Small Circus features a suite of compositions for harpsichord and a set of improvised solo piano variations entitled Some Robins For Abigail.
I recorded the harpsichord pieces in 1985 played on a double manual slack strung harpsichord made by Matthew James Redsell of Toronto.
I had always loved the harpsichord, having first heard a recording of the great Wanda Landowska playing JS Bach when I was a boy of about 10.
I was just learning the piano, and while I loved the piano, the huge phasey silvery sound of the harpsichord with the characteristic bite of the quill on the string captured my imagination.
The instrument seemed so very ancient to me, a wooden time machine, and I dreamed of one day having a harpsichord.
The first decent instrument I had was a 9 foot long Sabathil double manual with pedals loaned to me by Matthew. It had a 16 foot stop, 2 8's and a 4 foot stop, switchable by the pedals, which was great for odd textural experimentation. I recorded Ancient Ships and For Gail (on the CD Ancient Ships) with this instrument in 1979.
The Sabathil was great fun to play, but it was a bit of a compromise between a piano and a harpsichord in that it had a steel frame which provided some tuning stability but which made for a less interesting sound than I wanted.
Eventually Matthew provided me with one of his own hand built instruments which I used to write the Small Circus suite and also a suite I called Songs For The Stubborn World.
I performed Songs For The Stubborn World a few times, including once in the Museum of the Seminary in Quebec City. I think some of the audience who had come for a nice little harpsichord recital were a bit shocked at the intensity of the music. It was very hard to play, being based on rapid ostinato figures ( ostinato means stubborn),
whereas the Small Circus suite has some changes of mood which give a performer a moment to calm down a bit and also allow the audience to breathe.
The Small Circus suite starts with Small Circus I and II, the first part a somewhat French sounding melody in 5/4, the second a brief quasi atonal interlude for the short strings. Small Circus III is a strident accompaniment for a high wire act, again in 5/4, at least some of the time.
Out Of My Hands is performed using the lute stop on one manual with the 4 foot stop on the other manual. II'm not sure what the title really means as it was named by my 3 year old daughter. It sounds a bit sad to me but I love the sound of those plucked strings, lots of shimmering high harmonics. My daughter also named They Walk Like This, as she did her best " I am a huge giant" dance down the hall in time to the music. I would call this unrepentant baroque rock pattern music ....maybe.
Another Door does sound to me as if the blast of energy from They Walk Like This has caused an unseen door to open and through it we can hear this peculiar plucked music played perhaps in a dark marbled hallway, maybe the Seminary, maybe in a tower. Or maybe it's in a tin ceilinged Ontario farm house living room in the middle of a March blizzard. The final piece in Small Circus is a pattern piece my daughter named I Wonder What's That? and I also wonder sometimes, especially in the middle of the piece while I am performing it. I no longer have a harpsichord so I have adapted the suite for piano and play it in my concerts and there are a few scary spots, but I love the energy that builds towards the end. This suite is all composed, but parts of it end up different each time in performance because I sometimes forget bits and other times I add in parts I seem to have just remembered.
I recorded Small Circus with a pair of Neumann U87 microphones on a custom 1/4 inch half track tape deck. In 2007 Ken Burke of Vancouver kindly transferred my 22 year old master tapes to 24 bit digital files and I used Logic Audio to assemble the tracks. I initially tried equalizing the tracks a bit but I decided to leave them as they are in all their their bright punchy glory. Best of both worlds, I think, good analog masters digitally processed. There is a small amount of two different convolution reverbs on the tracks, varied slightly depending on which manuals are in play.
Some Robins For Abigail is a set of 4 improvised variations named for my daughter the namer of music; they were recorded on my 1912 6 foot Steinway before Small Circus, when she was still an infant, and she displays her tiny voice at the very end of the last piece. If you listen carefully, you can hear the door to my studio swing open with a little creak, while I am wrapping up the improvisation. I looked to my right and there was the babe in arms; I shook my head gently...no, no, no, while continuing to play, the door creaks shut , a foot falls in the hall, and the baby says "waah". Very musically.
I was playing a lot of Messiaen at the time, and I loved his incorporation of bird song. This was my attempt, in part, to capture the emotion I feel on hearing the song of the robin in early evening during the first weeks of Spring after the winter snows are gone. The beautifully complex evening song is made up of varying groups or cells of song and I always marvel at its variety , its gorgeous timbres and at how it can stop time.
These are free variations, nothing written, the only structure provided by reference to the bird calls here and there. I think I must have done a few of these and then chosen the ones I liked, but I don't remember for sure and there are no more tapes lying around.
I named the piece to honour both my daughter and the song of the robin.
The reviewer Wilder Penfield wrote in 1986 in the Toronto Sun that Small Circus showed "quirky flights of solo fancy, not meticulous, but humanly mannered, tumbling tastefully through the most playful of patterns." He also wrote that "Small Circus is a personable fusion that busts through barriers the way Keith Jarrett does, but on a more modest scale and in better humor." Down with the barriers, I say, and there is nothing better than a good laugh.