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


Holly M said...

Wonderful to hear about such a young and gifted choral artist! Thanks so much for linking this to our September Choral Linkup,
As usual, a joy it read -- you brought us right there to the coffee shop to meet Cy ( I have my latte in hand) and conveyed both his youthful charm and your impeccable eye for detail.
And the links, oh my, what time and care you put in Miss.
Holly :)

misssable said...

You are too kind Holly. Thank-you so much for reading!