My very first fiddle lesson!

On Saturday I had the great pleasure of visiting Lisa Ornstein for my very first lesson on the fiddle. And to my amused surprise, I didn’t play a single note on the instrument.
Yet I had a couple of hours of deeply satisfying conversation and instruction! So what did I do if I didn’t actually play anything?
A lot of exactly why I wanted to engage an experienced teacher: i.e., a lot of going over the overall anatomy of the instrument and the bow, to talk about what goes into making them and how they work. And a lot discussion of proper stance, both sitting and standing, and proper ways to hold both the instrument and the bow. I very much wanted to sit down with someone who knew what they were doing to go over this stuff, just because the violin does intimidate me a bit, and taking the time to examine it in detail helps address that problem. If I know something, it becomes less scary!
And as part of trying to make all that discussion stick in my brain, I’m writing it up now for all of you! There will also be pictures!
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Festival du Bois 2016: Dara and I make noise!

This year was the third one that Dara and I have made it up to Festival du Bois in Coquitlam (previous visits having been in 2012 and 2014). We have grown rather fond of this cozy little festival and hopefully will get to start attending yearly rather than every other year!
Day 1: Saturday
This time around, we had a lovely lineup of acts I wanted to check out, two of which were familiar to me and one of which was not. My main point of interest was the power trio of Le bruit court dans la ville–who, of course, were the most excellent musicians who were my draw to Fiddle Tunes this past summer, Lisa Ornstein, André Marchand, and Normand Miron. But also quite noteworthy was Maz, who I’d already become aware of; I have both of their albums. I had not to date had a chance to see them live, though!
And last but not least was ReVeillons!, who came highly recommended by a few of the folks in our local session crowd. I wanted to check these guys out in no small part because they include Jean-François Berthiaume, who I’d already known about courtesy of his being the percussionist for Galant Tu Perds Ton Temps.
We did get to see all three of these acts, and I am pleased to report that they were all excellent. But as it turned out, this time around Dara and I actually got in some time getting to play ourselves!
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Andre Brunet Fiddle Workshop, February 2016!

This past weekend I had the very great pleasure of being able to attend a small fiddle workshop featuring André Brunet of De Temps Antan! The workshop was held on Qualicum Beach, at the home of the same wonderful couple who hosted the house concert I attended in August 2014. And I was overjoyed to be invited to come back up to Qualicum for this–because as I’d written in that post, for the chance to learn from André, I’d do that long drive again in a heartbeat.
You will notice that this was a fiddle workshop, and that I am still not a fiddle player. But I am a flute player, and moreover, just hanging out in a fiddle workshop was valuable to me as an exercise in hearing assorted tunes broken down into smaller phrases. Even after a few years of trying, I still struggle to keep up in a full session environment. So it’s hugely helpful to hear someone break a tune down into bits that I can then try to reproduce by ear. It works in my brain the same way that trying to read French does. I.e., it lets me better understand the overall structure and feel of a tune. So I will be leaping all over any tunes workshops I can get.
And you guys, this past weekend? Amazing.
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Le Vent du Nord at the Rogue in Vancouver BC, 1/27/2016

As I’ve already written about several times on my blog, it’s always a pleasure to hear Le Vent du Nord perform–although this time, it was on a seriously rainy Wednesday night at the Rogue. Yet the loyal fans filled the place nonetheless!
This time too we actually were without Olivier Demers. If you’ve been following my posts and have seen my earlier Le Vent concert posts, you know Olo’s my favorite of all the members of the group! (And I’m not just saying that because he follows me on Facebook and therefore might actually read this. Auquel cas je dois dire SALUT OLO!)
But this time he had to stay home, due to having a death in his family. :( He posted to his Facebook wall that his father had passed away just a couple of days before the show. (And I was simultaneously very sad to hear the news and a bit relieved to have been warned about it in advance, because if I’d shown up without knowing M. Demers wouldn’t be on hand, I would have been even sadder!)
So Le Vent had to pull in Jean-François Gagnon Branchaud as emergency backup fiddler. If you know Quebecois trad, you may well recognize his name as one of the two fiddlers currently playing with La Bottine Souriante, who also sings some lead on La Bottine’s last album. And if you know La Bottine, you know that anybody who plays for them is guaranteed to bring their A game to a stage. Jean-François did not disappoint, and so even though we all missed Olivier, it was still a delightful show!
Let’s get down to the details, shall we?
Continue reading “Le Vent du Nord at the Rogue in Vancouver BC, 1/27/2016”

Album review: Maison de bois, by Nicolas Boulerice

Maison de bois
Maison de bois

I have written upon many occasions about Le Vent du Nord, and in particular about how every single one of those boys ranks very high on my list of musicians for whom I’ll buy ANYTHING they produce. And I would do this no matter what was on those albums. Olivier Demers accorde son violon? I’d buy that! Quarante-cinq minutes de la basse de Réjean Brunet? Gimme! Simon Beaudry chante dans le douche? Sign me the HELL up.
Given my documented partiality, therefore, it’ll surprise exactly none of you that I jumped all over Nicolas Boulerice’s new solo release, Maison de bois.
If you know Le Vent du Nord, you know that M. Boulerice is the lead singer, hurdy-gurdy player, and piano player. If you’ve seen my prior album and show reviews for this band, you know in particular that he is a master of the hurdy-gurdy, and provoked my Dara into using the phrase “bitchin’ metal hurdy-gurdy solo”. The rich character of his voice and his dynamic hurdy-gurdy playing are a huge part of Le Vent’s overall sound, and therefore a huge part of what cemented my fandom of them in the first place.
It is important to note straight up, though, that you should not expect Maison de bois to sound like a Le Vent du Nord album.
Prior Le Vent releases do hint at what you’ll find on this album, mind you. On Tromper le temps, there’s a track called “Dans les cachots” that gives you a very good preview of the overall flavor of Maison de bois: Nico’s vocals standing on their own, with a stark, emotive aspect to them that a singer of traditional music doesn’t necessarily always have a chance to display, especially if he’s in a band renowned for being upbeat and lively. I’m still enough of a beginner at French that I can’t follow his lyrics without seeing them written out (and I’m not seeing lyrics on Nico’s Bandcamp page, drat), but I can tell you that the songs we get in this release are introspective and thoughtful of tone. I can easily imagine them sung in a smoky nightclub in a noir film.
Instrumentally, we have no hurdy-gurdy here. But we do have plenty of piano, and like the vocals, the piano aims for an overall introspective timbre. Which is not to say it’s understated–because as with the singing, the piano covers a broad range of expression, from quiet, delicate accents to more powerful chords. Other instruments from the backup musicians make appearances as well: some light percussion, a bit of bass, even a nicely muted trumpet on “Avec toi” (which is I think the song that sounded most to me like it should be sung in a smoky nightclub).
The backup vocals are likewise lightly handled. Accustomed as they are to hearing Nico singing with the Le Vent boys, my ears found it a bit odd to hear him harmonizing with a woman–but Mia Lacroix’s voice blended beautifully with his, and so her presence on the album stood out the most for me among the backup musicians in the credits on the Bandcamp page.
Overall, if you’re a Le Vent fan, this album is definitely required listening, just so that you can get a true sense of what Nicolas Boulerice is capable of with his vocals. It’s a refreshing change of pace, albeit one best suited for when you want your music to be moody and quiet. Because as much as I love Le Vent du Nord’s skill at making me want to get up and dance (or play!), sometimes I just want to kick back and listen. And this release has much to reward a thoughtful listener.
Maison du bois is available on Bandcamp. (I will update this post if I find other places you can buy it!)

Fiddle Tunes 2015, Part 1: The Classes

I meant to write this up several days ago, but between having to get caught up on my backlog of stuff that needed doing while I was gone, then going to Clallam Bay Comicon, and dealing with a bunch of stuff at work, I didn’t have time to do a proper writeup of my first Fiddle Tunes. Let’s now rectify that, shall we?
For those of you who didn’t catch me talking about this on the social networks, and/or who might have missed my earlier posts on the topic, I spent an entire week at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes workshop at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, WA. Fiddle Tunes, as it’s known, is an immersive music workshop. Despite the name emphasizing the fiddle, it’s not actually exclusively focused on the fiddle–which is good, because as y’all know, I don’t actually play that instrument!
Instead, what drew me there was learning that André Marchand would be on the staff and giving guitar lessons–André Marchand, comma, previously known to me as a veteran of the genre, both in La Bottine Souriante and Les Charbonniers de l’Enfer. I had decided way back in March that I’d be crazypants bonkers to pass up an opportunity to learn from him.
And, bonus: Lisa Ornstein and Normand Miron also were on the staff. Lisa is notable as a non-native-Quebecer who nonetheless has a strong history with the genre, since she’s actually played with La Bottine too. And Normand Miron is also known to me via the Charbonniers. The three of them together perform under the name Le Bruit Court Dans La Ville.
With this kind of a powerhouse trio at my disposal, I wound up having a delightful time attending classes. M. Marchand’s guitar classes were my primary interest, so I made a point of showing up for all of his sessions each morning. Since André was teaching guitar, he brought in a colleague, Kevin Carr, to play the melody line of the various tunes we worked on, so that all the students could get an idea of how to play support for a melody.
André was delightful as a teacher, with a great sense of humor (my favorite quote of his was “play it again, but with more coffee”). The biggest thing I learned from him was reassuring: i.e., that I actually knew a bit more as a guitarist than I’d previously realized. He did interesting things with progressions, adding an extra note in on chords, that I’d sorta kinda already picked up on as a thing but which I did not know how to do.
By progressions, I mean playing a bunch of (say) A chords, only adding in a G on the first, and an F# on the next, so that you get an interesting little almost-melody that can support the actual melody being played. (I’d run into this kind of thing when listening to Great Big Sea playing “Old Black Rum” on the Road Rage live album–I kept wanting to put a little progression I could hear in my head into the choruses, and didn’t know how to properly do that. Now I have a better idea of how to try it!)
Also notable: some of the chords that André threw at us were things I could not actually finger on the General, because my hands were smaller than his. But at least in the case of one chord, a D/F# (that’s a D with an added F#), he showed us a trick to get around this if your hands are small: you wrap your thumb around to your deepest string, the low E, and use that to hold down the string on the second fret to get your F#. NEAT.)
And in one class, they even brought in Dejah Leger for support. :D
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(Dejah turned to me just before she moved forward in the class that day to take a seat beside the two gentlemen, and on the way she hastily whispered at me to get me to take pics. I assured her I totally had her back. Because yeah, if I got to help teach a class with one of my musical heroes, I’d be pestering my nearest buddy to take pics too!)
Speaking of Dejah, I should also totally mention that I sat in on a couple of her guitar tutorials as well. Not all of them, because by mid-week I started running out of steam and had to vanish in the afternoons to go take naps and have downtime away from people. And I had to maintain brain power to be able to try to keep up with Lisa Ornstein’s and Normand Miron’s classes, too.
Lisa Ornstein is a superb teacher. She was great about giving us the background on the tunes she had elected to teach, and about playing through the phrases of a tune until we could play them back at her–a strategy which, I’d already learned courtesy of André Brunet, works well for me. It was in fact reassuring to figure out that I’m not entirely hopeless at learning things by ear. (It’d be nice to be able to do it faster, but I have been working on that, and will continue to do so.)
I’d say I’m sorry to have missed some of her classes–except that Normand Miron was also fun. His English was not as good as André’s or Lisa’s, so he made use of Dejah as an assistant as well. His classes were not as heavily attended as Lisa’s, but still there were several folks who showed up for him as well.
And with both Lisa’s classes and Normand’s, it was fun for me as a wind player to try to figure out how I could make noises to mimic all the fiddle players (in Lisa’s classes) and accordion players (in Normand’s) around me.
In Dejah’s classes that I made it to, last but definitely not least, I had a chance to play with DADGAD tuning. Dejah is a splendid guitarist, and is very fond of using alternate tunings–so I got to learn a few things with her that I couldn’t with André, since he (as he told us) always plays in standard EADGBE tuning.
What I learned from Dejah about DADGAD is that, at least on the higher-pitched strings, I have an easier time trying to finger-pick than I do in standard tuning. However, I found trying to do that by ear way more challenging than trying to play by ear on my wind instruments–possibly because I’m just not used to using a guitar as a melody instrument at all. This, I think, requires further musical exploration!
All in all, if I hadn’t done anything else at all at Fiddle Tunes, the classes by themselves would have been worth the price of admission. I very, very much got what I was hoping for: i.e., the chance to sit down with professionals, learn some things, and maybe get an idea of the things I need to work on if I want to progress as a musician. I have no aspirations of being anything more than a serious hobbyist–but still, it was hugely valuable and meaningful to just be able to spend time learning from four excellent teachers.
And I brought home plenty of practice material as well! I’ve got recordings from most of the classes I went to. André handed out chord sheets for all the tunes we worked on as well, just about all of which were songs he’s recorded on various albums–and which I happen to have, so I can practice trying to play along with the recordings in question. FUN. :D
Ditto for Lisa Ornstein’s classes. She made available to all of us who attended her classes various PDFs of the tunes we worked on, so I will have those to play with as well.
And of course, I was focused like a laser on the Quebecois-themed classes. There were dozens of other classes going on as well, and if I had had the time, I totally would have checked out the Irish trad classes, or maybe the ones being held by the musicians from Kentucky. (Because there WERE a couple, and as a born Kentucky girl, I felt kind of sheepish that I didn’t have the chance to go give those guys a listen!) But they advised us early on in the week to not try to do everything, and I took that wisdom to heart. (Note: I was particularly grateful as well that on Monday and Tuesday of the week, they had intro classes for Fiddle Tunes newbies. I found those extremely valuable, especially with the tips about how to try to begin to keep up in a session environment–with some wisdom I’d also learned from Dara, which is to say, I don’t actually need to play all the notes. More on this later!)
And this was only the beginning of the awesomeness of the Fiddle Tunes experience. Next post, I’ll talk about the big organized music efforts in the afternoon: the band labs!

Album review: Têtu, by Le Vent du Nord

Têtu
Têtu

There are certain phrases that hold massive magical power with me, people. “Great Big Sea is coming to town”, for one. “Let’s go out for sushi”, for another. “I just read and loved your latest book,” that one’s a contender. My favorite over the last couple of years, though, is hands down “a new album by Le Vent du Nord”. Têtu is album number eight for mes gars, and the sixth one with the lineup of Nicolas Boulerice, Olivier Demers, Simon Beaudry, and Réjean Brunet (counting four studio albums, the live album Mesdames et messieurs, and my beloved Symphonique)!
You may take it as read at this point that yeah, I’m going to adore anything these boys do. That goes without saying, since I’ve spent a whole lot of energy here on my blog and on social media not being able to shut up about them. But when they drop a new album, I get to actually back up my fangirling with evidence. I get to talk about not only adoring the music of this band, but why I adore it, too. And despite this post I made earlier today, I do not really have the French vocabulary yet to talk properly about this album. So I’m going to do it in English.
Overall picoreview first! This is the longest Le Vent album yet, with a total of 15 tracks, and there’s a whole lot to love with each one. After all the time these boys have spent playing together, they’ve pretty much got this down to an art and a science, and it shows here. Têtu is a tight, expert production, one in which the joy of the music shines through on every note. If you’re a fan of this band, you’re going to relish this album. If you’re not a fan yet, I submit for consideration that this would be an excellent album to use as your first introduction to them. Instrumentally and vocally, les gars are at the top of their game. And there are particularly high quantities of Simon Beaudry singing lead on things, and that’s always a good thing.
And now, track by track commentary behind the fold!
Continue reading “Album review: Têtu, by Le Vent du Nord”

Pour mes amis du Quebec!

(I just posted this to Facebook, where most of the Francophones I know are most likely to read me. But because I am a completist, and because I want to save this for later, I’m posting it here too!)
Aujourd’hui je veux pratiquer mon français! Attendez! Ce sera longue. ;)
Vous pouvez demander, mes amis d’Internet, pourquoi une femme américaine et anglophone, aime tellement la musique traditionnelle du Québec. J’écris beaucoup sur ça déjà en anglais, mais ça, c’est facile. Aujourd’hui je veux écrire sur ça en français!
La première chose: je pense qu’il est bon d’apprendre d’autres cultures. Les Américains, nous ne faisons pas souvent ça comme nous devrions. Les gens du Québec sont nos voisins, et ils partagent l’Amérique du Nord avec nous. C’est bon à connaître vos voisins. Et la musique et la langue sont deux voies merveilleuses à le faire.
En particulier, il a été mon honneur et mon plaisir à rencontrer plusieurs musiciens québécois. Ceci me donne les visages, les noms, et les gens vivants. Cela rend réel. Et je pense, ces gens, ils sont gens splendides. Je veux respecter et apprécier eux.
(Et c’est un signe de mon respect que je m’excuse à Olo et André et Éric quand mon français et poche. ;) Je ne peux pas m’exprimer en français parlé, pas encore. Je dois travailler de m’exprimer en français écrit. J’apprends encore!)
La deuxième chose: je suis un écrivain. J’aime des mots. J’aime des langues. Et une nouvelle langue entière–c’est un nouveaux voie de voir le monde. Il y a magique dans ça. Magique pour un lecteur comme moi-même, de voir le monde. Et pour un écrivain, de parler du monde.
Seriéusement, savez-vous comment mon cerveau s’éclaire quand je pense de tous les livres de SF québécois que je n’ai pas lu encore? Toutes les histoires que je pourrais dire si je maîtrise la langue? :D
Et la troisième chose, et véritablement, la chose plus importante–la musique? C’est magnifique. Elle parle à mon cœur. Elle parle à mes pieds et les incite à danser. Elle parle à mes mains et les incite à jouer les tounes. Et elle parle à ma voix et l’incite à chanter.
Pour ça, j’aime tellement la musique traditionnelle du Québéc. Oui, je suis américaine–mais pour cette musique, un part de moi devient française.
Merci pour ça, les gars. <3

Fun with tunes and whistles

Dusty Strings is a dangerous place!
Any acoustically-oriented musician in the Seattle probably already knows this, of course–and I myself have mentioned this before. But it was driven home to me again this past weekend, when Dara and I went in to get her a proper shoulder strap for the Godin A5 fretless bass we finally got her as a late Solstice present!
This is a sexy, sexy bass, you guys. But also surprisingly heavy! So we wanted to make sure to get a strap that could support its weight and not kill Dara’s shoulder while she plays it. We fully expected Dusty Strings would provide, and they did indeed. We got her a nice leather strap with a padded section for her shoulder.
But what I did not expect was that a blackwood whistle made by Sweetheart would leap into my fingers and go “HI I’M COMING HOME WITH YOU.”
One of these, specifically. Dusty Strings had two of them, one in rosewood and one in blackwood, and since I’ve been more interested in whistles lately I started playing around with them while Dara experimented with straps.
The rosewood didn’t seize me. But the blackwood did, with some surprising clarity and power to its tone. And wow, it carried well in Dusty String’s instrument room. I could see this being an instrument I could use to make myself heard in a room full of fiddlers and accordion players. Maybe not a session cannon–I’m not that powerful a player–but perhaps a session pistol.
For shots of what the instrument looks like, side by side in a couple of them with my carbon fiber whistle for comparison, hop over to the Blackwood Whistle gallery on annathepiper.org!
And here’s what the instrument sounds like. I did a few snippets of recording with my phone last night, playing around with bits of “Ciel d’Automne”, one of my favorite tunes by André Brunet, who as I’ve said before writes lovely flute-friendly tunes.
First, this is me doing the tune on my small D carbon fiber flute. Because while I am having fun learning whistles, I’m still way more comfortable on a flute. And I wanted to show this for a comparison of tonality as well.

Second, this is my carbon fiber D whistle.

Last but not least, here’s the blackwood whistle! There’s better clarity here than on the carbon fiber whistle–possibly because this thing is a bit heavier as well as being wider in diameter. So the feel of it in my hands is closer to what I expect with a flute, and I don’t have to work as hard to figure out what amount of air to put through it.

So this is all fun and I’m going to greatly look forward to bringing this new whistle to a session!
And if you want to hear “Ciel d’Automne” in all its full La Bottine Souriante glory, go find their album Xième, which was also released in the States under the name Rock and Reel. This has the distinction of being the first André Brunet tune I ever fell in love with, so it’s got a special place in my heart!
EDITING TO ADD 12/27/2018: Since I had to remove the whistle pics from Flickr, I have edited this old post to point at the gallery of the same pics I made on annathepiper.org. Previous references to the Flickr versions of the pics have been removed.