get someone focused in the studio I will pose questions like this.

You see, musicians are an isolated bunch. Having been a musician since I was 3, I know this intimately. We spend endless hours refining tiny muscle movements, memorizing pieces of music, repeating things over and over in their most reductionist forms so as to perfect our ability to render a great performance.

All this is done while normal people are out learning how to relate to each other.

But we musicians are obsessed. We live in this little perfectionist world. We rarely venture out.

So why do we do this? Even more to the point, why do we persist?

Why are you hitting those things? It makes a terrible racket and leaves little wooden fragments on the carpet. It scares the cat. It offends the neighbors. So what on earth are you doing?

Well, for one thing you are making music.

See, a musical instrument is a very special device. It has a unique function in the hands (or feet) of a good musician. A violin, a saxophone, a kit of drums can all do something quite marvelous: take the inner state of the musician and translate it in real time into a shared experience.

Without having to frame it in words, a great performance of music can bring to a room full of people a vivid and uncanny evocation of the physical, emotional and spiritual state of the performer. Once that music is introduced into the world, everyone within earshot is capable of picking up that stream of information and sharing the evoked experience.

Unlike a description of an emotion, music can transcend language. Unlike a painting or play, it doesn’t require direct attention on the part of the audience. They can be passive to the point of consciously ignoring the music and still be affected by it.

Whether people realize it or not, and whether they can identify the experience or not, music is highly significant in day to day experience. We derive much of our sense of who we are and how we fit together from shared experience. And no experience can be shared on as deep a level as music.

Nothing. Not even nookie.

So when we are perched next to our noisemaking machinery we are poised to do nothing less than demonstrate in the most convincing way possible that life is worth living.

Take a few minutes and listen to this:

Tell me you didn’t feel the tragedy of this woman, even if not a word of the lyrics was understood.

When we make music we prove to each other that life is worth living.


YouTube – Arvo Part – Fur Alina

Just before I went to Toronto in 2008 to record Ken Tizzard’s “Lost in Awe” CD I came across this video on YouTube. Watch and read.

It takes a little while but the gist is obvious.  Minimalism and the atomic-level focus on melody and counterpoint can yield drama and emotion from two rather staid and undramatic lines. “I’d say that I had a … need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.”

A couple of the keyboards on Ken’s CD recall the way I felt about this presentation – mainly the idea that the search was not for melody as such, not so much to fill up the space with content, but instead to lend importance to each moment. My thinking changed and I looked at each note first as something I could remove or leave in, or something I could adjust or tailor to the moment.

Especially when I write music at the piano, my inclination is to shape the music the way my hands like to feel the notes, then find in that result the music I’m looking for. Directing myself toward minimalism I found I would start with that method and prune what I didn’t want. The way Michelangelo would purportedly remove the marble that was not the statue.

When I busted up my wrist in the summer I was presented with a couple of unexpected challenges. First, I had started writing a score that was in essence minimalist, but still was based on a piano motif. When I tried to continue with one hand I could poke around and get to the parts I wanted, but I felt the sense of flow was lacking. I realized that my writing at that point was reliant on my being able to play, even if, once played, the music could be drastically modified.

I could say I took up the gauntlet… or at least the wrist splint. But that score would have to wait until I could play again before I could complete the writing to my satisfaction.

Here’s the problem:

Having now completed all but one of the cues for this project I am able to sit back and look over the whole score. What is immediately apparent was that the parts I had written previous to my injury (which has since healed completely) are too full of ideas. The content is in the way of both the emotion of the music and the scene I am supporting. Willy nilly, my writing must change as a result of my shifting perception, as does my assessment of the previous work.

Reviewing the video of the maestro I realize I can remove about 80% of the score I’m writing and have it be better, more appropriate, more emotional.

Anything that smacks of piano-playing can go. Anything that moves dramatically can go. Heat can go. Accompaniment can go.

Minimalism is not simple.

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jónsi – official site

jónsi – official site. Every now and then I find a reference to an artist I really like.


So, OK.  call this a lame first post.  after all i’m supposed to be making my own beautiful music.


but people doing this stuff at this level inspire me.  so 15 minutes spent pouring something new into my head will repay me with 30 minutes of productive inspiration where i might otherwise have been sitting at the keyboard wondering.

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Just getting set up

Hi kids – here is the spot where I will be a-bloggin’ like a… wait for it… oh never mind.

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