Mon, May. 14, 2007
Classical composer enlivens European tradition
BY LAWRENCE A. JOHNSON
In 1994 when Sydney Guillaume arrived in Miami with his parents and two older brothers to escape the political strife of Haiti, the 11-year-old spoke no English and was unhappy about leaving his island nation home.
The boy was enrolled in an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class. ''I was the only Haitian . . ., and I had no one to talk to,'' Guillaume recalls. ``Everyone else in the class was Hispanic, and they spoke Spanish to each other, ``but that was so beneficial to me because I had no choice but to speak English to communicate.''
Guillaume's English, still tinged with a melodious Haitian accent, is now the equal of anyone's. But the language in which the 24-year-old composer speaks most eloquently is music. Dominus Vobiscum, Guillaume's new 6-minute work, will be premiered this weekend by Seraphic Fire in the choir's season-closing concerts spotlighting Latin- and Caribbean-American music.
Despite the vitality of its popular music and visual art, Haiti isn't the first country that comes to mind as a hotbed of the Western-classical tradition. In fact, as Seraphic Fire artistic director Patrick Dupre Quigley notes, few Haitian composers write in anything remotely resembling classical style.
Guillaume, though, ''writes in a style that has a lot of classical form behind it,'' Quigley says, ``but the harmonies and the rhythms definitely come from the Caribbean. He has a lot of rhythmic drive to his music, and he uses the language as percussion, which is an interesting concept.''
Quigley notes that some big-name contemporary composers draw on -- and sometimes appropriate -- ''found'' Latin music like ethnographic magpies, using it in a slick, self-conscious way. Guillaume's style, however, is personal, genuine and honest, coming directly from the source.
''He doesn't try in any way to hide his ethnic roots at all, which I really like,'' Quigley says. ``This is his culture and the real thing envisioned through formal classical training. It's original art music that is rooted in the Haitian musical tradition.''
Guillaume's music grows directly from three principal inspirations: his Haitian roots; his strong Roman Catholic faith and his family.
As a child in Port-au-Prince, Sydney listened to local and popular Haitian music, but there was also an emphasis on such French-language vocalists as Edith Piaf and Celine Dion, as well as more formal musical training in the household. ''We all three played the piano,'' Guillaume says from Los Angeles. ``My brother switched to guitar, but there was always classical music playing in the house.''
With government repression mounting amid increasing political instability, Sydney's father decided to leave Haiti and bring his wife Marlene and sons to Florida in 1994.
Guillaume recalls the tension of the time clearly. "It was pretty bad. There was a lot of political instability, people breaking into houses, shootings.''
The Guillaumes established themselves in Perrine where young Sydney attended school. In addition to being tutored through the ESOL program, he also quickly picked up English by watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and other television shows. After six months, he was transferred to a regular English class.
LEARNING THE SCORE
He still played piano. He sang in the school choir. Then, as a junior at Coral Reef Senior High School, he had his first taste of composing, writing 20 minutes of music for a drama-department production of Dracula.
''That was my first experience writing a big score,'' he says. "I used different themes, and I approached it like writing a film score.''
Guillaume went on to the University of Miami's school of music where he was encouraged in his early composition efforts by Jo-Michael Scheibe. His choral work Calinda was subsequently performed by the school's choir, drawing the notice of some Seraphic Fire members who brought Guillaume's music to Quigley's attention.
Calinda also marked the start of a musical collaboration with Guillaume's father Gabriel, a poet who has taught French and who also provided the text for Dominus Vobiscum.
''I wrote all the texts for Sydney because he was less familiar with the Creole language,'' says Gabriel Guillaume, who still lives in Perrine with wife Marlene. In addition to providing texts for his son, Gabriel also attempts to convey a sense of the cultural heritage of their homeland.
Sydney says he and his father are equal creative partners. "It's actually really nice to work with him because I can ask him the definition of different things or what he meant by certain words he used.
"Sometime he gets inspired by what I'm writing, and he'll write another verse or different words after hearing what I'm doing. In Calinda for example, he did not write the entire text at first. He wrote parts of it, listened to the music and then wrote some more. It's a typical collaboration for us.''
Though there are surface similarities to Latin music in Calinda's strong rhythmic emphasis, Guillaume says there are also certain elements indigenous to Haitian popular music, particularly the rara music that fuses the sacred and profane, freely mixing elements of Lenten processional and Vodou in a kind of free-form street festival. "It's hard to describe. It's like from the woods and folkloric.''
Guillaume says he doesn't consciously insert such elements, but, as in Dominus Vobiscum, his music seems to acquire a Haitian flavor automatically.
''It just happens,'' he says. "It's like I have it ingrained in me. And whenever I write, I always seem to write something with strong rhythms.''
Dominus Vobiscum, a work for a chorus and baritone soloist, draws its text largely from the opening of the Mass, with Gabriel's Creole text amplifying the spiritual reassurance of the opening words, "The Lord be with you.''
''The text basically explains how for many years we've been searching for the light,'' Sydney Guillaume says. "The light of peace, of truth, of joy, of hope. And now let us sing Dominus Vobiscum -- how the Lord is already here; you don't have to search for him. That's what the piece is about.''
His father's Creole text contributes an insistent affirmative quality. 'In my dad's poetry he likes to stress the meaning with repetition, like the Lord is with us. He uses the words Li la, in Creole, which means 'he is here,' and I repeat them over and over with different variations.''
While at UM, Guillaume composed music for friends' student films, becoming fascinated with the idea of composing for movies. After graduation, he completed a score for the indie film The Lords of Miami, which further sparked his interest. He moved from Miami to Los Angeles in 2005.
Now, while working to gain entry into Hollywood's competitive environment, Guillaume teaches music at a Catholic elementary and middle school and works as a musician and resident composer at a local church.
Ironically, though, Guillaume has found that since leaving Miami he is increasingly in demand as a choral composer, with three works to complete this summer, including a commission from the Miami Children's Chorus.
In a way, this week's concerts will also bring Guillaume full circle. He was in the first graduating class at Coral Reef, and the school's present choir will take part in the performances of Ariel Ramirez's Missa Criolla on the same program.
While he is not overly analytical about his music or its inspiration, Guillaume acknowledges that a quiet nationalistic element from his native country fuels his art.
''When I moved here, whenever you heard news about Haiti, it was always something bad,'' he says. "So I feel like by composing I want to try to portray the good side of Haiti.
"If my music is performed around the world, . . . if people hear a piece by a Haitian composer, then maybe they'll have a more cultural idea of Haiti. And they'll start thinking about Haiti in a different light.''
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