Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Making music, Port-au-Prince to Portland

Choral Arts Ensemble prepares a full program of music by Haitian-born Oregon composer Sydney Guillaume.

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Choral composer Sydney Guillaume. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar.

If you happen to be strolling in Portland’s Washington Park Arboretum and see a man waving his arms in the air, apparently communicating nonverbally with an invisible audience, don’t be alarmed. It’s probably just Sydney Guillaume, listening to his own music on his headphones and practicing his conducting for his next choral workshop.

“I love the arboretum,” says the 40-year-old composer, who lives just a few minutes away. “I go there all the time to practice my conducting before a concert or workshop. I listen to playbacks of the music I’m writing and think about what it would be like to listen to it as audience members. It’s one of my favorite places in Portland.”

Guillaume’s attention to the audience experience, as well as his devotion to making it as fun to sing as it is to hear, have made his music extremely popular among choirs around the country. He’s in frequent demand to lead workshops and concerts of his music at schools, colleges and festivals. So it’s surprising that this weekend’s performances by Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble are the first all-Guillaume shows in his hometown. (He’s had others elsewhere.)

“I’m amazed we’re the first choir in his hometown to do a whole concert of his music,” says CAE music director David De Lyser. “It’s way overdue. He’s getting commissions all over the world. He’s definitely one of those names in contemporary choral music a lot of people know, and so many choirs are programming his music. I wonder if he’s better known outside Portland than in Portland? We’re going to try to fix that.”

De Lyser has assembled a splendid, crowd-pleasing program that spans Guillaume’s fertile career. But as much as he cherishes Portland, and as much as choirs cherish his music, Guillaume isn’t a native of his adopted town, or even the United States. And he didn’t really imagine himself being a choral composer at all — until a former Portlander changed his mind.

Haitian Heritage

Guillaume’s musical journey began with piano lessons at age 6 in his native Port-au-Prince, Haiti. When the family left the island for Miami five years later, they bought a piano so he could continue his lessons. He wouldn’t return to his birthplace for nearly two decades. But he never stopped listening to its powerful music.

He started composing music in school, and when friends would ask to learn his original tunes, he learned how to write them down. Then one day, his school choir was invited to perform at a festival in New York, and opened it up to the piano class to join them. Guillaume joined the baritone section because he wanted to go to New York. His first choir performance happened in Carnegie Hall. One of the pieces his choir sang was Beaverton-born composer Morten Lauridsen’s contemporary classic, O Magnum Mysterium, and Guillaume was smitten. “I fell in love with choral music then and have loved it ever since,” he says. (He was later able to meet his idol at a festival and tell him how much his music had inspired him.) Guillaume conducted his own original work for band and choir at his high school graduation. But as much as he loved singing in choir, he never imagined being a full-time choral composer.

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Guillaume with composer Morten Lauridsen, whose music inspired Guillaume to compose for choirs.

When Guillaume enrolled at the University of Miami, he studied composition with an emphasis on media writing and production. That’s because he wanted to learn to write film scores. He sang in the college choir, and a professor asked him to write a short piece for choir. “I didn’t think I’d enjoy it,” Guillaume recalls, but the professor sure did, and asked him to make it longer. The choir took it and its composer on its next tour, they were invited to sing it at the prestigious American Choral Directors Association national conference, and his choral music career was off and singing. 

“Since that first piece, the choir world has taken me in and hasn’t let me go,” Guillaume recalls. “It’s been a wonderful platform. I’m so grateful to all the conductors who trusted in me to write new music for their choirs.”

After writing his next original piece, for his mother during her first battle with cancer, Guillaume started receiving requests to compose new choral works, and every work since then has been a commission. “I’m very fortunate to make a living full-time as a composer,” he says, and he’s supplemented his income by also continuing to teach piano and lead choral workshops. 

Still, for a while he maintained his original goal of scoring films, moving to Los Angeles where he began composing music for films and documentary series for Loyola Productions. In 2013, he formed and began conducting and writing for his own touring multinational sextet, composed of musicians from his current and past homelands as well as from Bolivia and Spain. They’d met at a summer music camp in Haiti, where they all volunteer as music teachers, and they’ve since cut two albums. 

After a decade in L.A., Guillaume followed his then-girlfriend to Portland when she moved here. The relationship didn’t last — but his love of Portland only grew. 

“I fell in love with Portland,” he remembers. “I love the seasons, the greenery we don’t have in LA,” and of course, the Arboretum. 

Naturally, Guillaume began attending choral music concerts in his new hometown, including a 2018 Choral Arts Ensemble concert devoted to the music of his friend, the rising American choral composer Jake Runestad, who in turn introduced him to De Lyser.

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“You’ve got to do a concert of Sydney’s music,” Runestad told the conductor, who’d heard and admired Guillaume’s music but didn’t realize that he now lived in Portland. He plunged into study of Guillaume’s catalog, and quickly decided to focus the following year’s single-composer concert on his work.

Then came the pandemic. When the choir was at last able to safely resume rehearsal, De Lyser chose the all-Guillaume concert to open CAE’s 54th season.

Words & Music

Guillaume’s choral compositions always start with an existing text, and most of the 40-plus he’s composed come from a source close to home. When he received that first college assignment to write a choral piece, Guillaume turned to his father, the poet Gabriel Guillaume, who “worked for many years to help reform education system in his native Haiti and later as a teacher in Canada,” the concert program notes. “He was recently elected as the General Coordinator of Haitian Ministry at Christ the King Catholic Church in Miami.” 

Though he never envisioned his poetry being set to music, the elder Guillaume now works with his son to adapt them to musical settings. “Usually, the conductor gives me an idea [for the commissioned piece], depending on the theme of the concert, and then when I’m speaking to my dad, we brainstorm on different ideas and eventually he writes the text,” Sydney explains. 

Though the composer admires his father’s work enormously, “it’s not always sunshine and roses, working with my father who doesn’t always believe in deadlines,” Sydney chuckles. “Sometimes I have to give him fake deadlines” to make sure the words are ready in time for Sydney to set them to music when the choir needs them. He’s also used other lyricists, including This, Too, Shall Pass, a piece in this weekend’s program by Lloyd Reshard, Jr. , “a friend who’s like a brother to me, and who knows the choir world very well.”

Most of those words are in Haitian Creole, or Kreyòl, a wonderfully rich combination of Haiti’s original French colonizers, various languages brought to the island by the enslaved people the French seized from Africa, and the Taino language of Haiti’s indigenous inhabitants. Though Sydney and his father are, like most Haitians, fluent in French, “Sydney often chooses to use his choral writing to elevate Kreyòl and honor the complex history of his home country,” the program notes.

De Lyser says audiences will find familiar touchstones as well as unique sounds in the show. “His music is very well-crafted, very rhythmic, sometimes unexpectedly complex and yet accessible as well, so it connects with singers and audience,” De Lyser explains. “It’s fun to sing, fun to put together. The rhythm and text mark it as his, but harmonically he’s right in the pocket of what a lot of contemporary composers are doing today.” 

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Guillaume cites Haitian roots music as a major influence, pointing to the well-known band Boukman Eksperyans, enormously popular on the island when Guillaume was growing up there in the 1980s, whose music embraces both traditional Haitian rhythms as well as Northwest native Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary electric guitar pyrotechnics. 

Those rhythms give Guillaume’s music — and these concerts — a thrilling kick lacking in many contemporary choral programs, which too often stall out amid their placid journey through harmonically soothing, pretty sounds and textures. Not this one.

Learning Curve

For CAE’s singers, who have to grapple with rhythms not often encountered in American choral programs, the language is the key to unlocking their performance. “It’s much more rhythmically complex than a lot of choral music out there and most literature we would normally do,” De Lyser says. “When we first had conversations about the scores, some people’s eyes were as big as saucers.” 

Fortunately, the choir had a secret weapon: the composer himself. One of the benefits of working with living composers, especially when they live in your city, is that they can show singers exactly how to interpret their music, including nuances difficult to capture in traditional European-style written scores devised for much less rhythmically sophisticated sounds. 

Guillaume has seen it all before. “When people open the score they’re like, ‘Oh boy, this is going to be a challenge,” he says. “When I work with them, it helps quite a bit. I approach it in a fun way, taking it little by little, showing them what I want. Last night at rehearsal, it felt very stiff at first. So I asked the choir to move their body to the music. The moment they started doing that, it changed the sound and articulation and the piece was beaming. And because I’ve been in choir myself for so long, I know how to make sure everybody has something fun to sing. And the audience has something fun to listen to.” Almost always, when a choir’s having fun and confidently delivering such propulsive rhythms — as we’ve often experienced in Portland State’s Global Rhythms shows — the excitement is contagious, wafting across the stage and into the audience, which responds in kind. And there’s no known vaccine.

When CAE’s single-composer concerts feature guest composers who live elsewhere, ”we usually get them for one rehearsal, but Sydney came and worked with us several times,” De Lyser says. “He’s very careful in the way he sets text. We can get close without him, then have him take us all the way there — what’s the right vowel sound, how you stress it, have him demonstrate how it matches the language rhythm in the piece. Once the pieces drop into place, we’d get these lightbulb moments, understanding that the rhythm comes out of the language, so when we understand the language, now the rhythm makes total sense. Now it’s getting fun, and [singers] are getting excited, once we reached that spot where now we know how to present his messages to our audiences.”

Those messages include Christian religious themes that inform Dominus Vobiscum, which takes listeners on a journey of faith, from the soothing promise of the deity’s redemption, through doubt and anguish to —  courtesy of a sudden rhythmic kick — eventual reassurance and affirmation. The dramatic Nou Se Limyè invokes the divine light cited in Genesis.

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Pour Toi, Mère traces Guillaume’s turbulent emotional response to his late mother’s battle with cancer. Just his second composition, it’s still “a special piece for me,” he says. All sweet childlike melody, Akeem celebrates the birth of his nephew and godson — who’ll get to hear it performed live for the first time. 

A pair of a cappella works showcase danceable rhythms that I can confidently predict will set audience toes a-tapping and miens a-grinning. The delightfully bustling Tap-Tap is inspired by Haiti’s colorful taxis and buses, Haitian lyricist Louis Marie Celestin’s metaphor for seizing life’s opportunities. The rousing C’est Beau La Vie erupts in a euphoric dance of nonsense syllables.

Percussion accompanies a pair of trilingual works: Kouraj, a plea for tolerance, patience, forgiveness and hope, maybe abetted by dancing together; and the expansive, meter-morphing Yon Monn Nouvo (A World Anew). Another trilingual song, Renmen, Renmen, similarly urges listeners to embrace love across the impediments of human-imposed barriers such as race, class, language, and national origin.  

For De Lyser, the music’s messages transcend language. “[Guillaume’s] done such a good job of marrying these incredible texts with incredibly energetic and rhythmic music,” he says. “I like the message that he has in all his texts, whether it’s more personal — about his mom, taking time to enjoy life, the birth of a child — or about social justice, how we can get past our differences, love each other. From a programming standpoint, this is exactly the time everyone needs to hear this music and these messages, even though some were written many years ago. It feels good to be part of bringing that message to life. This is what we should be singing about now.”

As for Guillaume, he’s welcoming visiting family for his Portland concert and continuing his busy composing career, jetting off to Ohio for a residency and series of workshops next week, continuing to compose and arrange choral works and, amid the tide of choral commissions, trying to carve out time to write more chamber and other instrumental music. (Oregon ensembles and orchestras take note!) And whenever he gets a chance, you might find him in the Washington Park Arboretum, waving his arms, running his music in his head, and thinking about how to delight listeners.

***

Choral Arts Ensemble presents A World Anew: The Music of Sydney Guillaume, with special guests Sydney Guillaume and the Linn Benton Community College Chamber Choir, at 7:30 pm Saturday, October 15, and 3 pm Sunday October 16, at Rose City Park United Methodist Church, 5830 N.E. Alameda St., Portland. Ticket information here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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