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Listening to: Oliver Schroer, Camino

Oliver Schroer playing

The medieval concept and practice of pilgrimages stretching over months or even years – to Jerusalem, Rome or Santiago de Compostela – sits uneasily with today’s package tours and motorised travel. For the original pilgrims, though the destination (both physical and metaphysical) was important, the journey was the thing, with all its physical hardships, the hazards along the way and the shared experience, occasionally violent but mostly convivial. Today there are less onerous, probably safer and certainly faster ways to visit the magnificent abbeys, priories and cathedrals that criss-cross southern France and punctuate the various routes through northern Spain. Yet something is missed if we are accorded only the briefest of glances before the tour guide summons us on to the next step in the itinerary. Medieval men and women had the time to become absorbed, the capacity to be enraptured. (John Eliot Gardiner, from the sleeve notes to Pilgrimage to Santiago)

There’s been a slew of recordings in the last few years from musicians making the pilgrimage (the ‘Way of St. James‘) to Santiago de Compostela, a city in Spain where the remains of St. James are said to be kept. This medieval pilgrimage of potentially 1,000km or more has been made for more than 1,000 years from various originating points across Europe. Pilgrims typically walk; many cycle and a few ride on animals.

John Eliot Gardiner, renowned British conductor of choral music, and his Monteverdi Choir, undertook to walk the camino and sing in many of the churches and cathedrals along the way. These performances of 12th century choral music were recorded and released as Pilgrimage to Santiago.

In 2004, Canadian violinist/fiddler Oliver Schroer chose to walk 1,000km of the camino through France and Spain with his wife and two friends. He carried his violin in his backpack, wrapped in socks and underwear (as described in the sleeve notes (PDF), which are great). Over the course of two months, Schroer recorded himself playing beautiful improvised music in 25 different churches and cathedrals, using a Sony DAT recorder.

The result is Camino, one of the most intriguing and beautiful records I’ve heard in recent years. For me, the comparisons are the solo violin architecture of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, the improvised classical/jazz fusion of Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, or even Keith Jarrett‘s solo improvisations. The music is of the same ethereal quality. While it seems that Schroer’s more often associated with playing a slightly left-of-centre version of Canadian ‘Celtic’ fiddle music, there are only limited traces of that in this work. His 5-string violin soars and sings, establishes musical structures involving counterpoint and other ‘baroque’ devices, and inhabits a sonic space that can only be described as ‘classical.’ There are pieces, such as ‘The Garden of Birds and Flowers,’ where a Celtic fiddle/bluegrass sensibility comes a little more into the foreground. But it’s always tempered by what I can only call ‘the opposite of Celtic fiddle music’: the naturally beautiful acoustics of the churches put this music firmly in a spiritual light – there’s none of the rhythmic, foot-stomping, dance music intensity (not that there’s anything wrong with that…) of Ontario fiddle music.

And then I stumbled on another kind of tune. What I call the fractal tune. The material that became O2 and Camino. It had a very different quality to it. It was less of an entertainment, and more of a sacrament. This was music that came to me from a different place. Very deep, unexpected, inexplicable and spiritual. Talk of keeping me amused. It had progressed beyond amusement into spiritual practice for me. And getting back to the search for meaning, there was a lot of meaning in this music. It connected with people, it connected with soul, it expressed something profound for myself and apparently for others. It was a mystery, and a beautiful mystery at that. So that, for what it’s worth, is a bit of the story of my musical journey thus far.

Schroer’s camino music is an interesting hands-on illustration of how closely related ‘old’ music and ‘folk’ music really is. Ultimately, the similarity between Bach’s rigorous partitas and Schroer’s spirited improvisations are a matter of what informed them. Both require incredible technique, focus and musical invention. The fact that Schroer’s compositions were not written down (at least I assume they weren’t, even though his liner notes indicate that some pieces are ‘recycled’ from past projects) is actually the least significant point of difference. Going through some samples of Schroer’s earlier recorded work (http://www.oliverschroer.com), it feels as if the cathedral locations and the spiritual focus of walking a thousand kilometers in the footsteps of pilgrims have caused a shift – away from secular solo violin music (much of which already had the same technical elements as Camino) to playing music for the glory of God. (In a fitting parallel, Gardiner’s new independent record label is called Soli Deo Gloria – for God’s glory alone.) Even if Oliver Schroer notes on his website that his dialogue with God has been incomplete at best (not unlike my own, I think):

The meaning I was looking for I didn’t see or find meaning in religion either. Not that I didn’t see other people finding a lot of meaning and solace there. But somehow it was not cut out for me. And that is not to say that I didn’t have an ongoing dialogue with God my whole life long. I used to read the Bible in secret as a teenager. Always 17 verses a day. I’m not sure why. So I was not ill disposed toward religion. It’s just that I never found that oomph of certainty that other people seemed to get from it.

Camino is more than a violin solo recording. It’s also a clever audio document of the pilgrimage: every so often, there’s a short ambient track featuring the sounds of the trail. There are church bells, the sound of footsteps on a sandy path, voices of other pilgrims, cathedral doors. I initially thought this would be an unpleasant distraction from the music but I’ve since decided that these brief interludes are sort of like the pickled ginger when you’re eating sushi: they clear your head before the next beautiful morsel of music.

Schroer’s technique never ceases to amaze. I still remember being transfixed, as a child, by my parents’ old Yehudi Menuhin recordings of Bach’s partitas. I remember that I had previously thought of the violin as an instrument that was only capable of activating a single string at a time – I recall thinking that’s why you needed so many of them in an orchestra. Hearing the Bach sonatas and partitas jolted me out of that belief and helped me see the possibilities of coaxing harmonies from violins. Of course, Bach also opened my eyes to many other things. (And I once, during my university days, opened a guitar-player friend’s eyes to “where Deep Purple got all those guitar solos from” by introducing him to Bach’s sonatas and partitas – but that’s another story entirely…).

Oliver Schroer combines elements of classical technique with controlled harmonics (which are only enhanced by the suberb natural reverb of the Spanish cathedral acoustics), subtly ‘Celtic’ harmonies and rhythms, and a meditative, circular way of arranging his melodies – the 8-minute opener, ‘Field of Stars,’ doesn’t seem long at all. If anything, you experience a sudden longing for more once it’s over.

The recording quality also deserves commentary. It’s nothing short of remarkable what can be done with a single Audiotechnica stereo microphone and a Sony DAT recorder. This is the sort of recording that’ll make you want to get out the good headphones, or finally upgrade your stereo. I would say it’s as close to impeccable as recording a solo violin can get in a natural recording space. And it’s especially remarkable that it was made by Oliver himself without any assistance from a professional recording engineer. Even if it didn’t contain some of the most extraordinary improvised music you’ll ever hear, this record would be worth hearing for its acoustics alone.

Oliver Schroer has been diagnosed with leukemia and appears to have spent the last two years in and out of various Toronto hospitals undergoing chemotherapy. His website’s ‘Leukemia‘ section has all the details and his thoughts on this weighty subject. Suffice it to say that I hope his treatments are successful and that we’ll have Oliver Schroer around for many, many more years.

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