Friday, August 18, 2006

Oliver Schroer by Numbers

This article is from Dirty Linen #90 (Oct/Nov 2000). I don't know how the somewhat unusual format will translate to this rather ordinary layout, but you'll get the idea.

When last seen, Schroer was playing in James Keelaghan's touring band.

Oliver Schroer by Numbers

by Pamela Murray Winters

5 feet, 17 and a half inches

That’s the self-described height of the person onstage. The audience can’t help but take note of this, and of the mohawk that crowns his head (for those who can see that far up).

The man describes what he is about to play, a tribute to one of his favorite composers. After a rather lengthy discourse, he lifts his instrument, delicately, and plays with great passion and intensity. And the audience doesn’t hear a single note.

3 minutes, 59 seconds

That’s the length of the piece this mysterious figure has just played on his invisible/imaginary fiddle. It’s called “John Cage’s Reel,” and it’s on his latest CD, O2. Not once, but twice. (The longer version at the end of the second disc is described as “John Cage’s Reel [extended version].”)

Welcome to the world of Oliver Schroer, dubbed by a friend “Canada’s tallest freestanding fiddle player.” If you think you’ve wandered into a Monty Python sketch or a Peter Schickele experiment — P.D.Q. Bach’s cousin Oliver? — think again. Schroer is utterly serious about music. It’s with him every second of the day. He composes, sets his compositions aside, and finds that they seem to write themselves when he separates himself from them. In the liner notes to O2, he writes: “I didn’t really write these pieces at all. Rather, they announced themselves to me, and I was quick enough and lucky enough to catch them as they flickered by.”

Head in the clouds? Sure. Feet on the ground? Absolutely. Schroer’s music is rooted in a wide range of influences. Here’s his list: J.S. Bach, the Beatles, Johnny Winter, Yes, Steeleye Span, Lenny Breau, jazz yodeler Leon Thomas, Ricky Scaggs, and early Emmylou Harris, Quebec fiddler Jean Carignan, Frankie Gavin with De Danaan, Kevin Burke, Canadian fiddler Denis Lanctot, Norwegian fiddler Sven Nyhus, “various hot Balkan bands, Ituri rain forest pygmy music, Tuvan throat-singing,” Dewey Balfa, and Calvin Carriere.

Like many other children, Schroer was first exposed to music when he was given violin lessons. Again like most kids, he found practicing a bore. On his website, he tells this story: “I got a cassette player at a certain point, and I made a tape of my scales, exercises, and arpeggios. When my mom told me to go upstairs and practise, I would go into my room, and play the tape. I never told my mom till last year!”


That’s the age at which Schroer began to lose interest in playing violin. Classical instruction was “too rigid, not enough fun.” He learned “Orange Blossom Special” on a dare, as a party piece. But his father gave him a guitar for his 16th birthday, and for a time his tastes turned more to Pink Floyd and Gentle Giant. “Structurally,” he said, “that music rubbed off on me. The Beatles, too. I was a real Beatles fan.”

He was a musician at heart, but on paper he was a graduate student in philosophy when he went back to the fiddle. “I met an old friend from high school who had this band. In the context of his country swing band, I picked up the fiddle again and got into just playing lines on the fiddle. Then at one of those dances we played, we needed to actually do the music for a square dance, so he passed along a tape of Don Messer to me. I learnt a couple of those tunes, and that’s how I got into it. And then I kinda got hooked on fiddle tunes and began learning fiddle tunes. Even though things have got pretty esoteric and stuff, I really did start with Don Messer, like a good Canadian boy!”

100 bucks (Canadian)

That’s what it cost to be an official busker on Toronto’s subway system. “They had this system where you audition, and then you get a license to busk,” Schroer explained. “Only eight people got the license. So it was actually pretty stiff competition.”

Schroer went on: “I would play for about 5 hours a day. For me, it was a real journeyman thing,” At this point, in the 1980s, “I played alone, I didn’t jam with anybody, I didn’t play with anybody, I just played all the time in the subway and learned tunes like crazy. Somebody passed along a tape of De Danaan, and I heard Frankie Gavin for the first time—that blew my mind. Somebody passed me on a tape of Jean Carignan, the French-Canadian fiddler, and that blew my mind. And then I heard Scott Skinner, and that was amazing. So various friends took it upon themselves to give me a bit of an education by passing along stuff.” He also put his music-reading skills to use by learning tunes from books. When he first got the busker’s license, Schroer knew about 35 tunes.


That’s the number of tunes Schroer knew four years later, when he ended his busking apprenticeship and embarked on a new educational path. Philosophy had fallen by the wayside much earlier. “I’ve also got the kind of mind that I’ll forget a lot of things,” Schroer admitted freely. “I mean, I studied philosophy—how much of that do you think I remember? Zip-a-dee-doo-dah. Very little. But tunes...I just have this mind that will not forget a tune.”

Through fiddle playing, “I eventually locked into this circle of fiddle players who would get together to do old-time fiddle music. Basically old timers, basically old guys.” One of them was a character named Norm Gibson.

“Norm had made it his personal mission to collect fiddle tunes, collect all the fiddle tunes he could. But he only liked Ontario-style tunes! Fiddle music, in the realm of possible music, is a pretty narrow piece of the pie, really. Even within the pie of fiddle music, the part that he wanted was a narrow slice of that pie. I played him some incredible Irish music once, and some Scottish stuff, and he said [puts on crotchety old-guy voice], ‘Don’t play me that Scottish shit!’ He was really quite the character.”

For another decade, Schroer became Gibson’s transcriber. “He would go around to fiddle parties or contests or wherever there was a tune being played and tape them on his little Walkman thing, and he would make me a tape, and they would often be really bad tapes, and I would end up transcribing the tunes. So I got really good at writing out tunes. I could do that for myself. If I went to fiddle contests and sat around at parties afterwards and listened to people play, then I could pick up great tunes that way also.”

It was back to tapes and recorders for Schroer, only this time, the struggle wasn’t to convince someone that he was working on his music—it was to save the music itself, sometimes from the clutches of its collector.

“He was funny,” Schroer said of Gibson, his late friend. “He was such a lousy ethnomusicologist! Because if a tune had three parts — he didn’t believe that fiddle tunes should have three parts. He thought they should have two parts. So then he would make me chop off a part. Or if it went up to third position — it went up high on the fingerboard — ‘Make it low! You know what I like!’ So he’d make me change tunes! I tried to stay true to the original, harmonically and stuff.”

“I got them filed alphabetically!” Schroer mimicked Gibson’s voice, describing the file cabinet where he kept the transcriptions, divided primly into waltzes, jigs, and reels — about 5,000 of them.

“In the context of Norm, I did so much writing, and I remember when I started out it was quite laborious, and I really had to listen hard. But it really was an education for me. I’ve developed this new system of notation where I can write down music as fast as I can hear it. I can write down jigs and reels at playing speed. I haven’t quite perfected it yet, but I’m getting there. Because I can hear it—it’s just a matter of physically getting it down on the page. Looking back on it, I realize that those years and years of doing that thing for Norm really paid off for me.”

As he was transcribing tunes for Gibson, he was finding music of his own. “I guess I began writing tunes in about 1988 or so — actually, earlier, about 1986 — but only a little bit. And then over the years it snowballed, it became more and more.” By 1993, he found himself with “this huge pile of tunes” and decided to make a CD. But he had a problem: too much music for a single disc.

Furthermore, while a lot of his music was directly influenced by the traditionalism enforced by Gibson and heightened by listening to Celtic recordings, he also had a fair amount that was “the wild, wild stuff, the crazy, Balkan-sounding stuff, and the musical soundscapes.”

So he divided the pile in two. He started with the more-accessible project. Once again, he found himself listening to a lot of tapes. “A lot of things developed because I got this little four-track cassette recorder, and I began layering up things. I’d play riffs, or I’d jam around and then I’d come up with a riff, and then I’d come up with another riff on top of that. So it became finding the vertical structure of music — not only strong melodies, because at that point I’d been playing so many jigs and reels and exploring what I thought were the best ones and modeling those tunes, in the sense of saying ‘I want to write a tune that sounds like’— whatever, like ‘Mason’s Apron’ or something, that has the punch of that tune, and trying to come up with something that was new, but sounded like it had always been around. That’s a really interesting exercise — to do tunes that sound sort of linked to a tradition, but really brand new.

“With Jigzup I was very conscious of doing a fiddle album for non-fiddle players. Fiddle players can listen to an infinity of tunes. It doesn’t matter. It’s like ‘Another tune!…Oh, that’s great! Another tune!’ ” But Schroer wanted an album of songs for a non-fiddler’s attention span. He wanted brand-new tunes that sounded ageless. He hit his mark. Jigzup came out at the end of 1993 and was rapidly nominated for a Juno. Suddenly Schroer found himself scheduled to appear onstage at a huge Toronto venue for a Juno showcase. It was a far cry from transcribing tapes or collecting change in his fiddle case.


“Before I made Jigzup,” Schroer recalled, “I had actually begun playing with a lot of different people. Those were the years where I was playing in piles of bands. I remember checking my date book one year and realizing that over the year I’d played with 37 different bands. I was a musical slut!”

He drew on these connections when it came time to assemble a band to promote Jigzup for the Juno showcase. “I’d filled in with the bagpipe funk band Rare Air for a while, so I knew the drummer for that band [Rich Greenspoon]. I had this band called Eye Music…I got the bass player from that band [David Woodhead], and then there was a young percussionist in town who played bodhrán and stuff who was really good, and I got that guy [Ben Grossman]. My friend David Travers-Smith is a trumpet player. I was living with him, so I roped him in, right? So that’s how Stewed Tomatoes came to be.”

The Stewed Tomatoes sound, described as “an aromatic mix of tunes that would make the Mustaphas envious,” is less akin to Jigzup than to Schroer’s 1994 album Whirled, which was drawn from the second pile of tunes he’d accumulated. The first Stewed Tomatoes album, appropriately titled Oliver Schroer and the Stewed Tomatoes, was released in 1996. Its elements span the planet, as evidenced by the descriptions of the compositions that are given on Schroer’s website: “The Yodeller from Guadalajara—snappy, happy latin alpine feel”; “My Uncle’s Pockets—Klezmer meets Don Messer”; “Way Down—swampy, funky acoustic hip-hop.”

With this kind of eclecticism, does Schroer worry about being pegged as a dilettante? He gave a typically thoughtful answer. “If you suddenly discover something, and you know you feel a strong relationship to it, strong enough to elicit years of hard work, then you will probably get somewhere with it. Look at Tracy Schwarz, for example. He played old-timey stuff with the New Lost City Ramblers, and then, one day, he discovered Cajun music, and dug really deeply into that to become a well-respected master in that tradition. The danger lies in dabbling — a little of this, a little of that.

“My audience doesn’t have to know all of my influences and background to understand my music. I compare it to cooking. I use a wide and strange array of ingredients, but when I cook up a tune or a concert of tunes, people respond immediately — does it taste good, or not?”

9 months

The length of time it takes to make a baby is the same length of time Schroer once went without playing. He had tendinitis. “It led me away from super-fast jigs and reels into more subtle territory, where the criterion is not speed, but musicality and heart.

“For me, music is so experiential,” Schroer explained. “When I’m not near my instrument, I always have my virtual fiddle, that internal instrument every musician carries with them. I’m constantly creating tunes in my head by playing them on an imaginary violin. On the other hand, I do spend a fair bit of time trying to actually push myself to do entirely new things.”

One of Schroer’s relatively “new things” is production. He produced James Keelaghan’s 1999 CD Road, which represented a departure for Keelaghan’s recordings. “I think the sound is wider,” Keelaghan told the Canadian newspaper, Globe and Mail. “Oliver suggested some things that I’d never considered, like saxophone and clarinet, and they worked beautifully.” Keelaghan described his producer and friend as “endlessly creative, very concentrated, able to handle a vast work load, and totally entertaining.”

While Schroer was working on Road, he was also working on his fifth album. (His fourth, Celtica, came out in 1998.) Using what he’d learned while composing Jigzup, he went back to the tape recorder to find the shapes of the tunes. “I recorded the whole thing from top to bottom. I turned on the tape machine and played one tune, then I stopped, had a little breath and said ‘thank you’ and played the next tune, and went through the whole darn album without even stopping tape.

“The reason I did that was so that having played one tune and having chosen carefully what tune would go after that, each tune infuses the subsequent tune with a certain amount of its energy. It’s like you tell a story: You tell the next part of the story, and then you tell the next part of the story. The listener does change as they go along with you.”

The next two nights, he repeated the process. “I had three complete versions of the album. So I picked out the best stuff, the best versions of the tunes, put them on a CD and listened to them for about a week. And in listening to them I realized where things weren’t happening, where I was skipping over an area or making too much of something or maybe making not enough of something. And then I went back and I did the whole thing again.”

When Schroer talks about “skipping over an area,” he doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s deviated from a written score. He first began working on O2 — or, more accurately, first realized he was working on O2 — when, as he played, “different things began popping out. Different kinds of melodies. They weren’t jigs and reels, they weren’t Balkan-sounding things, they weren’t really Stewed Tomatoes-sounding things, but they were a whole different kind of thing. And that’s what became the O2 stuff. It was a different kind of melody. It was based on subtle rhythmic distinctions and subtle harmonic things and it basically seemed to work in a solo sense. It was almost like they’re these little folk partitas, like the Bach solo partitas in the solo classical violin repertoire. They were a little bit related to that, a little bit related to some bluesy things, almost like Creole Cajuny bluesy things in a way — because I did play a lot of blues when I was a guitar player, when I was like, 17 and 18 — all these little influences filtered through there again, but it was like a different kind of melody.”

Schroer went on. “Also, these melodies weren’t like jigs and reels, where there’s one succession of notes. It’s like this note follows that note, this note follows that note, and that’s the way the tune goes. This was more like: In this general territory, I want to get from A to B, and I generally do it this way, but it’s a little bit different every time. I spend so much time playing a certain musical territory that when I play, instead of following a melody to get from point A to point B — ’cause that’s all melodies are, it’s a way to get from point A to point B — I can basically strike out cross country, and go off-road. And I don’t have to follow that particular melody. I can just play around because I know the geography, I know the territory really well.”


Schroer has come up with new names for the 23 tunes that comprise O2: shapes, whimsies, fractal reels. Yes, the adjective “hippie-dippie” has come up in at least one review of the album. But there are two ways to understand that Schroer is for real. The first, and best, is to listen to his music. The second is to listen to him talk about it. Even “John Cage’s Reel,” the concept of which sounds at first like bargain-basement Dadaism, has a purpose for the listener. Schroer ended each of the two discs of O2 with a version of “John Cage’s Reel” because he wanted us to clear our palates for what would come next — to have “a kind of mental breathing time, just to reload your brain.” He observed that on multiple CD players, when a CD ended “ there’d be something totally different on there afterwards, just when you’d set a certain mood up, then it’d go straight into something really raucous and crazy and disturb your whole brain state there, right?”

Right. When you relax into O2 or treat yourself to a Schroer solo performance, trust him. He compares himself to monologist Spalding Gray — his stories are as much a part of his shows as the music. Gray once said, “You know, I say that I can’t make anything up. I think of myself as a collage artist. I’m cutting and pasting memories of my life.” Oliver Schroer creates aural collages, built of sound and silence, that are drawn on his decades of being Oliver Schroer. That’s his truth and his tradition.

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