The Pyrenees from the Route Napoleón.
Photo by Peter Coffman.
this album is the record of an intersection,
the story of a line…
…un Carrefour entre la musique et la vie,
le chemin et la photographie…
es la combinación de música e imagines que
nacieron de un paisaje y tiempo especiales…
…music born of a particular landscape and time.
—From the liner notes of the album Camino
The story begins, fittingly, with a pilgrim musician in a French church.
Architectural historian Peter Coffman was on vacation in Moissac with his wife, Diane, when he walked into a church, and found a man playing a flute wandering the aisles. The man, it turned out, was a musician walking an ancient route to Santiago de Compostela, stopping at churches to play and sing along the way.
That brief encounter stayed in Peter’s mind, and after he and Diane returned home to Toronto, Canada, he mentioned it to his longtime friend, fiddler and composer Oliver Schroer.
I said, “Isn’t that a great idea, doing a musical pilgrimage, where you stop in these places which are so acoustically amazing, and you make music?” And I said, “We should do this sometime.”
And Oliver said, “Yeah, let’s do this sometime.”
“So naturally,” Peter says, “nothing happened for several years.”
Five years later, in 2003, the two friends were living on opposite sides of the country, but they met up at Oliver’s family home for his father’s wake.
As they sat on the couch talking, the idea of a pilgrimage—something they hadn’t discussed in years—resurfaced.
But now, Peter says, the timing was right.
We decided at that moment, “Let’s do it next year. Let’s book off May and June. And we’ll promise to each other now that we won’t make other commitments.”
And that’s what they did.
At a rest stop in O Cebreiro.
Photo by Peter Coffman.
Oliver and Peter didn’t see each other again until May 2004, when four of them met up in the small French town of Entraygues-sur-Truyere to begin walking: Peter, his wife Diane, Oliver and his wife Elena. They didn’t have time to walk the entire Chemin du Puy and Camino Francés, but they planned to walk a significant portion of each: more than a thousand kilometers altogether, from Entraygues-sur-Truyere to Pamplona, and then from León to Santiago.
The contents of the two men’s backpacks differed from the more usual pilgrim gear.
Oliver described his extra burden in the liner notes of the album that was to emerge from the journey:
in my backpack,
I carried my violin like a wooden chalice,
like my own precious relic,
carefully packed in its reliquary of socks and underwear and
waiting to work a miracle.
my pack also contained a portable recording studio.
But Peter’s pack was heaviest. When the four pilgrims met up in France, he says, Oliver wanted to see what he was carrying.
“That’s not a backpack,” Peter remembers Oliver saying, after he’d looked inside. “That’s a camera bag with a little bit of clothing in it.”
Peter (and his pack).
Photo by Diane Laundy.
The pack held Peter’s Nikon F3 (a brass-bodied camera), three heavy lenses, a bag full of film, and a tripod. Socks and underwear were crammed into a few small compartments. As near as Peter can remember, the whole thing weighed 13.5 kilograms (30 lbs).
Peter had thought long and hard over his decision to bring the camera gear.
Lugging it around wasn’t, as he points out, the most practical thing to do. And besides, he had burned out in the past working as a professional photographer. Since then, he’d done a bit of architectural photography for his job, but no more than that.
In the end, though, he decided to bring the equipment, and to shoot black-and-white film.
I did it black-and-white because in some way that seemed to suit this sort of romantic notion I had of the pilgrimage being an opportunity to shed all extraneous things, and just focus on essentials.
Before doing the Camino, he’d noticed there weren’t any books that fully documented the route photographically.
“And of course,” he says, “once I started walking along carrying this backpack with camera gear, I realized why.”
Art on the Camino
Eglise de Sensacq.
Photo by Peter Coffman.
While they were walking, neither Oliver nor Peter knew they were creating music and photography they would end up sharing with others.
In the on-line journal Oliver kept for his family, friends and fans, he wrote that “the main plan is really to walk a huge amount and to concentrate on that. I may do some playing or some recording of things along the way, but the focus is most definitely the walk.”
Peter says he felt the same way about his photography.
The trip itself is challenging enough, both physically and psychologically in some ways, that I found it had to be my main focus. I couldn’t put anything other than the actual experience of walking … at the centre of things.
He brought his camera gear hoping to get some good shots, but because he was shooting film rather than digital, he didn’t know how the photos had turned out until he got home.
I didn’t know what I was capturing. I didn’t know whether or not I could do anything with it afterwards. I just thought, I’m going to go out, I’m going to shoot whatever I can—as much as I have energy for and so on—and I’m just going to gather raw material. And I’ll worry about what, if anything, all this stuff amounts to later.
Asked if he ever considered sending the camera gear home, Peter responds immediately in the negative. He didn’t enjoy carrying the gear, but he was having too much fun using it to send it home, he says.
Photographing the Camino brought back his love of photography, “this joy of going out and experiencing the world and responding to it by making these images of it.
It’s something I had always loved, and kind of lost touched with. But I was reconnecting with that, and it was great.
As Peter rediscovered photography, Oliver was fiddling in churches and cathedrals.
When the pilgrims walked into a building, Peter says, the first factor that would determine if Oliver would play was whether or not he had the energy. If he did, he’d walk around clapping his hands and making noises to test the acoustics.
And if both the energy and the acoustics were there, he’d take his fiddle out of its backpack cocoon—removing everything else in the process (“I was prone to strewing underwear or socks in the general area if I was not careful,” Oliver remarked in his journal)—and play.
Oliver described the experience in the liner notes:
in some churches I played for many people, in others for a single listener.
j’ai joué quelques unes de mes vieilles
pièces fractales et spirituelles…
a través de semanas andando,
new pieces came
– one hill, one valley at a time.
Peter is a longtime fan of Oliver’s fiddling and would have loved to hear it anywhere, but the old buildings added another dimension to the music.
They were unlike anything Oliver was acoustically accustomed to, Peter says.
[As Oliver played in churches,] he started to understand his own music as something, in a sense, that exists in three dimensions—something that has to travel through space as well as extending through time. I could see him playing and listening to himself at the same time, and thinking, okay, what happens if I do this? What happens if I change my timing here?
Oliver playing in the Cathedrale Ste-Foy de Conques.
Photo by Peter Coffman.
The four pilgrims reached the medieval valley town of Conques a few days into the journey.
Oliver, Peter says, had not had a good day. He hadn’t broken in his walking boots ahead of time, and was suffering because of it. The steep, rocky descent into the town was particularly tough on his feet.
But then they reached Conques, and he—like so many pilgrims—was entranced.
Peter had been there already. “But when you emerge in that town, it’s so staggeringly beautiful,” he says.
“It’s an amazing feeling.”
They settled in, and soon headed for the cathedral, where Peter so much wanted to hear Oliver play.
But there was a musical event on, involving the cathedral organist and some school children. The pilgrims waited around for a while, but the event dragged on, and there was no chance for Oliver to play.
“We began to think, is this actually going to work?” Peter says.
But he knew the cathedral doors were often open well into the evening. Much later, the group return to the cathedral, and found it empty. So Oliver gave a private concert to his three companions—his first time playing on the trip.
It was an evening to remember, as Peter describes it in the liner notes:
may 6, 2004. a lanky figure in muddy boots enters through the west door of conques. out of his backpack he pulls a violin, gently disentangling it from the socks, underwear, and yards of sleeping bag that have protected it from the wear and tear of the road. it is hopelessly small in his large hands, in this huge building.
l’homme commence à jouer.
les notes et l’espace s’embrasent
comme s’ils avaient attend cet instant depuis toujours.
“I was not just playing my violin in this church; I was playing the church itself with my violin,” Oliver wrote.
It felt like the largest instrument I had ever played. Playing a note was like sounding a gong. The sound bloomed out of the first attack, and then subsided only slowly.
In the morning, Oliver had a chance to improvise with the cathedral organist—another amazing experience.
“We were in Conques less than 24 hours,” Peter says, “but it was a very, very rich part of the pilgrimage.”
Peter and Oliver (with cow) in France.
Photo by Diane Laundy.
And so as pilgrims do, they walked, and walked some more.
Peter, asked if there are any stories he wants to tell, says, “For me to pick any particular story seems almost arbitrary in a sense. Because there are just so many. Where would I begin?”
Oliver’s journal relates some of these stories: the first day, when they started out walking nine kilometers in the wrong direction; the time the shops were all closed and they were out of food, but a local man befriended them and offered them a feast; the day Oliver lugged a bag full of cooked pasta—soon dubbed Fred’s brain—around in his backpack; an impromptu concert for a large group in a church in the woods; the evening Oliver and Peter scared local cult members away from the town hall where they were spending the night; an improvised, very moving ceremony at the Cruz de Ferro; the accidental eating of pigs’ ears; the joy of being able to dash over mountains once they’d were finally in good walking shape (“Mountains. HA! I laugh out loud at those puny hills!”); and tales of all the pilgrims and others they met along the way.
Oliver didn’t downplay the physical effort, either.
“I thought that somebody could make a tourist attraction called CAMINO!” he wrote from France.
It would be a theme ride in the tradition of Disney. On the ride you would be on a treadmill, with a 360° movie of beautiful landscape playing all around you. Fans would blow the most amazing medley of smells in your direction, while somebody repeatedly hit your feet with a 2×4. You would be under heat lamps the whole time, but every once in a while, someone would throw a bucket of cold water on you. CAMINO! EXPERIENCE THE WONDER! FEEL THE PAIN!
Peter said the other day, “Actually, the Camino is really easy, apart from the walking and carrying your pack!” That about sums it up.
When Oliver fiddled in churches, he didn’t always know if he’d be allowed to stay—he might be kicked out after half a minute, or have a chance to play for over an hour.
He couldn’t take the time to warm up, since he might only have time for a single song. So he would launch straight into the music he wanted to play.
“And I’d have to just put heart and soul into it,” he said in Silence at the Heart of Things, a documentary about his life.
The frustrating times when Oliver got kicked out of churches brought home to him how much his music meant to him.
“At home I can play any time,” he wrote. “But when I can’t [play] it bottles up inside me and I become very sad … it is a deep hunger that needs to be fed.”
Santiago de Compostela
Peter, Diane, Oliver and Elena in front of the Santiago Cathedral.
Photo by Peter Coffman.
After seven weeks’ walking, the pilgrims arrived in Santiago de Compostela, where Oliver was asked to play his violin at the pilgrims’ mass.
At first, he just wanted to say no. Peter never did figure out exactly why.
I think he was perhaps afraid of the responsibility of being an integral part of this event at which he’d expected just to be a spectator, in a sense. Although having said that, it was never like him to shy away from the stage, or the spotlight. I sensed that for some reason it was an emotionally complicated thing for him. He was very resistant to it.
But the sacristan at the Santiago cathedral had given Oliver permission to play at the cathedral whenever he wanted, so fiddling at the mass seemed like the right thing to do, Peter says.
He just realized that it wasn’t about what he wanted. It was about other things that needed to take priority.
And so Oliver played at the mass, and “of course it sounded fantastic and was such a great thing.”
Peter wrote in the liner notes about the pilgrims’ mass at the cathedral, and the point when he heard the words “cuatro de Canadá.” Four from Canada.
there was a time in our lives before the camino, and there is a time after it.
those three words mark the transition.
at the climax of the mass a giant censer roars past us,
a massive arc, leaving a sweet trail of smoke.
it is joyful, celebratory, and incredibly exciting.
The botafumeiro had a big impact on Oliver, too, which he described in his journal.
The effect of this HUGE object hurtling directly overhead was astounding. At the apex of its swing, it almost touched the ceiling of this very large cathedral on either side. When it came overhead, it barely missed us. It was dramatically cathartic, releasing all of this kinetic energy along with the incense. It was like a joyful leap into the air, the end of the journey.
Camino: The Album
The cover of Camino. Peter Coffman won the 2007 Independent Music Award (Album Photography) for his Camino photos.
Peter started developing his film immediately after returning to Canada, and began scanning and printing the photographs soon after—”just because it was exciting to see this stuff,” he says.
At the same time, Oliver was going through his recordings. As the two sent photos and music flying back and forth across the Internet, Peter says, they realized they had a potential album on their hands.
[Oliver] had all this music that sounded great. I had all these images that in certain ways, in their sensibility, seemed to fit the music—partly because they were black and white. There was this sparseness to the images that seemed to work with the sparseness of the music. That’s when we began to realize, we’ve got some interesting stuff here. People might like this stuff.
Two years after walking, Oliver released the album Camino. On it, his playing mixes with the sound of bells, of children playing, of pilgrim footsteps. The cover and liner notes are full of Peter’s photos, and writings by both men about their Camino experience.
In the documentary, Oliver described Camino as “an album of duets between violins and buildings.”
And the liner notes are another duet, this one between images and words.
\’On June 5, 2008,\’ Peter writes, \’Oliver played what he knew would be his final concert to an absolutely packed house at Trinity-St. Paul\’s Church in Toronto. It was a sweltering, intense, beautiful, and unforgettable night.\’
Photo by Peter Coffman.
Oliver Schroer was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007, about two and a half years after walking the Camino. He passed away in July 2008.
A month before his death, he threw a concert, Oliver’s Last Concert on his Tour of this Planet. At one point during that evening, he spoke about the Camino, and played one of the pieces he composed along the way. It’s obvious, watching the footage, that the walk was important to him.
Peter was at the concert, of course, and recorded parts of it with his camera.
He’s kept up a connection to the Camino since the walk, through an exhibition and talks about his own photography, and by attending Camino-related events.
The Camino never really ended for him, he says, while he was working on his photographs and listening to Oliver’s music.
In a way, it kept us on the road; it kept the road with us. And that’s been the case ever since.
Every year, Peter says, he meets people “who connect to this [Camino] story in one way or another.
It’s one of those things that, for me anyway, once you’ve done it, once you’ve got it … you carry with you everywhere.
* * *
To hear some of Oliver’s music on-line, try a YouTube search. It’s bound to leave you wanting a copy of Camino, which you can purchase through Borealis Records (where you can hear parts of every Camino track) or Amazon.ca.
For more about Oliver Schroer, his music, and his experiences on the Camino visit his website, read his Camino journal, and/or check out my previous post on Camino (which has an excerpt from the documentary Silence at the Heart of Things embedded into it).
To learn more about Peter Coffman and his photography, visit his website. He has three wonderful galleries: the Camino de Santiago, Oliver Schroer, and historical architecture. (Use the bar at the bottom to slide sideways through the galleries.)
2017 update: Peter Coffman just published Camino, a book of his gorgeous photos.