north shore – november

Heya, folks. I bet you thought you’d heard the last of the North Shore blog in August. Nope!

I want to share a development in the album that’s come up recently.

Let’s back up a little bit here. At the end of July, I was at Neys, and I was working on this one song — a song I knew I was really going to like, and for which I had a very clear musical “vision” (this is rare for me; I knew, up front, the effect I wanted for the piece as a whole, and how it would affect the listener) — and for some reason no matter what I wrote, something seemed to be missing. A change in the chord pattern? An arc in the intensity? A whole section? It was pretty — really really pretty (recent test subjects have also suggested “haunting”, which I quite like) — but it was a four minute song in which something that needed to “happen” didn’t actually happen.

With me so far?

This was a song for two guitars. Lead, accompaniment. Both played by me on the recording, and easy to replicate live with a second guitarist. Perfect. But … what if I put piano in there? I could give it that “thing” that was missing if I added a piano part. The music would lock into place. I could pretty much already hear the final version playing out in my head, and I was loving it.

“But Matt, you don’t play piano.”

Yeah. I know. As much as I love piano music, I’m a terrible pianist (unless I can interest you in the Lost Woods theme). And this project, well … it’s a solo record. A “Matt’s supposed to be the sole performer” record. Because of the album concept, that only made sense, or at least that was what I had in my head at the outset. But … maybe that could be twisted a bit?

Almost ten years ago, first year of university, I met one of my all-time best friends, Graeme. He’s a pianist and composer. It took us longer than it probably should have to realize that we both spent our childhood summers at Neys. See where I’m going with this?

Looking back, I recall occasionally meeting other kids my age, playing together on the beach, building sand castles, all the fun stuff, enjoying whatever it is about that place that makes it stick with you forever. And then at the end of the week or month or however long you stay, you go your separate ways. So now, I have it as a suspicion (one might even go so far as to call it a “headcanon”) that Graeme and I first met as kids at Neys, were separated for about a decade, and then re-met as music nerds at Lakehead.

Graeme and I feel the same way about these parks and shorelines. I realized it’d be a missed opportunity not to phone him up and ask him to be the pianist on this one track that so desperately needed a brilliant pianist who deeply understood what the music was about.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. It’s now probably my favourite song on the whole album.

 

Jim Differ

I’ve told this story many times, but I have to tell it once more.

Ten-ish years ago, I was busking on the curb at the Thunder Bay marina. I was playing a song by a local group called “Flamenco Caravan” (*wink*) when this guy walked up and said, “hey, that’s a nice song you’re playing. Also, I played drums on that record.”

Meeting Jim was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. A lot of how I feel about music, I learned from him. I learned how to have fun on stage by being on stage with him. He was one of the most entertaining and passionate musicians I think I’ll ever know. More than that, he was a great person and a great friend, and in the ten years I knew him he was one of the people I looked up to most.

I am proud to have called him a bandmate. I am so happy to have called him my friend.

north shore – week seven [final week]

Well, I would consider this a bittersweet moment, but more than anything I’m just excited.

North Shore’s field component is finished, and now I get to work on pulling the album and video content together. Most of the uncertainty and apprehension about the musical content is gone, and I get to tinker away and watch in excitement as the pieces of the project develop and come together.

That said, now’s a chance to reflect on these past seven weeks and to take a little amusement in the fact that most things I was afraid could go wrong didn’t, in fact, go wrong, and instead I stumbled on plenty of wonderful little things I never anticipated.

On two occasions, people nearby came over and said something to the effect of “we really like your music, and we made some extra food, would you like some?” When “your music” is probably better described as “early-stage repetitive noodling and definitely not an actual song yet”, hearing that people like what you’re playing is very reassuring.

A little story, here. Bear with me.

Before I left for the summer, my sister mailed me a parcel containing a stack of individually sealed cards. I hope she doesn’t mind me posting this – I like to brag about how cool my sister is, so it’s all good (hey Meg, I know you’re reading this!). Now, when we were much younger we mailed each other letters when one or both of us went out of town for a summer. This was probably just before cell phones were a thing; even if not, we probably thought handwritten letters were still a cooler way to correspond. Anyway, my sister mailed me this parcel full of cards with things like “open when you’re happy”, “open when you’ve had a great day of work”, “open when it’s been raining for days”, “open when you’re frustrated” … you get the idea – so it would sort of feel like she was there keeping me company. I really looked forward to opening them when the opportunities presented themselves.

Then, on my last day, I realized I had missed one card in the stack: “open when you have a cool experience”. The project had been full of cool experiences, but I’d forgotten that was one of the cards. And even if I’d remembered –  after which “cool experience” would I have decided to open it? So many cool things happening, and only one “cool thing” card. So, I sat down with my journal (which is actually a “page per day” Moleskine day planner, which is awesome, in case you were wondering), and wrote all the cool things I could remember happening since July 5th. It became a very long list, and what had sort of become a congested blur of events in my recent memory shifted into more of a narrative as all the awesome things came back to me.

And so, I’m going to share a few of the things from the journal. I could go on forever, but I won’t. Some of you need to go to bed in decent time tonight, I’m sure.

“… Trying to record loon calls at Sleeping Giant, but never having the gear running to catch the best one. Maybe it was better that way; I’ll remember how the most amazing ones sounded, and it’ll be a secret memory just for me. My beautiful site at Rainbow Falls (I had the best spot in the campground) [no, I’m not telling you which one it was]. Discovering a love of instant ramen, while sheltered under the back hatch of my car in a vicious thunderstorm. Recording the perfect pass-by of a train at 11PM in the pitch black. Warming up by the fire after a cold day writing by the lake. Discovering the Pic Island lookout and understanding how Lawren Harris would have felt the first time he saw it. Recording a thunderstorm in a downpour at the Neys point. Stargazing at Agawa Bay, not knowing there’d be a meteor shower. Befriending a raven at Old Woman Bay [it literally followed me around for an afternoon]. Time-lapse recording fascinating cloud patterns. Making pancakes at Pancake Bay. The feeling of small victory when I finished a song. Well, they may be small victories, but they feel like shifting a mountain when they finally come together …”

Before I sign off here, I want to thank you – yes, YOU, person who is reading this post! – for reading my blog. I assume if you’re reading this, you’ve probably been following along since earlier in the summer (and if not, why are you starting here? Start at the top!) and I can’t quite express how pleased I was to hear that people were reading what I had so enjoyed writing.

I want to thank and acknowledge the Ontario Arts Council for financially supporting my project. I also want to thank Ontario Parks and Parks Canada for making the field component easy to carry out in the parks I wanted to visit, and giving me the opportunity to capture them in recording and film. All the staff I encountered in the parks were such a pleasure to deal with, and I even made a couple new friends along the way which, when you’re camping alone for seven weeks, is a really nice thing to have happen.

I’m giving a performance in the campground at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park on Saturday September 22nd. The album, of course, won’t be finished by then, but I’ll be sure to play some material from it!

I hope you’ve had fun following along on my weird adventure.

And now, your last batch of photos:

1. Pancake bay dunes. 2. It’s fall now. 3. Pancakes at Pancake Bay, duh! 4. Interesting dead tree in a fen. 5. Warming up. 6. Home in time for a gig at the Foundry a couple nights ago. 7. Album cover? (Taken by my sister Megan!)

north shore – week six

Good evening from Pancake Bay.

This is the field component’s last stop. I feel like I’m already on my way home, in a sense – yesterday I made a grocery run into Sault St Marie, and driving back on Highway 17 North towards Pancake Bay I thought, “well, starting now I’m technically on my way home”. Feels like just yesterday I set out for the Sleeping Giant and now here I am, tying up the loose ends.

Anyway.

I feel an oddly personal connection to Pancake Bay, in a kind of way that feels rather silly at best, but I can’t help but feel it. In trying to remember why it’s called “Pancake Bay”, I found this post here – http://www.ontarioparks.com/parksblog/how-pancake-bay-got-its-name/ – and had a flood of nostalgia for my old summer job. I used to work at Fort William Historical Park (formerly called Old Fort William, and still called that by literally everyone I know), a fur trade fort re-enactment on the Kaministiquia River. I was an interpreter, but to anyone who asks what the job entailed you basically say “you dress up, adopt a character, and give the unflinching illusion to visitors that they have been dropped into the fur trade in 1815”. You adopt real names of real people. Sometimes a name and birthplace are all you get, and you build the rest yourself with as much integrity and respect as you can, and sometimes there’s much more documented for you to work with (one year I had a Norwegian character so I suppose the red hair would have been more plausible). After a few years of playing a French Canadian voyageur and gradually “understanding” the details of his life day in, day out, you can’t help but feel some sort of connection to your historic inspiration. Pancake Bay being an important stopping point for the voyageurs on their way from Montréal to Fort William, I sit here, on the beach, watching the water, imagining this person and his crew, canoeing into this bay, unloading cargo, cooking, sleeping under a canoe … two hundred years ago. It’s an intersection with someone whose life I have portrayed. It’s an interesting feeling. It lends a certain familiarity, a warmth, to this place, and also a curiosity for all the things that have transpired on this beach. A moment of rest for exhausted travellers. Hopefully some music. Pancakes.

I’ve also enjoyed a few opportunities for stargazing in the past week or so. Agawa Bay and Pancake Bay are both pretty good when it comes to minimal light pollution, and the sky has been mostly clear. I forgot about the meteor showers so I was surprised to catch at least six or seven just last night. When I went camping as a kid, stargazing was one of my favourite things to do, but thanks to the way we set up our lives these days it’s pretty hard to get a decent view without going to the middle of nowhere Northern Ontario like I have this summer. When I was younger, I would stare at the sky, see the faint light of our galaxy and the stars between us and its center, and sometimes for a moment the three-dimensionality of the universe would click into place. I felt like I could get a real perspective on what I was seeing – a transient sense that I was stuck to a tiny rock floating in endless space. For a moment the vastness would be overwhelming and terrifying, and then it would be gone again. It was like a magic eye puzzle, although to be honest I have never ever succeeded in doing one of those, and not for lack of trying. The fact I no longer seem able to get that sense of perspective when I look up at the night sky is disappointing, try as I might. But I remember how it felt when I had it. Maybe it’s because my imagination is less adventurous than it used to be, or it just can’t grasp that concept of vastness anymore. That’d kind of suck, eh? Maybe it’s just because my contact lenses are out of date. I hope that’s why.

I finished writing the — I don’t even know anymore, eleventh? Twelfth, maybe — song for the album a couple days ago. I thought I’d be lucky to have the creative capacity for eight songs tops, but now here we are – AT 150 PERCENT! YEEEEAH!! I think this most recent one might be my new favourite, so I made pancakes to celebrate. Now I’m working on what will be the last song I write for the album. It’s a granaína, and it’s built on an idea I started on a cold rainy day under the picnic shelter at Neys. I sort of forgot I had it, but I was scrolling through voice memos on my phone and realized I had this great little fragment made up. One week left, eh? I think that’s more than enough time for one more.

Your week six photos are below. Please enjoy responsibly.

1. Near-sunset at Agawa Bay. 2. Suspended rock near Agawa Rock pictographs. 3. Hazy sunset at Agawa Bay. 4. Katherine Cove. 5. View from Awausee lookout. 6. Rock point at Agawa Bay. 7. Sunset at Pancake Bay. 8. My car. His name is Bob. And my guitar. She doesn’t have a name.

north shore – week five

‘Sup, folks? I know I’m late this week, but, there are gaps in cell service when you’re in the middle of nowhere, and the Wednesday/Thursday posting was arbitrary to begin with, so who cares! Let’s get on with it!

Week five. WHERE IS THE TIME GOING!? I’m in creatively-named Lake Superior Provincial Park. It’s a big park. If I’m not mistaken it covers an area roughly three times the size of Thunder Bay (the city, not the metro area). Again, it’s a beautiful length of shoreline that somehow manages to be unique from the others. Noticing a pattern here? You know, I’ve been through this park many times, but it’s been a “while” since I’ve camped in it. In fact, the specific campground I’m at right now is a new one for me (the park has two campgrounds a half-hour apart and I think I’d only ever camped at the other one). Regardless, every time I’ve been through this park with my family we’ve stopped at Old Woman Bay to marvel at it.

Except, well …

For some reason, after I passed Wawa (a half-hour-ish drive away and the last place I had cell service) I tried to picture what Old Woman Bay looks like. And yet all I could remember was that it was just somehow an amazing, beautiful bay that was special, different from all the others. But I couldn’t picture it. I just remembered, I just knew, that it was special.

And is it ever. Before you see the sign, you come down a big hill facing it and you think, “yup, that’s the place.” There’s a cliff face on the south side of the bay that catches the late afternoon light something magical, and at the time there was a low cloud bank hanging over the top of it. It looked exactly like something the Group of Seven would have painted (hell, they probably did …). For some reason I’ve had difficulty getting a satisfying photo of the cliff face; it’s sort of like photographing the Sleeping Giant – there’ll be nothing wrong with the photo, but no matter what you do you will never quite capture the feeling of looking at it in person.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some great shots of the Giant – and enough shots in general to last me several lifetimes – but none of them come anywhere close to real life. I’ve deliberately avoided the cliché of taking a front-side Sleeping Giant photo for the project even though it fits the theme, although it occurs to me I’ll probably have to cave on that because it’d be such a glaring omission.

Anyway, I spent a couple days writing on the beach at Old Woman Bay. I have this really cool new accompaniment pattern and a great chord progression to show for it. No melody yet, but give it a few days – this part always works itself out eventually.

I’ve reached the point where I actually have to tear myself away from the pen and manuscript in favour of working on things I’ve already written. Fun fact here – if I tell you I “finished a song last night”, that’s code for “it exists only on paper and I can’t actually play it yet”. I write with a guitar in hand, but the ideas go straight onto paper and are often reworked until they’re barely the thing I originally played. I don’t record something until I can play it from memory, and making something up doesn’t mean I can play it well enough to crank out a recording of it the same day. 

But, I keep having ideas for new songs that I don’t want to pass on writing. It’s not the dilemma I worried I’d be facing*. I feel like I should be able to do both at the same time, but it’s easy to lose track of time when you’re in a writing flow with no one around to remind you to eat and make coffee and do literally anything that isn’t “write a song”.

(*the dilemma I worried I’d be facing involved a lot of frustrated crying. But it turns out deadline pressure is actually a wonderful thing – people have been telling me this for years, but for better or worse this is the first time a composition project of mine has had a fixed deadline.)

And now I’m going to talk about my favourite piece of gear this summer: the Zoom H5. It’s not something I expected to be using for an album; I’ve had it a few years and I own it (as does almost every other professional musician and their dog, apparently) to make archival recordings of gigs and rehearsals. This summer, it lives in my coat pocket, I take it with me everywhere, and I’ve made some fantastic ambient sound discoveries with it. I had planned to record everything through my UA Apollo, but despite being a great piece of gear, that thing A) takes long enough to boot up that it’s not ready when some of the good stuff happens, and B) can’t go everywhere I want to go to record ambience. The shore of Lake Superior isn’t exactly rackmount-friendly (I own the rack version, not the Twin), but the H5, on the other hand, is perfect for this purpose. I have it on a camera tripod, and I’ve had some unforgettable episodes perched over it to get a thunder roll, or a loon call at 2AM, or rain on the lake, or train noises. I have more ambient sound than I know what to do with – well, I know what I want to do with it, it’s more that I just wish I could find space for all the great things I’ve found.

Next week I’ll still be in Lake Superior Provincial Park. I’m hoping to hike more trails (got to keep up my average 15k/day step count hehe) and learn more about the area, so perhaps next week’s post will touch on that a bit.

Sweet dreams**.

(**I wrote this post at midnight last night …)

And now the photos!

1. WHAT IS UP WITH THESE CLOUDS. THEY’RE SO COOL. 2. There is a freakin’ TREE growing on a freakin’ ROCK. How awesome is that!? 3. This is my raven friend. It hung around with me at Old Woman Bay. Maybe it thinks I look like the kind of people who feeds large birds (it’s not wrong). 4. My campsite, Rabbit Blanket. 5. Old Woman Bay.

 

 

north shore – week four

Hey hey. Week four. On with the show?

We’re past the half-way point! I spent the day today at Pukaskwa, hiking the frontcountry trails along the shoreline. It’s a beautiful park. The lake at Neys has been relatively calm this week – especially considering the weather we’ve had – but it’s cool to be reminded just how quickly the lake’s behaviour changes less than an hour’s drive away. The water at Pukaskwa was very rough, and from high up on one of the lookouts I got some great footage of waves crashing on the rocks. Some of my favourite captures, so far, have happened today.

The stretch I saw today was tiny, in the context of the whole park. I got some “big picture” shots, but also lots of tiny details – weird plants, lichen patterns or gouges on rocks, the way the sunlight catches one leaf on a branch but not the others – and I tried to give my undivided attention to a smaller area rather than cover more ground and risk missing something. If I’ve ever been to Pukaskwa before, I would have been too young to remember, but it’s a place I can see myself going back to explore.

I’ve also caught up on a bit of history this week. Neys used to be a prisoner of war camp during WWII, and I’ve known that forever, but when you’re a kid the implications of what that really means are sort of lost on you. So I tagged along on the park programs and read as much of the reading material as I could find here, and it’s the kind of thing I’m sure will inspire a song on the album. There’s a long history – one much longer than a half-century, to put it lightly – of people in and of this region, moving in, moving out, some willingly, others not. People, going way, way back, fall in love with this landscape and grow quite attached to it. I had forgotten that a number of former prisoners at the camp here actually emigrated to Canada after the war. Imagine that, eh? There are some good stories that come out of this place, ones that are genuinely heartwarming, and it’s strange to realize that a POW camp’s history could make you feel that way.

This week I also enjoyed dealing with – how shall I put this – “uncooperative” weather. It’s hard to play guitar when it’s either freezing cold, or raining, or crazy windy, sometimes 2/3, and often 3/3. Nonetheless, one must persevere. If you’re watching my Instagram feed you’re probably thinking, “ok Matt, enough with the weather stuff”, but the weather patterns are so cool! So anyway, a few days ago, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and I thought, alright, I’m going to go do some field recording out on the Point (which is a volcanic rock formation that curves out a bit across from the beach here – it’s a point, you get the picture). But, well, the weather here turns on a dime. That’s the charm of this place. I’ll not soon forget the terror of watching a massive cloud bank come over the hill, and realizing I’m a 3km walk from shelter. The upshot of this story is that I got my best-ever recording of a thunderstorm, and my drenched feet and frozen hands will not be in vain. The storms are part of this landscape. While they may be a “personal inconvenience”, they are also beautiful, much like many other aspects of this landscape – the ancient gouged rocks, the tiny weird plants that you don’t see anywhere else except the arctic, the dead trees coated in moss, the burned forests. These things may not be “pretty”, but they are beautiful. If you’re not quite sure what I mean by that, do a little reading into early critical reactions to the Group of Seven’s work. I promise you’ll get a kick out of it. 

I see a parallel here with the concept of harmony in flamenco music. Many of the chord shapes we think of in flamenco as having “resolved” are in classical theory considered intensely “dissonant”. The prime example here is the flat-ninth chord. I’ve never been quite sure how I’ve been able to hold both approaches to the concept in my head, together, for the past decade, but I’ve started to think of it like this: in flamenco, just because a chord contains a (classical-theory) “dissonance” and is therefore perhaps not “pretty”, does not mean that it cannot be appreciated as beautiful in its own regard.

I feel like I should drop a microphone after that statement, but KM 184s are expensive.

This time next week.

Below:

1. Pebble beach, Marathon. 2. Impending thunderstorm, from Neys Point. 3. Slanted rock or concrete or something in Area One – whatever it is, I used to badly jump my bike off it when I was a kid when I thought no one was watching. 4. Terrible photo of Mars. 5-8. Pukaskwa, various. I love boardwalks. They always make me feel like I’m walking to a secret cave in a Myst game.

north shore – week three

Alright. Week three. Here we go.

I write to you from the Pic Island Overlook, which is about four and a half kilometres up from the Neys campground, somewhere on the Coldwell Peninsula. They say it’s one of the spots where Lawren Harris (among others) made sketches for his famous artwork of Pic Island. You know the one, right?

The view is stunning, and almost a little unsettling. It looks out over Pic Island, but there’s nothing behind it. Just open water. On your left, and on your right, occupying your entire field of view, it’s open water on three sides all the way to the horizon, which is panoramically stretched all around in front of you. The only object is the island. The painting, with the water surface curving downwards as though the island were perched on a large globe, seems hardly an exaggeration. It really is like looking at an ocean. I’ve always known this of course, but the view from here – borderless, infinite, more than any other I’ve had yet so far – really drives it in.

This lake is huge.

You take one look at the view and think, well, no wonder artists loved this spot.

I’d be lying if I said that the Pic Island painting and others like it weren’t a bit of inspiration for this project; the parallels with the Group of Seven’s work on the north shore more than occurred to me when I was planning the project. The north shore was inspiration to them, and it is to me as well, and I’m travelling this shoreline looking for material to work into my art, just as they did. I didn’t want to research exact painting locations too hard – this project isn’t about retracing anybody steps – but it’s really satisfying to think that this is in some way intersecting with the path of other artists before my time.

I finished a song this morning that I’m quite happy with. There was an emotion I wanted to capture, one that I was going to explain at length in my first draft for this post, but I’ve since scrapped the paragraph because no matter how I write it, it sounds silly and doesn’t get the idea across. And that’s okay, ‘cause if I could explain it in words, I guess I wouldn’t really need the song, now would I? It’s a melodically and rhythmically simple piece, with a pretty simple functional harmony. It’s characterized by sequences of suspensions and minor seconds in the bass, and neat chord shapes I’ve found this month through trial and error, many of which I’ve never encountered before – neither in my own work nor in anyone else’s. It sounds like something well within my personal style, but different from anything I’ve written before. That’s sort of the point here, no?

The other song I finished this week is inspired by a nightmare I once had while camping on the north shore. I was maybe, I don’t know, four years old? I was absolutely convinced I was going to die because the pattern on my cot looked like train tracks, and the train was going to run me over. If you’ve ever camped at Neys, you know the train at night is loud and sounds like it’s right on top of you when it comes around the cliff edge. There’s some weird acoustic phenomenon going on there that I don’t understand. I still remember the actual nightmare as vividly as if it were something that had happened to me today. It’s like that bit in Inception, except instead of Leo reciting some odd bit of poetry, it’s a kid in a tent who thinks the wall is a portal to a train-inhabited Narnia or whatever. Did I lose you there?

So anyway, I originally – for some reason – wanted to write a song that would be straight-up terrifying. Then I realized I didn’t know how to do that, and didn’t know whether I even really wanted to do that at all, so instead I settled on what I did write, which I ended up liking way more than the original plan. In my notebook I seem to have scribbled the phrase Siguiriya: Dyens’ Fuoco meets Gabriel’s Excellent Birds. If you can figure out what that means, it actually nails the angle I was going for.

And now for your “nothing to do with music” bit of the week: Books! I feel like these posts are about things I’m excited about doing on my weird project. Reading happens to be one of them.

I used to read a lot of books about my job (music business, music theory, engineering, acoustics, how to be a guitarist and not have your hands and spine crap out on you when you turn 40, you know, the good stuff) and completely fell out of the habit of reading for fun. But reading has become my default (read: only) activity this summer that isn’t directly related to the project. I read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series a couple years ago and absolutely loved it (it shot straight to the top of my “favourite things I’ve ever read” list) and so I brought a stack of Neil Gaiman novels with me on the trip. So far I’ve finished Neverwhere and Good Omens (yes, I know there’s a TV series imminent starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen and other such awesome people and yes, I am very excited about it) and am about halfway through American Gods (yes, I know there’s a TV series out, no, I have not watched it, no, I’m not reading it to feel superior to people who just watched the TV series but yes, I will probably feel that way anyway). Two of my friends have, separately, informed me that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series should be next on my list. Like I said, no particular reason for me to tell you this, except that much like with music, I get a real kick out of telling people about arts and media I love in the hope they’ll pick up a copy and come to love it themselves.

So, that’s it for now. I have some other cool stuff I could talk about, but I think I’ll pace myself and save some for next week.

Later!

Below: 1. The rock at Prisoner’s Cove – the exact spot I sat when I recorded my Neys Day video two years ago, sparking the idea for this project. 2. Silver lining. 3. Rainy day, good for recording ambience. 4. Golden Hour at Prisoner’s Cove. 5. The Pic Island Overlook, where I wrote this entry.

north shore – week two

Okay, let’s start off with some things I’ve observed this past week:

  1. Nobody is able to put up a tent without swearing in front of or at their children
  2. If you play flamenco guitar in a campground, sometimes your super-sweet neighbours will make you an extra piece of pizza
  3. Two weeks of camping are enough to make me stop caring about garbage in my car and instead start using the cupholders to store dirty socks.

Musical productivity continues in week two, and I’m currently based in Rainbow Falls Provincial Park. Although the shoreline I’m travelling is all on the same lake, it’s pleasantly surprising how varied things can be as you go. It would be impossible to capture the total variety of sounds and visuals here without actually just making the project a two-month time-lapse, but having too much to capture is a good problem to have.

In my week one update, you may recall, I made observations (read: complained) about human noise. And then I got to thinking, well, the project is about soundscapes along this shoreline. It’s damn near impossible to get away from human noise, and it’s now part of this soundscape. Where I am now, near Rossport, a single car on the highway can be heard for about a solid two-minute stretch as it approaches and passes my position. Rather than go to the effort of editing it all out or scrapping “imperfect” recordings, perhaps it would make a statement about how we have impacted our environment to simply leave some of the noise in. Much in the same way as I leave breathing noise, chair creaks, and string slides in my studio records. It wouldn’t do to clean it up too much. Of course I can’t record actual individual people (legal reasons), but the things we’ve built – cars, trucks, trains, planes, boats – make up a lot of noise pollution. Besides, I like train noise. It’s comforting to me in the same way people find fans comforting in bedrooms when they’re trying to sleep.

The songs* themselves are coming along quite well. So far I have a guajira and a bulería (in granaína tonality, oh myyy) finished and several more well on the way. I think they sound more … carefree, perhaps, than my usual stuff. More “fun”. I think a lot of my stuff sounds quite serious, but I always wish I could more easily write music that doesn’t sound like it takes itself too seriously. Well, now here we go.

(*note for pedants: for the record, I know they’re called “pieces”. I call them “songs” for the same reason I liberally sprinkle parallel fifths into my music, if you can guess why that is.)

I also finished off another Moleskine journal this week. It’s a cool feeling, flipping through the pages of a full-to-the-covers music notebook and thinking of all the hours of ideas you put into it. There’s a small sense of growth, of pride, perhaps, that comes from flipping front to back to see how ideas and processes have changed over time.

Unfortunately my music handwriting seems to have gotten worse over the past year though, soooo … there’s always room to improve.

Also, and this’ll seem out of left field here, but solar power is freakin’ cool!!

I’m running my recording gear off a lead-acid battery, which is also charging my phone so you can get nifty little posts like this one. The rig runs at about 55 watts, which gets about five or six hours out of the battery alone. While the panel I have isn’t enough to keep up with that in real time, I can recharge the battery in about three times the amount of time I spend using it, on a clear sunny day (which, surprisingly, there have been a lot of so far). I know this is sort of old news, but it’s really cool and really satisfying to watch your gear get powered by a metal square harnessing the power of the freakin’ Sun. I love it. It’s sort of like playing with magnets when you’re a kid – you can learn how they work and they may be in common usage, but that doesn’t stop them from being really really cool.

This may sound like I’m saying “guys, go get solar panels, they’re really neat and fun and exciting” – aaaaand you’d be right!

Tune in next week.


north shore – week one

We’re nearing the end of week one of the North Shore Project. For those of you new to the game here, that’s week one of seven.

There are two aspects of this project that could reasonably cause some anxiety. The first is the “camping for seven weeks” thing, and the other is the “write and record an album in seven weeks” thing. Most people to whom I’ve given the project run-down this week (apparently, running around with a field recorder is liable to pique some people’s curiosity) have been most concerned about the first bit.

But yeah, see, that’s the easy part. Camping fills the same function for me as comfort food. It’s the second part I was more nervous about. I write slowly, methodically, agonizing over details. The last time I tried the “write a song in a weekend” thing, it worked, and that was what spurred this project into existence. But, I’ve had a year to second-guess whether I’d be able to replicate that shortened process eight more times.

Well, uh, turns out I can. It’s turning into a sort of dialogue with the environment. I’m committing to ideas faster, without second-guessing or searching for the perfect detail for every moment. When I have all the time in the world, the compositions start to look like a spreadsheet of options and probabilities I only half-commit to, like some big quantum music disaster. But here, decisions are immediate. The music is probably a little different, stylistically, and that’s exactly what I want. Don’t get me wrong, I love my usual format of endless alternatives and stacks of paper, but it’s so refreshing to try another approach.

There’s also the part where the thought process or the flow or whatever never really gets switched off out here. In everyday life we have different tracks that demand our attention, but out here, as long as you can cook and maintain camping equipment on autopilot, there’s never a switch-off and start-up period on the creative mindset.

Except for sleeping, I guess, but, that’s what coffee’s for. And oh, man, I made a point to stock up on St Paul Roastery beans before I left. I have priorities, you know.

You will never realize how really omnipresent “people noise” is until you wait for it to go away so you can record nature ambience. I mean, you can go someplace that isn’t a campground, sure, but, like … midnight rolls around, and I’m trying catch a loon call. But the quieter nature gets, the more it just unmasks how noisy people are. During the day you kind of tune it out, but at night when the air is still, if you’re waiting for dead silence, it’s not going to happen. Still air means you can hear someone clear their throat a kilometer away. And just when you think everyone’s asleep, an airplane flies over. If that sounds like complaining, it’s only to make an interesting point: people are noisy, and when everything else goes still, it just makes the people stand out even more. Little bit unsettling, eh?

Minor frustrations aside, things are going better than I could have ever expected so far. I like what I’m writing and it’s happening at a surprising pace, and those are two things I never thought would happen together.

On Saturday I move to the next spot, and I’ll try to update again next week.

Until then …

Oh, and my internet is so sketchy that this is the only photo I could upload to my site. There are a few more over on my Instagram if you feel so inclined.

north shore project

Hello, blog readers! I want to introduce you to my summer project, or as you will come to know it, “Matt’s third record”. That’s right, album three is on the way! But there’s a bit more to it than that.

A year and a half ago, I was out at Neys Provincial Park on a weekend family camping trip. Camping has been our default summertime family activity for as long as I can remember. I had my guitar and portable recording gear with me, so I tried writing a short song and recording it, almost on the spot. It actually worked. Turns out you can get a pretty good sound just about anywhere these days, despite what the audiophiles tell you. On the way home, I casually mentioned that, hey, wouldn’t it be cool to actually do a whole album like that? Write and record an album along the northern shoreline of Lake Superior, being inspired by the region I grew up in? And I sort of filed the thought away in the back of my head.

The family and I were down in Grand Marais a few days later. We’re at the Angry Trout for lunch and someone (my sister, probably) says something to the effect of, “So, that album, eh? You going to do it, or what?” and I thought … yes, of course I’m going to do it. I have to do it. It’s probably the first time I’ve had a perfectly clear artistic vision for something and I can’t pass that up.

That is precisely what’s going to happen this summer. With financial support from the Ontario Arts Council and the cooperation of Ontario Parks, I’ll be in various spots along the north shore of Lake Superior this summer, composing and recording. Ambient sounds – nature sounds – are going to play an important role here, and I’m hoping to manipulate them as part of the arrangement, or for unusual effects. The pitch line was “to create an audiovisual exhibition of original music and photography, showcasing the wild natural beauty and soundscapes of Lake Superior’s north shore” and while in retrospect that phrasing reads a bit “dramatic” to me, it tells you exactly what I’m going for. I want to show you how amazing this place is, and I want you to love it as much as I do.

When I ask myself whether this is going to be a “flamenco” album, I answer myself this: what’s important is that I capture the dialogue between myself and the environment I find myself in. This is a beautiful region. The parks in Northern Ontario are also, to me, symbolic of my past, and some of my fondest and most vivid memories were made in these places. I want to take the time to contemplate these things, and give myself a chance to respond by composing whatever suits the mood of the time and place. Perhaps it will be something a little weird. Perhaps it will be an homage to my childhood. Perhaps it will be ambient and moody, or perhaps I’ll surprise myself and write something overall uncharacteristically exuberant*.

(*fun fact: less than a quarter of all songs I’ve ever written are in major modes.)

You can expect the finished product to drop around the end of the year. There will be an audiovisual version, too, in addition to the standard album format (don’t forget that “exhibition of photography” thing from the pitch line). This audiovisual version will be hosted for a presentation by Definitely Superior Art Gallery in Thunder Bay, and I’m really looking forward to working with them on that side of things. It’ll be a new experience for me.

In the meantime, I’m hoping to update the blog during the project this summer. Internet connection permitting, I’m thinking of doing weekly updates through July and August. We’ll see how it goes. If you’d be interested in reading about how the project unfolds, feel free to drop me a message somewhere – it might motivate me to keep the updates consistent.

Until then!