The Story of The Caliban Quartet

The Caliban Quartet of Bassoonists started in 1993 with a performance at a garden party held by Mrs. Tina Orton, just down the street from Jane Jacobs’ house in the part of Toronto known as The Annex. I suppose the genesis of the quartet had to have been the previous fall when Nadina insisted the four of us get together and play quartets. Kathy, Mike and I were all colleagues in the TSO at the time and we weren’t at all sure we wanted to also play chamber music together, but Nadina wasn’t taking no for an answer. We got together at the house Nadina and I were living in at the time, played through some music and immediately fell in love with the sound of the group. Here, we thought, was a group with no weak link, a group of four adept players with mature sounds and lots of music happening—how could we not play at least one concert? Mike agreed only on the condition that we try to improve the repertoire and not just play goofy novelty tunes which had been the mainstay of the bassoon quartet genre; the rest of us were game to try. 

Thus began an exciting three years. Mike and I both busied ourselves arranging all kinds of music, from Sibelius and Stravinsky to Reynaldo Hahn and Gershwin. We rehearsed often—very often! Composers began to notice we were a going concern and we had works written for us by Walter Buczynski, Chan Ka Nin, Carlos Rodriguez, Michael Welsh, and others. We performed a concert for CBC featuring Bill Douglas and we gave a number of other concerts around Toronto. We even developed a children’s show called “Darwood’s Wild Bassoon” with a story written and music arranged by myself, and huge paintings by Nadina. Naming the group was particularly tough because we couldn't choose a name that was too comedic, given that we were determined to play serious music some of the time. We ended up with Caliban who is a bit comedic in a high art, Shakespearian kind of way. In those days, CBC still paid artists to record CD’s (imagine!) and we were lucky enough to be hired to record our first CD for CBC Records in 1996. The result was BassOOnatics!, a heap of our best arrangements, recorded over just two days at the Glenn Gould Studio of the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in downtown Toronto. I remember that Youkali was the last thing we recorded and that all of us were hanging onto our reeds for dear life! I also remember excitedly sitting down with the first edits and listening to them with the goal of giving our producer, Anton Kwiatkowski, a list of things to correct. Between the four of us, we found about 250 things to fix. When I told Anton that, there was a moment of silence on the other end of the phone before he said “I was expecting a list of about 30 edits.” So, 30 it was! He was right, of course: too many edits saps the life out of a project. And in the end, it’s been a very successful recording, even with the 220 imperfections. 

Once BassOOnatics! was complete, Mike Sweeney chose to leave the group. It had been a very intense three years. It was a blow to the group, for sure: one of our great advantages had been that we were all local and could rehearse often. We chose to gamble on another approach and replaced Mike with Christopher Millard who was still the Principal Bassoon in the Vancouver Symphony. Certainly not local but certainly the best bassoonist in Canada at the time. From then on, Chris would come out to Toronto for 3 or 4 days at a time and we would rehearse intensively, usually right before whatever performance we had organized. Chris is also a fine arranger and our shows began to feature arrangements by Chris and me, and still some original works. Nadina and I produced our wonderful son, Jacob, in June 1997 and I remember several pretty frantic years there. We managed to record our second CD, “Feast” in the summer of 1999, this time using Anton’s basement studio in Burlington, Ontario. This CD was released on the Swedish label, BIS Northern Lights. How did we end up on a Swedish label, you ask? An excellent question. The owner of BIS is a fellow named Robert von Bahr and I don’t think anyone who knows him would describe him as an easy person but he is fair and honourable and has extremely high standards. Apparently he was listening to BassOOnatics! after having drinks with friends (there might have been a sauna in the story, too) and the bunch of them got into one of those giddy moods where no one can stop laughing. To this day, I’m not sure what exactly he found so funny but to each his own! So he contacted me and asked if he could re-release BassOOnatics! on his label and give it worldwide distribution. Luckily, CBC agreed and so the disc was re-released with a different cover, now reaching European and Asian markets. Thanks to Robert, this disc has sold about 9,000 copies which, as far as I know, is more than any other bassoon CD ever. And as part of the bargain, he agreed to release our second CD, Feast. 

Feast was great fun to record. Bill Douglas has a way of writing joyful and satisfying music. The lovely Kate Crossan recorded her song with us, a song that our son had listened to hundreds of times but I still liked it! And Mark Duggan added his crazy Raymond Scott –style drumming to the mix. I remember that Mathieu Lussier’s “Valstango” was a late addition to the project. Mathieu sent the music to us a few weeks before the studio date and we liked it so much that we added it to the playlist after performing it for Mathieu over the phone! The release was delayed when BIS managed to lose the first cover art but we replaced that and the disc was finally released in 2001. 

The highlight of the following years was our appearance at opening concert of the 2002 convention of the International Double Reed Society held in Banff, Alberta. We performed a selection of our repertoire, including Chan Ka Nin’s very challenging Crystal Blue Persuasion and we ended with Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals. You’ve never experienced real pressure if you haven’t played fiendishly difficult chamber music in front of 800 of your peers! But it went well and we received lots of positive feedback over the week. 

Chris Millard ended up leaving the quartet in 2005. The logistics of the commute were made a bit easier by Chris’ move to the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa but it was still a challenge for everyone. Plus I have a feeling that a concert we played in November 2004 was just a bit much. For some time, I had been producing arrangements for an expanded Caliban: the quartet plus violin, accordion and percussion. There was some terrific music in that repertoire but it was hard! In the concert we played in November I just ended up asking a bit too much of everyone and it’s my feeling that that helped Chris make his decision. 

We replaced Chris with a hot young bassoonist and composer from Montreal, Mathieu Lussier. Nadina and I had met Mathieu as a student at Domaine Forget and had come to be good friends with him over the years. He had written a number of pieces for us and we had always been impressed by his musicality and his prowess as a chamber player. When we sat down to consider next steps, it was probably Mathieu who said we should do a Christmas CD. Since I had a bit of money in the bank after the death of my father in 2004, I decided to make this CD my project. I hired Brian Barlow as the producer and almost made it a point to say yes to every idea and possibility that came up. As a result, we ended up, in 2005, recording “Caliban Does Christmas” during one of the hottest July’s on record. Thanks to Brian’s jazz connections and Nadina’s friendship with Valdy, it was a star-studded cast of extra’s who paraded through the studio over that week. At the end of one of the sessions, the quartet drove down to Hart House at the University of Toronto to do the elf photo shoot. There happened to be a wedding reception happening at the same time and I’ll never forget the look on that 11-year-old boy’s face when he came into the bathroom to have a pee and found two grown men dressed as Christmas elves! (The giant bassoon you see, by the way, was created in a very short time the night before by Nadina and Mathieu, both of whom are quite gifted when it comes to construction paper and tape.) We received a lot of good feedback on that CD and I still run into friends who say it’s the only Christmas CD they play every year. 

The quartet soldiered on for a few more years but things were becoming difficult. Nadina and I separated in 2007 and were divorced in 2010. Kathleen McLean left the group in 2007 and so it was that the quartet’s last gig was in December 2008 when Jesse Read replaced Kathleen in a Christmas concert in Barrie featuring Guy Few singing and playing the trumpet; we played tunes from the Christmas CD plus a much reduced version of The Messiah, and the Canadian premiere of Gernot Wolfgang’s “Dance of the Polar Bears”. The day before, we hosted a sort of chamber music marathon at the Tranzac Club in Toronto called Salonapalooza where a half-dozen chamber groups shared the stage with comedians, dancers, even a choir singing some Brian Wilson. During our set, we performed two tunes with the marvelous Patricia O’Callaghan (Youkali and What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?) as well as a few numbers with Guy Few. It was a fitting end to an exciting group. 

Now that I have some perspective from the quartet, I’m sad that it is no longer. I was always thrilled about the quartet: the repertoire, the high-level bassoon playing, the sophisticated music-making, the happy spirit of our concerts. There was a certain amount of frustration when I saw that the creativity and nuance that we felt inside the group was sometimes not perceived by others who focussed instead on the fact that we were all bassoonists; for us it was music, for many others, it was a bassoon-oriented novelty that had to be goofy and couldn’t possibly be interesting unless you were a bassoonist yourself. That’s just human nature. I had a great time, though, and learned so much from playing closely with such a parade of excellent musicians. But most of all, I have no regrets for having been a part of the coolest bassoon quartet ever!