Tag Archives: Music

Ruby Reds & The Silver Lining

On a Saturday night in downtown Thunder Bay, Tamiko and I went to The Foundry Pub to hear Ruby Reds & The Silver Lining. No, this was not a random thing. Our daughter is, as Facebook puts it, in a relationship with one of the members of the band, Quintin Golka. They were really good! My impression is that there’s a huge alternative food/lifestyle/economy/music/culture scene in the Thunder Bay area. Musicians draw a lot of people to the restaurants and pubs, the pubs feed people locally grown produce and meat & serve local beers, ciders and wines. Everybody helps everybody else. Win. Win. Win.

Before the show, I asked Quintin if he thought the people at The Foundry would mind me taking some photos. I was thinking of clubs in Toronto where there’s no way you can pull out a big DSLR and start shooting. He smiled and said: “This is Thunder Bay.” When the music started, I knelt right in front of the stage and stayed there for 20 minutes before moving to stairs at the back of the venue. I would never have been able to do that in Toronto!

Outside The Foundry Pub, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Outside The Foundry Pub, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Quintin Golka & Skylar Speer at The Foundry

Quintin Golka & Skylar Speer

Frontman for Ruby Red’s and The Silver Lining

Quintin Golka, frontman for Ruby Reds and The Silver Lining

Frontman for Ruby Red’s and The Silver Lining

Quintin Golka

Ruby Red’s and The Silver Lining, playing at The Foundry

Skylar Speer

 Skylar Speer, Ruby Red’s and The Silver Lining

Skylar Speer, Ruby Reds and The Silver Lining

Skylar Speer playing the guitar

Skylar Speer playing the guitar

Ruby Red’s and The Silver Lining, playing at The Foundry

John Laco, drummer for Ruby Red’s and The Silver Lining

Ruby Red’s and The Silver Lining, playing at The Foundry

John Laco, drummer for Ruby Reds and The Silver Lining

The Foundry Pub, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Interior shot of The Foundry Pub, Thunder Bay, Ontario

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The Canadian Men’s Chorus

I sing (tenor) with the Orpheus Choir of Toronto. When you sing with a community choir, one of the expectations is that if you have gifts (quite apart from your voice) you will place them at the choir’s disposal to contribute to its success as an organization. And so I am called upon, now and again, to show up with my camera. It’s given me occasion to think about the mechanics of shooting both choral groups and individual choristers. However, I haven’t been able to put my thoughts into practice, at least not in a concert setting with Orpheus, because it’s hard to sing and shoot at the same time. Fortunately, in the last few years, there has been an explosion of high quality choral groups in the Toronto area. With that has come a corresponding explosion in demand for choral photography.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of working with the Canadian Men’s Chorus as they update their promotional material. The CMC is in its sixth season, with Greg Rainville as artistic director and Arlene Jillard as manager.

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Here are some thoughts about shooting choirs, by no means exhaustive:

This is NOT wedding photography.

If you expect to shoot a group of people standing static on risers and smiling for your camera, you’ll be shooting something that looks like a choir, but it won’t be a choir. Choirs are anything but static. Sometimes, I think choirs are dance ensembles that happen to sing. Choral music engages the whole body.* There are the obvious things: the lungs, the tongue, the palate, the lips, the face. But the feeling radiates out from there. The body sways with the rhythm. Feet tap to the beat. The whole spirit vibrates and, if it’s a good choir, those vibrations start to move the audience too.

Sometimes, body movement is deliberate, as illustrated by the shot below where the CMC sings the world premiere of “Boots (Infantry Columns)”, Don MacDonald’s TTBB setting of a Rudyard Kipling poem about infantrymen on the march. Footsteps (and snare drum) supplement the work’s martial character.

Think of shooting choirs as more like street photography than wedding photography. You’re looking for that decisive moment—a facial expression, a meeting of eyes, a sway in the body as the music transports the singer.

(In fairness, good wedding photography is not wedding photography either.)

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Respect the performer’s dignity.

My second observation flows naturally from the first. Shooting choristers as they sing can be a lot like shooting people as they chew on their food. When singers work to give their words clarity, they contort their faces. Captured as stills, the resulting expressions can be unflattering, or even frightening. Shoot continuously through a range of motions, keep whatever works, discard the rest. Better yet, wait for held notes when the face isn’t doing a lot of weird things.

Related to that is eye contact. In a perfect world, all choristers watch the conductor all the time. When still photos catch a chorister with their nose buried in the score, it’s incriminating evidence. A flattering photo is one that captures the chorister staring attentively at the conductor with smiling eyes. Yes, smiling eyes. As I am learning from my own choral experience, eyes that smile help to produce a brighter sound.

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Community choirs aren’t church choirs.

I can’t speak for Europe, but in North America, community choirs have a branding challenge. They are secular organizations heavily reliant on funding from secular sources (government & charitable foundations), and many (including both Orpheus and the CMC) are committed to commissioning new works that reflect the huge cultural shift from sacred to secular that engulfs us all. At the same time, unless a choir can pack a large concert hall, the best venues are churches. Acoustically, most churches are designed to amplify the sonorities of a choir. They also serve well as mid-sized concert venues. The problem is: they’re full of religious paraphernalia.

The challenge for the photographer is: you’ve been asked to photograph a secular organization, but all your images end up with religious symbols and churchy-looking architecture in the background. There are workarounds but no perfect solutions. One technique is to use a shallow depth of field to make the background blurry. This is fine for blurring out small crosses and whatnot, but never really eliminates obvious architectural features like gothic arches. A second technique is to fill the frame with individual choristers, which is fine but never answers the challenge of shooting the entire ensemble. A third technique is to clone out sacred details in your favourite image editing software. Effective, but labour intensive.

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Choristers in community choirs are like superheroes.

During the day, they go about their ordinary lives. Working. Going to school. Making meals. Caring for children. Picking up poop after their dogs. But when the sun goes down, they assume a new identity. They put on gowns and bow ties. Or if they’re off to rehearsal, they fill their water bottles and sharpen their pencils. Like superheroes, their involvement in community choirs is voluntary. That means their time is limited. It’s difficult to gather them all for a dedicated photoshoot. Instead, you most likely have to shoot at times when the choir is already gathered. Rehearsals and concerts. The problem with shooting during rehearsals and concerts is that choirs already have something to do: rehearse and perform. Artistic directors have things they want to accomplish during rehearsals. Those things are musical, not photographic. It’s important for the photographer not to interfere with those aims.

Yes, get your shot, but be unobtrusive. Don’t get in the way of sight lines. Turn the camera to silent mode so it doesn’t make beeps when you release the shutter. In performance, time the shutter release to moments when the choir is singing forte so your clicks don’t disturb the audience. Wear quiet shoes and dark clothes. Show up early for the performance so you can catch the choir warming up. That way, you can get “performance” shots (i.e. the choir singing in concert dress) from positions you wouldn’t be able to occupy during the actual performance.

Catch the next concert of the Canadian Men’s Chorus on May 7th 2016: On Growing Up.

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* People who know me and how stiff I can be may find this amusing. Treat my writing as aspirational. It reflects an ideal, not something I actually accomplish.

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Glenn Gould’s Grave

In May of 1982 I received a letter from the Royal Conservatory of Music informing me that I had passed my piano exam. Since I had already completed all the course work (History, Harmony, Counterpoint, etc.), that meant that I was officially an Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music and could put the letters A.R.C.T. after my name. The first thing I did was phone all the music schools where I’d set up auditions and cancelled them. Screw it! I wasn’t going to be a musician; I was going to do something practical with my life. And so, in September, I found myself at Victoria College studying things like English Romanticism, Elizabethan Drama, and Medieval Latin Poetry. I have an odd view of what counts as practical in life. A couple weeks into my program of higher learning, news broke that Glenn Gould had suffered a stroke. A week later, on October 4th, 1982, his father removed him from life support and he was pronounced dead.

Glenn Gould's Grave

As with thousands of other kids who passed through the conservatory program, Glenn Gould was an enormous presence lurking in the background. I was one of those nerdy kids who collected vinyl. I bought everything by David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Brian Eno … and Glenn Gould. I had both releases of the Goldberg Variations, both volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Partitas, Haydn Sonatas, Mozart Sonatas. I even allowed for a recording of Brahms piano music, although it struck me then (and now) as strangely hollow. Even while he was alive, stories of his eccentricities had become the stuff of legends. During my piano lessons, Glenn Gould was invariably a reference point for conversations about technique: how close to the keys; how rotten the posture; how loud to hum while playing.

Glenn Gould's Grave

As a kid taking music lessons in Toronto during the 70’s & 80’s, I can’t honestly say that I ever rubbed shoulders with Glenn Gould. But there was one point of intersection between our lives. That was the piano tuner, Verne Edquist. My parents persuaded him to look after our Gerhard Heintzman upright grand piano in the years leading up to my final conservatory exam. I would sit in the room while he tuned the piano. He was a direct man and didn’t mind telling me what he thought of our piano. Years later, when my wife and I settled into a house of our own, my parents gave us the Heintzman and bought themselves a proper grand piano. I was annoyed they didn’t keep the Heintzman and buy us the grand, but I wasn’t in any position to argue with them. Ultimately, we sold the piano to one of Gerhard Heintzman’s great grandchildren and bought a Yamaha Avant Grand. Since the Avant Grand is digital, it never needs to be tuned, which means I’ll never have the kind of relationship Gould had with Mr. Edquist.

Glenn Gould's Grave

In 1982, I abandoned my musical education and it seems, in retrospect, like an act of self-sabotage. I was too something-or-other to do drugs or get nipple rings; the worst thing I could think to do to myself was to stop playing the piano. But decisions like that are never once-and-for-all-time. Last year, I started taking a master class for “mature” pianists who want to brush up on their performance skills. We meet at U. of T.’s Faculty of Music, that school I might have attended if not for my sudden fit of practicality. One of my pet projects is to work up Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s on my musical bucket list along with a handful of other big piano works. We’ll see how it goes.

Glenn Gould's Grave

It’s astonishing how, a generation after his death, Glenn Gould remains an enormous presence lurking in the background. And so I decided (finally) to pay my respects. His grave is in Mount Pleasant Cemetery on the east side of Mount Pleasant Road. It’s a modest marker in section 38: his name, his dates, and the opening passage from the Aria of the Goldberg Variations. I don’t know if my visit will give me inspiration or determination or emotional fortitude or what. Probably not. After all, his music isn’t there, at that site, in that plot of ground. It’s here and here and here, in the hearts and minds of the thousands like me who hold it with us wherever we are.

Glenn Gould's Grave

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Event Photography – Sidgwick Salon

As a rule, I don’t do event photography. I prefer tramping around alone in a landscape (forest/urban/whatever). But every rule has its exceptions. Because of personal affiliations, I end up doing some events. For example, I sing in the Orpheus Choir of Toronto. Orpheus sponsors a scholarship program for voice students (the Sidgwick Scholars). We pay them a stipend to sing with the choir. They get experience singing choral music and blending their solo voices with an ensemble. We get the benefit of their leadership and expertise. Everybody wins. Each year, Orpheus holds a Salon to beef up the scholarship fund. The scholars perform, and when the audience sees what amazing performers they are, they write cheques. I go with my camera and capture the fun.

As I view it, a photographer has a twofold job at an event like this. The first is to get the shots that the organization wants: the key people, the images that might end up in publicity material. The second is to keep an eye open for the unscripted moments that nevertheless capture something of the organization’s spirit. In a way, the second is like street photography. Below are two photos from this year’s Sidgwick Salon which I particularly like. The first is of baritone, Tristan Jones. As the MC was making a few remarks, I noticed Tristan leaning against the wall behind me, waiting to be called forward. Light was streaming through the windows and caught him full in the face while leaving the space behind him in shadow. I liked the contrast and the colour of the bowtie so swung around and got this shot.

Tristan Jones - Sidgwick Scholar

This year, Orpheus held the Salon in the upstairs lobby of Koerner Hall. It faces east over Taddle Creek and the ROM. It’s all glass which, photographically speaking, is both a blessing and a curse. There’s lots of light. But it doesn’t necessarily shine where you’d like it. And, of course, you can’t use a flash when you’re aimed 90 degrees to a window. But you work with what you’ve got. In the photo below, bass-baritone, Ronan MacParland plays to members of the audience. Although scripted, this performance was a surprise to the audience (and to me). I don’t remember exactly what he sang although I suspect it was from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

Ronan MacParland, Sidgwick Scholar

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