Sunday, May 25, 2014

I'm a bit of a hippie: What you didn't know about Canadian Choral Composer, Cy Giacomin

Photo Credit: CyGiacomin.Com

Lounging in the corner of the Wired Monk coffee shop, Cy Giacomin takes a moment after his morning reading session at the Podium conference to chat about choral music. Giacomin, 26, already has a substantial resume as a Composer, Bass with the Canadian Chamber Choir, Artistic Director of the Bluewater Chamber Choir in Sarnia ON, and accompanist and teacher of Piano, Organ, and Trombone. As well, he just finished a run of Sound of Music with Theatre Sarnia as the Music Director prior to returning to his hometown of Halifax for Podium. The previous evening was the opening spotlight concert of Podium where his work, "There Was a Time" was premiered by Pro Coro Canada and the Halifax Camerata Singers.

Pro Coro Canada and Halifax Camerata rehearsing for the Spotlight Concert at Podium

A teenage chorister approaches at the start of our interview in the coffee shop. She gently apologizes for interrupting and continues by praising Giacomin for his music and her enjoyment in singing his works. Giacomin responds with warmth and a strong sense of modesty. He thanks her for sharing her regards. Giacomin later mentions to me an audience member comment from the previous evening. They were surprised that he wasn't older when he stood up to take a bow following his premiere. This is not surprising to me since there is a contemplative wisdom in the rich construct of his compositions, yet a vibrant energy weaves throughout his works, especially when he plays with time signatures and tempo in his music.

Giacomin elaborates on what it is like to hear one of his works performed live: "It's nervous excitement. [The choir] is about to come on stage and interpret your work. Your heart races a little bit. For me, it makes choral music the most exciting part of composing. That's why I focus on it. I have written for all kinds of ensembles but only in choir do you get to relinquish control of everything you've hoped for in terms of balance, dynamics, tone quality." He manifests a clear visual to demonstrate his point, for example, "if there are too many singers in the Alto section and the Sopranos need more singers and you have Altos that can sing high the conductor can say 'can you sing the Soprano part for these bars?' and move people around. I can't even imagine people do that in an Orchestra for an Oboe to play a Violin line. There is a lot of flexibility after a composition is done. It just means that what you write has to be that much stronger to survive those kinds of adjustments."

"Is it ever hard to relinquish this control to the singers?" I ask. 

"It was hard to come to terms with starting out. But once you come to terms to relinquish control, it is a decision you make, you only have to make it once. This is my music. It may not be accurately represented in the concert hall. It is still music I will be proud of," Giacomin states in a wise tone further enhanced by his Bass voice. "I can't release anything to a choir I am not 100% proud of. Because if I get compliments after, I feel guilty," he says with a laugh. I smile in response remembering the adoring glance from the teenage chorister earlier.

Giacomin elaborates on the challenge of trying to communicate complicated ideas with just black ink on white paper. He recalls one of his composition teachers said that a Composer's job is 10% creative and 90% problem solving. "I think my pieces are easier than they actually are. Because they come from my brain so I know the lines inside out and then when I try to sing them I think: 'oh yeah, that makes sense!' You give it to someone who has never seen or heard it and suddenly it's difficult. That is a huge hurdle to get over. Making sure you can accurately describe a difficulty level. That is one thing I need to know before I start writing for a choir. Each piece could have beginner attribute and then three bars you require an advanced choir. I try my best to hear the choir or talk to the conductor about strengths and weaknesses. There's nothing better than a piece specifically tailored for you. It is usually the most rewarding way to go," reveals Giacomin when approaching commissioned works.

It is all about text when Giacomin looks for an inspiration. "I can have an idea that is coherent and complete but it can take months to get it on paper. I don't particularly enjoy searching for text. I like coming across text and see if it desires to be set to music. I'll keep it in mind for later. If somebody is commissioning me with a text in mind, that much better, because I don't write text. I have tried but it is not my strength. But I can set any text to music. Text always drives the music. I have known some Composers who do music first then create lyrics after with that music and I marvel at their ability to do that. It's not easy. It's like designing your interior decor without having a house." Giacomin manages to find another visual example that perfectly compliments his point. Poetry, Biblical verses, Wikipedia, TV shows, Giacomin even gestures towards a poster on the wall at the Wired Monk to highlight how he draws upon all these textual sources in his environment and repurposes them for music. As a result of this constant stream of textual inspiration, there is no fear of running out of words.

As a singer as well as a Composer, Giacomin keeps a functional perspective when putting the finishing touches on a piece: "When I am getting close to the end of composition. I tend run through parts in my head one at a time. It's mostly traffic control. To make sure there is time to rest and swallow saliva. I hate those pieces that only have enough time to breathe.... where you're salivating so much it's hard to sing. I have to go through each part for those reasons. It's mainly for safety concerns. I don't know what it's like to sing a Tenor, Alto, or Soprano line so I like to check with those sections after the premiere to make sure things are singable," he states in a rational tone.

As a multi-instrumentalist, Giacomin draws upon all these musical facets when approaching his compositional style. While he states that he doesn't feel like he has a unique voice quite yet, he is conscious of combining all of his experiences, whether it is Musical Theatre or Punk. He states that it has taken a long time for him to consolidate and focus to develop his compositional framework. Giacomin further elaborates on the balance between the academic and emotional approaches to composition: "At school, I was writing for the intellect. On free time, I tend to write for emotional's sake. I need both. Choir music is more emotional than it is intellectual. Obviously all music is emotional and intellectual but I found the academic style was almost completely devoid of emotion. Nothing in the human heart for it to enjoy because it is so intellectual. And that's not a criticism, I appreciate both. I want to combine both so that a piece can be intellectually stimulating and emotionally stimulating."

"How do you know when you reach both of these goals?" I ask.

"The Composer's opinion is just one opinion. I always work a piece until I am truly happy with it," Giacomin states in a pensive tone while taking a pause to further elaborate, "you make sure that what you think of your piece is nothing but the highest compliment. It's something that you never want to change once you have the final bar line. Your happiness with the piece is what is actually communicated to the audience.  How happy is the piece is how happy is the Composer. That's what audiences can pick up on universally. You can't try to make anybody else happy. You can only hope to makes yourself happy and hope for the best after that."

Sarnia, Ontario is currently Giacomin's home base and he feels his timing couldn't be any better. Sarnia didn't have an a cappella ensemble prior to him co-founding the Bluewater Chamber Choir.
Prior to starting the Chamber Choir, he had never conducted before. The choir has now become a vehicle for learning more about choral singing. Giacomin shares that there are a lot of similarities between conducting and composing since putting together a concert program is like a miniature scale of composing. Different pieces will sound different in the context of neighboring works. There are some perks of having a test choir when one is a Composer and Conductor. Giacomin reveals that he may introduce some new works he is planning on writing this summer to the Bluewater Choir. Noting the newfound power he has to potentially program his own works with Bluewater, he notes that he wouldn't program too selfishly, "maybe just one or two," he says with subtle smile.
In addition to preparing for an upcoming tour with the Canadian Chamber Choir to PEI and New Brunswick this September, Giacomin notes that there has been interest by a dance studio in Sarnia for him to write a Ballet. Giacomin greets the prospect of future projects with anticipation and further brainstorms multiple ideas off the top of his head that include Opera as well as a Choral Theatre concept the includes five La-Z-Boy recliners on stage.

There is a strong sense of humility when Giacomin acknowledges the importance of Conductors and Choirs performing his works. He notes that a Composer alone would never be heard. It is the voice of the choir communicating his music to an audience. To further emphasize his point, Giacomin notes that Composers could all go on strike, not write any new pieces, and the world would be fine. "There are thousands of pieces out there. Choirs can function without the Composers but it's not the other way around. They're at least equally as important. I think Composers help perpetuate the evolution of Culture and help in that progression," he says with fervor.

This passion carries into Giacomin's next statement when he reveals that it was pure luck that he got into singing. In an honest tone, Giacomin states, "it's also a religious experience for me, singing in a choir - people coming together to create something greater than themselves. I am not a particularly spiritual person per say, but in choir there is something supernatural." 

Concluding our morning chat over coffee, Giacomin highlights the importance of collaboration within choral communities. While many people may think that Composers shut themselves away to compose, for many of them, it's a very active dialogue between Conductors, Composers, and audience members. Giacomin goes further to say, without an air of pretentiousness that "if everyone sang in a choir, there would be no war. We can do so much more together."

Giacomin composes a statement that perfectly concludes the past 45 minutes and his prior statement, "I'm a bit of a hippie."

Download and listen to Giacomin's "Lovesong" sung by Pro Coro Canada here

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Choral Marathon

This past week has been a choral marathon. 

It was an effective test of travel adaptation as soon as we arrived in Halifax. I think the choir had become used to the hot, sunny weather of Ottawa and our proximity to metropolitan downtown desires. We were also still coming in off of a high from the Sunday concert with the Ottawa Cantata Singers. Upon arriving at our Dalhousie dorms, it took some time to adjust to the fact that we were not in downtown apartments and, instead, on the lush and remote back corner of the Dalhousie campus.

There is a crossroads moment in every tour, where you either rise and fall or you peak and shatter modest expectations. Pro Coro was definitely peaking in our Amherst concert on Tuesday. We were adjusting to a new space, we were expecting just to sound good but we found that we had to work even harder because we were not meeting the challenge prior to the intermission. Casey discussed this thoroughly on his tour blog post.  It is interesting how easy it is to become complacent. Complacency can kill an ensemble. 

Finishing strong at the Amherst concert, we went into the second day of rehearsals refreshed and refocused for our main tour goal: the Highlight concert for the opening of Podium.  It was Pro Coro's first appearance at a Podium conference. It was also Michael Zaugg's debut with the choir on the national and international choral stage. Upon my own personal reflection, I have been working towards his moment for two years. 

I recall coming home home from Podium 2012 in May, sitting across from my father at the kitchen table, and wondering what I was going to do next because I was convocating from Grad school in June. I had been accepted to do complete my Vocology certificate with the National Centre for Voice and Speech that coming summer and was contemplating PhD applications in the Fall. I also wasn't sure if I would be reaccepted into Pro Coro after the audition process with Michael in April. However, after interviewing Michael at Podium and hearing the sound he had developed with voces boreales, I realized with utter clarity, the type of gut intuition that makes one so inexplicably sure of themselves: I could not leave Edmonton.  If I was accepted into Pro Coro under the direction of Michael Zaugg, I could not leave. I knew Pro Coro was invited to perform for the next Podium 2014 in Halifax. I knew I had to stay in Pro Coro until the Halifax tour if given the possibility.

My Father gave a chuckle at my flustered realization. I laughed aloud myself. Never have I been the person to restrain myself if there is something I want to do. I just go out a do it. Normally, if I am not doing something I want to do, it is because I am not aware it is an option yet. If there are opportunities that would have been appropriate for me to take, I would take them. It just so happens that all of my opportunities thus far have been in Edmonton. I haven't needed to move locations to pursue my passions. In my mind, I like toying with the prospect of flexibility and freedom in everything I choose to do. I laughed aloud because, here I was, at a crossroads between deciding between more continuing education and choir. I chose choir. I chose Edmonton.

The Podium performance on Thursday supported my decision even further. During our performance of the Nightingale, I had a glimpse of how good it could get. There was a palatable sense of unification amongst the group.  It didn't matter that we decided last minute to sing the Nightingale in mixed formation that very afternoon, I just trusted that we would deliver an excellent performance regardless. There was no apprehension walking on stage. This was not the case two years ago when we first sang this piece. It is of one of the most difficult pieces I have had to learn to date but there is a sense in the choir that we are ready for the next challenge. This tour really solidified that we are united in a goal to perform music to the best of our ability, and in knowing that collective goal, we have bonded as a team.

There is a lot I don't know about the future yet. But this tour has just confirmed that I am here in Edmonton to stay, at least, for now.

Choir Girl at #Podium2014

Check out my Storify collage to see what I have been up to while in Halifax!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Chat Amongst Choir Bloggers

After wandering the streets of Ottawa late Saturday night and unable to locate any coffee shops open after 10 PM to host an interview session fellow author of the Choir X Blog, Jean-Pierre and I wander into the Chateau Laurier and set up a work station at a lobby table. Embellished piano improv wafts in from the neighboring lounge as we prepare to take turns to interview with one another. It is time to turn the tables on bloggers who often discuss content but are rarely asked why their motivations behind it.

Jean-Pierre begins by presenting me with a copy of mosaik by Stephen Hatfield in which JP contributed French text. 

What's your fav excerpt?

The line I'm proud of is one on page 9:

"Une berceuse vaut mieux qu'une chicane"

Where it states that a lullaby is worth more than an argument. The whole theme of the piece is that we might not be able to understand each other because of our differences, yet we are able to sing together. While we can't all talk at the same time, we can sing together. Even youth all of the conflicts between national tensions between natural languages we are able to sing together.

Does this parallel how you see life?

It makes me think of Lori Anne. Her motto is "Sing, it makes you happy" and it reminds me of that. 

What was it like hearing mosaik for the first time?

I just wanted to get up there and sing with them. It's like having a child, that creative idea that is your piece but you need to let it go and let it speak to others. Now it needs to live on it's own. This isn't my piece or Stephen's piece, it is the choristers piece. 

Why do you choir blog?

To share my passion with others. I love singing in choir. I get so enthusiastic and passionate about it. It's my way of sharing my life and that Art with other people. It's promotion to get more people in the seats to come see what it is.  I do it to have that link to the choral community that's out there.  It started live tweeting during choir rehearsals. So I started out with #shitchoristerssay #shitchoirdirectorsay and I moved up 400 followers on Twitter. Clearly this is subject that rings true with other people. I'm not alone. People are following and people are interested. Blogging and tweeting 140 characters wasn't enough for me. I had more to say.  Tweeting became blogging. 

Why is the blog called Choir X?

The blog is called Choir X.  The subtitle is the basses point of view. The chorister's experience.  Also I am big on branding.  And X is more catchy than ex. It's easily recognizable. 

Were you ware you aware you were selling yourself as a blogger before creating your blogging identity?

Yes *laughs* short answer is yes. 

What do you hope to do next?

Blog post once each week. Talk about the local choir scene, national choral scene, international choral scene. Talk about people's points of view: choristers, directors, composers, and Arts administrators. 

I've been in choirs for 10+ years. On the the blog there is a resources page with a list of all clinicians, conductors, and choral ensembles I have participated in. I'd like to do some flashback pieces, what it was like to work with those people, or do a post on one certain piece that we sang and the history, context and whole emotion behind it. 

I would like to go back to conferences and festivals such as Festival 500 in Newfoundland, Podium, and Europa Cantat and cover social media from the blogging point of view. I don't want this to be a local Ottawa choir blog. As international as I can make it.  I don't want to just blog about Ottawa. The global choral community is bigger than that. 

What one of the things you're most proud of with the blog so far?

Meeting you, that's pretty cool, connecting with other choral bloggers like Laurie Ann and Amy. Finding out that I can relate to people. This is more from tweeting than blogging but reaching 400 followers. One time my friend, Andrew and I tweeted different ways to pronounce excelsis like Ek-shell-sis or Ek-tsell-sis with #choirkidproblems and it got retweeted hundreds of times. 

Anything you want to add before we turn tables? 

I'm thankful to be in a city like Ottawa where there is a National Arts Centre, Parliament, Govener General to have the opportunity to work such with such incredible conductors like Barbara Clark, Michael Zaugg, Matthew Larkin to name a few. I'm right now I'm just so thankful for these opportunities being in heavy nation's capital as a chorister. Everything in my life, I can relate to choir in one way or another.  

Read the other half of this interview project by visiting JP's Choir X blog.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Arrival and the Departure

The portion of our tour in Ottawa had a sense of dual sense of arrival and departure. One of the most poignant moments from the weekend was when the Cantata Singers of Ottawa sung a farewell song for Michael Zaugg. Their conductor, Amy Henderson, took to the podium and Pro Coro quickly scrambled to get off the risers so the CSO could have their moment with Michael.

Many of us sat in the front few pews and off to the side to witness the moment of choral intimacy. They sang what they could not speak. I could hear the quiet sobs of Pro Coro choristers beside me, there were some CSO choristers discretely wiping away tears, or choristers who needed to discontinue singing in order to compose the emotional turbulence in their voice. I found my eyes beginning to fill with moisture as I watched them singing. The significance of Michael's nine years increased with every note the choir sang. It was both heartbreaking and heartwarming to see a performance of this nature. It made me wonder if Pro Coro would be singing such a song in 10 years for Michael. There are so many different phases in life. I felt honored to be witness at such a significant transitional moment in a group's history. It is evident that the Cantata Singers had a wonderful run with Michael at the helm of their choir; however, I am also excited to see the development of Pro Coro in the future.

The Ottawa weekend wasn't all sad departures though. Ottawa had some gorgeous summer weather, which meant sunshine filled walks along the Rideau canal, sipping iced coffees in courtyard patios, and good local eateries all around. I got to connect with blog readers within the Cantata Singers of Ottawa and The Canadian Chamber Choir, reconnect with familiar choral and blogging faces I had met at Podium 2012, an old highschool friend, and even an Arts writer and fellow chorister I know from Sound + Noise.

Now that my Ottawa adventures are completed, it is time to focus on what the next phase of our Pro Coro tour will bring in Halifax. There will be much more music making to be had and many more people to meet! Stay tuned readers and keep your eyes peeled for me if you are attending Podium 2014.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Choir Girl on Tour: How to Pack

The departure date for Pro Coro looms and apart from preparing the music the next thing that is on my mind is what to pack. Every chorister has their own preferences, whether it is their favorite brand of lozenges or the frequency of tuning fork they chose to bring.

However, if you went digging through my baggage this is what you will find in my hand-carry:

Uniform - and all accompanying accessories. I have heard enough horror stories to know I never put my uniform in checked baggage. Good thing the jersey material of my uniform means it can just be rolled up into a bag. 
2 lbs of music - all in a black music folder.
iPhone - essential. The portable source of all my audio, pictures and documentation of tour experiences for blogging and social media. Make sure to follow @procorocanada and @misssable for tour updates.
iPad - as an e-reader and backup for paper music.
External battery charger - It's useless to have a smartphone if there is no battery.
Water Bottle - traveling is so dehydrating for everything, vocal folds, skin, mucous membranes...
Tuning fork(s) - I usually always have one in my bag since we use them constantly in Pro Coro rehearsal.
Food - we never know where our next meal is coming from while on tour. I will have a hearty stash of granola bars and fruit so I don't get hangry (hungry+ angry) on fellow choristers. 
Ear plugs - airplanes and busses are noisy places. Sometimes it is nice to tune out from the auditory stimulation and give ears a break.
Straws - A little prop I use in vocal warm-ups that are quiet and effective.

Other than the other previous essentials I have listed above, I will be a walking pharmacy since you never know what you might encounter while on the road:

Sugar-free lozenges - something to keep salivary glands happy.
An anti-inflammatory pain killer - since some brands can predispose voice users to vocal hemorrhage
Herbal Tea - as a warm wind-down beverage choice for the evening.
A non-drowsy decongestant - To help combat the unknown allergens lurking in churches and hotel rooms.

Just two more days...